§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: August 2006

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Angry Wind by Jeffrey Tayler

This was a selection for a bookgroup I belong to and I almost skipped it—until the discussion began—then I quickly ordered a copy. The reason was my interest in West Africa. This book chronicles the writer’s trip through the Sahel—that area of West Africa below the Sahara and above the rain forest. His trip took him though Chad, Northern Nigeria, Niger, Mali and eventually Senegal. My interest was my own experience in West Africa—further south in Sierra Leone—over 40 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer. Tayler’s last stop was Dakar—civilization and fresh ocean breezes after months of pounding by the Harmattan, the “angry wind” of the title, which blows red dust off the Sahara. We experienced the Harmattan—minimally in comparison I’m sure—in the winter months in Sierra Leone. My first sight of Africa was Dakar—after a PanAm flight (NY to Boston to the Azores to Lisbon to Rabat to Conakry in a 707) dropped us in Guinea and we boarded a charter (Russian plane, Guinea Air, Czech pilot—of significance because it was the height of the Cold War). We should have been circling Lungi in SL, but even I could see the weather was ghastly—beautiful but weird colors. No landing. Too stormy to go back to Conakry. At midnight, we landed in Dakar. It seemed pretty civilized too—especially to the international playboys and girls we met at breakfast who invited us to “hope over to Rio” that afternoon.

So much for my personal interest. Tayler’s first stop was N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. From there he made his way—by taxi, truck, bus, train, boat—and briefly, camel, across the continent from East to West. The book is memorable primarily for his encounters with the people of the Sahel and of his attempts to understand them. He routinely hired guides and drivers—all but the real scoundrels became friends whose families he met and from whom he learned much of the culture, friends he was often sorrowful at leaving, because of his insights into the lives they led. He talked about the tough subjects: religion and nationality (because he recognized that tribal and religious loyalties meant more than nationhood—most West African borders after all were set by British and French colonials). He talked about family and food and traditional beliefs—like female circumcision which he found was followed religiously even though the practice is never mentioned in the Qu’ran.

In fact the whole question of what was valuable in traditional culture kept reappearing as a theme until a schoolteacher in Djenné pointed out that since the UN had declared the city and its Great Mosque a World Heritage site, now by law no one can repair a mud house with any other material than mud. The city stagnates because of "historic preservation" restrictions. But Oumar, the schoolteacher who was so liberal and Western in his views of education and urbanization, supported the circumcision of all woman for fear they would “go wild”, though his educated parents had had him circumcised in a hospital. In Bamako, Tayler went to a night club with a friend of a friend who said, in the upper classes (her caste) circumcision for girls was just beginning to die out. Looking at the gorgeous woman, Tayler could not help but wonder if she had been cut—but didn’t ask.

Another subject he focused on again and again was the distinction between slaves and master—even in sophisticated youth at the night club he found patrons joking (but only half joking) about their ancestry. It still matters among the Fulani and other tribal groups, whether your ancestors were masters or slaves. In one village Taylor visited, the slaves had their mouths darkened by ashes so as to make status visible. Of course in slave trading days—and Tayler visits an island holding tank for slaves in the harbor of Dakar—Africans sold each other to the traders who plied the coasts.

Everywhere he went there was fear of bandits or rebels. Serious rebellions had hampered the development of viable states for centuries. One, by the proud Tuareg nomads, had concluded only recently. (Since I was reading that chapter at the VW dealer waiting for my car, I couldn't help but glance at the Touareg behind me and wonder if those dessert warriors were the source of the name.)

I liked Tayler’s political discussions with people he met. Among other things he wanted to know how these Muslims regarded the US in the Post-911 world. (The trip took place during the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003.) Almost to a person his interlocutors hated Bush and thought he had led Americans into hating Muslims. A few expressed their disillusion that in America a President had come to power “by force”—the beacon of democracy had failed them. A few hated all Americans—and showed it to Tayler—but most separated individuals from their nation, possibly because they themselves didn’t identify with their nation.

The book’s conclusion was powerful as Tayler muses on the misery of the people he had seen on this trip and the unlikelihood that their lot would improve soon. Let me quote one paragraph. It gives you a sense too of his style, somewhat fanciful, certainly rhetorical, but controlled enough to be effective I thought:

“They were born to live poor and die hard, leaving nothing behind; their misery, once the subject of ideologies of liberation and revolt, now inspires no one. The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon called people like them in another time, but he is dead, and his oeuvre, passé. However, in defiance of intellectual fashion, the Wretched remain, orphaned of Western defenders, ever leaner, every hungrier, increasingly angry, serving their sentences, awaiting an emancipator, a commander. For now poverty and despair banish thoughts of revolution among these masses, but later, when a savior appears, he will exploit their suffering to create an army of the enraged that will swamp coalitions of the willing, breach the walls, and storm the West. Or perhaps a few determined fanatics or seekers of martyrdom will take terrorist action on their behalf; after the carnage, it will seem impossible to fathom how such an abyss could have been allowed to widen between the north and south, between the whites and the rest, and how we could have tolerated, in a continent neighboring Europe, the deaths of millions from hunger and disease, and the radicalization of the survivors.”

He's talking about the poor of Bamako, but in a sense of all the people he met on the trip through the Sahel. He also wrote in several places about how it's the cities that breed radicalism (that in the rural areas they want to practice their religion and where they say the Quaran doesn't condone killing so there were no terrorist supporters). There are zillions of pundits who will tell you that the urbanization of underdeveloped countries is a top level problem in the world today—with cities growing to 14-15-20 million or more, dwarfing any city most of us know. And the rural traditional people driven by economics to the city often lose their traditional heritage—their children find nothing useful in the rules by which their parents lived and didn't thrive.

The last time a book affected me so much on this topic was Robert Kaplan's The Ends of the Earth. Posted by Picasa

Friday, August 11, 2006

Samantha and Isadora at the beach

This blog wasn't just intended for book reviews. My daughter sent me this picture with her little one on the beach. Lovely picture! Lovely girls! Posted by Picasa

The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery is an Australian paleontologist and conservationist who has written this engaging and passionate book on the whole concept of climate change and why this generation is the one that has to do something about it because another 50 years with no changes on the part of humans living on earth and it will be too late to save the planet for human habitation.

The method of the book reminds me of Jared Diamond’s Collapse in that he reviews the work of other scholars and amasses the data points necessary to convince the thinking person that he or she must (1) take personal steps to cut carbon emissions and (2) vote for lawmakers who are determined to make the changes necessary—even to the exclusions of other issues they may or may not support. It’s that critical.

There’s a wealth of information on the effects of excess CO2 as well as a wide variety of proposed solutions and partial solutions. I was convinced before I read it that climate change was real, but if you’re not, it will probably make you take the whole set of problems and possible solutions a lot more seriously. One extremely encouraging part of the book is the success story he tells about cutting down on chloro-fluoro-carbons (CFCs) and reducing the effect on the ozone layer. Like the Kyoto Protocol, this was an international agreement, and it worked. And the author does not despair of Kyoto in spite of the fact that neither the US nor Australia has yet signed on.

Like Collapse, this book is likely to galvanize you into doing something. Wish I could afford to buy a Toyoto Prius—went to Shakespeare in the Park with a friend who had a new one the other night. Pretty cool car. I have switched to the renewable energy company and turned my A/C up to 81 though. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi

This was a quick read and definitely interesting. Even more than Reading Lolita in Tehran, it gave me a sense of what Iran is really like—and especially what it’s been like since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Shirin Ebadi won the Novel Peace Prize for her work as a lawyer and activist redressing the wrongs done to women and children in Iran. The book recounts her life and yet it seems deliberately to shy away from herself as a person. We know what she did, but only superficially how she felt. Reading the book, one might cry at the horrible situations she tried to redress (like a family of a murdered girl who had to raise the money to pay for the execution of the murderer after he’d been convicted, or the woman who wanted redress for the brutal deaths of her elderly dissident parents) but Ebadi is very circumspect about her own emotions. When she’s hauled off to prison she is still “accentuating the positive” even as she recounts her thoughts and feelings. There’s very little personal anger in the book (even though she faced situations that would make most women angry and bitter for life), and I suspect that’s the key to her having been so successful operating within a repressive Islamic republic and yet making significant progress toward peace and fairness for all citizens.

The book starts with the time she and other lawyers were given actual documents which might be able to prove that the government had hired assassinations to rid them of dissidents and other troublesome citizens. Even though the lawyers were given a time limit of 10 days to go through thousands and thousands of pages of documents without being allowed to photocopy or take notes, they realized that this was a breakthrough they could not pass up. The shock was when she found a document in which she herself had been named as a target for assassination.

She was born in 1947, the second daughter of what seems a fairly well-to-do middle class—certainly professional class—family. Her father had been in the government official and she had a relatively secular childhood. Her life sounded not unlike my own growing up in roughly the same time period—photographs show she wore pigtails and Peter Pan collars. She went to university to study law and became at judge at 23. (In the Iranian system one did not have to practice law before becoming a judge.) She grew up revering Mohammed Mossadegh, an effective Iranian prime minister who was dismissed when the US installed the latest Shah in 1953. She hated the profligate Shah and his minions and supported the Islamic Revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini, not realizing that “freedom” for her country would significantly limit her personal freedom. (After all, she was a woman and as such only worth half of a man.)

She refused to quit her job as a judge when other women were harassed into doing so and when she was demoted, effectively, to the secretarial pool, she went to work every day and did what she was told. She did eventually resign but went back to work as a lawyer when that became possible, specializing in cases where women or children were unfairly treated. She took the most high profile cases pro bono, intending not only to work for the client but for changes in the laws that made such discrimination lawful. Eventually she gave up her paid clients completely. She was once thrown out of parliament where she had written a divorce law at the request of women members of that body. Questioned by a ruling cleric, she was able to justify her stance based on laws and textbooks taught to the mullahs. He couldn’t argue with her, but he could have her ousted from the building.

She’s an interesting character, whom you won’t feel like you know after reading this book, but will still be interested in. She was constantly satisfied with "some progress" rather than success in every effort. It built up over the years into a daunting reputation. Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 07, 2006

Khrushchev by William Taubman

This is a recent biography of Nikita Sergeyevitch Khrushchev, written in English and taking advantage of all the recent scholarship and documents made available in Russia. In addition, the author worked extensively with Sergei Khrushchev, the son who is now an American citizen.

Khrushchev celebrated his birthday on 17 April (when his birth was registered) but was actually born on 15 April 1894 (or 3 April by the old style calendar used before the revolution) in the small village of Kalinovka in Southern Russia. He lived there until 1908 when he moved to the eastern Ukranian town of Yuzovka where his father worked in the mines.

But the biography doesn’t begin with his birth, rather with this paragraph: “Ask many Westerners, and not a few Russians, and they’re likely to recall Nikita Khrushchev as a crude, ill-educated clown who banged his shoe at the United Nations. But the short, thick-set man with small piercing eyes, protruding ears and apparently unquenchable energy wasn’t a Soviet joke even though he figures in so many of them. Rather, he was a complex man whose story combines triumph and tragedy for his country as well as himself.”

There is no film and no still picture of Khrushchev banging his shoe at the UN, though most people in attendance that day in October of 1960 agreed that he did slip off his shoe (a loafer type) and wave it around. Some will swear he banged it on the desk to emphasize his point and others will vociferously deny it. All will probably agree that both the waving and the banging were Khrushchev-like gestures.

Khrushchev is most remembered by those interested in Soviet history for his “secret speech” at the 20th annual Congress (1956) of the communist party when, in a session open only to high ranking communist members from the USSR, Khrushchev spoke for 4 hours attacking Stalin and the abuses of power which had become everyday occurrences in the USSR. For someone who had risen to power under Stalin and participated in the central government during the 30ies and 40ies, it was almost unthinkable. Khrushchev told his audience how thousands and thousands of citizens had been arrested, tried in completely illegal trials, and then deported to labor camps or executed. The counter-revolutionary charges were always “absurd, wild and contrary to common sense.” Characteristic of Khrushchev, the speech was bold—even rash—daring. No one but Khrushchev in his generation could possibly have been imagined to do such a thing. It was undoubtedly both the smartest and the dumbest thing he ever did.

I always thought that the CIA lucked out and got a copy early on—not that they had much clue what the speech meant. In fact, Khrushchev arranged for it to be subtly leaked, first to the rest of the communist bloc and then to the rest of the world.

But Khrushchev’s whole story is far more interesting than just the secret speech. Taubman says that “beneath the surface Khrushchev’s efforts at de-Stalinization, awkward and erratic though they had been, had allowed a nascent civil society to take shape where Stalinism had once created a desert.” His efforts at reform and his reaching out to the rest of the world paved the way for Gorbachev and Yeltsin in the next generation. Even though he boasted that the grandchildren of Americans would live under communism (and it ended up that his own son is now lives under capitalism), in spite of the naiveté and the bluster and the inconsistencies, Khrushchev left an important legacy. In a 1998 poll of young Russian adults who were asked to evaluate their 20th century leaders, most (Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev but also Gorbachev and Yeltsin) were considered to have done more harm that good while Tsar Nicholas II was assessed positively. Opinion on Khrushchev was evenly divided. Though they were surely wrong about the Tsar, they at least recognized in Khrushchev something which made an important impression.

If you’re interested in Russian history of the 20th or 21st century, you couldn’t go wrong with this book. If you're interested in the cold war of the US in the 20th century, you shouldn't miss it either. It’s interesting—inspiring in spots—well-researched and well-written. Posted by Picasa