The ladies at The Qarawiyyin Project kindly invited me to suggest a book for one of their book list posts recently. I was excited to work with them since I really admire what they are doing and strongly recommend having a look at the articles on their site.
For my review, I picked a book that I haven't reviewed on this blog, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylviane A. Diouf. This book was a very educational experience for me, helping me to reframe a lot of what I had previously learnt about the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I include my review below; please also go to The Qarawiyyin Project's full post to see the reviews written by other excellent Muslim women book reviewers.
Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylviane A. Diouf
Servants of Allah is a striking work for several reasons. Starting with the social, economic and religious context of West Africa before the Transatlantic Slave Trade, its ambitious scope also covers the daily experiences of enslaved Muslim Africans in the Americas, their leading roles in uprisings and their legacy there today. In every chapter, the level of detail and scholarly rigour is apparent, leading to a deeply rewarding and eye-opening experience for the Muslim reader. The only area that felt occasionally imprecise was some descriptions of practices by Muslims that seem to be specific to the individual context rather than the strictly Islamic practices an unacquainted reader might interpret them as, such as the use of talismans.
This book complicates the dominant narrative and steps outside the definitions and confines imposed by some Western discourse on a range of key issues. In particular, it explores conceptions of slavery, Islam in West Africa, racial versus religious identity, the intellectual and social status of people taken as slaves and, of course, their religious beliefs. Many discussions around these topics often skim over such nuances, leading to misconceptions and gaps in knowledge which may then be filled by people with less honourable motivations. While this book is certainly not an authoritative religious text, it provides much needed context to allow the reader to ask deeper, more fruitful questions.
Although this is primarily an academic book, Diouf’s tone is one of curiosity, humility and respect for the people she describes. This makes reading it not only an intellectually stimulating experience, but also an intensely emotional one. A sense of the vastness, beauty and power of our history and Ummah is felt in the intimate and empathetic descriptions of individual lives. It portrays the efforts made to hold onto faith against sometimes targeted oppression, and the strength and dignity of Muslims who didn’t just go through the motions, but lived Islam as an all-encompassing way of life. Perhaps the most significant strength of this book is how it flips the passive discourse around these men and women known simply as “slaves” and creates a deeply impactful picture of Muslims who knew who they were, where they came from and their ultimate destination. While rose-tinted glasses benefit no one and Diouf’s accounts are rightly not all positive, such a personal and empowered representation of enslaved peoples and Muslims is important for everyone with sincere interest.
As this book covers many complex topics, it is a good starting point that can then give direction to further reading, supported by a substantial bibliography at the end.
Please go to The Qarawiyyin Project's post to see the full list and reviews!
I've been thinking about this book for a while after finishing it and I've come to the conclusion that it has real potential as a new Muslim-specific personality type test. It would work something like this: for each chapter, you choose how much it resonated with you on a spectrum and then at the end you get an overall score about how you deal with the pressure to hate yourself (aka condemn the world's Muslim population).
I joke, but this demonstrates what I feel is the strength of this book: the variety of perspectives and wide-ranging responses offered by the different contributors as well as the fact that they all have intimate experience of the topic through their professional life, social work and/or research. For context, this book provides insight into the workings and impact of racism in national security policies and discourse with specific focus on Muslims from the Western world in the context of the "War on Terror". It is divided into four broad sections focusing on the history of these policies and attitudes, and three different areas of impact and resistance: structural, personal and performative. Within these sections, some writers choose to focus more on the detailed workings of the system, others on its psychological and emotional effects and others on the spiritual impacts and response.
I mentioned in a previous post about this book, before I had read it, that one of my expectations was that it would help me to break down my own feelings and experiences around the topic. There were a few chapters that certainly did this for me, but for the most part, it wasn't the cathartic experience that other reviewers have mentioned, but more of an exploration of how others perceive and deal with these challenges in their own contexts, where they have largely faced much more direct, aggressive examples of this than I have. May Allah protect them, their families and everyone in similar situations. Having said that, I suspect that this is one of those books that will keep rolling around in my mind, shining a brighter light on relevant experiences and ideas that pop up every now and then as I go through daily life.
I had hoped that since it was by Muslims for Muslims (in my understanding but maybe I'm mistaken), it might go a bit further in terms of questioning how we can move forward using frameworks rooted more explicitly in a Muslim consciousness and with reference to Islamic thought and history. I do realise that this may be influenced by my own perspective and expectations and perhaps there are elements that I have overlooked.
However, I don't want this to suggest that this book is anything less than a valuable contribution to discussion around the topic at hand: a rigorous and sincere work by the editor Asim Qureshi and the contributors. It is also quite ground-breaking in its particular focus on the Muslim experience of national security policies, which particularly in academic circles is often written about by non-Muslim scholars.
I don't want this to be too long, so I think I will write another post to highlight a few particular quotes and chapters that struck me, in sha Allah. In the meantime, here are a few questions that came to mind as I was reading:
Note: I was provided with an advanced review copy of this book by the publisher with no conditions attached.
Book Thoughts: Are we Getting Caught in Our Own Net(Work)s? (Focus: China: Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan)
Reading time: about 7 minutes.
Waste Tide (荒潮) by Chen Qiufan (陈楸帆), a Chinese sci-fi novel, led me into a genre and a world region that I am not very familiar with in literary terms, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I had already read a short story by Chen Qiufan and really enjoyed it: The Year of the Rat in the contemporary Chinese sci-fi anthology, Invisible Planets, edited and translated by Ken Liu (who also translated Waste Tide). I thought that story had strong characters and took the reader on an emotional journey while critiquing the role of the state and media in dehumanising individuals in war situations. In Waste Tide, Chen Qiufan again explores social issues and power dynamics and, although I didn’t feel such a strong connection to the characters, I thought he raised some interesting questions. Chen Qiufan, also known as Stanley Chen, is a writer from SE China who has also worked in tech and maintains relationships with both worlds. He has published a number of novels and short stories, several of which have been translated into multiple languages.
Waste Tide takes place almost entirely on Silicon Isle, a fictional island off China’s south east coast, where electronic waste from around the world is sent to be sorted and recycled. The Mandarin name for Silicon Isle, Gui Yu (硅屿), is a quasi-homophone of the name of a real town near Chen Qiufan’s hometown (贵屿) that was once known as the biggest e-waste site in the world and suffered from extreme pollution and environmental damage. The story follows three main characters: Scott, an American recycling company representative with motives that turn out to be more about American politics and economics; Silicon Isle-born emigrant Chen Kaizong whose emigrant saviour complex transforms into a deeper understanding and sympathy with the people he meets; and Mimi, one of the “waste people”, migrant workers from other parts of China who manually sort through toxic electronic waste every day, hoping to save enough money to go back home and set their families up comfortably.
Chen explores a range of themes in this novel, some more familiar to me than others: social inequality, language as a soclal identifier, emigrant experiences, spirituality, traditions and customs, corruption in government and others. Given my limited understanding of the social and historical context, I know that there were elements of this novel that I didn’t fully grasp. This is not a review, therefore, but an exploration of some of the themes that caught my attention, namely globalisation and consumerism and the human impacts of technological developments.
سوار الذهب (or “Gold Ring” in English) is an Emirati manga written by Qais Sedki. It follows Sultan, a 15-year-old boy who lives with his mother in the old town (of Dubai, I assume, but the book doesn’t specify). Although his father passed away a few years earlier, he is a constant presence in Sultan’s decisions and everyday life and leads him to discover his passion and talent. The story starts with the finals of an international falconry tournament, Gold Ring, where Sultan and his friend Ziyad are attempting to sneak in to watch the competition without getting caught, despite the pangs of Sultan’s conscience. This sets off a sequence of events that see Sultan befriend a wild falcon, meet a mysterious and legendary desert-dwelling friend of his father’s and learn to train his new falcon friend, Majd, so he can take part in the next season of Gold Ring. The author’s intentions with this book are made very clear both in his introduction and in the story itself. He wants to use his books to encourage reading among Arab children and impart good morals and character in an "inspiring and stimulating” story. I think this down-to-earth, straightforward intention and execution is part of the appeal for me. His choice of manga to achieve this is significant in the Emirati context where anime, and Japanese culture in general, has been a staple of childhood for several decades, much like many other countries in the Arab world.
In imparting moral messages I think the book is overall successful. There are a couple of places where it is quite explicit, such as when Sultan tells his friend “الخطأ خطأ… و لو لم يُكتشف" (“wrong is wrong, even if you’re not caught”), but I don’t think this is a disadvantage and a child wouldn’t find this distracting. Aside from integrity, the story encourages respect for parents, upholding family ties, hard work and persistence, trustworthiness and the good treatment of animals. This is intimately intertwined with a strong sense of faith and trust in Allah, which is visible in the book and in Sedki’s interviews. I would have enjoyed finding out more about the women and girls in Sultan’s life, as his mother was the only significant female character, but I appreciate that a lot of the story took place in contexts where there would likely be more men and there aren’t many characters in the story anyway. Along with the moral messages, I also sensed a strong nostalgia for the traditional Emirati life, which I was happy to indulge in, in the choice of the old town for Sultan’s home, the pull of the desert and the man-of-few-words character of the desert-dwelling Suroor. The newer developments of the country are only present in passing reference to “the city centre”, which Sultan and his mother have no interest in being part of, and are never seen on the page, except in the modern falconry stadium. This is not to say that this is a story stuck in the past; it is still very much rooted in the present with mobile phones, dune buggies and the stadium, but these are just a small part of an active, organic and meaningful lifestyle. Perhaps in doing this Sedki also hoped to tempt his young readers away from their phones and shopping malls to explore the natural world around them.
A major contributor to creating this atmosphere in a manga is of course the illustrations. Drawn by the well-established Japanese illustrating duo, Akira Himekawa, the Emirati character of the book is taken to new heights and I loved every page of it! Although I haven’t given manga or graphic novels much attention until recently, I could immediately see the enrichment these illustrations brought to the book. Through Akira Himekawa’s drawings we could experience the beautiful simplicity of Sultan’s traditional home and neighbourhood, the majesty of the desert and the impressive Gold Ring stadium, all while maintaining their distinct Japanese manga style. A personal favourite in these drawings has to be the clothes: the Emirati men’s dishdash and ghotra in various styles, the women’s burqa’ and even an Afghani competitor wearing a Pakol hat, which was a lovely surprise! Sultan’s outfit was not always entirely accurate, in my experience (I’ve never seen a ghotra tied like a bandana), but it still somehow portrayed the essence of how a boy playing in the streets dresses. A frame that sticks in my memory most, though, is the simple scene of Sultan greeting his uncle with the Emirati touch of the nose, which is the type of evocative detail that creates truly authentic stories its readers can relate to.
All in all, I think this book would be a valuable addition to a child’s library, whether Emirati or otherwise. It portrays strong examples of characters with integrity, dignity and compassion and encourages a passion for learning and persistence in achieving a goal. Although I felt the end was a little rushed, the story was engaging and otherwise well-paced. While the UAE, and Dubai in particular, is quite popular with Muslim tourists, I felt that this book provided an authentic view of a traditional Emirati lifestyle that most tourists would not be exposed to. It also gives children insight into the traditions and way of life in another Muslim-majority country, which I feel is hugely valuable in inspiring in Muslim children a sense of unity in the Ummah that goes beyond borders and nationality. My dream Muslim child’s library consists of books from across the world portraying the real, everyday lives of children and adults in all its complexity, not just the pretty and not just the struggles, but always with faith and integrity!
Unfortunately, after all that, I have to add that this book is very difficult to find in its original Arabic and so far impossible to find in the English translation. There have been two books written (in Arabic) in this series, but after that it seems to have come to a halt.
Muhammad: Character and Conduct aims, as the title suggests, to explore the personality, attributes and behaviour of the last Messenger and Prophet of Allah, Muhammad, peace be upon him. In his introduction, Salahi adds that he will also address some of the criticisms that have been levelled against the Prophet, although he is quick to note that this is not out of any need to defend the him as he needs no defence. Adil Salahi has written a number of other books, including an 850-page book on the life of the Prophet, Muhammad: Man and Prophet, and a translation of the Qur’an entitled The Qur’an: A Translation for the 21st Century, which aims to offer a clear, accessible text for the English speaker. In this article, I will not be addressing the factual content of the book as, in my ignorance, I have no way of assessing it, but will instead explore my reading experience.
Knowing about his other works when I started reading the present book made clear to me Salahi’s style, which focuses on accessibility of language, and this is evident throughout the 300-page book. The language he uses is very simple and his sentences are generally quite simple too. He even goes to the extent of explaining the meaning of words that most people familiar with the story of early Islam would already understand, such as “hypocrites”. I found that some of the language was a little too casual at times and that there was also some repetition of descriptions of events that could probably be eliminated with a little reorganisation; in a word, Salahi’s work would be done great justice with another check by a proofreader. This didn’t take away from my overall pleasure in reading the book, however, and I think one of the reasons for this was Salahi’s tone.
The introduction establishes an open and honest relationship between reader and writer and the book doesn’t betray that relationship at any point. In his almost conversational tone, he takes us through a summary of the life of the Prophet, then proceeds to focus on the different roles the Prophet played in his life before and after revelation, shedding particular light on the way his character ennobled these roles and his relationships with the many different people and communities he interacted with. He provides footnotes with his sources and occasional extra notes at the end of each chapter and when he presents an idea that is different to the dominant interpretation, he humbly and methodically explains his reasoning. This not only serves to provide the reader with the sources they would need to investigate the matter themselves, but also instills in the reader a respect for critical thinking and logical argument for the sake of upholding the truth of the Prophet’s honourable character and ensuring that we are able to apply justice and good conduct in our own lives. A particularly honest footnote that struck me was one in which he pointed out an argument he had made in his previous book that he had later discovered was incorrect and this only led me to a greater respect for him as a researcher and sincere seeker of truth. The final element of Salahi’s tone that, I feel, makes all the difference in this book is his clear reverence and love for the Prophet, which is apparent on every page.
Before picking this book up, it had been quite a long time since I had read a book on the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him. In the past few years, I have been more inclined towards taking courses or seminars or listening to podcasts on subjects related to Islamic Sciences, which are beneficial in themselves. I also realise that I have been a little distracted by books that explore the way people have applied Islam, whether correctly or incorrectly, in specific contexts (and particularly more recently), and therefore not given due attention to books on more fundamental fields that I need to understand in order to be able look at its application with a more discerning eye. While I read this, I was also reading books exploring oppression and suffering and striving for justice, which only served to further highlight the need for me to return to the basics. Reading this book reminded me of the great value of dedicating ourselves to just sitting down and reading about the Prophet. In the way he lived his life we can find so many of the answers we are seeking today for our own selves, for our families and societies and for the world. May Allah reward the writer, Adil Salahi, and his family for his hard work and the Kube Publishing team for their contribution to English-language Islamic and Muslim literature. May Allah send his peace and blessings on the mercy for all the worlds, the Prophet Muhammad, and his family, companions and followers.
Many thanks to Kube Publishing for the complimentary copy of this book.
I didn’t plan to write about this book until I had finished reading it, but with Ramadan coming up I thought it would be helpful for me to mention it a bit sooner. The Heart of the Qur’an is a commentary on Surah Yasin with a difference. At 111 pages, it is relatively short and in addition to textual explanations, incorporates the use of diagrams and bright colours to explore the meanings of this key chapter in the Qur’an. It is published by Kube Publishing, an established publisher of Islamic fiction and non-fiction in the UK, and written by imam and Islamic studies instructor Asim Khan. It also has a stamp of approval in the form of a foreword from prominent UK-based scholar Dr Haitham al-Haddad.
Tafsir, or commentary on the Qur’an, is an important field of study for a Muslim to have at least a basic grasp of. However, for the layperson it may seem like the books of tafsir are a big commitment, while the footnotes in your mushaf (Qur’an in book form) feel insufficient for your understanding or difficult for you to put into the wider context. I think this book is a very good example of an in-between solution and perhaps a launchpad into more serious study later on. The writing style is clear; it is easy to understand and gives enough context to connect it to other parts of the chapter or of the Qur’an. Khan has also used well-established sources of tafsir and referenced them clearly. He has divided the surah into thematic sections and addresses each section in a separate chapter, allowing the reader to understand how the surah progresses and the focus of each part. He also regularly takes time in between explaining individual ayat to connect the meanings discussed to our lives today and answers questions that may pop into people’s minds as they are reading. The questions he has chosen to answer clearly indicate that he has taken the time to think about the types of thoughts people might have as they are reading through the ayat and hasn’t shied away from addressing what some may consider more controversial questions. This clearly demonstrates Khan’s sincerity and focus on making the text as accessible and beneficial as possible to the everyday Muslim reader.
The use of visual aids in this book is one of the primary features that distinguish it from others in this category and I think it is generally very successful. I say “generally” because I think it could have gone further with incorporating more graphic representations of certain types of information that lend themselves to visual over textual demonstration (perhaps there were printing constraints that prohibited this). Colour is used to delineate the different sections and the same colours are used in diagrams exploring the entire surah, which helps the reader to understand how the sections fit together. Another effective use of colour is the word banks where a number of key words in the section are highlighted with definitions. Diagrams are used for a number of purposes, but one that struck me particularly as I started this book was a timeline of revelation and where Surah Yasin fit into it. We often come across textual explanations of when and why particular surahs were revealed, but I found this visual representation made its significance immediately clear to me and I was able to refer back to it quickly whenever I needed to.
When I first saw this book I knew I wanted to read it because I am quite a visual learner, but once I found myself with the book in my hands, I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. I felt like reading it cover-to-cover like a normal book wouldn’t necessarily allow me to process all the information inside or to connect it to how I interact with the surah in general. After some thought, I decided to try reading a section every Friday (or another day if you can’t fit it in alongside reading Surat ul-Kahf) and then memorising that section of the chapter during the week. This way, I would get an understanding of a few ayat (verses) and then have that in mind as I memorised them. I find that I am able to memorise a lot easier if I understand the nuances of the ayat and how they connect with each other. I also think the word bank feature of this book lends itself to being read alongside memorisation. It’s worth keeping in mind that the sections are of varying lengths with the longest dedicated to 20 ayahs and the shortest to just two, so if you do decide to approach the book in this way, it’s worth planning ahead and perhaps spending two weeks on the longer section and using the shortest section as a review week. Of course, we all have a different pace when it comes to memorisation of the Qur’an, so make sure you choose a realistic timeline for yourself. I wouldn’t advise going any faster than one section a week, though, if you really want to internalise the meanings of the ayat outlined in The Heart of the Qur'an at the same time.
Since Ramadan is almost here, this could be a very rewarding project for the month; if you dedicate a section to each week you could have memorised all of Surah Yasin - with understanding - by the middle of Shawwal. What an achievement that would be! If you have this book, how have you approached it? Have you found the visual representations helpful? I imagine people have found many ways to engage with this book and I would love to know what has worked for you.
This book is currently available to buy on the Kube Publishing website and they are running a Ramadan sale of 25% off with the code Ramadan2020, so this looks like a great time to buy it, if you are ready!
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee was recommended to me over a year ago and has remained at the forefront of my reading mind thanks to regular reminders from Instagram and the book's general popularity. Finally, I decided to jump in and see if it warranted all the attention. Part of my interest in reading this book was because I know very little about Korea and have never read a Korean book before (this one is by a Korean-born American writer). I think this was a good book to choose to change that, and the fact that it is set in Japan was a bonus since I'm not very familiar with Japan either.
The story spans 80 years, starting in the south of Korea in 1910 and taking us through the Japanese occupation of Korea, then to Japan during and following World War II. We experience this journey through the eyes of five generations of a Korean family as they deal with poverty and discrimination in Japan. A review on Goodreads said they found it hard to follow the story as it sometimes jumps from one time and place to another quite abruptly. This is always a risk with multi-generational sagas as there are a lot of characters involved, but I actually felt that Lee did a good job in this regard. I found it easy to keep up with what had happened in the interim. There are other books in this genre that I have struggled with much more in terms of remembering who's who.
Naturally, in a book that covers two (and a half) countries, many characters and large sections of history, there are a lot of aspects to this book that could be discussed. However, I would like to focus on two that I found myself appreciating and thinking about the most: its historical context and questions of national/ethnic identity.
Given my ignorance of the region, I found the insight into Korea and Japan and their historical relationship enlightening. Lee was very successful in incorporating key historical moments into the story and highlighting how these events affected the lives of the most vulnerable. In fact, she mentioned in an interview at the back of the book that this was indeed one of her aims: "Although the history of kings and rulers is unequivocally fascinating, I think that we are also hungry for the narrative history of ordinary people, who lack connections and material resources. [...] I wanted to explore and better understand how common people live through these events." We learn about how the Japanese annexation of Korea led to poverty and starvation for many poorer Koreans, and the way the Japanese leadership used taxation to claim land from the richer population. We also witness the tense relationship between the Japanese and Korean immigrants in Japan, the way World War II affected Japan and its residents and even a little of the perceptions of the establishment of a Communist leadership in North Korea. Of course, this book is a novel, not a history book, so it's just a starting point and there are naturally many other perspectives on these events. All the same, I think it's particularly unusual to see the experience of Koreans living in Japan and the particular struggles that they faced in terms of survival, but also how it impacted ideas around identity in the following generations, which brings me to the next aspect of the book that jumped out at me.
I really appreciated the way Lee explored national or ethnic identity in this book. As the story passes from one generation to the next, we witness slight shifts in the way the characters perceive their own identities and those of their peers and relatives and the questions they have to ask themselves. For me, I think the most striking character in terms of his struggle with identity was probably one of the sons from the first Japanese-born generation, Noa. [If you don't want spoilers, move to the next paragraph] Growing up, he tries to be "the perfect Korean" by studying hard, staying away from trouble and ignoring the taunts and discrimination he faces from his Japanese classmates. He spends all of his childhood believing that if he is "good enough" he will be accepted and the discrimination will stop. When he realises eventually that in the eyes of racist systems and individuals, his Koreanness will always trump his "goodness", he decides to cut himself off from everything that makes him Korean and starts a new life pretending to be Japanese. Of course, this choice is one that causes him constant emotional suffering and he is never fully at peace again. Reading his story, I often found myself thinking of all the other places where people make the same choice as Noa and the ways that their pain can manifest itself, whether it's them acting out the racism that they once suffered themselves or erasing themselves until they are living meaningless lives. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is an American woman of Korean descent who moves to Japan and can't understand how the Koreans can accept such treatment. I think this is another interesting personality of which we can find many examples in the West (and I found myself asking myself if I am one of them), who has lived a comfortable and relatively secure life and struggles to appreciate the enormity of the emotional and structural barriers in place that keep people down (I do think there can be value in such people for bringing positive change, but that's a whole article in itself). In between these two characters, Lee presents a whole range of others, each with their own way of living with and resisting the dehumanisation that they face in their everyday lives. In terms of exploring the impact of oppressive occupation and colonialism on the colonised and the generations that follow, I think this book does an excellent job of showing us many different faces without passing judgement on any of them.
Lee covers many other themes in Pachinko, including concepts of beauty, the roles and experiences of women in times of struggle, religion and belief, the marital relationship in its many forms, death and choices made in hardship, and I think she covers them all admirably well. I'm now excited to read her earlier work, Free Food for Millionaires, and to find more novels based in Korea during that time and during the Korean War. If you have any recommendations, let me know!
Have you read Pachinko? What was your favourite aspect of this book? What questions did it raise for you?
In this themed episode, Alia and I take a (nostalgic) tour of children's books from our own childhoods and more recently.
Other books mentioned
Islamic publishers mentioned
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.
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?
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.
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