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

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Friday, October 27, 2006

Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery by Bahaa' Taher

This is a novel of transitions and conflicts. It is set in a small village where everyone is a farmer; all are Muslim, traditional and related to each other. The village is just outside of Luxor in Upper Egypt. (If the designations Upper and Lower Egypt confound you, think of “upper” as closer to the source of the Nile and “lower” as near the mouth.) Not far from the village, up against the mountains in the desert is a Coptic Christian monastery. The time of the novel’s main action (which is looked back on by the narrator in his later life) is the time of the 1967 war in which Israel overran the Sinai Peninsula and totally humiliated the Egyptian military. The monks and the villagers are on good terms; though they share different religious traditions, they are all Egyptians.

As the novel begins, the narrator is looking back on his boyhood when he used to be the one designated to take cookies to the monastery for the holidays, when he’d get a chance to spend some time with Bishai who was the friendliest of the monks and who seemed to function in somewhat of a caretaker role. He was also probably somewhat simple because his conversation didn’t always make sense. Though some villagers were afraid the monks were casting an evil eye on their fields, the boy’s father, among the most respected and educated in the village, said that Bishai had much wisdom with regard to farming in the region and always listened to him. The boy enjoys Bishai’s company enormously. He also delivers sweets to relatives, including Aunt Safiyya, carefully following his mother’s instructions not to greet her or to wish her happy holidays but to say the sweets are for Hassan. The reader’s curiosity is aroused.

The narrator then tells the story of Safiyya, who was raised with him as an elder sister though in fact she was a cousin of some sort who lost her parents. Safiyya was beautiful and when she was very young, men began to ask for her hand in marriage. The family however had an unstated “understanding” that Harbi, a handsome young cousin, would marry Safiyya. As readers we have no insight into what Safiyya and Harbi thought of this plan. But as Safiyya got older, her marriage became more of a concern since the 3 younger daughters could not marry until the eldest was taken care of. Harbi does not speak, but finally the richest man in the village, the bey (an honorific title) who’s already outlasted two wives, asks for her hand. The family consults Safiyya, sort of expecting her to reject the old man, but she immediately agrees, is married to the Bey and moves with him to a fancy house in Luxor where very soon a son, Hassan. is born.

There are rumors in the village, the exact nature of which the reader must imagine. The Bey confronts Harbi, whom previously he had treated in a very friendly manner, trying to drive him out of town. He will not explain his grievance. Harbi has heard the talk but will neither defend himself nor go quietly. The Bey’s henchmen tie Harbi to a palm tree and torture him. The Bey becomes so angry he wants them to hill him, but the men run off, saying they will not murder for that is a sin. There is a tussle. Harbi is crazed with pain and he grabs a rifle to defend himself and kills the Bey. No one explains what this is all about.

Safiyya does not mourn but moves out of the fancy new house and back to the village where she refuses to hold a funeral for her husband until her son grows up to avenge his father’s death. The monks and more educated villagers like the boy’s father have worked in the village to settle differences without resorting to blood feuds and vengeance, but Safiyya is impervious to anyone’s input. She is educating her son from babyhood to kill Harbi who, after his health is broken in prison is given a compassionate release and, at the father’s suggestion, moves into a hut on the monastery grounds near Bishai. Villagers visit him there regularly to Safiyya’s consternation. Even an outlaw gang, whose leader Harbi knew in prison, visits regularly.

Gradually the reader sees not only the agony of the traditional revenge cycle that threatens the community, but the tensions between the monastery and the village, between the village and the “modern world” of Luxor where tourists swarm to see the ancient monuments, as well as the tensions between the old ways and the new. At the beginning of the story transportation is by horse drawn vehicle; at the end by motor car. At the beginning, both the monks and the villagers love and tolerate Bishai who’s not quite normal, but at the end he’s driven off to a mental hospital instead of being allowed to end his days in his hut on the monastery grounds, driven off at least in some dignity in the old horse drawn carriage. The monks are also no longer local men and are more serious scholars who ignore the village. Other old versus new tensions involve that between the current changing society and the ancient one that makes the area so attractive to tourists from all over the world as well as the tension between Egypt and its Arab neighbors when the Sinai is given back by Israeli as a result of a treaty negotiated by the US. There’s even the tension resulting from increasing crime (we contrast the honorable thieves who visit Harbi at the monastery with growing crime in Upper Egypt).

It’s a gem of a novel and a valuable glimpse into a changing traditional society. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Rough Crossings by Simon Schama

This is a committed and passionate book about the long fight to outlaw the slave trade from Africa to the Americas and eventually to outlaw slavery itself. The focus is on Britain and on two Englishmen, one (Granville Sharp) who dedicated his life to ending slavery in the British Empire and the other (John Clarkson) who undertook a mission to settle ex-slaves in Sierra Leone where they could govern themselves. The historical sequence is this:

1. Granville Sharp championed blacks who were slaves or threatened with slavery and in 1772 the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield decided in favor of James Somerset in a decision that sent the word round the globe that “as soon as any slave sets his foot on English soil he becomes free”. That was not exactly what Mansfield ruled, but it was what we’d today call the “word on the street”. The concept of “British freedom” was born.

2. Note the date. The “street” included plantations in the American South where slaves took advantage of the American Revolution to flee to the British. Many fought with British troops and large numbers were transported, along with loyalist Americans, to Canada when the British military left. Nova Scotia, under-populated at the time, received large numbers. Black and white loyalists were promised land in Nova Scotia, but, not surprisingly, the whites were served first and best—though many of them were given far less than promised and they were dissatisfied as well. The blacks were thwarted at every turn and for many the only way to survive was to indenture themselves to whites in something that felt to them very much like slavery—and was.

3. In England, Granville Sharp and others began a campaign to send a number of free British blacks back to Africa. On the advice of a naturalist who had studied ants in the Banana Islands, Sierra Leone (for many years thereafter known as “white man’s grave”) was picked as a likely spot and a large area near the mouth of the river near the only natural harbor along the coast was obtained from the ruling chiefs (in some ways not propitious because of the proximity of a slave trading station on nearby Bunce Island). It was to be called the Province of Freedom. Their settlement was Granville Town.

4. In 1791 William Wilberforce introduced a bill in Parliament to abolish the slave trade to the West Indies and Wilberforce, Sharp and Thomas Clarkson and others formed the Sierra Leone Company to create another colony (Granville Town having been burned to the ground in fighting among slave traders, settlers and indigenous tribes) which would offer a home to the loyalist blacks in Canada who were desperate and disillusioned with “British freedom”. Clarkson’s brother, John, a Navy lieutenant without a ship, was sent to organize the expedition. He ended up with 15 ships and nearly 1200 black settlers, many ex-American slaves and a few natives of the place they were going to. One was a woman who claimed to be over 100, a member of Sherbro tribe, who’d been captured by slave traders as a girl and wanted to die in her native country. John Clarkson was young (in his 20ies still) and emotional. He was however capable, learned as he went, and developed a passionate attachment both to the project he championed and the black settlers under his charge. He commanded the fleet that left Halifax in January of 1792 on what was a very difficult passage (during much of which he himself was ill—so ill he was strapped in a shroud ready to be buried at sea when signs of life were noticed). Despite continued ill health, he stayed in Sierra Leone for the first year, always the champion of the settlers, often against the Company he worked for which was after all in it to make a profit. When he went home for leave, he was dismissed and sterner Christians (the father of English writer Macauley) took over and alienated the colonists but ended up supporting the growth and welfare of the Freetown (as the colony was called) which was turned over to the British government in 1808.

The colony turned out to be the first democratic settlement of free black men, where even women voted (if they were heads of household). Schama himself seemed as proud of them as either Sharp or Clarkson would have been and his prose is sprinkled with his commitment: “…they spoke like the founding fathers of a new black nation. It was their Philadelphia moment.” (p.392) Then there is this, about a settler whose name was British Freedom and who’d been an American slave, a warrior for the British in the Revolution, and eventually a rebel against the governors after Clarkson. With other rebels, British Freedom been banished to the Bulom Shore opposite Freetown: “And if he did indeed cling to that name, he could only do so by not crossing the river to Freetown. For he must have understood that he had had his day. Over there, no one had much use for British freedom any more. Over there was something different. Over there was the British Empire.” (p. 397)

Schama is, in my opinion, of one of the best writers of history because he is a stylist and a storyteller who is not afraid to involve readers passionately in his stories at the same time as he is scrupulous in his research. I think he does some injustice to the United States in the matter of slavery because after all it was the British who introduced slavery into the colonies and because the British passion for justice to blacks was, by and large, unencumbered by economic considerations—port cities in the west thrived on the slave trade but after that was abandoned, Britain itself was not economically tied to slavery the way the American South was. That it took so long to untangle the complex slavery question in the US is owing at least in part to the British who started it. But that’s an opinion and I fully grant that Schama blames Briton and the British wherever it’s called for, as for example, when he lists the different groups that settled Nova Scotia, including "...the dipthonged French from Maine across the Bay of Fundy in the early 1750s before the British, in a moment of strategic ethnic cleansing, deported the rest all the way south to Louisiana." (p.229) Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I had never read Dracula and I was curious when it was chosen for the book group—and the text is free on the Internet. I enjoyed it. It was suspenseful without being scary—its themes have been so intensified by film versions that the original seems quite tame.

It’s written as a series of documents—journals kept by the five main characters, newspaper articles, letters, telegrams, etc.—a veritable treasure trove of Nineteenth Century technology. Jonathon Harker, a law clerk, travels overland by train and coach to castle of a Transylvanian court to attend to the details of a land purchase for his boss. He keeps a journal of his trip. He keeps it in shorthand, for privacy and also because he and his fiancée, Mina, are fascinated by stenographic technologies and practices—she reads and writes shorthand and also typewrites, even has a portable typewriter for her travels. Jonathon finds Count Dracula distinctly odd—friendly but forbidding and his household is difficult to understand. With trepidation, he investigates, finding Dracula’s coffin and seeing him slither under the windowpane of one of the castle rooms. Jonathon’s freedom of movement is increasingly limited by Dracula and eventually he fears he’ll never get away. He ends up in a hospital in Budapest having suffered from “brain fever”. Mina travels to his rescue and they are married in his hospital room.

In the meantime, though, Mina has traveled to Whitby to visit her friend Lucy. They experience more weirdness which the reader recognizes as similar to Jonathon’s experience (Mina has not yet read his journal). Lucy becomes ill under mysterious circumstances and Dr. Seward—one of Lucy’s suitors—consults a friend and colleague from Amsterdam, Dr. Van Helsing, who’s heard of Dracula and knows the mythology of how to ward off vampires—the communion host, a crucifix, garlic—and recognizes Dracula as one of the Undead who can only be killed by a stake through the heart.

The plot is long and complex, written almost entirely as journal entries by the characters, including Jonathon and Mina, Lucy, Dr. Seward, Dr. Van Helsing as well as Arthur (Lucy’s fiancé who becomes Lord Godalming on his father’s death) and Quincy Mason, a world-traveled Texan who is his friend. The technology theme is extended as the doctors employ blood transfusion techniques when Lucy is attacked by the vampire and they talk about their other theories and experiments. 19th century geeks one might call them—Dr. Seward even keeps his journal on phonograph records.

Lucy, who’s praised for her brains and organizational ability—but also adored (and patronized) as a goddess—types out all the journals and puts them in a timeline along with pertinent newspaper articles, telegrams, etc which gives the company a sense of who Dracula is and what he is doing. From then on the books is about tracking down the fiend and wiping him off the face of the earth. Not surprisingly, they have to track him to his lair, the castle in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania, to do that.

Stoker’s characters are not very subtle, nor is his use of language. The broken English he attributes to the Dutchman Van Helsing is downright irritating: inconsistent and juvenile, even when the elderly doctor is explaining the most sophisticated ideas. Stoker is good at planning and pacing a plot to keep the reader interested, though, which, along with the myth of a vampire existing in some remote Romanian backwater where even the gypsies are terrified of him, have made this novel a bestseller for generations. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

There were many things that I liked about this novel. I knew practically nothing about the beliefs and practices of Orthodox Jews and I learned a lot. Initially I liked the character of Ronit, the daughter of a celebrated UK Orthodox Rabbi from whom she had parted company when she left the largely Jewish suburb of Hendon and went to school in the US. She’d also parted company with her religion, though she admitted that lapsed Orthodox Jews were fairly rare.

When the novel opens Ronit, a financial analyst with talent, responsibility and money-making power in Manhattan, and with an ex-lover who’s decided to stop jeopardizing his marriage, hears of the death of her father and decides, after some thought on the matter, that it would be appropriate to go home after an absence of 6 years. She does not so much want to mourn her father as to tie up her past and retrieve some family items that remind her of her mother who died when she was a child. When she thinks of home, though, she is angry—both at her father and at the rigidity of the religion that dominates the town.

She goes home to the house of her cousin, Dovid, the intellectual and rabbinical heir to her famous father, and—as we slowly discover—his wife and Ronit’s school friend and ex-lover, Esti. The first night they all go to dinner at the home of a rich, pious and manipulative elder who is not expecting to see Ronit and whom she delights in telling about her (fictitious) architect lesbian lover—on the theory that she might as well be hung for a lion as a lamb. The novel's action is predictable—the three main characters painfully work out their relationships among themselves and with others. Ronit modifies her anger toward the religion she thought made her father so rigid in his dealings with her and she goes back to New York in a state of mind that pleases her psychiatrist, Dr. Feinbold, an absent but present (in Ronit’s head) character.

The novel is overly structured, but skillfully so. Each chapter begins with a quotation and a discussion of some point of Orthodox belief or ritual or practice. It’s not clear who the narrator is, but the voice always modulates into the ideas and experience of another character—Dovid, Esti, school friends of Ronit’s who have solidified into rigid and not terribly attractive matrons, Hartog (the pious manipulator), shoppers on the street in Hendon, etc. The Ronit sections are first person. Her language is breezier, freer, often humorous, but nonetheless honest and introspective. And they are also in a different typeface (I wonder how many editions of a book that would survive).

I liked it enough to say I’ll look for Alderman’s work in the future, though I’m not ready to agree with one of the blurbs on the jacket (“Move over, Zadie Smith"). Posted by Picasa

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

This is one of those books I've known about since college days and always meant to read. When it was chosen for a book group discussion, I thought about skipping it but ended up finding a text version online. And then I got hooked on it.

Published in 1919, it's a series of related stories about the oddities and vulnerabilities of human beings. One question which the reader wants to consider is that of realism: this is not a realistic book in the sense that its characters, by and large, are known for their own particular peculiarity and in one story, "Hands", for the body part that symbolizes the character's pecularity for him. In that story, Wing Biddlebaum's hands which are "forever trying to conceal themselves" and are restlessly active "like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird" not only gave him his name but "stood for" a secret he'd kept from people in Winesburg. Many years ago, in another town, under another name, he was a teacher who touched the boys in his class affectionately on the shoulder or hair. Until a "half-wit" dreamed of much more intimate touching and woke to think it was real and Wing was driven from the town.

The narrator of the stories is an old man, a writer, who when he tries to sleep sees a long procession of figures he calls "grotesques" before his eyes and is driven to write about them. The description reminded me of the painting called "Dickens' Dreams" where Dickens is sitting at his desk at Gad's Hill, leaning back in the chair dozing while a cloud around his head contains little scenes from his novels with all the variety of characters he is imagining.

But back to realism. To a contemporary sensibility these are "old-fashioned" stories. First because they are "told" and not "dramatized" as most readers now expect. Second because the characters are not fully rounded characters--we seem to have taken E. M. Forster oh so seriously on rounded characters. They exist by way of their peculiarity--which is why the narrator calls them grotesques.

But in another sense Anderson's purpose is most definitely realism. One imagines him wanting to dig down into the idyllic American small town and paint the soft underbelly, to look more closely at the way Winesburg's citizens lived, to follow the odd ones home, to talk to the loners in the night, to step for a moment into the shoes of the town's "characters" and understand that they too represent real human attitudes and behaviors.

If you haven't read this American classic, you'll find it a worth while venture. Here's a text version for free Posted by Picasa