A Short History of Kosovo (Kosovo)

kosovo map


by Noel Malcolm

The country of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 so will be 10 years old this year, 2018.
European Oatmeal: Sultanas, Nuts, Apricots,Wine Gummies

Indo European languages tree







The first two chapters are like eating a huge bowl of the above. It was glorious; a linguist nerd’s heaven, but I can’t remember all of the individual ingredients because the land and the tribes and the languages changed so much, often in the same sentence. Good thing there won’t be a quiz afterward. These two chapters REALLY needed maps on facing pages AND an Indo-European Language Chart. On every page.

Serbian Bosnia and Albanian language tree


Since Kosovo is just a short sea away from Italy, many of the tribes spoke Latin as a gift from the Roman Empire; others spoke Greek from Byzantine days.

The book does not point out an obvious difference in the Serbo-Croat language. Since the Yugoslav Wars, the Serbians and the Croatians prefer to think they have their own separate language, and perhaps that is the way things are evolving, for languages are dynamic and not static. BUT, when I was in high school and Serbo-Croat was one language shared by two people, the Serbs used the Cyrillic alphabet (the one Russians and Bulgarians use) and the Croats used the Roman alphabet (the one Americans use).

Another obvious difference is that most Croats are Catholic, and most Serbs are Serbian Orthodox, descended from Greek Orthodox, although all were subject to the Pope once. (See my blog on the Holy See for the split, which happened in the 11th century.)

Kosovo's National Library

Kosovo’s National Library

The tribes:

  • Gegs (Northern Albanians)
  • Tosks (Southern Albanians)
  • Cams
  • Labs
  • Huns (Mongolian and proto-Hungarian)
  • Goths (Germanic tribe)
  • Avars (Turikik tribe)
  • Slavs (proto-Serbs and proto-Croats)
  • Vlachs (aka Aromanians or Romanians. The Romanian language has a lot in common with modern Italian.)
  • Bulgars (Turkik tribe)
  • Ilyrians (Western Balkans)–Extinct and their language died with them
  • Thracians (Eastern Balkans)–Extinct and their language also died, but bits were preserved in the Serbian Orthodox Church from AD 500 or so
  • Arnaut (proto-Albanians)
  • Bessi (Thracian Bulgar tribe)

Men of the Mountains

This bridge in Prizren was built in the 1300s, long before America was even a twinkle in Amerigo Vespucci's eye

This bridge in Prizren was built in the 1300s, long before America was even a twinkle in Amerigo Vespucci’s eye

It is thought that the world Albania comes from the Indo-European ALB, meaning ALP. As in, the Alps. Mountains. The Gaelic for Scotland is Albainn, sometimes also called Albania. The Kosovoans and Albanians in Kosovo are compared in this book to the Scots Highlanders. There is a similarity of isolation, pastoral warrior culture, and the independence of mind referred to by several authors as being special to mountain tribes. The Kosovans of old gave a lot of trouble to the Ottoman Turks, whenever the latter tried to seize the former’s weapons. Apparently a man’s weapons devolve upon his Honor and can lead to blood feuds like those referred to by Ishmael Kadare in his writing. I read another book years ago–wish I could remember the name, comparing mountain people all over the globe. They’re often indigenous, often persecuted, and often very stubbornly independent and ferocious. Many times in the book, women became fierce fighters, and not just the men.

One of the flags Kosovo has had over the decades...Hm, sure looks like the flag of Albania.

One of the flags Kosovo has had over the decades…Hm, sure looks like the flag of Albania.

This book took me forever to get through, being packed with dates and battles and ethnic groups. I read from the battle of Kosovo in 1369 or was it 1389? When the Ottoman Turks basically defeated the Kosovo defenders and it became inevitable that they would be assimilated. I read about the Ottoman custom of taking 40 or 50 young boys from villages in areas they had conquered and sending them to Istanbul to make them into the soldiers called Janisseries.  I read about the revolt of the Young Turks in the 1800s. About how that led to mismanagement of the empire, and the massacre of the Armenians. (In the book on the Popes, I learned that Armenia was majority Christian since around the 300s, which may have been one of the reasons for the genocide.) I learned how the modern majority  Serb narrative is one of continuous oppression by the Turks, but it sounds like the peasants had it better under the Ottomans than they did under the medieval Serbian kingdom.

One thing you have to thank the Ottomans for is the presence of so many Turkish Baths in the Balkans, and beautiful Eastern architecture, right on up into Pecs, Hungary. It’s kind of amazing to me how far the Ottomans and before them the Mongols penetrated into Western Europe–all the way to Vienna.

Ethnic Albanian refugees cook under open skies on Mt. Cicavica, some 40 kilometers (24 miles) northwest of Pristina, Yugoslavia,, on September 24, 1998. According to the AP newswire that day: Serb and Yugoslav forces struck deeper into the last pockets of separatist Kosovo Albanian resistance, despite U.N. and NATO moves that edged open the door for a military strike against them. (AP PHOTO /Marco Di Lauro)

Of course, all history is revisionist, but it was interesting to see how Serb and Albanian historians interpreted it so differently. One thing I could clearly see both groups doing in the book is filtering history through a modern lens; through a nationalistic filter. Nationalism is very different from medieval Europe, or even Renaissance and Classic Restoration Europe. And I should stop saying “Turks” for Ottomans, since the Empire contained as many different nascent “nationalities” as the Roman Empire did.

Another thing you have to thank the Ottomans for is them not having the tradition of the Blood Feud, like the Albanians. So stupid, and so many innocent people lost their lives to this custom. The worst part is that to satisfy a family’s “honor”, you could kill ANY member of the offender’s family, even if they had done nothing to you. And then that person’s relatives would kill another of your relatives. It was estimated that a single blood feud could wipe out up to 600 people!

.If you want an in-depth understanding of some of the most interesting parts of Eastern Europe, and why things are as they are today, this is the book for you.

NOTE: On April 2, 2018, I got very sick and ended up in the hospital for 8 weeks, followed by outpatient rehabilitation and surgery to remove my right eye.

Book Rating: Five stars over the Balkans.



Tales of the Tikongs (Tonga)

book coverby Epeli Hau’ofa

93 pages

This is a seriously sarcastic little book. If you took Terry Pratchett, Robert Aspirin, Carl Hiaasen and Joseph Heller and mixed them all together, then put them in traditional Tikong dress, you’d have half an idea of how funny this book is. It’s a very dry wit though. At times rowdy and ribald. I enjoyed the heck out of it.

The book is linked short stories, with each chapter telling you about a particular Tikong person, and some character overlap. There’s a man who starts his own church when the “Sabbatarians” don’t cut it for him; a man who has left the island to be educated abroad and is no longer considered a “real Tikong”; there is a fisherman who takes a development loan from a New Zealand NGO and becomes so miserable that he sinks the boat he was given in the ocean by chopping a hole in it with an ax.

One critical note: Women only appear in the periphery here. And I did have the sarcastic thought while reading, that the Tikong love of doing nothing most certainly does not apply to women, who are likely the invisible ones here providing bread for the menfolk, bringing up the children, and cleaning their houses, as usual.

map of TongaThe island of Tiko is fictional, but it stands for so many real island countries in Oceania. The author was born in Papau New Guinea to Tongan parents who were missionaries. He went to school in both those countries as well as Fiji and Australia. He worked as the Director of the Rural Development Centre in Tonga which is undoubtedly where he picked up a healthy boatload of skepticism about NGOs and South Pacific island nation governments alike.

The Characters

beach houseThere are two kinds of locals in Tiko. Those who want absolutely NO D-E-V-E-L-O-P-M-E-N-T and those who do want it. Those who don’t include Manu, an old islander who occasionally rides around the island with hand-lettered signs that say things like DEVELOPMENT IS A LIE, TIKO KNOWS SWEET BUGGER ALL, AUSTRALIAN COWS ARE QUEER AND NEW ZEALAND BULLS CAN’T DO NO DAMN GOOD EITHER. They include men like Sione, who has 16 children and rests every day except for the Sabbath. He loves the International Expert Mr. Marv Dolittle, sent to Tiko from The Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Canberra, Australia, because his name Dolittle, makes him think the white man is “one of us”. He spends his days at the office actively trying to do as little as possible–sleeping and playing cards with his secretary.


Those who do not want D-E-V-E-L-O-P-M-E-N-T include Sailosi, the Important Person who was so inspired by the speech of His Excellency Tiko’s Paramount Chief, who on the day of independence denounced the running dogs of Imperialism and Capitalism. He stops his typist from wearing lipstick because “it’s a foul foreign custom. While you’re at it, get rid of the French perfume, too. It smells froggy. Use the great Tikong all-purpose coconut oil…” They include men like the preacher who has a single cow, and is approached by a man who has a single bull. The preacher reacts with horror to the suggestion that his lovely cow should “date” this bull. He strikes the man in the face for even suggesting it…my cow shall remain an innocent virgin…

The movers and shakers:

Tonga tourist mapThose who do want D-E-V-E-L-O-P-M-E-N-T on Tiko include Mr. Alvin Lowe, aka “Sharky”, of Alice Springs. He is extremely patronizing. “You no can speak English good?” He says to the fisherman/gardener Ika Levu, “switching to the language he used when talking to simple natives. “You no can savvy?” He yells after Ika Levu expresses doubt about taking out a development loan.

“Gawd! Me talk talk all same simple something na you no can savvy! Whassamatter? Me think think head belong you too much dumdum na full up shit something no good true! All right me all same try one more time yet, na you try savvy good or I’ll bloody well bash your coon head in, ok?”

The endeavors of the Wise Men who are from foreign countries don’t turn out well on Tiko. They give the men cows and bulls to start great herds of cattle on Tiko. But every time someone dies, the new ranchers are expected to hold a great feast and butcher one of the beasts. Because on Tiko, you share. Of course this concept is completely foreign to Capitalism. The running dogs from New Zealand belittle the running dogs from Australia, and visa-versa. Savvy Tikongs play them against each other. It is sad, infuriating, and hilarious all at once.


Rating: Five delicious mutton flaps! (Mutton flap is a cheap cut from the ribs of the sheep. It is very fatty, and very much enjoyed in the South Pacific.)


Blood of Belvidere (Grenada)

book coverby Dunbar Campbell

Based on the modern metric of ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences, Scott MacDonald should expect an addictive adulthood. His father was a drunk, and his father’s father was a drunk. Scott often didn’t have enough to eat and had to wear his cousin Oliver’s hand-me-down clothes. Scott saw his mother get slapped around, yet despite having 4 children to think about, Mommy did not leave his father. Dad caused the deaths of the children’s pets:  First Trini, the pigeon that flew to Grenada from Trinidad, and later Rex, the dog that Mr. Farrow gave the kids to protect them.

We know now that even one ACE can reduce a person’s life expectancy by 20 years, and Scott has more bad luck to dodge than even that. A murderer called Planass, who keeps getting released from prison early by a corrupt government, has it in for Scott and his brother Rodney due to unresolved issues with their father, Hector MacDonald.

You know that bit in the Bible in Exodus (and Numbers and Deuteronomy and Jeremiah) where it says, “And the sins of the father shall be visited upon the children, unto the third and the fourth generation…”?) Besides thinking that was massively unfair, I used to think it referred to genetic diseases like diabetes. Not in this novel. In this novel it is a curse, visited upon General Malcolm MacDonald when he defeated a Grenada slave revolt led by Frenchman Julien Fedon.

Fedon’s revenge was to curse his family from 1795 unto the present day…actually seven or eight generations I believe.

Grenada mapThe Duncans and the MacDonalds bear this curse for supporting the British and being British.

Poor old Scott is a pretty nice guy, but his Dad Hector is an abusive drunk who has caused his family to hate him. Of course, he has plenty of pain in his own past. Pa, the grandfather, was a man everyone hated. They are all outcasts from Belvidere, the Fedon family plantation on the island. Looming over everything is Mount Qua Qua where Fedon was defeated and disappeared. Because his body was never found, the legend is that the black magic he learned from his Yoruba grandmother, brought from Nigeria as a slave woman, allowed him to escape and to live forever. He is said to roam the island on stormy nights on his white horse.

Who is Neil Farrow?

Grenada beachThe 4 children’s only protector on the island is Neil Farrow, a one-legged elderly black man who spent 3 years in a British prison for saving a white officer’s life. “They wanted us to dig trenches; they didn’t want black Grenadians killing white Germans,” he explains. (Blew my mind; obviously true.) Mr. Farrow lives next door to the MacDonalds and is the self-appointed guardian of the children. There is some unexplained black magic there. And hints that he is somehow wrapped up in, or perhaps related to, the legend of Fedon.

Unfortunately, the pig of a man who has seized control of Grenada in the wake of its independence from Britain, Gabbard is utterly ruthless and utterly corrupt. He identifies with Fedon, claiming everything he does is for God and Fedon. Fedon, the son of a French Catholic plantation owner and a free Colored mulatto woman, would have hated him. Gabbard is black, grew up poor on the island. His chief henchmen are Planass and Rabid. Sadly for them, Scott’s girlfriend Trini is thirsting for revenge for the killing of her father VIncent as he smuggled rum from Venezuela into the island (he was cutting into their profits).

Grenada on the World Stage

port with lots of housesI never understood why we (the USA) parachuted into Grenada in 1983. There was Vietnam before I was born and then our embassy in Iraq was seized and Canada hid the hostages next door, and then suddenly this island I never heard of was in the news. Why? I think it had to do with Ronald Reagan’s fear of Communism. That sucks.

When you hear the word Grenada, you probably think of Spain. The island was briefly claimed for Spain when Christopher Columbus sailed past it, but it has been inhabited by the Arawak Indians for 1,000 years way before that. It is thought that they fled to the island in canoes from the Amazon during some tribal warfare. They lived for an era the length of the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, before the Carib Indians found them and invaded. The Caribs lived on the island for 500 years before the Europeans came. The Europeans fought over the island. The French held it for awhile, and then the British took it. And then the British ceded it to the native Grenadians. Then there was trouble.



This was a good read, in which the day-to-day lives of ordinary Grenadians like Mr. Farrow and Mr. Welsh, the village’s only World War I veterans, were seamlessly interwoven with the plot. The smell of mangoes and the sound of the waves crashing on the beach, without which Scott has a hard time sleeping. Chinatown, where the prostitutes roam and the men drink shots of rum and cans of Carib beer. The sincere efforts of the students to follow in the footsteps of Castro and the Communist Revolution in Cuba, just as their ancestors had been inspired by the French Revolution. The efforts of women to be emotionally and financially independent of abusive men. The efforts of the descendants of slave and indentured servants, and also some descendants of their oppressors, to be finally free.

Rating: Five bowls of spicy fish stew with figs!

What My Body Remembers (Denmark)

more Hvidovreby Agnete Friis

Hvidovre, Copenhagen. A concrete block apartment house in a run-down part of town.

Single mother Ella’s body literally remembers the trauma she suffered as a child–but she (her mind) doesn’t. When Ella’s PTSD is triggered, she shakes uncontrollably and sometimes passes out. It’s scary for her 11-year-old son Alex to watch. Ella’s only friends, her elderly neighbors Rosa and Jens, try to look out for her and the boy, but they’re both alcoholics. It isn’t easy.


Klitmoller beach When Ella was a small child, her father was convicted of murdering her mother. After that, Ella was passed around from one foster home to another. She hasn’t spoken to her father in 20 years, or her grandmother (her father’s mother).

But when the Welfare starts making noises about taking Alex away, Ella cuts and runs north to West Jutland, where she must start to confront her past.

Something is Fishy in West Jutland

book coverWhat My Body Remembers was an unusual take on the Nordic crime novel, which I love. The crime is in the past; the novel is a frame story. The protagonist is far from detective Harry Hole–she’s not the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, although at times she can be just as hostile. She’s not a detective, she is a single mother trying to raise her son. She doesn’t WANT to solve the crime; she wants to escape from it. But the past just won’t let go.

Ella is, of course, a flawed character. She drinks vodka to self-medicate, and smokes too much. She loves her son passionately, even as she understands that he’s a pre-teen and she, and their poverty, are starting to embarrass him. To make ends meet, they collect cans. Ella sometimes shoplifts for the “extras” the dole doesn’t provide–chocolate cookies, a bottle of whiskey, some chewing gum. Alex can’t afford the name-brand clothes and shoes that other boys his age have.

In Klitmoller, though, none of that matters. Alex romps down the dunes, through the surf, looks for amber on the beach, fishes, and goes surfing with a kindly hot young dude called Magnus, who has his eye on Ella. The North Sea shore in the book is just as windy and chilly as I remember it. (My family of origin is from Denmark, in the East Jutland.) And everybody eats liver pate on rye bread. Yum!

Corn Cob, Who’s Your Friend?

Ella has poor judgment when it comes to making friends. Here she is talking to Rosa:

Klitmoller on the map“We’d had this conversation hundreds of times before, practically word for word, but Rosa had no sympathy for social aberrations of this kind. Her life–as I had come to know it in the two years we’d lived in the apartment next door–was little more than an endless row of repetitions.

“Morning coffee with the husband at eight, shopping at Netto at ten, rye bread with meat and raw onions at twelve. Then, two hours on the sofa with an indefinite number of Kodimagnyl and Valium swimming in her blood. Cake, coffee, and TV at three. Dinner with the husband at six. Some kind of fried meat, potatoes, and cooked vegetables. Then more TV, more coffee, and a stack of smokes. Washing was done Monday, Lotto Wednesday and Saturday.”

Hvidovre Hey, this could have been my grandmother’s life if our ancestors had stayed in Europe. Because we were never wealthy people. And alcoholism runs in my family too.

Although Rosa and Jens are like her family, Ella doesn’t trust easily and she does not make new friends. A man named Thomas tries to reach out to her, but she snaps at him. (She doesn’t remember their early friendship, or anything before the age of eight). An artist called Barbara moves in with her, trying to help her using hypnosis. Ella comes to dislike Barbara but is too weak to kick her out. She needs another adult around to take care of Alex when she has one of her fits.

Klitmoller dunesOf course, Barbara is not who she seems…although her German Shepherd Lupo is delightful.

An easy read. This book is a thriller, and while I saw some of the plot twists coming a kilometer away, there was one surprise at the end that floored me. It was a doozy.

Rating: Five cockleshells!

More Super Scandinavian Crime by Women:


  • The Hanne Wilhelmsen novels by Anne Holt. Hanne is a cranky lesbian police officer in Oslo. Well-written. Start with The Blind Goddess.
  • The Boy in the Suitcase, by Agnete Friis. It was up for the same award later won by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
  • Camilla Lackberg; The Preacher is her latest.



Sun, Sand, Murder (British Virgin Islands or BVI)

book coverby John Keyse-Walker

I had a little problem with the island of Anagada, the “Drowned Land” where this delightful cozy mystery takes place. I got it through a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore, because Professor Google told me it was set in the British Virgin Islands, also known as BVI. But the phrase “Land of Love and Drowning” kept drifting through my mind. Uh,oh. I went back over the blog and discovered that my blog on the American Virgin Islands ALSO took place in Anagada…

Land of Love and Drowning’s MC’s mother was born on Anagada, but a lot of the action takes place on St. Thomas, which is definitely in the AVI. In that book, Anagada is mysterious, desolate, magical and wild. In Sun, Sand, and Murder, it is very modern–kind of like the island in Death in Paradise. Although both Main Characters are descended from slaves, Sun, Sand, and Murder‘s Special Constable Teddy Creque is not haunted by history.  He suffers no historical trauma.

lobsterWhich is a good thing, because he’s got enough problems. His marriage is falling apart–he’s cheating on his wife with this hot helicopter pilot– and he’s in trouble with his boss. There hasn’t been a murder on Anagada for 20 years, until De White Rasta stumbles over one on the beach at Spanish Camp. While trying to protect the body from being eaten completely by land crabs and seagulls, Teddy disturbs the crime scene and almost gets fired. Oh, and he pukes 3 times. I don’t blame him. I’m also off seafood for awhile.

BVI mapOur New Friends

De White Rasta is one of my favorite characters in this book, or possibly ever. He speaks with a fake Jamaican accent, and is always stoned but happy. His real name is Lord Anthony Wedderburn, and he escaped from England as a young man and didn’t even go back for his father’s funeral. He has hidden depths, which we run into later.

The lady who runs the bar at Cow Wreck Beach is also cool. Belle makes conch fritters and cooks six-pound lobsters with panache. She also lets De White Rasta crash on an Army cot behind her place (he is homeless) as long as he clears out before the customers arrive.

map of BVI and AVIWendell the grumpy treasure hunter and his silent mistress Marie are interesting. There are always treasure hunters on Anagada, thanks to Pirate Bone and Pirate Something Else during the 1600s. Wendell finds cannon balls and buttons and other historical detritus. but he has yet to find The Big One. He also points out that there is no such thing as a treasure map.

A conch shell on the beachTeddy is flawed and troubled, but very likable. He has to work 3 jobs in order to keep food on the table for his 2 kids. His wife Icilda works long hours as a waitress and they barely see each other. Teddy is the island’s customs officer, a Special Constable (one step lower on the ladder than a uniformed policeman) and he works at the power plant. The belongers on the island have the usual tourist destination’s attitude toward tourists: we like your money, but sometimes you irritate us. Being from a tourist town myself, I get it. (One Winter Carnival when my brother was especially annoyed, he coined the term “touron”–a combination of tourist and moron.) Anyway, when one of the generators at the power plant dies, Teddy has to decide which side of the island loses power so they don’t blow the whole thing. He has to decide between The Settlement, where the belongers live, or the other side with the tourist hotels. It is no contest. The belongers always lose, because everyone on the island knows the value of tourism.

The Settlement houses

The Settlement

This was a fun, easy to read romp through Anagadan history (pirates, treasure, Arawak and Carib Indians, and a mid-20th century scammer called Nigel Brooks, who stole millions from the government). The modern stuff was fun too. Fishing for bonefish, mudding, lobsters and crabs and shrimp, oh my! I definitely wanted to visit. I also wanted to rescue the dozens of skeletal cows who wander the island and block the roads. Poor underfed dears.

RATING: Five buckets of conch shells!

Musings on Niue (Niue)

even more wrappingmore packaging







package from London

courtesy of a special order from ABE BOOKS
edited by Larry Thomas

When this collection arrived in the mail from London, I could hardly contain my excitement. The packaging was magic! Niue (KNEE-way)? My friend from New Zealand says “NEW-eh.” Anyway Niue Island is close to New Zealand, and not much has been written about it. In 1998, a man called Larry Thomas hosted a writing workshop on the island. This tiny collection of stories, creative non-fiction, and poetry from islanders is the result. They’re not James Patterson or Anne Lamott, they’re just regular people taking a writing class.

Despite this, their work is very good. Sure, being a crack editor myself, I could edit the volume into an even better place (I was bothered by the redundant phrase “I rushed hastily…”) but I know these are amateurs doing their best. Perfection isn’t the point. Learning about Niue is.

map of niueSome of the writers are obviously locals:

  • Fanaga Elisoni
  • Fakahula Mitinieli Funaki
  • Hema Ashoka
  • Ligi Siosua Sisikefu

And some are not:

  • Pat Douglas
  • Susan Elliot

One of my superpowers is to be able to tell someone’s ethnicity from their last name. Including names most Americans are not familiar with, like Turkish and Basque. But these defeated me. They seem vaguely Japanese-Polynesian and yet that isn’t quite right.

book coverWiki says that Niuean is a member of the Malayo-Polynesian subgroup of Austronesian languages. It is most closely related to the Tongan language.  It is also related to Hawaiian, Maori, and Samoan. Hmm. I used to know how to count to 5 in Tongan, courtesy of a sweet little man I used to teach English with in Japan. His name was Ralph, he had giant red glasses, and he had lived on Tonga for something like 20 years, where he taught English to the King of Tonga’s children. He had left Tonga to meet English-speaking women, and I think he had his eye on me for a while. Sadly, I have a rule never to date a man more than 10 years older than myself. Ralph, wherever you are now, I hope you’re happy and I hope you are married.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

people swim in a coveNothing, as it turns out. The stories in this collection are people’s memories of their grandparents or themselves (one woman was born in 1946 and grew up on the island. Her grandpa had to ride a horse to school. It was difficult to get an education. Some of the kids had to go away to New Zealand to boarding schools.) There are a couple stories by 7th Day Adventists. There are poems about leaving the island and the sense of loss, and about island life changing. There is a funny story about someone’s dog who is obsessed with chewing up their underwear (pretty much like dogs everywhere) and one about a vegetarian couple trying to get enough to eat at the Friday market.

My favorite story was by J. Vatorata Rex: “The Beehive Kid”.

man holding coconut crab

© R. Ian Lloyd
Model Release: Yes
Property Release: No
Model Release
Man Holding Coconut Crab,
Niue Island, South Pacific

The Beehive Kid

Beehive is a New Zealand brand of matches with a pretty red and black striped cover, and Mr. Rex as a small child was a firebug. He used to get into trouble with his cousin and you can guess what happened next. For years after the two set the garage, a Yamaha motorcycle leaking fuel and themselves on fire, Mr. Rex’s uncle had a special word for them. When they “got too big for their britches”, the uncle would tease them by calling them “the flaming Yamaha kids”.

man walkingAnother woman’s grandpa would sooth her to sleep when she talked too much by telling her she had “tractors” in her head, making a lot of noise and running around. He would calm the tractors down and she would drift right off as the two sat under the mango tree.

It is clear that whatever else went on in Niue, there was a lot of love and family connection. A lot of time spent together, with not so many worldly possessions. And, as one poem makes clear, it is hard to live your life when everybody is all up in your business, all the time.

OMG, the uga is huge! More like an ugh-a, if you ask me.

OMG, the uga is huge! More like an ugh-a, if you ask me.

Pia Making

One story has to do with the tradition of pia making. Pia seems to be some kind of tapioca, which is made from arrowroot. The by-products are poisonous so you have to be really careful. Traditionally, women and girls who are menstruating are not allowed near the process. (I was offended…First of all, it’s none of your damn business…I remember visiting a mosque in Malaysia and having the guide make this same announcement. Excuse me, and just how are you going to know? Angry face. I always feel like saying “And what about men with erections?”)

small villageAnyway back to the pia making, my only criticism of this book is that there are many terms in Niuean that they just don’t tell you what they mean. I figured out through context that the uga is a coconut crab, but what is luku? What is naane?

Lavakula the Warrior

The story I thought needed the most help but didn’t get it was the first one in the collection: Lavakula the Warrior. It is a tale of long-ago Niue, which is very interesting. However, the main character, a warrior who goes to another village and is insulted by the people, then gets his people to make war on them, has some plot shifts which don’t make sense. At first, Lavakula’s people support him and can’t wait to kill the others. Once this is done and they return home, the other village resolves to kill Lavakula.

coconut cups

Coconut Cups

Now, the warrior has been described until now as fearless, but suddenly he cowers and cringes and is afraid. His friends and family turn on a dime, from being supportive to ignoring and mocking him. Why? It makes no sense. Even his wife suddenly despises him. Maybe this story makes sense to the islanders, but it sure didn’t to me. Also, what’s up with the hand-drawn illustration of “Lavakula Defecating”…???

Altogether though, this was a fascinating peek at an isolated culture.

Rating: Four ugas eating coconuts!



The Caliph’s House (Morocco)

book coverby Tahir Shah

A foreigner moves from London to Morocco to get away from the digitized world. He hates packaged chicken curry sandwiches. He longs to live by the ocean (so do I) in the sunlight and warmth. (Ditto.) I have loved the Provence of Peter Mayle…the Tuscany of Frances Mayes…the Corfu of the Durrell family. But this book is different.

Tahir Shah is one-fourth Scottish and two-fourths Afghan; somewhere in his father’s family he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. His father used to drive the kids from England to Afghanistan, looking for displays of “fantasia”–men riding horseback, shooting rifles in the air and whooping. Tahir Shah’s wife is from India. So I was intrigued by the family as much as the adventure. And what an adventure it is!

When the Shah family purchases Dar Kahlifa, the Caliph’s  House, in the middle of a shantytown in Casablanca, it is at once magnificent and run-down. There are secret rooms that are locked. There is a giant pool (I’m ready to move in until the little girl starts throwing snails into it). There are courtyards and bedrooms and kitchens. There is a garden.

There are also Jinns. What?

The Jinns Move In, And They Won’t Move Out

Shah hired local craftsmen to restore the house using traditional methods

Shah hired local craftsmen to restore the house using traditional methods

In addition to the house, Shah inherits 3 Moroccan men who live in the shantytown and have been taking care of the Caliph’s House for generations. They obstruct his every desire, saying that the Jinns will be angry. Almost every Moroccan he meets believe in the Jinns. Even some foreigners do. When a house is left empty as Dar Kahlifa has been, Jinns move in. It is their house now, and they don’t like the family to live there. The Shahs are told not to use the toilet in the night, not to build certain things or reconstruct others. They have to prepare gigantic feasts for the Jinns (Shah suspects they disappear into the bellies of the guardians but can’t prove it). The Jinns require presents and for a well to be dug. One of the guardians secretly puts raw meat in it for the Jinns and the whole Shah family ends up vomiting and having diarrhea because of it.

interior courtyard with fountainThe remodeling of the house while fighting local superstition is the main theme of the book. Shah says that Casablanca itself seems a first-world, sophisticated city with glitzy restaurants, luxury hotels, and fast cars. But that if you scratch the surface, you find the culture of old Morocco with all its superstitions alive and well. He says the whole of North Africa believes in Jinns and curses and witches and sorcery and blood sacrifice. (Having made the same observation myself about Tokyo while living there, I believe him.)

Strangely, devout Muslims tell Shah that Jinns are in the Quran, so they believe in them. Huh. You know that story about Jesus casting demons out of people into pigs, and then they ran over the cliff? That’s in the Bible, but I don’t believe in evil spirits. Well, that’s me.

Shah longed for a library with cedar shelves from floor to ceiling. Unfortunately, cedar is FULL of Jinns…

Disturbingly, the Shahs keep finding dead cats, dead rats, and dead hedgehogs hanging from trees. The guardians say it is because the Jinns are angry. Tahir Shah thinks it is because someone wants to scare them into giving up the house. Possibly the local godfather and his gangster wife who live down the street. The guardians plead with Shah to hire a gang of sorcerers to perform an exorcism, which he finally does. The 25 men he hires under the auspices of the head sorcerer, who looks exactly like a pimp, laze around the Caliph’s House, demanding elaborate meals, smoking hashish, and getting drunk. When they finally perform the exorcism, they slaughter a ram in one of the main rooms and sprinkle the blood around, upsetting Shah’s 5 year old daughter no end.

I have to say, I took the girl’s side. She made friends with the goat immediately. It was the one point in the book when I wanted to punch Shah in the face for not putting his foot down. It was also out of character. Usually, when he saw chameleons for sale by the side of the road, and the boy selling them hanging them by their tails, he bought the entire stock and set them free. He yelled at kids poking donkeys with sticks. So I was very displeased by the goat sacrifice. (Although the sorcerers had originally demanded that he buy them rams to sacrifice in every single room. And he didn’t, thank God.)

That was my main UGH about Morocco–treatment of animals. Look, I understand that when you’re desperately poor, you can’t afford to be sentimental about animals. In my own father’s family, my Dad was traumatized at the age of 4 when his favorite goat, called Goatie, went missing. They were eating dinner when he suddenly realized he was eating his friend Goatie. I know why his parents had to do it, but it still sucks. UGH.

The Afghan Connection

interior of house

I want to live here

What makes this travelogue different from the others mentioned above is that Tahir Shah is deeply connected to his adoptive country. His grandfather, who passed away when Shah was young, lived in Tangier for ten years. He keeps running into Moroccans who knew his grandpa, as well as a French Countess. In addition, he lived with his parents in Morocco for awhile when he was young. And while he isn’t religious himself, his grandpa was a Sufi, a man of great wisdom. Shah keeps comparing the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan. So that’s super interesting.

Shah’s grandpa was quite a man. He was a Freemason in Scotland before World War 1, and in the course of finding grandpa’s diaries, Shah discovers a good deed his grandpa did for a fellow Mason in Tangier, which had been a secret for decades. He finds the coffee shop his grandpa used to visit in Casablanca, and chats with the owner’s grandpa, who knew his grandpa. Apparently Brazilian coffee is the best in the world, and that is all this shop sells. I want to try some! They also gave me a tip–you must grind the beans and then immediately drink the coffee. OH! I just got a grinder, and I have been grinding then storing. No.

the pool

the family

What a cute family!

As you would expect, this book is really funny. It is a battle of wills between the rich foreigner and the wily locals, and you can guess who wins most of the time. There are cultural misunderstandings, but Shah is sincere and good-hearted, if somewhat bumbling. Which just adds to the fun.

I loved hearing about how produce vendors in the medina treat beggars. Shah observed an old beggar woman going around the stalls, and how each vendor would carefully select the best peach or the best apple for her. He asked them why, noting that in the West we give only the bruised or day-old to people for free, and they told him that “just because a person is poor, should we give them low quality goods? No. We are not like that in Casablanca.” I love that. It seems a Christ-like or a Mohammed-like action.

outside of houseMy only criticism of the book is that Shah’s Indian wife Rachana is mostly absent from the book. It is written from an “I” perspective rather than “we”. Oh, he mentions her a few times, but…I don’t know. she just wasn’t present. This struck me as odd. I wanted to know more about her experiences in Casablanca, and how her perspective as an Indian person would be different from that of her husband or the locals. I wanted to know about raising two kids in a country where you don’t speak the language (although the older child does pick up French and Arabic quicker than her father).

Rating: Five bowls of couscous and apricots and lamb! Without the lamb. LOL