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.