Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell was released in early September 2019 and I didn't know a great deal about it when I bought it on a whim after seeing it on the Audible homepage. I assumed from the title that it would be something to do with the way we interact with people we don't know and perhaps some of the psychology behind it. The book starts by describing the case of a Black American woman who was arrested for a very minor traffic offence and ended her life in prison a few days later. Gladwell then tells us that through an exploration of various case studies involving interaction between strangers, we will be able to understand why this sequence of events took place.
Anyone who has read Gladwell's work will probably be aware that his books are not the type to offer concrete action points to take away at the end; rather they are intended to give the reader food for thought and perhaps reframe the way they look at certain problems. With this in mind and having read and enjoyed David and Goliath, I started listening to his latest book, Talking to Strangers, with the expectation that it would be interesting and thought-provoking, even if it was not immediately applicable in my daily life.
What follows the introduction is a series of in-depth stories, some describing people who were able to hide an aspect of themselves for a long time, others about strategies that people have used when faced with behaviours that are difficult to judge or understand. There were some interesting - albeit not always new - ideas in there. He explores the human tendency to assume something is true until we no longer have a choice and emphasises that, while this can lead to occasionally misjudging people with bad intentions, it is an essential part of being human. He also talks about a theory called "coupling" which suggests that a person's actions are directly dependent on where they are. One point I had no clue about was the theory and decisions that have lead to an aggressive type of policing in parts of the US now; this I found quite insightful.
While these tidbits were somewhat diverting, though, I was consistently searching for the link between them. I hoped it would be made clear at the end, but considering how long we had taken to get there and how many different factors had been explored along the way, the conclusion felt very rushed. It returned to the original scene of the crime: Sandra Bland's interaction with the policeman, added more detail about the subsequent investigation, and incorporated some of the ideas discussed in the book. His final argument felt very flimsy and there was a lot left unexplained, which only emphasised the feeling that the different chapters had no solid connection. There was no narrative thread, no clearly stated initial thesis to refer to as each story was explored; there were just stories - sometimes entertaining, sometimes educational, sometimes very disturbing and explicit, which brings me to my main problem with this book.
As I mentioned, the beginning of the book was quite entertaining in a "did you know" kind of way; it talked about Cuban spies who had hidden themselves for years in American intelligence departments and an investment advisor who had schemed many people out of their money. Then, we reached chapter five and next thing I knew I was sitting on the bus listening to graphic accounts of rape. I kept going, assuming it would be short and there was a justified reason why I needed to know about these assaults in such explicit detail. The reason didn't become apparent, but eventually it ended and I breathed a sigh of relief. We returned to rather less graphic topics and I thought all was safe. Until it wasn't: I was subjected to matter of fact, step-by-step descriptions of waterboarding, how torture can drive its victims to amnesia, a minute-by-minute recounting of Sylvia Plath's last moments and suicide and the similar attempts and eventual success by her friend and fellow poet, Anne Sexton. This is not a social worker's guide to dealing with trauma or a textbook for the study of psychology or healthcare or PTSD. It's not even a general interest book about rape or torture or suicide. It is shelved with books on management or popular psychology in bookshops and marketed as a book for the masses. Yet, for all this, there is not one warning, neither in the author's note and introduction, nor preceding the descriptions themselves, that would prepare the reader for what is to come. I read this book as someone who, alhamdu Lillah, does not suffer from any kind of trauma that would make this content triggering. I still found it disturbing, distasteful and completely unnecessary. How then would someone with a difficult history respond to such descriptions?
While this put Gladwell's sensitivity in question, a couple of sentences in his chapter on torture also significantly damaged his credibility as a researcher. Near the beginning of the chapter, he introduces the prisoner on whom the torture was carried out. He gives his full name and then says that this man was known as "Mukhtar". This will be a very familiar name to some of you; it means "chosen one" and comes from the root word related to the concept of choice. You don't need to know this to find out the meaning though - search "mukhtar name meaning" on Google now and you'll see. Find it? I told you; it's a common name. So I was surprised when Gladwell told us it meant "the brain". He then embellished it by saying it meant this man was "the brain" behind the attacks he was suspected of. How did he get to "the brain" from "chosen one"? My guess is that he picked up the first few letters of the word - "mukh", or brain - and used that for his Google search instead. Is that an acceptable mistake for a writer of his repute?
All in all, Gladwell's writing and narrating style, along with his reputation, were able to keep my attention, but were not enough to make up for the lack of a clear connecting thread to guide the reader through. There were some interesting ideas in there, but nothing particular really stuck and the final points were rather unconvincing, in part because there didn't seem to be a clear thesis to start with. It didn't help, either, that the conclusion was over almost as soon as it started and felt very rushed. Ultimately, though, my respect for the process was lost at the gratuitous drawn-out descriptions of several forms of violence and I don't know if any ending would have been convincing enough for me to come out of this book thinking I could recommend it.
On this journey I'm joined by Safiya as we discuss
This book has been extremely popular since it came out. Hari Kunzru declares on the front cover that it is "a book that will make a lot of young Britons feel more powerful and less alone." I know people for whom this was the case and I can see why; it wasn't for me. Rather than writing a review to tell you why it wasn't, I'm going to share some passages that struck me and some questions that came to mind (I don't necessarily have the answers). As you read them, you can think about my questions or share your own.
"I chose these writers for simple reasons: I know them, I rate them, I want to read more from them. I'm happy to admit that nepotism and networks played a part in my selection. And I'm happy to create a brand new old boys' network that circumvents the institutionalised ones we have to deal with on a daily basis." (Editor's Note, Nikesh Shukla)
Why do all the chapters seem to be different yet the same?
"I'm reeling harder than the time Dad was doing Ramadan so it meant we had to wait until the evening for our Christmas dinner... I know, our household was nothing if not multicultural." (The Wife of a Terrorist, Miss L)
When did religion become "culture"?
"I decided to leave the United Kingdom. [...] It wasn't lost on me that the very advice that racists in the UK had long spat at foreigners - 'if you don't like it, then go ahead and leave' - was that which I took. I suppose, in that sense, they won." (The Ungrateful Country, Musa Okwonga)
Why have you given hostile people a voice in your life decisions?
"Whenever we beg for nuances, for our differences to be articulated, for more diversity and accuracy in how our communities are described, in the characters written for 'black' actors on stage, on television, or in film, our voices are either silenced or ignored." (Cutting Through, Inua Ellams)
When did you decide to become a beggar?
"We are all citizens of the world. Whatever shade you are, bring your light, bring your colour, bring your music and your books, your stories and your histories, and climb aboard. United as a people we are a million majestic colours, together we are a glorious stained-glass window. We are building a cathedral of otherness, brick by brick and book by book. Raise your glass of rum, let's toast to the minorities who are the majority." (Shade, Salena Godden)
Who is "we"? (Who is not "we"?)
"What's it like to live in a country that doesn't trust you and doesn't want you unless you win an Olympic gold medal or a national baking competition?" (Back cover blurb)
What if we don't forge our identity in contrast to (and dependence on) hostile, imperfect entities?
What if we don't take our value from a state (or person or demographic group)?
What if we root our value and identity in a Higher, Perfect source?
I can't remember how I first came across Jolly Animals, but when I did their product immediately grabbed my attention. Jolly Animals is a small company run by a couple, Lama and Kais, based in Australia. The Yellow Cow is their first product and it has now been translated into Arabic. Although there are many Arabic-language books about Islam out there, I have found that the quality is often lacking, so I was interested to see how this one would measure up. I bought it as part of their crowdfunding campaign, but it is now available to buy online from the website: jollyanimals.com.
Upon opening the package, I could immediately tell that my hopes for the production quality of this book were not going to be disappointed. According to the website, the book is printed using ethical printing companies and paper sources. The cover is solid with a soft finish, the board pages are sturdy and the colours pop beautifully on the page. It has even passed my Arabic-publishing pet peeve of boring fonts with a soft, curved style that matches the age group and is still clear to read. As I flicked through the pages, I could immediately see how the quirky, bright images would ignite a child's imagination - leading to many stories beyond the one on the page! I think my favourite image is of a cow playing with a butterfly!
The story is told from the perspective of the yellow cow and follows two young children as they try to find her. One by one, other animals and types of cow are eliminated until at last the correct yellow cow is found. The connections with the true story of the yellow cow, as told in the Qur'an, are immediately clear: Musa informs his people that Allah has asked them to slaughter a cow, but they keep asking for more and more details until there is only one option left. The language of the book is simple and, I would say, appropriate for the young age group targeted by board books.
Once I had read the story properly from start to finish, a question naturally posed itself: where would this book fit into the Islamic education of a child? There is no direct reference to the Qur'anic story in the book, or indeed any explicitly Islamic references at all. The idea that struck me turned out to be the one that Lama and Kais had too, and which they have explained on their website (and in a generous message response to my question - I should have checked the website properly first!):
"In The Holy Quran, Allah uses animals to teach us valuable life lessons. With Jolly Animals, we have decided to do just that with our children through stories inspired by those very animals.
I can see how an initial introduction to the yellow cow through this book could then be the foundation for a child to access the Qur'anic story when they are a little older.
Having said that, I'm not sure how the child would transition between these stories, given that the yellow cow in the Qur'an, once identified, is slaughtered. This is, perhaps, the risk of personifying animals that are not personified in the Qur'an (there are some that are, such as the hoopoe and ant of Sulayman) and maybe even personifying animals, in general.
All in all, this book has clearly been through many iterations and is the product of much hard work and a genuine desire to produce positive, Islamic children's books that will help shape Muslim children into kind and educated worshippers. The book is of a high standard and the images are gorgeous (can you tell they're my favourite part?). I haven't read the English version, but I would imagine it is very similar. A second book is in the works and I'm looking forward to seeing which animal has been chosen and the story it will tell! May Allah accept it from everyone involved and bless their work.
I'm curious to know how you would fit this type of book into a wider Islamic education. Let me know in the comments!
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Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.