"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Friday, January 29, 2010

Beats of freedom: Artists under radical Islam... and continuing updates on the Muslim pop, film, and novelistic scene

Update 11/12: Check out my review of Offside, too. This wonderful director is currently being silenced; links included in the text.

Update 10/2011 Just saw this 2009 film on Netflix - No One Knows about the Persian Cats: Cannes winner and many other awards: modern indie rock bands in Iran. Here's the Wiki on it http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_One_Knows_About_Persian_Cats
Includes women musicians. They continue to be banned from singing under extremist religious rule there, apparently.

WISE Muslim Women

 

Update 6/2/10. This post started as a short report on two women musicians (and referencing an earlier post on a woman writer) persecuted under extremist religious governments, but over the months it's been morphing into a kind of survey course of cultural diversity as I've added more interesting stories that I've come across. Here are the two latest, thanks to the wonderful blogger Sepia Mutiny, who covers the politics and pop of the South Asian scene.


First, how about a beat of Islamic freedom under Western post 9-11 extremism! Wish I'd known about this fellow years ago - but then his Post 911 Blues was banned I guess. A must-see! He's Riz MC from the UK. Here's Sepia Mutiny's great retrospective of his work complete with videos and links. He's an actor, musician, satirist, and now a filmmaker (Four Lions).

Second, there's Taqwacore - Muslim punk. Muslim punk is making the scene in the western US. So (thinking back) we've gone from balladeers and DJs to rock and roll jihadists to the sublimely cosmopolitan AR Rahman to Muslim punk - and see (not surprisingly, in any religion spread worldwide) that Islamic culture is as diverse as any other world culture. Beats of freedom? If they can't cope with the classic rock of Juhoon, I wonder how the radical religious establishment responds to Taqwacore. Not a fan of punk myself, but it's certainly an interesting development.

I learn there was a documentary about the phenomenon (as I catch up on all this...) and now there's a new movie. It premiered at Sundance and has gotten positive reviews. Here's a trailer for The Taqwacores. The movie is based on a novel (read the Wiki linked there - fascinating) by Michael Muhammad Knight. But the scene is real and if the film is successful (and reaches, as films do, more people than the novel) then an interesting story vis a vis radical clerics should follow. Unless this is so outre they feel they can ignore it. Anway - More links here - videos and interviews with various media. Fascinating stuff.


Update 4/6/10. Here's another prominent musician weighing in on the issue. From short but sweet article on brilliant composer AR Rahman, who composes worldwide but is probably most deservedly known for Bollywood scores such as my personal favorites Dil Se and Swades. He converted from Hinduism to Islam early on, and is embarking on a world tour (bolded phrases are my emphasis added):

AR Rahman, who after doing India proud with his double victory at both the Oscars and the Grammies, is set to promote love and unity through his music because it his belief that Islam has been hijacked by extremists.

Allah Rakha (AR) Rahman, who was earlier called Dileep Kumar, expressed that Islam had a rich musical tradition. He reveals that Islam appealed to him because it was a religion based on unconditional love and a belief in one God and one love. He admits to being specifically drawn to Sufism.

The 44-year-old musician clarified that Islam doesn’t forbid music, as contrary to what fundamentalists popularize. He states that he never skips prayers as it is his reprieve from tension and it gives him hope that God is with him. He wants to work to create music that will bring people together.

My favorite musician never fails to come across in interviews as just a lovely guy, spiritual and gentle, and his music is amazing, ranging over all genres and nationalities. Sometimes his score is the only thing that makes a movie worth seeing, and most of his music stands on its own quite apart from the film it was written for.

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Earlier I posted a piece about Taslima Nasrin, the writer from Bangladesh whose voice extremists strive to silence. Lately I've been finding singers who are also struggling to do their art. This is an old, old struggle between freedom and tyranny on the most basic cultural level. I supposed there have always been the Miriam Makebas and the Almanac Singers, the Paul Robesons and even, of all people, the Dixie Chicks... sadly, the international list of politically targeted and silenced musicians could go on  indefinitely.

At the most fundamental (I use the word deliberately, yes) level it is a life-and-death struggle; all religions have extremists who keep their power by denying humans our most basic right to create culture. And it seems to me that in the corporate-owned and controlled West, corporations are increasingly playing that power game too, as they relentlessly work to fence the cultural commons.

But back to Taslima - here are some musical sisters and brothers of hers who are also heroes of the modern Islamic world (and a disclaimer: I am not by any stretch of the imagination an expert in any of this, it's just a thread of the world's tapestry that caught my attention lately because I kept stumbling across it. I'm scarcely qualified to judge the validity of these websites or even the information I quote here, so if you have corrections, I'd welcome them!):

DJ Maryam of Iran

"My name is Mahshar, daughter of the sun and the earth and sister of water and air," says D.J. Maryam, at this website: http://www.persianhub.org/must-see-video-clips/186556-tehran-rocks-forbidden-beat-d-j-maryam.html Here, and on YouTube, you can view several videos. This is her recent "Song of Freedom": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E92uc_QXljE
The text continues, "She says that D.J. Maryam is not her real name. Whatever her identity, this young singer has become a pop idol in a nation where 50 percent of the population is under 25 years old. The forbidden voice of a woman singing to a techno-beat embodies both their frustration with the repressive regime and their desire for change. The lone voice of a woman, having been banned, has become a powerful weapon of opposition and resistance. Tehran rocks to the forbidden beat of D.J. Maryam.

Stories (surely some of them apocryphal, I hope!) abound about DJ Maryam's suffering and she's a hero to many Iranians at home and expatriate. As far as I know she remains in hiding, but persists in her art -- and, thanks to the internet, has a global following. See http://news.newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=9b46b5e344323639102066f2f2dd83e0

Googoosh of Iran
An earlier-generation forerunner of DJ Maryam, Googoosh was a pop superstar of the Sixties in Iran (at right, in 1969). After the Islamic Revolution she opted to stay there to retain full citizenship rather than fleeing - and for her loyalty was branded a "temptress," silenced and persecuted for two decades of her life by Islamic clerics. But she was never forgotten - and now sings triumphantly again internationally, as an Iranian citizen with passport, in what seems to be an uneasy truce with Iran's rulers. Of her recent work, don't miss Googoosh's beautiful lament for Iran, "Man Hamoon Iranam": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7obWvt0JIY Thanks to YouTube and similar online sources perhaps the clerics will continue to be defeated and Iranians given heart - at least as long as the Internet persists.

Googoosh: Iran's Daughter is a 2000 documentary about her life and comeback (Netflix has it). Here's the bio page from Googoosh's website: http://googoosh.com/?page_id=7 and here's another good article http://www.worldpress.org/0601people3.htm Below, Googoosh more recently. Still a knockout performer. And a knockout! Don't miss this: http://www.radiojavan.com/music/video/googoosh-shabe-sepid

Though the oppression of women under Islamic extremism is particularly horrendous and endemic, men are also struggling to keep alive and nurture the normal, vital, healthy kind of human culture that poses an alternative (more: a challenge and threat) to the living death of fundamentalist extremism. (Salman Ahmad, in the interview linked below, expresses this much more eloquently than I just did.) Here are two from Pakistan...

Salman Ahmad of the band Junoon, and author of Rock & Roll Jihad
I was vaguely familiar with Junoon, because I have a taste for Indian and Pakistani pop music sometimes. And I'd heard of a PBS documentary, "The Rock Star and the Mullah," but missed it when it aired and haven't been able to find a copy. Well, turns out it's about this fellow, Salman Ahmad, and he's just written a book (at right) which sounds mighty interesting. I didn't realize how important Salman and his band Junoon were, though, until I heard this interview (listen to how he redefines - and takes possession of - the concept of "jihad"):
 http://www.onpointradio.org/2010/01/salman-ahmad
It's amazing. A message on his website puts it most succinctly:
Work together...reject violence... find common ground...teach peace. Who in their right mind would argue with that? But of course there are plenty not in their right minds and he puts himself squarely in their faces. His website: http://www.junoon.com/
And here's another recent article, this time from UK: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/apr/22/rock-against-religious-fanaticism
Check YouTube for the Junoon sound  - here's "Yaro Yahi Dosti" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDXNNe7QZr0 I like the Washington DC backgrounds in that video. And this one is just great: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeShXimSRsg&NR=1 (Maybe I like this music because Indo-Pak rock triggers for me no unpleasant associations with the Western rock of the sixties and seventies, which were mostly a horrible time in my life. And when the lyrics are in something like Hindi or Urdu I can't understand most of the words, which probably helps. But even when they're translated, they tend to be more redolent of Persian poetic traditions and positive social messages than of the misogyny that permeates Western rock. As for women's rock, that's another subject). All that said, here's "Ring the Bells," a lovely mellow anthem for peace that Salman made -- with Melissa Etheridge! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAoPm3nkCN0&feature=player_embedded

Shoaib Mansoor, filmaker and his Khuda Kay Liye
This 2007 feature film broke new ground in Pakistan and has a wide following internationally. This is from Netflix's description:
Set across three continents, the plot concerns brothers... who both start out as musicians but come to adopt different philosophies when it comes to religion and culture. That's true, it's about two musician brothers from Pakistan who deal with Islamic fundamentalist suppression of music in different ways. That's interesting, yes, but there are two other reasons I was really taken with this movie, even though it does have some flaws. First, the screenplay elegantly balances two opposing stories on two sides of the world: one is a Western woman's story of oppression under Islam (born and raised as British, she is enslaved under Taliban rule in the clan-controlled territory at the Afghan-Pakistan border); the other is a Pakistani man's story of oppression under Western anti-Islamic fanaticism (a moderate, enlightened Muslim musician from a liberal family in Pakistan, he is persecuted horribly in America after 9/11). Both stories are riveting and painful to watch in one way--but in another, well, see for yourself what you think about it.

The other thing that made this movie very special for me was a ten-minute set piece in which the great Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah (spelled Naseer Ud Din, in Urdu - the bearded one on the left, in the poster at right) plays an Islamic cleric who utterly demolishes the fundamentalists' claims that music is sinful - and questions a number of other widely-accepted Islamic traditions, while he's at it. That's a masterpiece of writing and performance and it bravely takes on centuries of deeply rooted religious custom. And takes it on right at its source - in Pakistan, by a Pakistani filmmaker and a Muslim actor from India.

Oh - and the music is fantastic! I especially liked the scenes with the international mix of students in Chicago, as they composed and jammed together.

The war of certain strains of Islam against music and the arts (free human culture in general) has been going on for a very long time. I've seen some Indian historical dramas set in the times when Islam ruled much of India, that deal with the same issue (music being outlawed and how musicians cope with it). Of course, this kind of cultural repression is not unique to any religion - they all have their repressive fanatical sects. To bring the circle back round, as filmmaker Shoaib Mansoor reminds us in this movie no country including the US is without the capacity to take a tyrannical turn at times (as we Americans, who have seen our most cherished national values inexorably eroded year after year, well know). We continue to move in the direction of the Handmaid's Tale, bit by legal and political and religious bit.

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PS - see the beautiful song "Bethe Bethe Kese Kese" featured among the pujas and tonics, in the right-hand column - or go to YouTube to see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWJHZSjSFD4
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PPS - just came across this relevant passage in a fascinating review in the blog Jabberwock - the book he's reviewing is Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer:  http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2009/03/stranger-to-history-aatish-taseer-on.html     ...    Jai Arjun writes:

For Taseer, this is an insight into Islam's enclosed world of "prescriptive and forbidden action, which was more detailed than most other religions, but in the end could only cover those things that were common to the world of today and the Prophet's world in Arabia". As his later experience in Damascus shows, this enclosed world can become a vacuum where modern concepts like freedom of speech hold no meaning.

I never seem to come to an end of wonderful discoveries in Jabberwock's archives. Truly a man after my own heart (and I do mean after - he's still quite young!).

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And here's a trailer for a documentary, A Jihad for Love, about gay Muslims. On the same YouTube page are a number of other videos. Brave people; unapproved love is punishable by death under these theocracies. Music, love, sex - all things that fundamentalists must control, if they are to control lives and the economics of lives.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

The fierce urgency of now

Listening to Martin Luther King's "I have been to the mountaintop" speech I was struck, as I always am, by -- despite some specific references shaped by that decade and his own religious context and, I'm sorry, but I can't get past it, all this limiting language of "men," "man" and the like - despite this, how current and universal it still is. This was, I think, his last address - he was getting too close to overthrowing some very powerful interests at this point. Here he is imagining that his god is offering to allow him to live at any time in history up to now - and he chooses now...

"And another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today....

"And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn't done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed."

I like that historical consciouness, something King returns to again and again (for me, this book really puts a similar breadth of view across to the reader). Add a consciousness of where women fit in with human rights - a consciousness that's finally coming into the general population; maybe it had to wait until more people had discarded the blinders of traditional religion - and we're still right there with him.

At the same time, the world looks as doomed as ever (a nod to George Carlin here: yes, of course I know the world will go on without us - but here I'm referring to the world we know as humans). That was his last speech; he was moving on to a more general stirring of the masses of poor people. There are even more of us now, and we're having similar stirrings again, aren't we? Though this time, the masses are being cunningly manipulated by the very forces they would naturally oppose (can anyone say "tea baggers" or "faux news"?). Then, it was the Vietnam War that had to go on no matter how many leaders had to be assassinated to make it happen. Good to be reminded now and then how many people are assassinated when they get too effective about upsetting the truly rich, especially the drug and war industries. Though nowadays, assassinations are often carried out in more subtle ways, done by proxy through the media - that's a truly effective tactic, as it even fools people into believing it's their own will to bring the good ones down.
 
I like this King quote even better, from his Riverside Church speech (this is the source of Obama's slogan, the "fierce urgency of now"):
 
"We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs.
 
"We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.’ There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.'”
 

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

"Where our lives r without fear..."

A guilty pleasure lately has been to follow some of my favorite film people on Twitter, especially since Shah Rukh Khan, the Indian superstar, started an account (as @iamsrk). (You might remember him as the global icon harassed by morons in US Customs last year.) His tweets are a delight.

Today SRK shared his updated version of a classic Rabindranath Tagore poem, "Where the Mind Is Without Fear". Each section below is a single tweet; it took several to do his whole poem. (In case you're not familiar with Twitter, each "tweet" or message is limited to 140 characters, and spelling and punctuation are often creative due to the required brevity and to the exigencies of messaging with tiny keyboards. I'm intrigued by how people are using this short form. Emily Dickinson probably would have been right at home on Twitter, given her telegraphic style.)


So, with that intro, here are SRK's (1965 - ) tweets on Tagore, from first to last.

watched news on tv tonite & thought of the poem by great rabindranth tagore. at risk of being lynched i kind of updated it.here goes.

where our lives r without fear, & the media is beyond lies. where water is free. where the states don't want to break into fragments.

where words r not just words. where economy is not hampered by selfish gains. where mere reasons r not given for rise in prices

where sportsmen r paid their justified dues where education is not money grabbing institutes where young girls r not molested

where army personnel r respected and respectable where people r not shot on the roads to die...by guns or cameras

where the mind is led by Thee and your words remembered from all the Holy books into ever widening thought and action let my country awake

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I can't help liking SRK's poem best, probably because it's about so many contemporary concerns that I relate to personally more than to Tagore's more abstract ideals, and also because I like to do a bit of filking myself and can appreciate what he did there, since Tagore's poem just begs for a Twitter treatment. But here's the wonderful original by Rabindrinath Tagore (1861-1941), great national poet of India and muse of the Independence movement, when Freedom promised to open the path to a better world...

Where The Mind is Without Fear

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

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Jai Hind!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Back to the root of everything: Mary Daly

I'm feeling a little overwhelmed at the idea of Mary Daly's death, as she has been for so long a towering figure in my inner life, or like some awesome Mentor who never lets you get away with anything, but is also never boring and often surprisingly fun. I say the idea of her death, because to me she was Idea incarnate. Friends sent a video tribute that has some essential quotes from her books, together with wonderful images; it's at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnmdzGwO2K8&feature=channel After seeing this I kept coming across other people's blog postings about her, all day.

Actually, I haven't even even read all her books yet - and after that, there's still a lifetime's worth of rereading. Gyn/Ecology remains, for me, the best single analysis of everything in human culture wordwide that's holding us back; just the other day I referenced it again. People criticize it for its anger, but for me it's not the sick kind of anger, but rather the kind that wakes you up. I've sidestepped a number of pointless arguments by advising, "read Gyn/Ecology first, and then if you still have questions, we'll talk" (they rarely come back). It's a lovely book, just so elegantly argued, witty, and painful - a kind of corrective, or medicine, for the overly-comfortable mentality. Or maybe it was just what I needed at that time in my life, and I revisit it when I need a little mental bracing-up.

The video tribute to Mary Daly (mentioned above) was posted in YouTube by http://www.youtube.com/user/Aphrodisiastes . I'm getting some solace and further inspiration, and being reminded of my roots, viewing Aphrodisiastes's great videos from the ancient and modern Dianic tradition of Z. Budapest and have subscribed to her channel. Check them out, especially the Goddess Prayer for Pax (Peace) at

Mary Daly was tough, she was funny, she was ruthless in her attack to get at the truth and then bring it into the open, she was highly creative, and she took no intellectual quarter. She has been really, really hated by some of the most small-minded, creepily smug, intellectually challenged, dogmatic, and academic people in the world, and vilified as "satanic" (a bunkum god of their own invention that they project onto others) by some of the most evil religious people today, which more or less proves her credentials as someone worth listening to, doesn't it?

A lot of women these days have bought that brilliant example of "reframing," the often-repeated phrase "post-feminism," and truly believe there have been fundamental changes in women's lot -- due, if they know of it, to Daly's work and that of others equally fierce -- and that we're much better off now, but to me any such changes look like the emperor's new clothes. Like bandages on gangrene. Or what Daly would call tokenism, which she pointed out "dulls the revolutionary spirit." What Daly terms patriarchy is still firmly in place and life under it is just as brutal out there as ever, for all but a few of us lucky ones. 

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson (book review)

In 2004 the author, a cartoonist from Oregon, traveled to Europe on a book-signing tour, with a side trip to Morocco. Rather than writing a conventional journal, he kept notes in the form of drawings and cartoons. Upon returning, he turned his notes into this delightful graphic novel.

Through many images and a few words, Thompson shares with readers how he was met in France by friends, fans, and publisher representatives, and tells of larking about -- finding magic, meaning, and synchronicity -- in Paris and the French countryside.
Moving on to Morocco, the author's experience was darker as he struggled to relate to a more alien and less-welcoming culture. There he encountered everything from homesickness to diarrhea to hilariously fractured conversations, but in time he saw more of the country and mercifully did learn how to get around. Finally, back in Europe, he continued his book tour in Geneva and Barcelona, and saw the Alps and the south of France.

Along with striking images of people and places, Thompson shares, with winningly self-deprecating humor, an interior journey of emotional ups and downs having to do with a recent breakup. Black-and-white drawings range in style from realistic sketches to surrealistic riffs to funny cartoons, sometimes working together visually and thematically to create layers of depth and to amplify a point.

Combined with pithy captions, the art captures to perfection and with a great sense of immediacy what it's like to be young and on one's own on a foreign adventure. By turns lighthearted and profound, Carnet is an illuminating and charming experience that should have broad appeal.

(adapted from review written for SLJ Adults/teens column)

Tales from the Town of Widows & Chronicles from the Land of Men by James CAÑÓN (2007) (book review)

In this Latin American fable, the Colombia countryside has been devastated by 40 years of civil war. Leftist guerrillas, rightist paramilitaries, and government soldiers come to the village spouting different political slogans, but leave indistinguishable horror in their wake. In Mariquita, soldiers arrive to demand volunteers; when none are forthcoming, they kill or kidnap the men and traumatize the women and children.

The men gone, the women flounder at first, bereft; old rivalries are indulged, the town's infrastructure deteriorates, and Mariquita is increasingly cut off from the outside world. The inhabitants are often exasperating, but their postapocalyptic yet nonviolent village is a vivid setting for human nature to be revealed and culture reinvented.

Ultimately the remaining inhabitants create a way of life suited to their resources and their female realities, and it is a delight to see this process unfold. The women's stories (and those of the few remaining males, all with unforgettable stories of their own) have the flavor of folktales—tragic, funny, rich, and magical. In briefer alternating episodes, men's stories of their experiences in the war are related in starkly realistic, intense fashion.

The theme of a world in which women and men are separated and pursue divergent paths is always intriguing, and has been explored by a number of fine writers in science fiction, fantasy, polemic, and utopian modes. This title stands among the best of them.

(review written for SLJ, somewhat revised)

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Ummm, I feel another blog about these separated gender societies coming on... Joanna Russ, Philip Wylie, and more!

A writer's voice... Meyebela: A Bengali Childhood by Taslima Nasrin (book review)

'Humankind is facing an uncertain future. The probability of new kinds of rivalry and conflict looms large. In particular, the conflict is between two different ideas, secularism and fundamentalism. I don't agree with those who think the conflict is between religions or between the East and the West. To me, this conflict is basically between modern, rational, logical thinking and irrational blind faith. To me, this is a conflict between modernity and anti-modernism. While some strive to go forward, others strive to go backward. This is a conflict between the future and the past, between innovation and tradition, between those who value freedom and those who do not.'
- Taslima Nasrin

I don't have much to add to that! But as I launch into this review of a book by Taslima Nasrin (sometimes spelled Nasreen), first, a disclaimer: personally, I don't believe in any organized religion. Where some find enlightenment, I tend to find superstition and abuse of power. (Ahem - note - I draw a distinction between religion, or "organized religion," cultural/political institutions created by and mainly for people, and spirituality, which is an innate, inborn trait which all humans and probably animals too experience and which all should have the right and freedom and respect from others to express in their own creative ways, as long as their practices cause no harm to others.) Islam has a lot to answer for in how it treats women and girls, but then so does every other "major religion" I've ever heard of.

At the same time, I see no reason to argue about the relative degree or history of oppression of one religion or society over another, because each new generation has another chance to bring change and improvement and that's what matters. Having travelled in Muslim countries, I can't help thinking of them as places where people live - people like me - and not as stereotypical hotspots of this or that alien characteristic. I'm a feminist yet the global celebrity who fascinates me most is a Muslim man, Shah Rukh Khan (see poster for his new movie, somewhere over there in the left-hand column), so go figure. The world is complicated and so are human beings. We're also rich in possibility.

Lately I've been hearing an idea (or perhaps meme) repeated a lot (in Three Cups of Tea; by Obama in numerous speeches; in TED Talks; and, most recently, in a book I've been asked to review, Half the Sky) - to the point where I'm beginning to hope that this one might bear fruit. It's this: that the only sure way to help a country toward economic and social progress is to make education freely available to girls and women. But what about individuals who don't have that freedom? How do they survive? Here is a girl who grew up in one very oppressive environment yet managed to remain whole, and even throw off her shackles to some extent, at least enough to get her story out to the world. If you wonder how it's possible, you might be very interested in this book and the others that follow, by the same author. And if you wonder how she gets away with it - she doesn't, entirely. She's still engaged in a very brave, dangerous, and ennobling cause: to keep her own voice and tell the truth in a world that wants very much to silence her.

Meyebela: My Bengali Girlhood; A Memoir of Growing up Female in a Muslim World
By Taslima Nasrin. Steerforth Press, 1998 (in Bengali); 2002 (in English)

"Meyebela" means "girlhood." At least, it does to the author. In fact she made up the word herself because she knew she'd had a childhood as a girl, yet her language, Bengali, lacked a term for it. She grew up to be a writer, but to write about her girlhood she had to invent a word for that part of her life. This is the starting point for a tale which shows, in many ways, how the very existence of girls and women was invalidated by the society into which the author was born. Hers was, essentially, a closed circuit, a clan within a larger society that permitted absolute control by men over women; therefore a girl's childhood and even fate was determined almost entirely by chance, dependent as it was upon the character of the adults surrounding her. One woman she writes about was never even given a name by her family; she was just allowed to exist as a drudge, or slave.

Meyebela is also the story of how the author survived these conditions by becoming a writer, using her language to understand her world and to create herself as a whole person. But the story doesn't stop there, because to this day her culture continues to attempt to silence her voice.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Of memory and history; memoir and fact; mind and brain... and a book review, The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve (2001)

At Margie's lovely, gentle New Year's Eve party, several of us oldies found ourselves talking about memoirs. We're all at that age when we look backward as well as forward, now. Andrea is in a writers group where they're all working on their memoirs. I'm in a writers group where some people do that. Some of those present are already doing various kinds of writing or documentation for young family members who might appreciate hearing our stories at some time in the future. Marlene recommended a terrific teacher at Ollie whose class is a very good place to start. Perhaps it was also Marlene who expressed a concern about how accurate our memories are and, therefore, questioned the validity (or perhaps the truthfulness, or at least reliability) of this kind of writing. We all complain about our memories now; so it's fair to ask how we can assay to write accurate accounts based on such faulty sources?

But here's the problem: I'm not the only one who has noticed that if we don't write our memoirs or in some way document history as we remember it, and generally share what we've learned while we're still able to do it, by the time the next generation (or the one after that) progresses in their personal development and age level to the point where they're thinking of asking us about these things, it will probably be too late for them, and for us, to make the necessary connection. I'm still thinking of things I wish I'd thought to ask my own father and mother when they were still alive, and young enough to remember about this stuff, but I was too caught up in an earlier stage of my own life then, focused on myself at a time when I needed all the focus I could get, just to survive; and it's too late now. The chance will never come again. This dislocation of need vs. possibility among the generations is probably very common, and at least some of what we know might be useful to others later on...

All of which started me thinking about memoirs in two ways. The first was scientific, because lately a lot has been discovered about the very nature of memory itself. In the past we distinguished between "mind" and "brain" and between "fiction" (story telling) and "fact" but in reality, we're now finding that (at least concerning memory) our brains are nothing more than storytelling machines, a position I asserted with some confidence at the party but later thought I'd better fact-check. I'll get to that later. The second way I found myself thinking about memoirs had to do with literature. Regarding fiction and memoir, I remembered a remarkable novel that treats this question in a very original way: The Family Orchard by Nomi Eve.

Book first, science later... Here's a good review I just came across: http://www.bookreporter.com/reviews/0375410767.asp
And here's my own review (adapted from the one I wrote for SLJ in 2001, recommending the book to adults and older teens):

In this novel, history and fiction merge to create the family legends of six generations of Jews in Jerusalem. The narrator's father relates the known facts from 1837 to the present; then, inspired by these sketchy tales, the narrator weaves vivid fantasies about these people. She imagines her ancestors' lives to have been quirky, scandalous, sad, funny, and moving.

The narrator begins by describing the somewhat unconventional sex life of the earliest generation. Then, in colorful and increasingly complex tales of their descendants, she develops this theme into a celebration of the life of a family. Like the citrus orchards they cultivate, they accept "grafts" of spouses from many countries and cultures. The botanical metaphor is so skillfully employed that, by the end of the book, even its "Manual of Orchard Terms" is fascinating. Throughout, the book's pleasing visual design creates a sense of authenticity as it charms with varying typography, historical views of the city and its people, botanical illustrations, and diagrams of the evolving family tree.

The final story is about the narrator herself. A young American, she has come to Jerusalem to discover (and, when necessary, to invent) her family's roots, as she begins a new generation. This is an unusual, richly rewarding book. It is not for unsophisticated readers; but for the right teen, it can be experienced with delight and interest now, then rediscovered later with greater understanding.

Thinking about the book now, in terms of our New Year's conversation, I'd expand on a few things beyond SLJ's short review format. For one thing, in this novel, the author presents the known "facts" of her family history in Jerusalem as related to her by her father. But the reader tends to lose track: is this father - or his account - fictional or real? To the reader caught up in the story, the importance of such a distinction recedes in view of the sense of  authenticity the author conveys. For the record, Eve does state at the outset that the father is fictional ... for what that's worth.

Then, from these unadorned snippets of history as passed down by her father, the fictional narrator creates stories about all these people, her ancestors, that could well be - and certainly feel - true. But is it the author, fictionalizing her own stories? (Nomi Eve the author, borrowing a trope from the fiction of Philip Roth, names her narrator "Nomi Eve.") As a reader I was caught up in the story and it really didn't matter; the result is a novel of poetic truth about human life - and therefore real in a way that the bare facts of the family history cannot convey.

So between history and imagination, fact and truth, there are many interlocking layers, and the novel is a brilliant exploration of this territory of human experience.

After stating clearly that the novel is a work of fiction whose "References to actual geographical terrain and historical records are intended to give the fiction a setting in historical reality," the author adds this:
The word legend comes from the Latin "legere," which means "to read." The word "fiction" comes from the Latin "fingere," which means "to form." From fingere we also get the word fingers. We form things with our fingers. The word history comes from the Greek "istor," which means "to learn" or "to know." I believe in original etymology. I believe that fiction is formed truth. I believe that history is a way of knowing all of this. I believe that legend is how we read between the lines. (p. 3)

Well. Maybe one reason I loved the idea and technique of this novel so much -- I mean, besides the sheer joy of reading such a beautifully written and richly imagined piece of work -- was that it reminded me of my own father and mother: my father, the social scientist-journalist, was always trying to pin down the exact "facts" while my mother, a gifted writer but just as concerned with the state of the real world as my father, tended to adorn her stories with vivid (and not always strictly factual) color that paradoxically made her versions of the same stories the more appealing and thus the more true-feeling. The two writers often edited each other's drafts, and were frequently engaged in friendly disputes over "fact" vs. "exaggeration." As a writer myself, I find both qualities emerging at different times depending on what I'm writing and what my mood is.

On another personal note, another reason I like this novel is that it uses citrus-orcharding as a metaphor, something I can understand very well on a number of levels since I spent some of the least traumatic times of my childhood in such orchards, and as an adult rediscovered a love for botany. And finally, I'm drawn to the universal, trans-national quality of the family story set in a part of the world that I feel a personal connection with, thanks to brief but intense experiences in my youth.

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So much for "fiction"... As to the "fact," or current state of the science of memory, I thought I'd better double-check my own memory on that score so I went to my favorite source, New Scientist, for the latest info. Here's one way of looking at how memories are stored (From: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9970-faq-the-human-brain.html ):

There are several types of memory - for facts, skills or events - and several brain areas devoted to it. At a neuronal level, memory is any change that increases the chance of a signal passing along a particular pathway, or that increases the size or strength of this signal. At first the change can be a simple increase in the amount of signalling chemical released. Gradually, the connections are built up physically with more and bigger synapses. Eventually more branches may form.

For these more permanent changes, genes become active and produce building materials to form the structural changes. But memories are never stored in an immutable form - they are continually being changed and reactivated. (emphasis added.)

Isn't that lovely? For more articles, go to:
http://www.newscientist.com/topic/brain

(When I find the one about the storytelling machine, and how the brain connects memories in different places by making up stories to link them, I'll add that here too....)