Saturday, 10 January 2009

Half of a Yellow Sun

I read Half of a Yellow Sun on the return trip from Paris. Though my aunt ribbed me about only reading depressing books (its not far from the truth), I really, really enjoyed it.
While staying far away from sentimentality, it tells the story of the Nigeria - Biafra war. Of course, I don't think anything happy has ever been written about that war, so there is plenty of suffering to go around. But instead of slogging through the misery, the author takes us along with several main characters - a poor houseboy, a pair of twin sisters from a wealthy Nigerian household and their partners, a Nigerian professor and a British expat. the novel begins in the relative comfort of the pre war years, and jumps back and forth to the midst of the war. None of the horror is skipped - the massacres, the rape, the disappearances, the starvation is all there but the author manages to keep the characters human, blurring the line between victim and perpetrator just enough to make it believable.
Throughout the book, there are snippets from a book being written by one of the characters, which are largely to fill in the history of the Biafran war for people that may not know anything about it. And that idea alone is chilling - how quickly a small country, defeated in a single war, can disappear into obscurity along with all its stories and suffering.
PS - as if to make this piont clearer, the blogger spellcheck doesnt even have the world Biafra in its dictionary!


OK, well truth be told I have been to Paris before, circa age 7. This, however, was my first time as a grown up and it was lovely.
I got to Paris in possibly the world's most ghetto way - by bus. I thought I would be really clever and book the 9 hour ride at night, so could sleep on the bus and arrive nice and chipper at the other end. However, not only was the bus crowded and uncomfortable, but after sitting an additional 3 (!!) hours in traffic, they wake everyone up on the ferry because you cant stay in the bus. So the ride took 12 hours altogether, and I was anything but chipper.
Though the trip was a short one to see an aunt, I had a great time. Not only was it great to meet her for the first time as an adult, but I really appreciated the finer things about Paris - skipping the cathedrals and Louvre for the smaller museums, the lovely neighborhoods and the markets. The markets were one of my favorite parts - I'd love to be able to shop outside for fresh food every morning like she does. Tescos and Sainsbury's seem so dull since.
Though I have been studying French in London, I didn't use it at all this trip, though I used it a bit (mostly unsuccessfully) in Morocco. It was great motivation though, and I can't wait to try it out next trip!

Midnight's Children and The Bookseller of Kabul

I read two books while in Morocco - Midnights Children by Salman Rushdie and The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. Though I didn't realize it when I picked them, these books are both very critical of how Islam is practiced in their respective countries.

Midnights Children was recently awarded "best of the bookers", so I was excited to read it and borrowed it from a friend at work. I've read a few modern novels of India (such as the God of Small things and Q & A), and you can tell how much they owe to Rushdie's non-linear storytelling and reluctance to reveal the books secrets.

This book is not only epic in scale, it blurs the line between fact and science fiction with gusto. I enjoyed the narration, as the story switches back and forth between a first person-narrative and another narrative in which the author tells his story to a companion as he writes it.

Also borrowed from a colleague, I read the Bookseller of Kabul (sorry for the lack of picture! Here, enjoy this pretty picture of the leatherworks in Fez and the sea in Essouera). This is the story of an Afghan family surviving in Kabul around the time of the fall of the Taliban. Though the author is sympathetic to her family of hosts, she does not mask the injustice of the lives of women in Kabul - women who cannot travel, work, or live alone, women who are bought and sold for marriage and cannot go out of doors without full Burkahs.

I read this book near the end of my trip, and Im glad I had just spent my time in a relatively liberal Muslim country, where modesty is more about respect than shame, and where women can work and travel without chaperones. Morocco has many women who cover themselves, but many more that wear relatively modest western clothes. Women and girls work, though most men I spoke to looked forward to making enough money so that their wives could stay home. Unlike Afghanistan, Morocco loves its daughters - one man I met spoke about how he and his wife had adopted a girl once their sons were grown, and how much more fun it was to raise a girl. Its always good to be reminded that it is culture, not always religion, that leads to oppression of women.

In Meknez, I got out of a taxi outside the bus station and realized that the kid I had shared the cab with had been playing with the snaps and opened my rucksack, so that everything fell out on the street when I pulled it on. The taxi drove away, and I was mortified to see that my two borrowed books were all wet from the rain. Within moments, a passing woman had stopped to help me pick them up, and when I came inside, the boys in the coffee shop took the books and put them on top of the coffee maker to dry. That is exactly what Islam is about.


I can say with hardly any doubt that the trip I took last month to Morocco was the best trip I've taken, ever. It was a holiday of just about 10 days, and took me from the red-walled bustle of Marrakesh to the serenity of the roman ruins near Meknez to the chaos of Fez, then down along the cost to the friendly, laid back feel of El Jadida and Essouera.

If I could give advice to everyone going to Morocco it would be to PLEASE go alone, smile, keep your wits about you but let down your guard and talk to people. Take public transport, no matter how late or grubby. Recognize that for every person trying to take advantage of your tourist cash there is another just trying to be friendly.

Im not even sure were to start. Long train or bus rides were always accompanied by friendly chats with the person in the next seat. On four or five different occasions random people bought me tea, breakfast or lunch, or took me walking through their towns. I was there for the off-season, so the weather was cold, but the people were more than warm enough to make up for it.

I was the only girl traveling alone that I met, which is a pity since it is so safe for girls. Though this is true in the majority of the Arab world, the thing that's special about Morocco is their continued tolerance and affection for Jews. While Jewish museums and quarters in Europe are testaments to the dead, there is still a vibrant community living in Fez and Casablanca. The Jewish community in Morocco has been present since pre-Islamic times, and is still well respected among Moroccans.

I arrived just before the holiday everyone referred to as the "sheep festival", during which every family in Morocco comes together to slaughter a sheep in memory of Abraham's sacrifice in Genesis. Because many Moroccans no longer keep sheep of their own, there was a huge amount of bustle and creativity on bringing sheep home - check out this beautiful example of the worst way to transport a live sheep! I luckily had my tickets home for the day before the festival itself began, I'm not sure I could have stomached the actual slaughter. In some ways it felt like the days before Thanksgiving in the US or Christmas in the UK, with everyone rushing home to spend time with their families.
This was an absolutely amazing trip. Easyjet flies there, so noone has an excuse not to go!

A blog backlog

Yes, yes, I know. I have been a bad blogger.

Updates on my reading and travels above.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The Yiddish Policemens Union

Welcome to the first book review of the blog!

I had heard about this book several times over the last year, and I picked it up for the 13+ hours in the air on the way to Cambodia. I ended up sleeping for most of the flight, so the book lasted for a few jet-lagged nights and unacompanied meals.

Granted, its a bit lighter than my usual reading material, but I enjoyed it. Its a bizzare but increadibly confident book - essentialy its a murder mistery. Simple enough, right? But no, this story takes place in a completely theoretical world, where WWII ended early, the Zionists lost the war of independence against the Arab states and the Jews of Europe were given a small strip of land in Alaska as a homeland, but only for a few decades. All this is very nice, but Chabon doesnt lay this out for you in the begning, and instead lets you pick it up as you go along.

Though the mystery itself is good reading, the interesting thing for me was comparing this theoretical land of the Jews to the real one that I lived in for so long. The most obvious difference is that after the crushing of Zionism, the jews speak Yiddish and have a purely religeous, not nationalist, calling for the promised land. The other important bit is that the Jews in Alaska are exclusively the european variety - none of the Morocan, Persian, Iraqi, Egyptian and Indian jews that make up the diversity of today's Israel.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Back home...

So I returned from Cambodia on Sunday, but the job isnt done yet. There is lots of work to be done on our budget and proposal - millions of dollars going back and forth and lots of work to create a strategy. Because the scope of this project is so huge, it really includes a lot of thought into how we can best use these resources to help Cambodians. That means working out what programs work best, how often they need to be extended and by how much. It also means figuring out where our organization and work fit among other organizations and bodies working in Cambodia - the public sector, the private sector, social marketing organizations, social franchising initiatives and private clinics and pharmacies. Like many things in the developing world, quantification is a bit of an oversimplification, as most private doctors are simply public sector doctors enhancing their regular income.

In true developing world form, there are a never ending supply of anomalies and contradictions. Siem Reap, the tourist-friendly province with the vast temples, and deluxe hotels, is also the poorest province in an all around poor country. Everywhere, people ride little motorbikes ("moto") and motorbike-drawn rickshaws ("tuk tuk"), usually in a state of perpetual chaos. Hardly anyone wears helmets, though you'll see people wearing masks to protect their lungs from polution!

One thing that has taken me aback is the closeness of the Khemer Rouge genocide. As a Jew, Ive always heard stories by or about elderly people being the only members of their families to escape Europe alive. The only one from a family of five, eight, ten, or the only one from a street, a neighborhood, a ghetto. Along with their stories of loss there are glimmers of ingenuity and survival. In Cambodia, these stories are told by people in their 40s. Many westerners wonder how Cambodians can recover when justice in the western sense has so long been delayed - tribunals are only recently underway, after the death of the genocidal leader Pol Pot. Its not hard to see why the tribunals would be so difficult here - unlike other massacres, here the perpetrators and victims look the same, live in the same towns and a few short decades later work in the same offices and send their children to the same schools. In purely technical terms, its not even a genocide by definition, as people were killed based on their class, not on the terms of their race, religion or language.

Cambodia is one of those places that attracts long-term expats, and it was great to hear from them about the improvements that they have seen in recent years. When my boss moved there 6 years ago, there was only one paved road, no ATMs and no postal service. Now there is still isnt a reliable postal service or constant electricity, but there are many paved roads, international banks, a growing middle class and education available for most (though not all) of the younger population. NGOs (both native and imported) are everywhere, and Cambodians seem dedicated to improving themselves. Its inspiring to see, and I hope that our project can contribute somewhat to helping these people take control of their lives.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

On the road!

Its been hard to update now that I am on the road - expect lots of retroactive postings! Im in Phnom Phen at the moment, but let me give you some basic background and reflection.

I came to Cambodia before a weekend so that I could spend time in Siem Reap, in the north, before starting work. I have seen many beautiful man-made places - Jerusalem, Petra, the Coliseum and many cathedrals, but I have never seen anything like the Ankor Temples. I really only had one full day to soak them up, but I was completely overwhelmed by their artistry. Huge temples, somehow majestic but not vain. In varying states of disrepair, but always dignified. Though it is heavily touristed, even in the most crowded temples it is possible to take a moment for solitude.

After seeing so many churches in my life, I was impressed by the modesty of the Buddhist shrines - lovingly draped in orange cloth, with incense and gifts offered by passersby. Many of the temples are pre-Buddhist, and are heavily decorated with traditional Khemer designs. The shrines are usually tucked away in far corners and up long, steep flights of stairs.

My favorite of the temples was the least restored - the trees, moss and animals re-ingesting the fallen stones made it all the more accessible and eerie. The contrast between the magnificent, serine temples and the world outside is harrowing - as soon as you leave the gates you are mobbed by hordes of people, usually children, trying to sell you souvenirs. They begin by trying to sell you things that they think you want (bracelets, flutes, etc), then resort to trying to guilt a purchase. I bought a bottle of water from one girl only to be harshly chastised by another for not buying from her as well. Some of the adults were very polite and kind, and I was happy to buy a few small things from them. I wonder about the future for all the children running up to me shouting "one dolla, one dolla". I only hope one day their parents will be able to send them to school instead of relying on them for income. I also know that selling trinkets to tourists, though harsh and limiting, is far better than being sucked into the horrifying pedophilia trade that is rife in much of this country.

After Seim Reap, I took the bus to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Phen. Its a city where you can feel the third worldliness in every breath - terrifying drivers, most of them on overburdened motorbikes, constant hassling and begging, spotty electricity, cheep clothes (some stolen from the local GAP factory, some faked), fake DVDs, bizarre food, over-the-counter access to loads of drugs, tragic sex workers, shows of wealth by the lucky few and NGOs of every kind in every direction. It's fascinating, distracting and dramatic.

I'm here to help our country office write a budget (and proposal) for a possibly massive grant. The results could be amazing and do so much for Cambodia. The country office is under lots of stress - recent elections have thrown our vital relationship with the government into question and various other problems have sprouted up along with it. As an organization that runs clinics, we really do have a huge responsibility to those we serve. I visited two of the clinics yesterday - though simple, they were immaculately clean and cheerfully staffed.

The other great exposure of this trip was the chance to peak into a hardcore NGO worker community. My current boss lived here for 5 years as part of her previous job, so she had friends to visit and experience living here. Among the whole community there is a strange mix of optimism and despair – its hard to believe that things will get better when everything is so difficult and subject to so many setbacks. Cambodia is rather monolithic ethnically, and even after years here westerners rarely have Khemer friends or speak more than a few sentences in the language. It's an inspiring but realistic group of people – and one that I can see becoming a part of as my life progresses.

Much more, including the other half of this blog, the books, on its way in the coming days!

Monday, 25 August 2008

Dissertation Stress

So much work to do... I feel like my soul has been sucked out through my keyboard.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Crunch time!

An update is long overdue. I write this as I finish week two at my new job. And I am still completely infatuated by it.

I really don't think I could have a better job. The people I work with are lovely. The office is cheerful an dedicated. The British flavour is friendly, with drinks in the pub with the bosses being the norm. The cause is brilliant. And best of all, they pay for me to hop on airplanes and go to interesting places. I'm going on my first trip on Thursday, when they put me on a plane to Cambodia (!!!!). Because the people I work with are travel addicts like me, tacking on days at the beginning and end is encouraged, and I will be able to take advantage of the trip to go to the ruins at Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, then travel down to Phnom Pheh to work with one of our country programs to build up a budget and proposal for a massive expansion. Its an incredibly exciting project, and I cant wait to be part of such a huge scale up that will help so many people.

The last weeks have been incredibly stressful. Not only am I lagging on my dissertation, my visa status was up in the air because of a mistake made by the consulate in Tel Aviv. If that had fallen through my life would basically have fallen apart - I would have had to leave the best job I could possibly have, be stuck paying for my apartment in London while trying to work things out from abroad... so thank god it came through!

Now the big push is on the dissertation. Luckily my boss is very understanding and told me to take time off if I needed it, so I'm taking Tuesday for hardcore studying. Turning it in on Wednesday or Thursday, then getting on a plane Thursday night for Asia... So exciting!

At the same time that I'm excited for being finished with school work and starting at a real job, I am sad that this part of my life is coming to an end. One of my best friends (someone I knew before London, but who I became close with here) is leaving, which means that my copious levels of alcohol consumption will no longer be entirely socially acceptable. Ah yes and of course I'll miss him as well, not just as a drinking buddy.

Many people I know here are leaving or have already left, and I am sad that the LSE section of my life is dissipating and all the inspiration and learning Ive gotten this year will go with it. I hope that by staying in sector I can continue to surround myself with great, inspiring people with great dreams for the world, but as much as I have loved the environment I've also loved the individuals. And I will certainly miss them as they go.

OK Jules, back to work!