Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book 83, Oman: "The Sultan's Shadow" by Christiane Bird

Y'know, I actually own a book given out by the Omani Consulate - one of those propaganda, boo-yeah, look how prosperous we've become since the modernising force of Sultan Qaboos books. Received it as a door gift back when they'd just sailed the Jewel of Muscat to our shores.

But of course, I've chosen this book instead:

And guess what? Despite the National Library classifying it under "Oman", only a third of it actually takes place in the country - the story's focussed instead on the period after Sultan Seyyid Said and his descendants moved the capital of their empire from Muscat to Zanzibar, all the way down in present-day Tanzania.

But dear me, this book is terribly interesting. I should've read it before I started my East African journey, not after: it brings the world that Abdulrazak Gurnah describes to life; this Arab/Swahili/Indian/European world of slavery and debts and faraway colonial powers.

The author isn't just interested in communicating the cause-and-effect of history: she's fascinated by all the little stories and details of the era, which is why she meanders into side-tales of Ali bin Muhammad and the Zanj Rebellion (the greatest slave revolt in world history); of David Livingstone and Tippu Tip and Henry Morton Stanley; and of course of the Princess Salme, who eloped pregnant to marry a German businessman, turning her back on her faith and becoming the world's first-known Arab woman to write an autobiography.

Truth is, I think Christiane Bird extends the narrative a little too long: Salme ceased to be a sympathetic character for me quite early on (she was an apologist for slavery, among other character flaws), and the various threads of history told out of sequence do strain the mind a wee bit.

But now at least I have some understanding of what the East African slave trade entailed (the author objects to the term "Arab slave trade", given that we don't say "European slave trade"), and that old Oman truly was a glorious place with surprisingly enlightened leaders and a still rather tolerant form of Islam in its culture. That's education, baby.

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Representative quote: Swahili clairvoyants were called in. Many lived in the most remote areas of the island, but they were tracked down by slaves and brought to the palace by boat, horseback, or foot.

Among them was a prophetess "of a quite unnatural corpulence," who claimed to have an unborn child inside her who could foretell the future. Arriving at the palace one afternoon, the woman told the worried family that her omiscient child, who had been living under her heart for years, could see from the tops of the mountains to the depths of the seas. And then, in a high squeaky voice, the "child" described three sailing ships, from the vantage point of the tallest mast, and outlined in detail what every single person on board was doing. Apparently, Seyyid Said was still alive and well. The family rejoiced and the prophetess ordered that a myriad of sacrifices be made. Gladly, the family obeyed, slaughtering animals and distributing meat, cloth, and rice among the woman's followers and the poor.

At the time, Salme and everyone else in the palace believed in the miraculous child. Only later, while living in Germany, did Salme realize that the woman was a ventriloquist.

Next book: The Quran, from Saudi Arabia.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book 82, Yemen: "I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced" by Nujood Ali

And thus we begin West Asia, with a little light reading! And before you think I'm being facetious about the terribly serious issue of child marriage, I'll have you know that this book is (quite appropriately, when you think about it) written as if targeted towards children, written by proxy to explain every single aspect of Yemeni everyday life to foreigners aged 10 or above: the recipe for ful, the rituals of Ramadan, the wording of Al-Fatiha.

Of course I'm suspicious of the agenda: first published as Moi Nojoud, 10 ans, divorcée, it rehearses plenty of clichés of protecting oppressed Asian women from evil Asian men, made all the more insidious by the ventriloquising tactics of "co-author" Delphine Minoui, who writes through the voice of the oppressed rather than overtly exposing herself as the outsider. (Yes, yes, I know how easily interviewees' words can be crafted to fit a desired image; I've done it myself as a reporter, frequently.)

But then it manages to elude some of those clichés - it's not white people saving Nujood, it's the nice Muslim judges and the nice women's rights lawyer Shada Nasser, the foreign journalists come in only later, and pretty much all the urbane Yemenis she tells her story to are appalled. Plus, there's an intro and outro in Minoui's voice, delicately explaining the background of the nation and Nujood's later quandaries (she wasn't able to stay in her new aid organisation-funded school because of family troubles; her dad still can't find work, her mum is still depressed beyond functionality, her brothers still blame her for shaming the family).

And hell, Nujood's a heroine. Seriously, how many little girls in her position have the guts to run away from their rape and abuse and name their oppressors in court? Plus, she's inspired other girls to follow suit, and has influenced changes in law. Plus, it seems she's been terribly sweet-spirited all through the process.

You'll have to excuse my earlier skepticism. You see, Singapore's undergone social turmoil because of the Western world's moral panic over child brides: namely the case of Maria Hertogh, the Dutch girl adopted into a Muslim Indonesian family and married to her apparent satisfaction and consent at the age of 13, when she'd had her menses and everything already (which Nujood had not). Hertogh's birth mother found her again and successfully sued to get her back into Christendom, against her will. Age of consent and marriageability is a culturally determined thing, dammit; raising both reduces the chances of abuse but there are loads of other factors causing the abuse in the first place.

Ah, there's a lot to blabber on about this issue. Need to get some sleep.

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Representative quote: Yes, I've made up my mind. When I grow up, I'll be a lawyer, like Shada, to defend other little girls like me. If I can, I'll propose that the legal age for marriage be raised to eighteen. Or twenty. Or even twenty-two! I will have to be strong and tenacious. I must learn not to be afraid of looking men right in the eye when I speak to them. In fact, one of these days I'll have the courage to tell Aba that I don't agree with him when he says that, after all, the Prophet married Aisha when she was only nine years old. Like Shada, I will wear high heels and I will not cover my face. That niqab - you can't breathe under it! BUt first things first: I will have to do my homework well. I must be a good student, so that I can hope to go to college and study law. If I work hard, I'll get there.

Next book: Christiane Bird's The Sultan's Shadow, regarding Oman.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Book 81, Djibouti: "In the United States of Africa" by Abdourahman A. Waberi

And it’s my last book from East Africa! Was originally gonna do Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti, which would’ve been terribly informative about the contemporary culture and politics of the coastal nation; the book I’ve chosen is by an actual Djiboutian and tells me nothing at all.

You see, it’s set in an alternate reality where Africa, rather than the USA/European Union, is the dominant world power; where the West and Japan are lands of starving wartorn barbarians while fatcat consumerist Africans gorge themselves on Hadji Das ice cream and Haile Wade movies.

Plus, barely any of the tale takes place in Djibouti itself – the heroine’s an orphaned white girl called Malaika (née Marianne), adopted by an Eritrean doctor, growing up in the wealthy metropolis of Asmara. Shades of Hannah Pool, huh? There’s even a chapter where Malaika flies to backward, fly-infested France in search of her birth mother.

No idea why some critics call the book “hopeful”, because it's basically a dystopia: even with black and white roles reversed, the world is as exploitative and evil as ever. There's no glowing future presented, not even a sense of homecoming - instead, Malaika retches into the filthy waters of the Seine and absolves her guilt over the whole thing by stuffing her broken-toothed guide into a globalization-doctrine-themed university.

But, as said critics note, it's rare find such humour and satire in African lit. Waberi (and many Francophone African writers) eschew the realist, information-imparting agenda that Anglophone readers adore because they want to learn something about that distant impoverished region. Instead, he's grabbing every chance to show off his erudition, creating a vast mindscape of this new cultural world where there are bustling stock markets on Lumumba Street, where Robert Marley is revered as an established lyric poet, where human rights activists receive the Arafat Peace Prize and writers receive the Sisulu Award and Miriam Makeba is mauled by a giant gorilla in the movie King Kong. (There's a Maryse Condé Bookstore, too!)

Mind you, this isn't all about the workable alternate history: there's no rough what-if timeline presented as in Orson Scott Card's The Redemption of Christopher Columbus or Wong Hoy Cheong's Re:Looking. There's some reference to the imperial powers of Makonnen (an Ethiopian Emperor, surely) and the voyage of Mansa Musa, not to mention the devastation of the Nazi holocaust in Europe. But a clear timeline? Not there; it's all about the concept.

And you know what? It's fun. Waberi's playing such crazy mental gymnastics that he forces you to join in: you realise how hard it is to remember that Malaika is white and her well-to-do parents are black and that her impoverished wrinkled birth mother Célestine is white etc; it's hard to picture grungy France and Helvetian refugees wandering the streets of Tadjoura; we've a double-take when we think about the politics of penniless Eastern European waifs becoming sought-after prostitutes in Alexandria, partly because it's imaginable even in our world.

Of course all this subversion comes from Waberi's anger about the clichés of Africanness; save-the-world aid programs and starving children and wars. But how self-aware is he about the problematics of this reversal? But this is a pretty good way to round off the continent for the time being: a manic howl, twisting its received images into knots.

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Representative quote:
Some of them cut and run, wander around, get exhausted, and then brusquely give up, until they are sucked into the void. Prostitutes of every sex, Monte Carlians or Vaticanians but others too, wash up on the Djerba beaches and the cobalt-blue bay of Algiers. These poor devils are looking for the bread, rice, or flour distributed by Afghan, Haitian, Laotian, or Sahelian aid organizations. Ever since our world has been what it is, little French, Spanish, Batavian, or Luxembourgian schoolchildren, hit hard by kwashiorkor, leprosy, glaucoma, and poliomyelitis, survive only with food surpluses from Vietnamese, North Korean, or Ethiopian farmers.
These warlike tribes with their barbaric customs and deceitful, uncontrollable moves keep raiding the scorched lands of the Auvergne, Tuscany or Flanders, when they're not shedding the blood of their atavistic enemies - Teutons, Gascons or backward Iberians - for the slightest little thing, for rifles or trifles because they recognize a prisoner or because they don't. They're all waiting for a peace that has yet to come.

Next book: Nujood Ali's I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, from Yemen.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Book 80, Eritrea: "My Fathers' Daughter" by Hannah Pool

Woo woo! I'm at the 80th book! And it's one that you guys helped me choose, too!

Granted, Pool isn't a very literary writer: she's mostly a fashion and lifestyle columnist at the Guardian, Eritrean by birth but adopted by a British academic as an infant. The memoir's about her first visit to her birth family at the age of 29, and it's actually annoying at certain junctures - she gets so damn weepy, she cries all over the place, she spends chapters agonising about the tortured moments before she dares to walk through a door to meet these people who abandoned her (did she even really confront them with this in the end?).

But you know what? She's honest. She's being Bridget Jones-ish because she IS Bridget Jones-ish, and she's painfully aware of the ironies in her reactions, the excruciating dumbness of the fact that she's actually jealous of the half-malnourished Eritrean kids she sees in her home village, just because they grew up in their own families, without the cultural angst of displacement. She leaves in the bits about how she doesn't fit in, how she makes unexpected alliances and experiences unforeseen alienation; how she has diarrhoea and nausea and crying fits all the time, because her normally cast iron stomach can't deal with the emotional shock and the different enzymes in the goat meat.

And it's so damn informative about the cultural quandary of being an orphan (never believe an orphan who says she doesn't long to trace her birth roots, she says), and about Eritrea itself - not just the folksy villages but also the rather beautiful Italianate capital of Asmara, full of the peeling works of Mussolini's architects, full of the returnees whose families fled during the war with Ethiopia, who speak Arabic or German or Amharic or English instead of Tigrinya: the forever displaced people with whom Pool feels most at home.

A quibble, though: given that Pool has made the book's title about both her fathers (look at where the apostrophe lies! Clever, innit? And so English), we've barely any description about her father, David Pool, the great Friend of Eritrea. I'd like to know a little more about this man, to hear his voice, hear how he tried to teach her about her roots (he did, but the teenage Pool would just tell him, "I'm not Eritrean, I'm just black,") and make him more than just a flat character, being benevolent and understanding in the background. Ditto for her white stepmother, brother and sister, who say they want to join her on a visit to the country in the future. (Have they gone yet? Maybe it says in her TEDx talk. Nah, watched it, and the only cool thing it supplies is the photos.)

Good read, anyhow. Nice to reach the 80-mark on a positive note - a tale about an outsider on a journey to discover who she is.

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Representative quote: Every few moments I think how wonderfully different I will feel whenever I see the word Keren in my own passport from now on. I will be able to picture the mountains and the colours, instead of having a black hole where an image should be. I will be able to describe the haze of sunset and the smell of the market. I might even start adopting a wistful tone and a slight air of mystery as I look into the middle distance and say, 'Ah, Keren, it means mountain, you know. Beautiful place, beautiful people.' That'll put an end to those pitying looks I get when I give my usual response of, 'I don't know what it looks like: I left when I was a baby.'

Next book: "The United States of Africa" by Abdourahman A. Waberi, from Djibouti.