review: Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure by Sarah MacDonald

Australian Sarah MacDonald records her two-year adventure in India in the oddest ways. At times, especially at the end of the book, she is personal and shares her reasons for wanting spirituality in her life, but it’s a long wait for that. It seems more of a lark for most of the book- she visits religious festivals, temples, schools and synagogues in the most superficial way possible. Is it possible to sincerely examine 10 religions in two years? MacDonald demonstrates- it is not.

I was offended by someone spending a week in Srinagar, talking to a few Muslims and then announcing “Islam taught me about submission.” Is she joking? Islam is far far more than that and she personally submitted to nothing in Kashmir unless one wants to count houseboat rides. So that’s the kind of thing that got under my skin- a quick look at a religion, a glib summary and on to the next. MacDonald just doesn’t seem sincere in her quest- perhaps it’s the tone that verges on arrogant:

“I’ve always thought it hilarious that Indian people chose the most boring, domesticated, compliant and stupid animal on earth to adore.” (She means Hindus, not Indians, and she is refering to the cow.)

MacDonald doesn’t get into the depths of any of these “religious” experiences. She announces she is an atheist and then seems to poke fun at some practices, yet she sporadically participates: dunks herself in the Ganges and gets sick; spends ten days in silence.; has an interesting conversation with a rabbi.

That aside, I love India and it was wonderful to armchair travel to places both previously visited and not. The descriptions of Pondicherry,  Dharamsala, Vipassana, and Allahabad’s festival, Sai Baba’s ashram, and Amritsar’s Golden Temple, are full of fascinating detail. I was especially interested in the descriptions of the Parsi and Jewish communities.

The descriptions of living with Indian servant in New Delhi were fun: the iron that was stolen, the need to accommodate two cultures in one house, the dance lessons.

The writing at times tries too hard and distracts one from the story: “Perhaps Christianity has got something to give the world apart from Easter eggs, the Osmonds and guilt. For the first time, I see the faith, divinity and goodness in the faith of my forefathers.” That sentence structure (a comma’ed list of descriptors) is her favourite, sometimes used 4 or 5 times in a row!

I think MacDonald failed to consider beforehand just how personal she would get in this account and so that aspect is annoyingly uneven. She worries about her boyfriend sometimes (he is a reporter covering regional tragedies including a trip to Afghanistan just days after 9/11), but because she covers their wedding in a paragraph and never shares much about this relationship, the reader doesn’t care about this faceless character.

I often put the book down. In the time it took me to read it, I read two others which I heartily recommend: The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah and The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. MacDonald could learn something from these humble thoughtful authors.

Look, if you’re going to write something personal, you have to get personal- doing it self-consciously half-way is not satisfying to readers. Bare your soul or write a documentary.

“Lullaby” by Ava Homa- a review of the short story tribute to Farzad Kamangar

Lullaby is a short story written by Ava Homa and published by Novel Rights (literature re: human rights).

“Lullaby” is a moving account of Farzad Kamangar’s last days spent in Iranian prison. The influential Kurdish teacher and writer was executed 4 years ago. I found this story to appear deceptively simple, when, in fact, it is full of portent information- the state of political prisoners in Iran, the impotent judge and the human guard, the passing of the days and the exchange of goods with visitors.

Although the situation is certainly an overwhelming one, Ava Homa manages to share the emotion and the prisoners’ tactics for managing the impossible place they are in, without crushing her readers with pain.

This is mature writing that admits things are never black and white, and attempts to balance the characters, who are human enough to be complicated. Lovely prose too, that draws parallels with counting and delights us with chocolate. Absolutely a fascinating account and eminently readable. Homa has paid tribute to a stubbornly brave man who moved many with his integrity and words. May he never be forgotten.

With Homa’s permission, the story begins like this:

“The call rings out. I tell myself the students are still learning, in secret, the history of the Kurds. The call for prayer echoes through Evin Prison. It turns me cold with fear.

Footsteps! I know the sound of those heavy boots. I know them well. My pen falls down from my bed and I curl into a ball, shrinking with fear. The pain in my head and face, legs and back, stomach and ribs becomes much sharper. Clutching at the pillow does not stop me from shaking. The footsteps stop before they reach my ward. “Hands up,” I think, and almost say it out loud.

“Hands up,” the old guard says.

I know what they are doing in the other cell. The blindfold, the click of the handcuffs, and the guards take Ali out, pushing and kicking him.

I toss and turn and follow them in my head as Ali is taken downstairs, dragged nineteen steps to the right, down nineteen stairs and delivered to the interrogators. Under his blindfold, Ali will count the pairs of shoes in the room: four, six, eight . . . black, formal shoes that are thick with blood, polished by blood. The whipping will start soon after the curses. If the man they call “Mongrel” is there, the interrogation will last longer and be much more painful. Every Kurd knows that man’s strange voice, an unusual mixture of high and low. In his vocabulary, “fucking murdering savages” means “Kurds.” It is rumoured that Mongrel’s brother had been killed in Kurdistan thirty years ago during one of the uprisings. Five, six whiplashes and Ali will think about concentration camps, pyramids, the Great Wall of China, but he will not feel the whipping anymore. I hope.

The number of cracks on the wall is three hundred and five today. I sneak a pen out from under my mattress and take some paper, folded four times, out from my underwear. “My dear students,” I write, lying on my left on a stinking army blanket. “All I have been able to do for you is to secretly teach you our Kurdish alphabet, our literature and our history. Please, children, remember your heritage and pass it on. Dear little ones, never allow this knowledge to steal from you the joy of childhood. May you keep the joy of youth in your minds forever. It may be the one and only investment you can use later when the agony of earning the ‘bread and butter’ dominates you, my sons, and the sin of being ‘the second sex’ overpowers you, my daughters. When you are picking flowers in the valleys to make crowns for your children, tell them about the purity and happiness of childhood. Remember not to turn your backs on your dreams, loves, music, poetry and Kurdistan’s magical nature. Get together, sing the songs and recite the poetry as we used to do.”

***      want to read more? 

                                      1 COPY only €1.99

By Buying “Lullaby” Novel Rights ePUB Short Story written by Ava Homa, You will help us to create more HRL (Human Rights Literature) short stories and produce many more events around the globe promoting literature that supports human rights values.

Free reading at online library.

Scribd feels like a good deal all round. It’s an online library with over 300,000 titles. Currently you can try it for free, but it’s normally 8.99/month. For that, you can click on any book you like and read immediately on any device. If you don’t like the book, close it and try another. I have a free trial now- it’s fun and easy.

It’s a great deal for readers – many e books are over $9, including mine (9.65) – so really, joining Scribd is the cheapest way to read my book (while having access to many more).

It’s a great deal for authors – we are paid a fee every time our book is read.

Get your free month at http://www.scribd.com/

 

 

Mushrooms are Mostly Air (Flash fiction)

Mushrooms are mostly air.

Mushrooms are mostly air.

Wind ripples the long dried pods still hanging from the honey locust tree, and they clack together like a mammoth wooden chime. The gnome’s sharp ears pick up the low clacking; the music fills his body the way a favourite memory does.

He’s cobalt blue from his pointed hat to his pointed toes. He stands beside a sturdy stout mushroom ready to get to work, now the smoke has cleared.

The smoker comes five, even seven, times a day to this rarely-used path through the small woods at the back of the park. The largest rock welcomes her and after she blows the sweet smoke into the air, she continues to sit and stare for some time. She always sniffs and leaves tissues about. Then she heaves herself up and plods back in the same direction she came from.

The gnome knows this smoke will impair his frequency if he isn’t careful, so he waits inside the mushroom until the wind has done some preliminary work.

And that is precisely the behaviour that has confused the scavenger. The skinny shirtless man comes most evenings. He doesn’t smoke, but he collects the leavings of the sick girl. Sometimes he can’t find the gnome. Sometimes he can.
Today he says, “I know you’re a real thing and not a schizophrenic thing. I been takin’ my meds.”

The gnome is grateful for the help, but he wishes that the man would take the tissues too.

Gnome's home

Gnome’s home

 

a stout sturdy mushroom

a stout sturdy mushroom

Remembering Halabja

2013-03-31 15.14.32

Today is the day Halabja was lost, 14 years ago. In Iraq, 5,000 Kurds were killed in one chemical gas attack.

The new Halabja monument in the Hague is fashioned after the infamous photos of people dying in their tracks, shielding their children with their bodies. Bas News reports that it is fitting that the monument be in the Netherlands “since a Dutch businessman Frans van Anraat was sentenced to 17 years in prison for selling raw material for the production of chemical weapons to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s.”

See the monument here.

This is the account I was told (from The Word Not Spoken):

He leaned back against the wall and pulled her closer to put his arm around her. He showed her pictures of his army service. Ahmet looked unfamiliar in the pictures with his buzzed hair, green fatigues and black boots laced up his shins. His ears stuck out. The soldiers held their MG3s and MG11s casually. Their faces were smiling, their arms around each other. The background was brown rock with an occasional pale green bush.

Ahmet explained that every male Turkish citizen performed eighteen months of military service by the time he was twenty years old. Ahmet, however, had served twenty-one months. He had been in the army during the Gulf War. He had fought with the Turkish Army on the border of Iraq. Their enemy had been the P.K.K.

He said that the P.K.K. (Kurdish Workers’ Party) was a powerful group of Kurdish freedom fighters. They were fighting the Turkish Army in the east and in the government.

“How could you fight for the Turks against your own people?”

“It is difficult situation.”

One picture showed Ahmet jumping from one huge rock to another, a large gun hanging from one shoulder loosely swung through the air with him.

“One time, the American Army gave us the location of a P.K.K. camp. We surrounded the camp in northern Iraq. It was big; about five hundred guerrillas lived there. We shoot a few hours. Then an American helicopter came and rescued some men from the buildings in the middle of the camp.”

“The United States told you the Kurds were there and then rescued them from you?”

“A few. With a ladder. Like a rope.”

“Why would the U.S. help both sides and have them fight each other?”

“Of course, to make both sides weak. And busy.”

He flicked through the pictures. “This one,” he said, pointing to a picture of five men laughing at the camera. “The next day they died. All four. Yes, I am the only one who is still alive.”

“Really, the next day?”

“Hah, in one battle. All on same day.” He gazed at the picture and was silent for a moment. Settled now with her head on his chest, Leigh looked upwards to see pursed lips.

“What did you do?”

“I cried.”

Ahmet sighed. He flipped to the next picture.

“These are the refugees from Iraq. Do you remember 1991, they walked over the mountains to get away from Saddam Hussein?”

Leigh nodded. The picture showed hundreds of people and tents crouched on a mountain slope.

“He started many years ago. In only the 1980s, five thousand Kurdish villages were destroyed by him. One of them was Halabja. We can never forgiven that. Halabja was the most beautiful place in all of Kurdistan. Many people say it was the sweetest place on earth. It was a green diamond.”

“An emerald.”

“It was Kurdistan’s heart. One day Saddam made it rain gas. Thousands of people were burned and poisoned. Some run to Iran.

“And 1991, same crime, but many, many towns near to Turkey. They were fighting for freedom from Hussein. They run to Turkey.” Ahmet shook his head. “They are treated like animals here.”

He tossed the pile of photos aside and rummaged for more in one of the plastic bags on the floor.

2013-09-29 17.46.02

 

 

More Ahmet and Leigh (Turkish bribes)

This passage was edited out of The Word Not Spoken because of length. It was originally part of Chapter 30, the summer that life became “normal”.

One hot morning, Ahmet caught up to Leigh as she strolled down the main street of Goreme, with nothing more on her mind than a desire for chocolate.
Gel,” he said. “We go now to Eregli.” He took her elbow and turned so that they headed back to where she’d been coming from.
“Why?”
“I must see the prosecutor there.”
“Why?”
“To pay a fine.”
“Why?”
“I must pay today or I will go to jail tomorrow.”
“What! Why?”
“Why you need to know everything? Just you will come with me.” He nodded at her dark green Turkish dress. “It will help me if you are there.”
He was in Ali’s blue suit, she noticed then, and freshly shaved.
“How much is the fine?”
“Maybe $1000.”
“A thousand dollars! U.S.? You pay today or go to jail tomorrow?”
He nodded. “Six months.”
“But how long have you known about this? Why did you leave it to the last minute? Six months in jail or $1000, and I’m only hearing about it today? What did you do?”
He groaned. “My poor brain to marry a woman like this.”
They reached the carpet shop and stepped into the courtyard. The boss wasn’t within sight so Ahmet went on a search. Leigh chatted with the woman on display for the tourists. She was knotting a maroon and indigo carpet on an upright loom. Unasked, a young boy brought them tea. Leigh downed her shot quickly as Ahmet appeared at one of the arched entrances and motioned impatiently.
Gel! You know we must hurry.”
She scooted across the old stone floor and caught up to him in the office where the boss counted out $1000 in commissions. He nodded appreciatively toward Leigh and said something in Turkish. Based on whatever lie Ahmet had told him, he wished them a good journey, and they were off.
It was only two hours to Eregli, a medium-sized city that Leigh had never been to. It appeared much like Nevsehir- concrete houses and shops but not much in the way of parks or restaurants. Without hesitation, Ahmet drove straight to a government building complex, parked the car and headed to one of the ugly yellow buildings.
“You’ve been here before,” commented Leigh but he didn’t answer. In fact, he seemed preoccupied, and it occurred to her then that he was nervous.
“Are you sure that paying the fine will prevent going to jail?” she asked as they climbed some wide steps into the building.
“Yes, I already told you this.”
“What did you do? When did you go to court?”
He grabbed her hand and pulled as he turned left and walked purposefully down a shiny-floored hallway.
Bey?
Her stomach felt heavy. More turns, more shiny floors, and he knocked at a door. A small man answered and after some discussion they were left to sit in a waiting room. Leigh was completely cowed by then and had stopped asking questions. As the minutes passed, she stilled in her chair, but Ahmet shifted constantly in his.
An hour later, one of the adjoining doors was pulled open by an uncovered woman who barked at Ahmet to come in. Leigh followed.
The woman sat behind a desk that filled most of the room. Ahmet and Leigh sat in two chairs before it. Startled, Leigh realized that this was the woman they’d come to meet. She was uncovered but she was not a prostitute- she was a prosecutor.
Fascinated, Leigh studied her as she leafed through a square book similar to a ledger or agenda. She was an exceptionally ugly middle-aged woman wearing big square horn-rimmed glasses. Leigh guessed that she was aware of her unattractiveness and had decided not to care. She had found ways to compensate: boldness, toughness, power. Her clothes were western-style- a red sweater with an expensive brown jacket and matching pants- and her body tested the seams.
Ahmet introduced Leigh. The prosecutor looked at her with flat eyes and clearly found Leigh to be lacking. She then opened a file and reviewed it, occasionally muttering angrily at Ahmet. Then she closed the file and berated Ahmet for a long time. He sat with his eyes downward, politely submissive and didn’t argue a single point.
Leigh still didn’t know how he had broken the law, but it was clearly very serious. She felt guilty and chastised herself, just sitting across from him, but the woman spoke far too quickly for her to understand. Leigh did hear the anger and warning tones though and she understood that next time Ahmet wouldn’t be given the option of a fine.
The woman stopped and glared at both of them. She was making up her mind. After a moment of silence she spoke to Ahmet, slammed the file shut, motioned to the door and picked up her phone.
Leigh thought they were to leave, but Ahmet didn’t stand up. As the woman spoke into the phone he leaned towards Leigh and explained. Some paperwork had already been completed by the woman, and she wanted a personal payment of $300.00 on top of the thousand they had brought with them.
“But we have only $1000. Will we get more at the carpet shop?”
“No, even $1000 is not all ours. We must pay some back to the shop by our working this summer.”
“Where are we going to get $300?”
“I will try some friend.”
As the woman slammed down her phone, Ahmet asked to use it. He made a couple of calls and the prosecutor provided her personal bank account number. The bribe was to be put directly into her account. She then called her bank, asking them to inform her the minute the money was deposited.
Ahmet was not permitted to leave her office. They waited on the modern cushioned chairs and watched the prosecutor work. She opened files, read reports, snarled into the phone and haughtily ignored them. Ahmet didn’t speak or smoke; no tea came.
As the hours went by, Leigh’s angst increased unbearably. She hated sitting and waiting. Ahmet continually glanced at the clock. If the money didn’t arrive by 5:00, it would be too late- he would go directly to jail.
At 4:00 Ahmet asked the woman to check her bank. She ignored him. He looked at the floor. Leigh considered going home alone. She’d have to find a bus. She still couldn’t drive a shift, despite Ahmet’s best efforts.
At 4:20 the phone rang. The money was there. Ahmet smiled; Leigh sighed. The prosecutor stood, stretched and told them that they needed a box of candy for the ladies who would complete the extra paperwork at this late hour. Hungry and annoyed now, Leigh wondered why she couldn’t have been told that earlier.
All three of them went to Ahmet’s car and got in, the prosecutor in the back seat. A lighter left on the dashboard had exploded in the sun. This brought only a shrug from the others, but Leigh could think of little else. She’d never known a lighter to explode in sun before. Did Turkey make defective lighters or was it that hot? What if she’d been sitting there? It had been right in front of her face and now plastic shards were everywhere.
The woman loudly pointed the way. They stopped quickly for a box of sweets at a pastry shop and then drove back to the complex of government buildings, parked and hurried into one that looked like all the others.
While they were rushing through the halls, the prosecutor’s heel broke on one of her shoes. She yelped and picked up the errant heel. Leigh was several steps behind and she soundlessly snickered. The prosecutor limped awkwardly down the rest of the hallways. Leigh enjoyed it immensely.
It was 4:45 when they arrived at a long counter where two women were packing up for the day. They accepted the candy and sat back down. Ahmet handed over $1,000 and the real paperwork began. Thirty minutes later, Ahmet and Leigh stepped out of the building, free of their escort, exhausted and elated, in dire need of tea and sigaras.
Leigh gave him hell once they were back in the car, but it was half-hearted. This was life with Ahmet and she loved the last-minute dramatic rescues. Her main complaint was hunger.
They didn’t hang around Eregli to eat, but headed for a cafeteria they’d passed on the highway, only an hour ahead. Ahmet sped but she didn’t mind- the motion was a relief for both of them.
“Oh no!” she exclaimed, hearing a siren behind them. She turned and moaned. “Damn, damn. It’s the police. Pull over.” All she could think was that they were in for hours of paperwork and she was too hungry to bear it gracefully.
“Ahmet! Stop the car! Shit, I am too hungry for this.”
Ahmet stepped harder on the gas and their speed increased. “I will not stop.”
“Stop the car! Haven’t we been in enough trouble today? We can’t afford more tickets.”
He hooted and grinned. “The girls are very slow today!” Truly happy, he took the car as fast as it would go.
“Stop the car!” yelled Leigh, scared of the speed now.
“If we stop we will get a ticket,” he argued, watching the road ahead.
“If we don’t stop we’ll have bigger problems.”
“No, no. They will radio ahead and make a blockade. There is police station in the next town.”
“A road block! Are you out of your mind? Stop the car!”
“Why? Look behind. They are lost.” He laughed and slapped the steering wheel.
He slowed a little. They argued as he drove. Ten minutes down the highway, they came upon a police car turned sideways across the road
“You see?” he thrilled. “They do this all for us!”
He was forced to stop by a thin police officer waving both arms.
The policeman came to his window and Ahmet rolled it down to greet him cheerfully. He demanded Ahmet’s driver’s license and registration. Ahmet told Leigh to look for them and he opened the door.
“Where are they?” She opened the glove compartment.
He glanced at her as he got out of the car. “License is at home.”
“Home! Where is the registration?”
He grinned at her. “I don’t have but you look.”
He turned to the officer, and they walked to the back of the car.
Talking aloud to herself about the follies of marrying foreigners, Leigh made a show of emptying the glove compartment. With maps, handwritten notes, a few utensils, some tissues, a single glove and a wrench on her lap, she touched the blue glass eye hanging from the rear-view mirror for luck and waited.The men were talking animatedly for so long that she put everything back into the compartment and then collected the blue plastic lighter shards from her seat, the floor and the dashboard, muttering all the while.
Finally Ahmet bounced into the car, laughing hard.
“Are we going to the station?”
He waved to the officer. “No.”
“Did you get a ticket?”
“No, just greetings for my family.” He started the car.
V’Allah?
“He is from the village near to mine.”
She shook her head. “Can you just get me to the cafeteria without incident, please?”
“Yes, my Lady, benim Hanim, it is the time to celebrate now.”
And very shortly they did.

warding off the evil eye

warding off the evil eye