Podcast: Mini-Ep. So You Think You're Free? (Focus: Sudan: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih)
On this journey, I explore freedom in a post-colonial context.
- "Studied in the UK?" Ok, and what?
- How does the coloniser hold onto power?
- I want to break free!
Book in focus: Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih (Sudan).
In this very relaxed, thoroughly unofficial (non-book-related) episode, Houda and I explore our experiences of the South Korean film, Parasite.
One point that didn't come up in the episode but that I wanted to mention is how conscious I am of my lack of understanding of how this film has been received and is perceived inside South Korea (not just by the Korean diaspora). I'm finding it hard to get a clear idea. If you have come across any sources for this, please share them with me in the comments!
Correction: Bong Joon-Ho has directed seven full-length films, not four as I mentioned.
This February, I plan to read books from East Africa and Sudan, in sha Allah. I don't know if I will manage to read all of these but it's nice to have a selection. You will notice that Somalia dominates this list and that is because March's podcast episode will focus on Links by Nuruddin Farah, in sha Allah, and I want to get as much context and variety of perspective as I can.
For a worldwide book list arranged by region, click here.
On this journey, I question the way we look at Islamic history.
- Do we glorify past nations too much?
- What can we learn from being more mature about our discussions around Islamic history?
- What implications could this have for our approach to politics and our own role in the world today?
Book in focus: The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Period - 1300-1600 by Halil İnalcık (Turkey).
[00.00] Opening and summary of the book.
[02.50] Events of this world are cyclical.
[03.40] Avoiding a good/bad dichotomy when discussing empires and nations of the past.
[10.00] Learning from the way previous nations dealt with problems.
[11.10] We need to build strong nations in order to help others.
[14.00] Our faith shouldn't depend on the perfection of any other than Allah.
[15.05] Developing ourselves allows us to be of more benefit to the world.
[15.50] Extract from the book.
[17.10] Conclusive summary.
[00.00] Assalamu alaykum and welcome to another mini-episode of Book Nomad. I want to keep these episodes to twenty minutes or less, so I'm going to dive straight in. Today, I'm talking about The Ottoman Empire - the Classical Age: 1300-1600 by Halil İnalcık, who is a Turkish Ottoman scholar. He's passed away now, but he was one of the main experts in the field of Ottoman studies and this book is not a textbook, but it's a foundational reference text, I think, for people who are interested in the Ottoman Empire. I didn't know that when I started reading it so I struggle a bit to get through it! I haven't finished reading it, but it's written a very easy way to follow and understand. There is some jargon I suppose, but it is explained - it's just that sometimes I forgot what some of the words were referring to. But it's a very interesting book, easy to read and I think the organisation of it is quite clear, although I read some reviews saying they didn't like the organisation, but I'm not sure why. It is divided into four parts. The first one is an outline of Ottoman history, and it covers the start - how the Ottoman Empire came to be - and then different periods until the start of the decline of the empire. Then, the second part is the state and that explores the political system that was in place and it changed as time progressed, of course, because this book spans three hundred years. So then part three is economic and social life which I haven't read yet. Then part four is about religion and culture in the Ottoman Empire. So I think it's well structured. It's very interesting and is also very detailed. So I realised quite quickly once I started reading it that it was primarily for research purposes or for someone who really wants a detailed understanding of how the Ottoman Empire functioned, dealt with its citizens and all the details.
[02.50] Every time I read history, I think it's a good reminder that a lot of things that we think are new, that are happening now, either in a good way in a bad way, are often not as new as we think. It reminds me of the cyclical nature of events, I suppose. The rise and fall of nations is just part of the nature of this world. So reading history I think reminds us of that and that's a good thing, because we can learn from the mistakes of the past and we can learn from the successes of people in the past.
[03.40] The main question I wanted to talk about today is something that came up for me very early on reading this book. And I guess it's a mistake that I made myself and I think a lot of us make it. It's with regard to the way we look at history and the way we look at particular groups of people. I think we really need to - if we want to move forward, considering the position today in the world of Muslim nations and Muslims in general - if we want to move forward, we need maturity, I think, in the way we discuss history and politics, I suppose. We need to remember that it's not black and white situation. There are many, many grey areas. I think with regard to the Ottoman Empire, for example, it seems like there are two sides when it comes to how people perceive the Ottoman Empire. Either it was an evil, kind of colonising force, if you like, in the Arab world and parts of Eastern Europe, or it was perfect - a perfect example of an Islamic state, that we should aspire to. In the end, it was both and neither. I think, for me, I hadn't really studied the Ottoman Empire before, but because I hadn’t thought about it explicitly and directly, I kind of had that feeling of the Ottoman Empire was the last glorious time for Islam in modern history and when it fell, it was a catastrophe if you like. And obviously I'm not saying it was a good thing, but it wasn't perfect either, especially towards the end. But reading this book kind of made me face my thinking I had on this topic. I think it's kind of actually similar to celebrity culture; celebrities are held up as role models just because they’re famous and then made into these perfect people when they're not - they’re humans, right? So it's same thing with with any nation or empire. I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't celebrate or aspire to the good that was achieved by the Ottoman Empire and in the Ottoman Empire. We need to appreciate that and understand how they achieved their successes; for example, the fact that the legal system was based on Islamic principles and it introduced Islam to a lot of people. So they did a lot of good. They also had a lot of interesting mechanics in place that I learned about from this book and the way they dealt with the citizens was really eye-opening in many ways. There was one part I read about when the Ottomans were looking towards Hungary, I think, and they offered very appealing life to these people as opposed to the Byzantine Empire (I believe it was still there then). They offered them freedom, a just system, fairness… So there was a lot to celebrate and to hope for in terms of wanting to recreate that just, fair society. But there were other things that they did that were definitely not something to replicate, and I was quite shocked near the beginning of the book to learn about certain practices that were very unIslamic. And that was when I had to face the ideas that I’d been holding without realising. But those things are things we need to learn from so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes. And I think al-Andalus - Andalusia - is another example of that. They did many things: they valued education and study, there were many discoveries made in so many fields. It’s really a good thing to celebrate these achievements. But they also made mistakes and, in the end, these mistakes led to their downfall in the same way as the Ottoman Empire.
[10.00] Also, once we’ve opened up to the idea that Ottoman society, for example, was not perfect and that they faced many of the same problems that we deal with now in terms of politics, society economics, then we can use that to see how they solved these problems within an Islamic framework. That could help us to consider ways to improve or to attack the problems that we are dealing with today, like corruption, bribery, or at state level: how did they interact with other states - perhaps pressure from other states to make unethical decisions - or how did they deal with the oppression of Muslims in other lands? These are just a few examples.
[11.10] So that opening up to the fact that it was not perfect, that there were problems, actually can allow us to learn more from them. That was what this book really made me think about. In the end, no one is perfect and no civilization is perfect. It actually reminded me of a podcast episode I listened to not long ago by Islam21C with Dr Anas Altikriti and he focused on politics and political activism among Muslims in the UK, because he’s based in the UK. Obviously, there are so many people today in the world who are oppressed and we want to help them, but at a state level it’s not as simple as, for example, Pakistan boycotting all the countries that are oppressing people because in the end that might lead to the collapse of Pakistan, because they can no longer trade or have agreements with different states and this would lead to a weakening of that state. That is the kind of the short term view and he was saying we need to have a long term view; we need to build strong nations that have the leverage to then say “what you're doing to these people is wrong and we're not going to tolerate it. We need that strength within ourselves so that we can then help other people. This is a what I mean by maturity: we need to have the long term and short term view in order to succeed. We’re looking at on the nations today and saying “they didn't do anything about this”, “they didn't say anything about that”, but it's a very complex situation. I am not saying we shouldn't hold them accountable, but we also need to understand that diplomacy and politics is not black and white.
[14.00] So we need to remember that no nation is perfect or was perfect. The closest to perfection was obviously the time of the Prophet, صلى الله عليه و سلم/peace be upon him, in Madinah, but perfection is for God. We need to recognise the positive achievements and contributions of people and of civilisations and learn from the mistakes, but we shouldn't base our own iman - our own faith - on any one nation or person to sustain it. We need to put our faith in God, and everything else is an example in some regard, but never with the idea that they are perfect.
[15.05] I think the other lesson individually is if we want to make a positive contribution to this world, then we need to have an inner strength before we can do that. That is something we should be working on all the time, whether its developing our skills, so that we are becoming an expert in a particular field, so we can help people in that way. And having solid faith in Allah and understanding why we are living this life and where we need to put our trust.
[15.50] To finish, I thought I’d read a short passage from the book:
Mehmed the Conqueror was the true founder of the Ottoman Empire. He established an empire in Europe and Asia with its capital at Istanbul, which was to remain the nucleus of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries. He used the title ‘Sovereign of the Two Lands’ – Rumelia and Anatolia – ‘and of the Two Seas’ – the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. He was a warrior who strove for world dominion but who was at the same time a man of tolerance and culture. He ordered Gennadius, whom he had appointed as Orthodox patriarch, to compose a treatise summarizing the principles of the Christian religion. Members of the ulema came to his Palace on certain days of the week to give him instruction. He received humanists and Greek scholars, at his court; he invited Gentile Bellini from Venice to paint frescos for the Palace and to paint his portrait. But those who rank Mehmed among contemporary Renaissance sovereigns exaggerate. He was, above all, an Islamic gâzî sovereign, whose rule aimed to transform his state into the world’s most powerful empire.
[17.10] Thank you for listening. As I said, if you’re interested in the Ottoman Empire, then I recommend this book. It is very detailed and it’s very interesting. I learned a lot and I’ve only read less than half. So, for those who really want to learn about the Ottoman Empire, how it functioned, the politics, and the way society was structured, I highly recommended it. As usual, you can get in touch on Instagram at booknomadpodcast and the website is booknomadpodcast.com.
Let me know if you agree, disagree or are in the middle - it’s not black and white! - with the things I said. Do you have other ideas about how we should discuss and look at our history, the good and the not so good? Let me know! I'd really like to hear about it. I think this is a topic that can generate a lot of very productive discussions.
Thank you for listening and assalamu alaykum.
Here are a few shots from my recent short but fulfilling visit to Istanbul.
Whenever I'm going to visit somewhere new, I like to try and learn about the culture, history and language of the place beforehand. This way, I can better understand the significance of the places I visit in their cultural and historical context and connect a little with the local people by trying to use their language (even if it's just a couple of words). Not to mention one of my pet peeves is tourists who go to a place without making any effort to learn basic phrases and expect the locals to speak English. 😒 To this end, I look for books (fiction and non-fiction) based in the country/city and documentaries and fit in as many as possible before travelling.
What do you do to prepare for a trip to a new place? Do you like to learn about it before you go?
My recent visit to Istanbul was quite last minute so I didn't get much opportunity to learn beforehand. Here is what I managed:
1) The Caliph (documentary by Al Jazeera English), from which I got an overview of the Ottoman Empire,
2) WWI Throught Arab Eyes (documentary by Al Jazeera English), which covered (amongst other things) the relationships between Turkey and the Arab and Western worlds in the pivotal decisions made in WWI,
3) The Birds Have Also Gone by Yashar Kemal (novella), based in Istanbul with a strong sense of place - to find out more, listen to my (spoiler-free) mini-episode about this book here,
4) The Ottoman Empire: 1300-1600 by Halil İnalcık, a detailed account of social, economic and political aspects of the Ottoman Empire during its growth and peak.
I recently visited Istanbul and before I went I wanted to find a novel that would give me some insight into the city. This book didn't disappoint!
In this first mini-episode of Book Nomad podcast, we head to a land of nostalgia, history and an interesting relationship with small animals!
Book in focus: The Birds Have Also Gone by Yashar Kemal, trans. by Thilda Kemal (Turkey). Original title: Kuşlar da Gitti.
On this journey, I create some of my own "best of" categories to look back at the books I read this year and the podcast. I also talk about my reading plan for next year and changes coming to the podcast, in sha Allah.
Non-fiction that made me go "whoooa" the most: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman
Non-fiction that changed my perspective on a global scale: Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics by Tim Marshall
Novel that I learnt the most from: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Novel that I was most conflicted about while reading: The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty
Novel that defied my expectations: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Most enjoyable episode: The themed episodes: Ep. 32 - Reading Far Away Lands and Ep. 38 - Reading Children's Literature - Then and Now
Episode that makes me realise how much I've learnt since recording: Ep. 21. China: China in Ten Words by Hua Yu
Episode I learnt the most in while recording: Ep. 23 + Ep. 24: Algeria: Au Café by Mohammed Dib
Easiest episode to record: Ep. 34. USA: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
Hardest episode to record: Ep. 35. Nigeria: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Other Books Mentioned (by me and Instagram Live commenters)
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.
Reader. Occasional writer. Muslim.