Monday, January 30, 2012

Dammit. I no longer have a working Kindle.

Just look at it! Don't know why it happened, either. Just took it out of my haversack in Queenstown, NZ and it looked like this.

Water damage? Cracked screen? I dunno. What matters is that the nice live chat support guy at Amazon said he'd send a replacement one along, no problem, right away. All I have to do is post in the old one in 30 days or less.

I was expecting a runaround because it's under my sister's name and using my dad's account, but luckily all it meant was that I needed to supply a few extra info bits on my dad's account and everything went hunky-dory. They only post within the USA, but that's where my NYC-based sister comes in handy.

In the meantime, I'm a little too busy to camp out in the National Library's reference section to read my Iraq book. So I'm reading my Iran book, Rumi Jalaluddin's Mathnawi, on my iPhone:

It was free, too - all I needed to do was track down a .txt version of the work, convert it to .doc, resize everything and convert that to .pdf. Easy-peasy!

In other news, MPH is releasing an e-reader. I might actually buy one just to support them - the KL-based folks I've met from there are pretty cool.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

This Saturday, I'm hosting a talk with Singapore's top theatre reviewers!

It's the 4:30 Open Panel Discussion noted below:

Open Roads: Stage Talk -Theatre Talks Back and Open Panel Discussion
Saturday 28 January 2012, 2-6pm
Theatre Talks Back, 2-4pm
Open Panel Discussion, 4:30-6pm
The Substation Theatre
Admission: Free
This is an InHouse event

Open Roads: Stage Talk was a programme initiated by The Substation in collaboration with The Flying Inkpot Theatre and Dance in 2010 to invite members of the public to come together and converse about local plays. After two successful runs in 2010 and 2011, Open Roads: Stage Talk comes to a close.

*To end the programme on a high note, local theatre reviewers have been gathered for a final pow-wow session– an open panel discussion about the current state of theatre criticism and their personal processes of reviewing performances. Join Life! journalist Corrie Tan, TODAY journalist, Mayo Martin, local online arts journal The Flying Inkpot‘s Matthew Lyon and freelance reviewers, Ng Yi-Sheng and Tara Tan in an open discussion about local theatre. Look forward also to the first of our Theatre Talks Back sessions, where invited theatre practitioners will talk about their recent productions in a Q&A presentation.

The Theatre Talks Back session is hosted by invited theatre practitioners who will talk about their recent productions in a Q&A presentation. Cake Theatrical Productions will be showing a video presentation of Decimal Points: 4.44 and talking about the trials and tribulations of putting together the first co-presentation between The Substation and Cake Theatrical Productions.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Book 88, Kuwait: “The Chronicles of Dathra, a Dowdy Girl from Kuwait, Vol I" by Danderma

Good lord. What a horrifying book this is.

I’ve grumbled before about Western fantasies of the oppressed Muslim woman, so I was rather gratified that I’d found a piece of what’s essentially Kuwaiti chick-lit: an insider perspective of the nation, first uploaded onto a blog then self-published via Lulu. And of course I was prepared that it might be badly written and a little shallow – as one trufan was squealing, “Sophie Kinsella watch out!” – but I honestly wasn’t ready for this.

You see, Dathra is written breathlessly – it’s full of typos and subject-verb disagreements and tense malfunctions and exclamation marks! and exclamation marks!! and exclamation marks!!! One charming thing is that it’s also composed in Arablish: mixed up English and Kuwaiti Arabic, spelt in the fashion of text messages, replacing the letter “hair” with 7; the letter “ain” with 3, etc, so that the book’s full of mystifying ejaculations such as “G63!” (disgusting) and ”7arra!” (eat your heart out) and “bo6a6a!” (French fries)

More frighteningly, Dathra herself (the word means “dowdy and unfashionable”) is a 32 year-old rich girl with a severe overeating disorder – and no, this is not a charmingly funny junk food addiction like Liz Lemon’s; it’s a problem that hospitalises her after she cooks and eats two kilos of samosas at a go. She also happens to be incredibly obnoxious – she starts fights and screams and yells and throws food at bewildered service staff and folks in the queue for Pinkberry – and in a bid to reinvent herself, starts spending lavishly on designer items: MAC lipsticks and Hermès scarves and sequined tube tops and stiletto heels that smear and creak and burst against her weight.

She has the mindless consumerism of Cathy and the maniacal violent streak of Hothead Paisan, with the redeeming qualities of neither. No, she’s not a layabout: she has a job that pays a good salary (very little description of women’s rights being limited here*) and spends loads of time on her Blackberry, but we’re not even told what her job is, let alone whether she cares about it or loves it.

And yet we’re called upon to sympathise with her. The whole story’s narrated from her perspective, as she hurtles from one disaster to the next; we’re given moment-by-moment motivations for her to hurl yoghurt and trifle on her cousin’s face. We’re directed to root for her to get back her perfect fiancé, the one she violently dumped because he refused to go to Burger Hub with her (plus he was hogging the stuffed grape leaves).

And such is the nature of chick lit that we – or perhaps it’s just me – I can’t put this freaking book down, even though I’m reading it as an oversized pdf on my Kindle, so most of the bottom lines of each page get cut off unless I blow up the screen and look at each page in sixths. This terrible woman, this monster of consumerism in all its forms, living in a society similarly dominated by relentless consumerism, with no sense of self-awareness whatsoever – she is our protagonist, and her uncontrollable urges parallel mine: she keeps eating and fighting, I keep reading.

(The fact that there are so many descriptions of food is also a guilty stimulant. Big Macs, halloumi, imsabbag zbaidi, tea Estekanas, tabbouleh over rocca salad, rice mixed with marag, mini kibbeh filled with labna and garnished with pomegramate seeds, sheesh tawooq, chocolate covered strawberries, fatayer, mini pizzas, vermicelli crème brulee, falafel sandwiches with hummus and tahini, English breakfast, qaymar…)

Oh, and here’s a spoiler: she has a happy ending by the end of this volume. Can you believe it? Let’s hope that in Volume Two she experiences a dramatic epiphany that turns her into a Nice Person.

*Oh, here’s the one interesting “oppressed woman” tidbit: the back-story of the villainess, Sabkahawa, is that she publicly confessed she was in love with a much older Kuwait University professor while she was just twenty, and this was a no-no: a woman must wait for a man to approach her, or else to be matchmade. To openly have feelings oneself is social suicide.

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Representative quote:
She turned to face him, all her frustration and apparent humiliation poured out of her as she screamed her lungs out ‘Killa MINIK1! O min Elde3la MORTIK2! THE FRUIT TRIFLES ARE GONE, FINISHED, SOLD OUT! I HAVE ASKED THAT WOMAN TO SELL THEM BACK BUT SHE WON’T GIVE THEM TO ME!’



Next book: Princess, Priestess, Poet : The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna, ed. Betty De Shong Meador, from Iraq.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Book 87, Bahrain: "Voices: an Annotated Anthology of Contemporary Bahraini Poetry" ed. Hasan Marhamah

Yo! So I’m writing this on the plane to New Zealand, where I’m spending a week’s holiday with my parents. (They’re evidently non-traditional enough to want to escape the comfort of relatives during Chinese New Year, which surprises me.) I’ve spent the flight watching a Chinese martial arts movie and a Danish documentary on a Japanese inventor, while occasionally dipping into my e-book of Bahraini poetry:

Yeah, it’s a dowdy cover, but as it turns out, the contents aren’t half bad. There’s a timeless, infinite, declarative air to Bahraini poetry – which may well be a feature of Arabic poetry in general, though I can’t tell, having only read Mahmud Darwish and bits of the Sufi mystics in the past.

Certainly it’s very different from a Singaporean poetry anthology, which would be full of minute descriptions of circumstance, society, geography, autobiography – the influence of Western traditions, surely. The Bahrainis are from a tiny, recently developed island nation like ourselves, and yet when they write, it feels like they’re calling out to the desert, it feels like they’re calling out to the sea.

The translator/editor spends a lot of time in his intro guiding us through the different eras of Bahraini poetry: 1) the Classical Movement, composed by princes and influenced by Nabatean; 2) the Neo-Classical Movement, which fused that style with the emergent anti-colonial Nationalism of the early 20th century; 3) the Romantic Movement, obsessed with P. B. Shelley as the epitome of passion, patriotism and rebellion; 4) the Neo-Realists and Modernists, now comprising many middle-class intellectuals, including many women, inspired by late 20th century Arab politics, byzantine imagery, and oddly enough, T.S. Eliot. (There’s even a reference to Hollow Men in one of the poems.)

The actual collection is all 20th century stuff, and we only hear a couple of poems per poet, so it’s a comfortable, jaunty survey, unified by the voice of the translator despite variations in subject matter and structure. Footnotes point out references to Palestine, to imprisonment, to Bahraini symbology of the palm tree and wine, to various tales of the Quran (e.g. Balqis, the Queen of Sheba who took on Solomon’s religion; e.g. Iqlima and Luza; ugly and beautiful; the wives of Cain and Abel respectively; the sisters of Abel and Cain also respectively. Surprisingly, there’s also a fair bit of referencing to Sumerian history and legend (Bahrain, then Delmon, was the source of the Epic of Gilgamesh, says the translator), and even a feminist piece called the Wanderings of Scheherezade. What a culture, no?

Quite beautiful, and unexpectedly so. Hurrah for the talents of tiny nations.

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Representative quote:

An Invitation to a Forbidden Party
-Ahmad al-Shamlan

My apology to you my good friends:
My party is poor
For I spent what I earned on my future journeys.
Exhausted, I arrived carrying my drowned guitar
With a melody you have heard before.
When it was captive
And you were the lyrics in the depressing jails,
While the thug gurgled his anger;
His crushed nails tortured my guitar and continued in a small party.


I fetched you tonight palm wine,
Do you like dates?
I possess nothing but the vintage liquor;
I stole it,
It is condensed but genuine;
Those who sold its tree never became intoxicated,
But I was intoxicated by an infant.
What shall I say?
In my eye there was an impossible question,
Wandering through long nights but never fulfilled…
A candle in a beautiful one-time party.
But they have changed my home address;
My home is a melody tonight,
A distracted in a small dream
And I fear the street guards.

The street guards have plotted against me,
They have changed my home address.
My friends,
Come in,
I have for you
And joy.

Next book: Dandera’s The Chronicles of Dathra, a Dowdy Girl from Kuwait, from Kuwait.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Book 86, Qatar: "Al-Jazeera: the Inside Story of the Arab News Channel that is Challenging the West" by Hugh Miles

Holy crap, this was a good read. Found it hard to put it down, which is not what I expected of a 400-page book on new media in the Middle East.

Truth is, I wasn't sure if I'd pick it up at first, given that it's published in 2005, a year before Al-Jazeera English was launched - behind the times, much? But the alternatives didn't seem quite good enough - Josh Rushing's Mission Al-Jazeera talks about life as a reporter for the English channel but only after a huge blather about his life as a good ol' American Marine (also, the huge font looked insulting) while Philip Selb's The Al-Jazeera Effect seemed a wee bit too academic (I'm an intellectual snob, but I also read for fun, darling).

Can't say the cover attracted me much:

But the story - oh, what a story. First, the setup: Qatar is a tiny country with a citizen population of less than 300,000 people (Emiratis joke that they could fit all of them into one of their hotels). Their brand of Islam is Wahhabi, their system of government is near-absolute monarchy and their royal family was known as the "thugs" of the Gulf, due to their often violent successions. This hasn't improved much in recent history: the regnant Sheikh Hamad deposed his father while the latter was on holiday. (It's said that he collapsed in a fit of laughter when, as a young man in the UK, he first learned the concept of democracy.)

Pretty stereotypically backward Arab state, hein? But as soon as Hamad took power in '95, he abolished the Ministry of Information (which in fact was the Ministry of Censorship) and enshrined freedom of the press into the Constitution. Unheard of among Arab states. Then he used his vast fortune to found Al-Jazeera, drawing an international pool of foreign-educated Arab reporters to Doha, impressing upon them his guarantee of a truly modern Arabic news station.

Seems that back then, Arabic news was in the Jurassic age: newsreaders merely read out press releases from the Ministries and the social lives of the Mubaraks: Al-Jazeera drew people in with real investigative journalism, real debates between antagonistic opinions on The Opposite Direction, surprisingly liberal fatwas on Shariah and Life, and eventually the in-depth coverage of the Second Intifada and the US invasion of Afghanistan (especially in-depth in the latter case since Al-Jazeera was the only news station with reporters actually inside the country). Satellite transmission was free, sustained not by advertising but by the Sheikh's payouts, so that even the poorest Arab speakers could tune in - today, Miles tells us, nomadic Bedouin weddings no longer involve a dowry of jewellery, but the gift of a satellite dish instead, so that the newlywed couple can watch the news together.

And let's face it: this is a story with heroes and villains. Plucky little Al-Jazeera, its office compared to a matchbox by an incredulous Mubarak, has managed to deliver some of the most balanced news reportage in the world despite constant abuse and threats from Saudi Arabia, from Kuwait, from Jordan, from the USA and the UK. (The stories of how reporters and cameramen were arrested, abused, tortured, even strategically murdered by Coalition forces with no investigations following, are quite horrifying.)

Of course, hardly anyone believes it's balanced: in the Middle East there are so many agendas that any attempt to tell both sides of the story (it was the first Arab station to actually show Israelis speaking on the air!) is doomed to misunderstanding. It's been called pro-Israeli, pro-Hamas, pro-America, pro-Al Qaeda... pro-Qatari of course, but Miles assures us that the station openly criticises the government's policies, especially the fact that it houses the American air base from which the Coalition conducted the invasion of Iraq.

It's a fascinating story - more intriguing, I'd argue, than what's happened in Dubai, because it's about the explosion of information, not wealth; it's about rising up for free speech at the same time as America's clamped down on its objective reporting. It's about a transformation of consciousness, and it started from a tiny irrelevant country which only got rich in the '90s, after people figured out how to extract its natural gas reserves. (Not sure if it can be argued that it engendered the Arab Spring, though. Probably not.)

Also of interest are the tidbits about Qatari society: how the people have been given hefty payouts and sinecures and are so wealthy they can retire in their thirties; how they've been pushed by the Sheikh to liberalise, sending their kids abroad to study and get their minds blown by Western democracy; how the Sheikh's second wife has become a spokesperson in her own right for children's rights, a phenomenon almost unknown in the Arab world.

Yep, there's some benefits to reading stuff by foreigners. Would a Qatari have fessed up to all these obvious details? Not so sure.

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Representative quote: Since then [i.e. the invasion of Afganistan] it has often been glibly stated that Al-Jazeera and the rest of the Arab media is shaping Arab public opinion towards the West for the first time. But Arabs have already been mulling over the pros and cons of democracy for almost two hundred years: what is meant is that today Arab public opinion matters for the first time.

Next book: "Voices: An Annotated Anthology of Contemporary Bahraini Poetry", edited by Marhamah Hasan Marhamah.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book 85, United Arab Emirates: "The Sand Fish" by Maha Gargash

The UAE - or more specifically, the Emirate of Dubai - has a special significance for us Singaporeans: it's a tiny country that became a late capitalist success story by specifically emulating our path from third world to first world. But of course, ever since the exposé from the Independent came out, we know there's a dark side to this success too: massive income inequities, overdependence on foreign labour, ruthless exploitation of low-paid foreign workers, rampant pollution, complete erasure of heritage.

I haven't been to the country yet (have talked lots to friends who've worked and travelled there, though), so I was pretty interested in reading a non-fiction book explaining the rise of the city-state: Syed Ali's Dubai: Gilded Cage or Jim Crane's City of Gold, maybe. But then I decided I wanted to hear from a voice within the country. Was there an Emirati author out there, published in English? There was.

Maha Gargash actually wrote this in English. She's been educated in the US and London, and now makes documentaries for Dubai Radio and Television, so she's had to scour her country (and others) for exotica, remnant communities who still remember the Emirati way of life before the oil boom.

In the afterword, she talks about how she was inspired to set her tale in the 1950s, right between the dying age of pearl fishing and the rise of the international petroleum trade. She abandoned an early draft which told the story from the pearl fishers' point of view; now the heroine's Noora, a young mountain girl married off as the third wife of a wealthy trader.

Honestly, it's not a fantastic work of fiction. Perfectly acceptable, yes, but not a must-read. There's something oddly generic about the story, even though the author doesn't make completely conventional decisions. Noora's fundamentally a damsel in distress, reactive rather than proactive, abused by the elder wives, afraid of her fat husband, loins burning for the handsome young manservant Hamad. She does nothing truly heroic throughout the story; she doesn't venture beyond the walls of her sheltered harem life. Of course, the author's furnished her with a modicum of spunk and intelligence to make her seem like less of a doormat.

What's really interesting, I suppose, is Gargash's choice in subject matter: how she refrained from describing the chaos of Dubai today and instead mined history for material; even mapped out the old cities and houses to mark out a believable, tactile setting, bringing the past alive again. It's actually a lot like what Singaporean writers like Catherine Lim and Dawn Farnham have been doing: farming the past for treasure, precisely because so little trace of it persists in the present. Their flavours are ultimately very different: Singapore's past is colourful, noisy and violent, while Dubai's is quiet, parched, detached from the hubbub of urban developments. But we both have that desire to use fiction to remember who we are.

No, not who we are. Who we were. The trouble with historical fiction of this sort is that it's escapist: it concentrates on the terrible social problems of yesterday, allowing us to triumphantly declare that they've been fixed. It makes us ignore the terrible social problems that persist today.

The West is happy to fill the gap with its own Emirati fictions - even in film. What are Emiratis talking about amongst themselves?

Oh, and by the way, a sand fish is a kind of skink.

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Representative quote:
"Listen to you, you do every filthy thing. Then you pretend you didn't." There was spite in his voice now. "I don't know who you are, what you are. Something very different from the Noora I treasured." He threw his arms in the air. "You dug a hole in the sand and filled it with your shame, thinking it will be buried forever. But the sand is soft and the wind never stops blowing. And one day..." He bit his lip and looked away. "You are like a.. a..."

"Sand fish," she mumbled."

Next book: Hugh Miles's Al-Jazeera: The Inside the Story of the Arab News Channel that is Challenging the West, regarding Qatar.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Book 84, Saudi Arabia: The Quran

Happy New Year! So after over a month, I'm finally done with al-Quran Qadim!

Yessir, I knew I could've gone with easier choices like Rania al-Baz's Disfigured (socially significant and pretty well written), Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh (revolutionary but badly written, according to most critics), and Jean Sasson's Princess (still don't trust its veracity). But I wanted something really iconic, a jewel of world literature. a book worth the boasting rights. Why not a book written (or transcribed) by the most influential man in history, a figure whose name I dare not utter without a pbuh and whose face I dare not upload at all?

And the truth is, there are several reasons why this wasn't an entirely good idea.

I still remember having to read bits of the book for my Contemporary Civilization class during sophomore year; we were guided by an Arabic-speaking Jewish girl who gushed over the sheer poetry of the text, and all the Americans oohed and aahed over how much more liberal and enlightened some of the laws are compared to Deuteronomy or Leviticus. Whereas I was distressedly thinking how all the Muslims I knew (especially in Singapore) were more liberal and enlightened than even that. (Yes, imprisonment for female adultery [an alternative reading of "stoning"] is less draconian than death, but in the 21st century?)

Still, I figured maybe reading the whole thing would give me some context. My friends recommended the rather beautifully archaic Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation for my enjoyment. And now I'm finished, I've ended up delaying my post for three days, so nervous am I about how to appear as both a critical humanist and a non-Islamophobe.

Yet at the risk of incurring the wrath and legal action of everyone in Singapore, I'm going to make a list of 4 reasons why reading the Quran alone isn't a great way to fall in love with Islam.

1. The surahs are super confusing.

The Quran, as you probably know, is a series of divine revelations: each one of them is meant to be a stand-alone insight into spirituality. So they're free to meander as they like from topic to topic, rather than staying focussed on a single issue - e.g. Surah 4, an-Nisa, is supposedly all focussed on women but after 25 verses it goes into more generalised, abstract ethics. Pretty difficult for study, no?

2. The stories are scattered all over the place.

The Book contains all these references to tales of prophets from the Old and New Testaments: Adam, Noah, Lot, Abraham, Moses, Zakariya, Mary, Jesus; also non-Biblical stories like Saleh and the Companions of the Elephant. But these are mostly told in fragments, so that you need a concordance or annotations to piece everything together - plus, a few key details are repeated in sura after sura, while others in the Biblical versions are left out. Thus you'll get pretty damn tired of the Pharaoh yelling at Moses, but no mention is made of the colourful variety of plagues he visited on Egypt. The versions of the stories in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles are patently more accessible and rounded out.

3. The order doesn't help.

I'm not complaining about chronological order here - I know it'd be next to impossible to trace their history, so I can't blame the original redactors for placing them in order of length. But currently, the surahs are arranged from longest to shortest. That's really frustrating for a novice reader: we have to plough through the long, bifurcating thought processes of Surahs 2 through 40 before we start seeing some surahs with the sheer, crystalline focus of secular poems. (Yes, there are wonderful poetic moments in longer surahs, but they get gobbled up in the range of topics covered.) Imagine if they were arranged from shortest to longest: then people would be hooked in by the concise poetry of the early suras and keep reading all the way to the end.

Hmmm. In retrospect, this might not be a good idea. Most of the laws are laid out in the longer suras; they're important.

4. And yes, I know this will be controversial: there's a lot of hellfire.

The Quran does mention tolerance and how Allah is all-merciful, but it's really hard for a non-believer to swallow this when so many of the suras (especially the longer suras) mention fire and punishment for us in some way. We're told we'll be cast into the fiery pit and forced to eat of the tree of Zaqqum; there are also constant invocations of prophets at Warners of the end of the world, when our very bones shall testify against us. It gets really exasperating. Maybe fear works as a conversion tactic for some people, but us freethinker skeptics? You'll catch more flies with honey than vinegar. (It was actually the act of reading the Old Testament that made me stop being a Christian ten years ago.)

Thus I do think it's understandable why some Muslims end up as terrorists, because the Quran contains so much condemnation of unbelievers and polytheists and those who ignore the Signs. While there are commandments for tolerance of other religions - People of the Book, that is - they make up a much smaller total portion of the book.

What does this mean? Well, basically that the Quran is a supremely slippery text, and it's not immediately accessible to outsiders; perhaps not even to insiders. It's quite different from most books of the Bible; in fact, it recalls the compilations of Zhuang Zi in some respects - how nonlinear and poetic it is, and how strange. Obviously Muslims pair it with the Hadith and the writings of religious scholars who've interpreted the Book.

It also means that the best strategy to make people conceive of Islam as a positive force in the world is for Muslims to be positive forces in the world themselves - boasting about the roots of your religion isn't going to be so effective when the roots are so tangled. Let's hope the bits of the Quran that are especially venerated from now on are the ones that celebrate tolerance, science, co-operation, social justice

As for me, I don't know what to think. Sure, I've got minor boasting rights for getting to the end of a book, but do I understand Islam any better than I did before? Damned if I know.

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Representative quote: And such are the Parables We set forth for mankind, but only those understand them who have knowledge. (29:43)

Next book: Maha Gargash's The Sand Fish, from the United Arab Emirates