Middle East


Rag and Bone
~ A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead
by Peter Manseau

This book is one of my top 2009 reads; moreover before I sent it away I had to reread it 🙂

It is also probably most surprising reading experience I’ve had for a very long time. It’s a great travelog, it’s incredibly funny, equally educational, shocking (how surprising!), ticklingly blasphemous, and absolutely bizarre!

You really would not even imagine (if you’re unfamiliar with the world of relics like myself) what people are able to do with something (human origin) that consider sacred but even worse is to see what Church (!!!) is doing. I was really shocked so many times while reading this book.

First paragraph (I love it!):
”This is a book about dismembered toes, splinters of shinbone, stolen bits of hair, burned remnants of an anonymous rib cage, and other odds and ends of human remains, but it is not book about death. Around every one of the macabre artifacts that, for a variety of reasons, have come to be venerated as religious relics, circles an endless orbit of believers and skeptics, bureaucrats and clergy, con artists, and just plain curious souls. This is a book about life.”

Manseau has done fantastic research about the issue covering all major religions. There are very informative story about each relic while being part of precise human being and that’s very interesting. But the story of the body after soul continued its journey, is stunning! I found that my own religion as the most bizarre (probably because it’s mine). I was more than once reacted like “Oh gosh no! They didn’t! How could they?” and even “Oh hurry up and lets move to Buddhism!” (I‘m joking!) And then the most pathetic: “OK I’m Christian but at least I’m not Catholic”. There are many (I guess ) blasphemous moments; but then how not be blasphemous when you’re reading about Holy Prepuce (Jesus foreskin)!?!? I didn’t even know such thing even exists and is worshiped (by the way do you know the origin of the Saturn’s rings? Go figure! You wouldn’t believe; there is no way you would even guess!)! Or few churches that each enshrines a head of John the Baptist in the same time?!? I’ve seen in Spain part of The Cross (later I’ve found out there are so many pieces of that same cross that Romans must have deforest entire Middle East to made it) also I’ve seen the hand of some saint and then I thought it’s quite morbid (now I see that was actually light image).

What I liked is that Manseau is never offensive; I don’t think he’s hurting religious being in his readers. At least he didn’t hurt mine. He’s looking from a rational point of view on something which is in enormously large scale not rational whatsoever.
As I said he’s very witty and don’t expect from this book to be profoundly serious. Quite opposite; it looks like a coffee chat … OK I admit, the topic would be quite insane but still a coffee chat. And what I liked the most in this book is how people are 100% ready to believe in something so unlikely accurate and even to actually feel the sacred power of it; whether that is a shinbone or a pebble founded in the ash after cremation. It’s really amazing.

From the blurb:
”Manseau’s “Rag and Bone” reads like a novel, entertains like a TV docudrama, and educates like the best college professor you ever had. It is at once informative, quirky, and funny. Do people really think that the leathery tongue of 12th century saint can bless them with good fortune? They do. Why do people believe in such weird things as the holy relics of religion? Read this book to find out. WARNING: you may well discover that you also hold beliefs in holy relics and not even know it!”

Here I’d like to mention one vignette I found very interesting. It’s part of the relics in Buddhism, religion I know little about. The only Buddhist I know personally is my dear friend Shanna (whose BLOG is one of  virtual places I regularly visit; check why) who told me while visiting me in Belgrade something very interesting: That Buddhism is actually not religion but philosophy.  Reading this book helped me to fully realize her words.

There is a story in the book about the Temple of the Tooth in the city of Kandy, Sri Lanka. Of course it’s worshiped and moreover in Myanmar they made a replica equally worshiped as “the original”. As I said I knew little about Buddhism but I knew that much to see a mountain-sized contradiction. And here is an explanation:

There are two branches in Buddhism: one that is following Siddhartha’s words how we should disconnect ourselves from impermanent things in our life (which is basically everything) and the one that is doing completely opposite thing: that is worshiping something so undoubtedly impermanent such is human body (i.e. Siddhartha’s tooth) and even ready to die for. But what was incredibly surprising is that Siddhartha was fully aware that people would hear his sermons and understand what he had meant or they would hear them and understand the exact opposite. He never denied that he told people what they needed to hear to affect necessary change in their lives. He knew that his followers would take from his message parts they needed the most. For some that meant philosophy, for others that meant teeth.

So what about relics? And should they necessary be connected with religion? Are they mandatory sacred? What one relic could be?

“Relics seem to me to admit that, yes, while we do have spiritual dimension to our lives, we are also flesh under the looking glass of all those around us. Our lives and or deaths are witnessed by others, and what our lives might mean to them is mostly beyond our control. We are simultaneously people who need symbols to survive, and we are symbols ourselves. Our bodies – our toes and shins, our foreskins and ribs, our hands and whiskers, our teeth and hair – have the capacity to tell stories we can not imagine. And the facts of our lives can be as mysterious and in need of explanation as anything that lies beyond.”

This is without doubt one of the best nonfiction book I’ve read in years. I so didn’t expect this. I didn’t know what to expect at all. I was attracted with the bizarre topic it deals with and was hooked from the page 1.

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Light Fell
Evan Fallenberg

This was incredibly interesting read and one exquisite debut novel. Evan Fallenberg has indeed created (as the blurb say as well) “a uniquely drawn protagonist”. The book tells the story about Joseph, an educated Israeli man, professor of literature Harvard graduated, a husband and father of five … who fells in love with a rabbi.

Now, this novel indeed won several literary awards reserved for GLBT literature such are 2009 Stonewall Prize for Fiction or 2008 Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction ( besides those it was also 2008 National Jewish Book Award Finalist) and somehow it is expected that the story fill follow love and struggle of those two men in highly traditional, Orthodox Jewish society (especially since one of them is nothing less but rabbi!) and that would probably be an interesting story. However Fallenberg decided to jump of the stereotypes and leave them to others. His novel has erased that frontier that divides literature (in this case GLBT from … I don’t know, “hetero” I guess). With one quite unexpected twist, story that might have been more less predictable becomes one incredibly unique reading experience. I’m really against those separations in literature (and art generally) and I believe those GLBT awards are disserving this great novel because many wouldn’t even consider reading book that won some gay lit award. But this is certainly NOT gay novel (here I must admit I’m not quite sure what gay novel suppose to mean by default. Hopefully the only criteria is not to have main character homosexual)

This was enormously thought provoking story. You’re feel empathy and understanding towards one character and then the consequences of those actions would strike you and in the very next moment you’ll start asking yourself “What are you talking? This can’t be right!” until you realize “there is no right and wrong! That’s human nature, such an unpredictable burden or jewel we all have”. And that’s what novel is all about: Human nature!

It’s not easy to comprehend that one would decide to leave his life and all those people that was part of it (including their own children) because they realize they aren’t what they thought the were. That’s not right, right? Well wrong! But when I say that “wrong” I’m not saying it’s right.  I’m just refuse to judge. Of course there is a little bugger named responsibility but then what about responsibility to ourselves? There is another bugger named consciousness but then how can you be scrupulous with others if you’re betraying yourself? And of course there is, usually enormous price that you have to pay whatever decision you make.

Joseph left his wife and five sons but not to live happily ever after with rabbi he loved (who was as well a husband and a father). Truth that love was a trigger but that wasn’t a reason. He firmly didn’t want to come back in his past life even when he had a chance in spite the price he and the ones he loves had to pay and horrifying consequences he had made them to face and live with. So it really is hard to understand his decision. But in the end, you’re not even asked to understand or approve or even be sympathetic. There are no easy resolutions here. [by the way what I wrote is not a spoiler whatsoever!]

I said this is very thought provoking story. It was interesting to think  how religion (or for that matter anything else) can influence ones sexuality. I guess everyone knows in the puberty whether they are attracted by opposite or same sex (or both). Is it possible that one can convince her/himself they are what they’re not and even spend big part of their life thinking wrongly without being aware they’re faking? And if it is, what a hell of life that must be! There is one character in the book that asks the very same question:

“What if you’d ignored it, just buried it? What if you’d prayed and repented your evil thoughts and made pacts with God to ease the burden? Couldn’t you just have controlled your feelings? Couldn’t you have lived from day to day, promising yourself that today, just like yesterday, you’d be good?”

How enormously desperately one can be if one puts all her/his hopes into the power of will, faith, whatever … hopes to be something s/he is not.

Yup, human nature is really tricky little thing that is very hard to comprehend and even harder to restrain yourself from judging it.
Do read this book, it’s really a good one.

The Islamist – Why I joined radical Islam in Britain, what I saw inside and why I left
Ed Husain

I’ve recently read this book and I really liked it.
It is sort of protest against politic Islam, based on personal experience. This is for the first time that we have opportunity to read about Islamic fundamentalism and life within radical Islamic organizations from an ex-member.

Namely Mr. Husain, British Muslim has become Muslim fundamentalist in sixteen an then years after he saw how wrong is that path. What has awaken his criticism (and opened his eyes) was personal experience with devastating Islamic ideas planted in the minds of Muslim teenagers in Britain that encourage them to be confronted with others in the name of religion.

Time Mr. Husain has spent in Saudi Arabia firmed his beliefs that rigid, old form of Islam: wahhabism joined with political Islam: islamism is causing only suffering all around the globe: Baghdad, Tel Aviv, Madrid, London, New York, Istanbul, etc he realized how that ideology is filled with anger, ideology that he once belonged to is not only a threat to primeval Islam and Muslims but to entire civilized world.
After he finished this road Mr. Husain thought it is his humane duty to speak against something that is presented in Britain as a “true Islam”, because the Koran orders to all Muslims to speak the truth, even if the truth is against them.

First part of the book is little slow I must admit and that maybe because I wasn’t familiar with things related with British society. Everything was new for me but there are so many information that are more/less familiar to someone who lives in Britain I guess. However, for me it from time to time it was little hard to follow.

What surprised me the most was part about Saudi Arabia. Namely, I didn’t have a clue that to love a Prophet is actually forbidden and is considered as idolatry. I was in shock what treatment believers are receiving on Prophet’s grave.

Mr. Husain has done amazing job in introducing us to creation of Wahhabi stream in Islam and I didn’t know that precisely Wahhabism is official form of Islam in Saudi Arabia! That was really surprising. Thinking about peninsula and how huge amounts of money are coming from there to help all Islamic actions all around the world (including erecting mosques in Bosnia but also financing war and sending mujahideen and Al Qaeda forces in the same Bosnia) I would never thought that Saudi Arabia is such a racist society towards Muslims (!). It’s extremely segregated and indeed the title of the chapter about it Saudi Arabia: Where is Islam?” is perfectly chosen.

I really enjoyed in this book (enjoyed in sense I’ve learned a lot) but the main readers would (and should) be (young) Muslims in the Western world. This book is showing how enormously wrong picture about “true Islam” and the life in the cradle of Islam they have. Almost everything is wrong and artificially created completely ignoring the Holly Book. But the worst thing is that young Muslims in the west are accepting this radicalism thinking it’s how Prophet and the Koran is telling them they should believe, think and act.
And moreover Mr. Hosain has explained entire genesis of radicalism with the names that stands behind it and the books that can be purchased in regular bookshop in London. Now comes the old question (I wrote about this in my post about “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali) Why intolerance should be tolerated? In the name of religious freedom? That’s a nonsense, very expensive one! Not only because of innocent victims of radicalism but also because it produces even bigger segregation between cultures, between religions and we are all victims, on both sides of the gorge while in reality we are in our own cultures and religion much more closer then we know.

I’ll finish with two quotes which are unknown to, I’m sure many Muslims and non Muslims and that are reflects how same we are:

“Beware of extremism in religion, for it was extremism in religion that destroyed those who went before you” – The Prophet Mohammed (570-632)
“Whoever kills an innocent person, it is as though he has killed entire humanity” – The Koran

You would think that the sport is on the very last place in minds of Palestinians with all hell they live in. Oh but that’s very incorrect! They will drop everything they are doing to watch they national football (soccer) team and instantly forget all problems. Palestinian sport commentator has described their bid to qualify to World Cup 2006 as “one of our most beautiful dreams.”

Goal DreamsGoal Dreams, lovely film directed by Maya Sanbar and Jeffery Saunders is telling us the emotional path of the Palestine national team while its players are gathering from all over the world to play under the same flag and represent their nation on the international stage. It is quite unique story and is showing in very untraditional and very original way Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its effect on the lives of Palestinians.

The team is on the preparation in Ismailiya in Egypt for the crucial match against the national team of Uzbekistan which supposes to be held in 30 days in Qatar (because of obvious reason it can’t be in Palestine). The team’s coach, Austrian Alfred Riedl is having numerous problems.“We are unique in the world; we don’t even have a country! We have to practice here [Ismailiya]… we don’t know what we are, who we are?” said Mr. Riedl but that’s hardly his only problem. Namely 30 days before the match the team is short several players (mostly the ones from Gaza). Players who are there aren’t speak the same language; there is one New Yorker who speaks English only of course; few from Santiago de Chile among them one speaks English; one from Madrid, Sweden, a few from Egypt who speak Arabic; later is coming one from Lebanon who speaks Arabic as well. And there are missing players from Gaza (Arabic). Coach is speaking English (and is cursing in Serbian which was such a huge surprise and the whole audience has burst of laughing. We asked Mr. Saunders who was guest of the festival does he have an explanation but he didn’t) so it was kind of Babylonian Tower in small. Just imagine the final version of coach’s words after passing the process of three translations!

The basic idea with gathering players for the team was their origin. They had to be Palestinians in any (even stretched sense) so many of them were for the first time in the region (not in the land) where their ancestors were born many, many years ago. Naturally all of them were bringing different way of thinking, different mentality, different cultural heritage but also very different style of playing soccer.

So the story follows the days in Ismailiya but also we are moving in New York or Chile or Lebanon to see lives of expatriated Palestinians and how they are preserving that core of who they really are. The player from Lebanon introduces the audience to the reality of life in Palestinian refugee camps, with the scarcity of work and opportunities as well as the daily struggle for survival.

Naturally the worst situation is with the part of the team which supposes to come from Gaza. Israeli part of the border is closed and no one has idea when it’ll be reopened. They are trying several times to cross the border and each time they (along with hundreds of other people) had to go back. Once there were gun shooting at the frontier and guys didn’t even raise their eyes to see what’s going on; they were sitting and joking like nothing is happening around them. One of them said “Oh this is nothing unusual; this is part of our everyday life. We could have a training drill here while waiting”. I must say that I recognized Serbian mentality in these words.
And the time is passing. So 10 days before the match the team still doesn’t have enough players and the ones who are there are in linguistic mud.
So the coach’s mood is in one moment filled with determination to make a strong team capable to win qualifying match and in the next moment is like broken under incredible obstacles his team is facing with.

“Goal Dreams” is a testament to the power of the Palestinian dream and to the Palestinian people’s ability to hold onto the hope in spite the horrifying reality in which are living.
One of the last scenes in the film is showing player from Lebanon and behind him huge Adidas billboard with David Beckham and the message Impossible is Nothing.

Yesterday was the opening day of my favourite film festival Free Zone. It is festival of involved film (probably my favourite genre, because it’s (the only one?) without boundaries, because life is its boundary. The industrial production of moving pictures inevitably led to an overabundance of film heroes, to the banality of their missions and to the commercialization of their idealism and to the indifference of the audience. Casual meaningless heroism dominates most of today’s films.

Free Zone offers a different kind of film hero in feature films and documentaries. These heroes are different in their constitution, origin, geography, their burden and, perhaps most importantly, in their existential quality. They are ordinary people who have made, daringly and fearlessly, the hardest choice – to take life in their own hands. Weather by refusing to accept the fate chosen for them by the society, challenging injustice, questioning establishment and traditional relationships and taboos in societies they live in, or truly believing on the possibility of change and the creation of better world, the directors and heroes of these films realize that the belief in choice is what differentiates civilization from barbarism, that civilization means involvement and choice means responsibility.

In next few days you can expect my reviews about movies I’m going to see on the festival.

 

PersepolisFirst film was beautiful Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud; adaptation on the acclaimed graphic novel based on director M. Satrapi’s own life.

This breathtaking animated film is a poignant story of an outspoken young girl coming age in Iran during Islamic Revolution. Hope that revolution has had and disappointing changes it has brought. It is very personal and very emotional story with magnificent portraits of her family members. One might be surprised with modern language and modern look on life. It’s strange to see girl with black headscarf jumping and screaming with “Iron Maiden”. Political struggle, repression of the regime, foreign involvement in producing that misery is so clear and sharp.

This is statement of Marjane Satrapi about her film:

“This isn’t a politically orientated film with the message to sell. It is first and foremost a film about my love for my family. However, if Western audiences end up considering Iranians as human beings just like the rest of us, and not as abstract notions like “Islamic fundamentalists”, “terrorists”, or the “Axis of Evil” then I feel like I’ve done something”

Well, I’m not the one who will change my view about Iranians after this film. After years of learning Farsi and knowing many Iranians I never thought they’re “terrorists” or whatever. On the other hand I’m not sure could I be considered as a member of “Western audience” either.

This is French submission for the next Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and don’t be surprised at all if it wins the Oscar.