Monday, April 25, 2011

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman

"Gaza Strip gettin' bombed - Obama didn't say shit" - a line from a song by Lupe Fiasco I heard while driving in my brother's car.

This is why I get angry. The world is so painfully uninformed about the Arab-Israeli conflict that even (very talented) rappers, with obviously little foreign policy experience, are commenting on the poor Gazans who suffer in their little cage.

Of course, the history of the Gaza strip is more problematic than that, and I hope you can note the extreme sarcasm I employed in the above statement. I learned part of the Palestinians history in present-day Israel while reading Thomas Friedman's memoir/historical review of his time as a journalist in Beirut and Jerusalem.

This book took me about 3 months to read. While I was reading it, I had to take breaks and read other books...fiction of course...because my brain needed to relax.

The material is heavy. The writing is prize-winning. The content made me angry and want to argue, in fact, sometimes I did even though I knew Friedman couldn't hear me.

It was written from a particular perspective during a particular time period. Often Friedman would write something to the effect that "if such and such doesn't happen, I can't imagine the consequence" or the converse of that. With more than 20 years having passed since the publication of the book, a reader can note if such and such did indeed happen and what the recourse was.

But, I get ahead of myself.

While I criticize Fiasco, I do so in the light of knowledge. This knowledge I gleaned from reading From Beirut to Jerusalem and the knowledge I get from living in Israel. People still describe the Palestinian state in Israel as "occupied". I did not understand how they could consider themselves occupied in lands that were governed by their own Palestinian forces. It is true, they cannot leave the borders of their area, but this is for the safety of every Israeli(Arab, Jew, Christian, whatever) and every visitor to the Holy Land. When the security fence was erected(only 5-10% of which is a stone wall, the rest is fence), it decreased terrorist attacks by 99%. I'm not sure how the percentage stands after the recent terrorist attack in Jerusalem and the murders of the Fogel family in Itamar. Nonetheless, we are safer and they have their place to live.

They could have had more, you know, had they accepted peace at, say, any point. In the beginning, they would have had far more land than the Jews. 63 years later, Israelis have cultivated the land, built infrastructure, irrigated, populated, excavated, and protected their land. In modern times, it's a little too late for the land to change hands.

But, let's go back to the late 1970's when the Palestinian movement was in full swing in Lebanon. Friedman was there to cover the Civil War and was there to witness the massacre of US Marines in the Beirut barracks bombing of 1983. One American told him: "Now, we have some ingenious ways of killing people, but we are restricted by the Geneva Conventions. Well, these people over here never had any conventions." (203) It's a gross overstatement, and yet at the same time, understatement. There are so many good Arab people that to say "they" never had any conventions just plays into the racism and hatred that continues to fuel the fire burning away at peace. On the other hand, those fighting in terrorist regimes do not abide by the Geneva Convention(a 1948 resolution on how we are allowed to fight our enemies) and this, unfortunately, is the presiding belief of most enemies of Arab terrorist regimes. If they will stop at nothing to destroy us, how far must we let them go before destroying them?

Friedman was there was Arafat left Lebanon on a boat, with some of his people, leaving the rest behind to fight for the pleasant existence they had once led before getting involved in fighting. As a leader, Arafat achieved very little for his people, and yet so much for himself.

Friedman was there to see the aftermath of the massacre at Hama in Syria at the hands of the Syrian president to stop a revolt of the Sunni Muslims in the town. Everything was laid wasted. Begin's Israeli army stayed outside the town, neither helping the Syrian forces, nor the Sunni Muslims. It was not Israel's finest hour. Friedman writes of Prime Minister Begin at this time:
"His was a lesson which more than a few Middle Eastern statesmen could learn well: whether you are an Arab or a Jew, you can't heal your grandfather's shame. The dead can never be redeemed - only the living can. He who is fixated on redeeming his father's memory will never see the opportunities of his own world." (177)

THIS is a fundamental principle and problem in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It suits Israelis who are better at moving on, because we've been so successful in the past. But, as I stated before, there were mistakes and there was shame, all caused by trying to "heal grandfather's name". It can't be done. I can no more accept an apology for what the Nazis did to the Jews 70 years ago, than a German teenager can apologize for it. Use any analogy you like, but Friedman is still correct. Peace will only come when we can look at what possibilities we have right now and for the future.

Once Friedman makes it to Jerusalem from Beirut, his whole idea of Israel changes, as has mine in the years I have lived here since I first visited on Birthright. He was infused with a spirit of the idea of a pioneer state called Israel; I was infused by a religious holy land. "It is the place to lose yourself as a Jew." (285) Either way, we both missed a big part of the picture and were left quite puzzled by our misread. He wrote of an encounter he had with an Israeli merchant that I feel totally encompasses at least one of my frustrations with the Israeli/Middle Eastern way of thinking.

He purchased a radio with a warranty. After 9 months, the radio broke. He returned to the merchant. Thee merchant would not accept it.
"Mr. Thomas," he said, "if the radio had broken after one month, or maybe three months, okay, we would have replaced it. But nine months? I'm sorry." "No, no, you don't understand," I said. "This radio has a warranty of one year. One year means one year. It is not optional. It is not at your discretion." He just shook his head again. He did not understand one year. His mind could not see that far, no matter what the Japanese manufacturer told him. By then I had been in Israel too long to try to fight this mentality. in the end, we worked out a complicated Middle Eastern barter deal, which involved me giving him the broken radio and several hundred shekels and getting a brand-new, bigger radio in return."

It's like a big new board game that has no rules. Everyone else has played the game before, except for you and no one explains it right. This is why the West cannot cajole peace in the Middle East. We're playing our own version of a game we don't know the rules to.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris is the same author who wrote Chocolat. I never read that. I never saw the movie. I didn't buy this book because I recognized her other one. I bought it because I liked the font of the title, and the picture on the cover.

Apparently, I'm a simple human.
Me likey. Me buy.

But there is something to be said for attractive advertising of a novel. While sometimes deceiving, in this case, I think it perfectly reflected the tone of the novel. On one hand, it smells like old world and on the other, it confuses: how can there be 5 quarters? Much like the novel, set both in the 1940's and present day, and curious in the way it continually pulls you in, the cover is shows a lovely orange peel in the shape of an S(no apparent relation to the text). The back reads: "When Framboise Simon returns to a small village on the banks of the Loire, the locals do not recognize her as the daughter of the infamous woman they hold responsible for a tragedy during the German occupation years ago."

And I was sold. I'm not sure I even continued reading the rest of the description. The book just got wedged among the other books in my arms at Fresno's Book Nook on Cedar and Herndon(great used book store; I can always find something new).

I traveled back to Israel and the book went on my shelf with about 50 others. After I finished The Zahir, I was in the mood for the same style of book. I wanted something that had a captivating story and a distinctive writing style. I didn't want to work too hard(so non-fiction was out) as were classics that I had on my shelf so one day I might force myself into reading them so I could at least SAY I'd read A Tale of Two Cities(which I have not).

Books call to me. Some have sat years on my shelf, waiting for their moment, but, alas, my life has not yet been right for that book. And sometimes I've recognized it in the first minute of reading it and had to put the book back. There are a few books with marks of where I stopped reading. But not Five Quarters of the Orange. It needed to wait only a few weeks.

I didn't have to look twice over the shelf to grab this one and I settled into my bed, comforter around my chest and began reading.

"When my mother died she left the farm to my brother, Cassis, the fortune in the wine cellar to my sister, Reine-Claude, and to me, the youngest, her album and a two-liter jar containing a single black Perigord truffle, large as a tennis ball, suspende dins unflower oil, that, when uncorked, still relases the rich dank perfume of the forest floor."

I was instantly enraptured. As you are, I'm sure. Now, don't be sad. You can just run your little butt over to the bookstore and buy it. Or if you request it before anyone else, I'll bring it home just for you.

By chapter 3, I was completely engrossed in the book, setting aside meal preparation and classwork grading. Neither upset me too much as Harris winds a twisted tale unlike I've read in a long time. It's a mystery, with dynamic characters who intrigue and an end that, while I saw at least one twist coming, I was still overall surprised and delighted by. The narrator is a character I don't much identify with, and because of this, I was captivated by her choices, as much as I was by the author's choices with her language and plot development. It's the type of book I'd like to write, if I ever had an idea clever enough to develop it into something like Five Quarters of the Orange.

So without giving away much of the plot, because I hate that, I'll leave you with a quote I found...haunting: "My mistake was thinking children were like trees. Prune them back and they'll grow sweeter. Not true. Not true."

Jasper Fforde's "Well of Lost Plots"

The third installation of Fforde's fantastic best selling series is a dynamite hit.

How's that for a high school newspaper lead?

In all seriousness, Fforde's creation of a literary world is ingenious and unsurprisingly fun to read. For literature lovers, this is an escape into the world of the characters we love and know, and even some characters that we hate, and others that haven't yet been published. The leading lady, Thursday Next, is an enterprising agent who began her career in a lower level Special Operations section. She's now moved her way up to a much higher level, except that her husband has been erased and only she and her Grandmother remember him.

Confused? I was too. I read the first chapter a few times over before I really understood how Fforde was writing and what his characters were capable of doing. But, once I start a Fforde book, I can't put it down. I sacrifice sleep if I have to; the books are that good.

You must start out with The Eyre Affair, where Thursday Next must solve a mystery surrounding Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre. The second, Lost in a Good Book, delves even deeper into the literary world with just a barrel full of silly. Once you've made your way through those two, continue to The Well of Lost Plots. Unfortunately, I don't have the fourth in the series, so I'm stuck without continuing the saga for awhile. But, I do have the first of an offshoot, so if I get really desperate, I can have a little Fforde to sate my appetite for good, not so easy, yet wit-challenging reading.

Now, if that's not a cookie-cutter review, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Zahir by Paulo Coehlo

Do you know Paulo Coehlo's self-history? He is one of those people living in our generation that has barely scraped the surface of our collective consciousness and yet, his story is one "for the books" if you will. A few quick highlights: He was born in Brazil in 1947 and wanted to become a writer. His parents did not approve and when they could not stop him from pursuing a writing career, they figured he was mentally ill. He was twice committed to an institution that gave him electro-shock therapy. After he was released, finally, he joined a theater group and began working as a journalist. In 1968, Coelho joined the "hippie" generation of Brazil, but was targeted by the fascist regime that reigned. He was imprisoned and tortured. After he freed, he left his dream of writing and worked for awhile in the music industry writing lyrics. Eventually, he was called to return to writing.

While this is merely a sprinkling of his life's story, there is far more to Paulo Coehlo than the above history or even that this book has to offer. From The Zahir I gained a number of insights, but above of all, I discovered that I would have to go and hunt my own Zahir before I could ever truly understand what Coehlo has written.

The subheading of the novel is: A Novel of Obsession, and I suppose, in one way it's true. But, what I got out of the novel wasn't obsession, it was faith. It was about true love, the kind of love that grows deep roots throughout time, that can weather storms so big and vast you lose each other in the middle, but still find your way back to each other. It's a story about rebirth, about finding your true story, about recapturing love.

I could have underlined every other line in the novel; Coelho has a way of writing words that speak directly to the heart of whomever is reading his words. A random opening of the book leads me to: "...what we need to learn is already there before us, we just have to look around us with respect and attention in order to discover where God is leading us and which step we should take next." (143) And, seriously, that was a random opening of the book. It doesn't stop there though, his wisdom continues: "I also learned a respect for mystery. As Einstein said, God does not play dice with the universe; everything is interconnected and has a meaning. That meaning may remain hidden nearly all the time, but we always know we are close to our true mission on earth when what we are doing is touched with the energy of enthusiasm."

If Coehlo(and Einstein) are correct, does that mean that when the energy of enthusiasm does not touch our lives, we are far from our mission? Where, then, are our periods of learning? Learning cannot always be touched with enthusiasm. The hardest parts of our lives are usually a drought of enthusiasm. But if everything is interconnected and everything has a meaning, then the difficulties in our lives must have a place too. That can't mean we're far away from our mission, but something about the light of our mission has been dimmed. It's either inside of us to make the light come back, or it's God's way of saying that we're in the wrong place.

Unfortunately, Coehlo does not have an answer for that. Or possibly, I haven't yet read his novel that does answer that question. So as I finish editing this post, I am thinking about what exactly my Zahir is. The Zahir is the person, thing or object that gradually takes over our every thought until we are unable to think of anything else. According to Coehlo, it could be a state of holiness or a state of madness. Living in Israel sometimes feels like a state of madness, although I'm sure it's supposed to feel like a state of holiness. Either way, my Zahir is here, somewhere, waiting for me to notice it until I can think of nothing else save obtaining this precious thing.

It's a little overwhelming, and maybe the Zahir doesn't even exist. But, just in case it does, I won't be lending out my copy of this novel any time soon.