How many of these books have you read? Or heard of? I’ve read 10 of them, and most are new to me. Although some might be making an appearance on this blog quite soon. (One does want to keep up with the Moldovans!)
At the end of the article, the writer has another map for the most popular books in the U.S. by state. Such fun!
Note: I checked this book out of the Spokane Public Library.
An Irishman goes to Turkey in search of the exotic. A Turk rejects exoticism as backwards and dirty.
“You left England to find exoticism?” said Selim when I mentioned this. “You amaze me.”
“Isn’t London exotic? Buckingham Palace? Marble Arch? Big Ben?”
“Big Ben is not exotic. Pashas waving scimitars–that’s exotic. Beautiful odalisques lounging on divans. The tinkle of camel bells. That’s what I’m here for. Oriental opulence. Decadent grandeur. All the things that make Turkey unique.”
“Turkey is tired of being unique,” said Selim. “We want to raise our living standards. Exoticism! What a dumb reason to go anywhere.”
The Battle for his Soul
Lawlor quickly meets a second Turk who loves tradition as much as the first one loves smartphones. While Selim invites Eric to the Lion’s Club and to MacDonald’s, Ercuman introduces him to the bazaar and the kebab. At one point Ercuman says, “You know what we’re doing, don’t you? We’re battling for your soul.”
In terms of Eastern tradition vs. Western modernity, that ship has sailed. The Western soul–not just Lawlor’s, wants the exotic countries to which we travel to provide us with exoticism, entertainment, and above all, romance. (Lawlor even decries the fact that most circumcisions in Turkey are now performed with a laser, implying that rusty penknives by moonlight would suit him better.) We forget that many of the inhabitants of these countries desire cars and blue jeans and shopping malls every bit as much as we do, and deserve them equally.
The Good Bits
* Provides a bit of Turkey’s recent history, including a capsule bio of controversial modernizer Kemal Attaturk.
In the 1920s, this Turkish leader:
banned the fez, the national headdress,
made his countrymen assume family names,
instituted the European weekend, (whatever that is),
switched to the Roman alphabet (as a linguist, this is the one I find the most disagreeable),
gave women the vote, and
made it possible for women to stand for parliament
Curiously, he didn’t ban the veil. Nor did he substantially change the Turkish male’s attitude toward women, one aspect of Turkish culture *I* feel is in sore need of modernization.
*Offers several humorous vignettes of common traveler experiences, including:
tourists who consider themselves travelers,
touts who won’t leave you alone,
unwanted would-be sexual encounters where you are stupidly slow to figure out what is up (no pun intended), and
the awkwardness of running into fellow countrymen when you don’t wish to speak to them.
*Several mouth-watering bits of Turkey gorgeously described.
*Points out the blind spots in Turkish culture; for example the government denies that the country contains almost 10 million Kurds, calling them “mountain Turks” instead. This ethnic group is banned from:
speaking its own language,
learning its own history, or
singing its own songs.
To his credit, Lawlor does point out that the West hasn’t done much better with its minority groups, citing similar treatment of Native peoples in America and Australia.
The Dodgy Bits
In addition to a sort of a “look at these people, aren’t they quaint” voice throughout the book, there was one phrase which really got to me.
After a Turkish fragrance vendor sprays Lawlor with something that smells like oven cleaner, he writes: “Quite a pleasant smell, really, evoking as it did heath and home. There are those, perhaps who wouldn’t care to smell of oven cleaner, but I rather liked the idea. It had all the right connotations: Kinder, Kirche, Kuche.”
I nearly choked on my tea when I read that. As an exchange student in Germany, I was told that the most common connotations for that phrase, right or not, stem from Adolph Hitler. The Nazis used the phrase to reinforce the idea that Aryan women not worry their pretty little blonde heads about what might be happening to the Jews, but concern themselves solely with children, church, and baking cakes.
Despite it All
Having mentioned my philosophical issues with the book, I still enjoyed it! There are several landmarks in Turkey that I’d like to visit. I was surprised that the country has such high mountains, since I tend to think of all of the Middle East, Egypt, Turkey, etc. as being very flat. Although of course, there is Mount Ararat.
Three stars: I felt the book was able to overcome its shortcomings and still be of worth to readers.
This is a very dense novel. It’s packed full of people: in Guyana, 90% of folks live along the narrow coastal strip, and a few live in the interior jungles. I’m guessing those few are the original inhabitants:
The others are descended from African slaves imported in the 17th century to cut cane and Indian indentured servants. There are “Rastas” from the Caribbean, “Putagees” (of Portuguese descent), and “coolies” from China. There is racial tension between the Afro-Guyanese and the Indo-Guyanese; the indigenous people seem to have been thoroughly marginalized. Throughout the novel, people speak Guayanese Creole, a colorful polygot tongue:
The narrator is a young man in flight from his caste and his job as a cricket journalist in India. As he travels around Guyana for a year, he hears conversations like this one:
“You cyan see Guyana in one life, you know,” he continued. You could see all of it- but not in one life. Too beautiful and too big fuh see in one life.
As one feared, there was an interjection.
How much country you seen, buddeh?
Don’t tell me stupidness, bai. You jus know, right? Some island and islet in Essequibo, right they as big as England.
Guyana as big as England.
Well, as big as UK. You ever hear of UK?
I hear they as big like Barbados.
Bai, me batty bigger than Barbados.
And you fine.
When they said fine in Guyana, they meant thin.”
I found the first half of the novel, like the narrator, exasperatingly aimless. If you’re not into cricket or jazz, you may find the meandering journeys “Gooroo” (Guru) takes with the scam artist/porknocker (diamond miner) Baby to be tedious. It’s like listening to a coworker describe his dream. There is no story arc, just random events.
I hung in there because the reported conversations and bits of Guyanese history, nature, and politics were fascinating–not because the writing was skilled.
Second Half — The Better Bit
The story picks up in the second half of the novel, when the narrator meets an Indo-Guyanese sexpot named Jan. (Jaan, it turns out, means “beloved” in Hindi.)
While Guru has been seduced by Georgetown’s brown waters and heavy, decaying wood structures, Jan can’t wait to leave. She talks Guru into taking her on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to Venezuela by way of Trinidad. (He, of course, pays for everything.)
(Why are there are no direct flights from Guyana to its neighboring country of Venezuela?)
Although Jan and Guru should have much in common, by way of their shared ancestry, it somehow serves to divide them. I enjoyed how the novel explored the theme of identity and origins.
A Conversation Between the Went-There and the Stayed-Home
“In the Guyanese country, a costal frill on either side of Georgetown–in the Guyanese country, the East Indian and the Indian national look at each other. It seems an innocuous exchange. In fact, it is loaded…”
Guru goes on to describe his conversation with the Indo-Guyanese husband of a Cuban he meets. The man says he is sad because he has a hole in his heart since his ancestors left India, a hole which nothing can fill.
“It was one of those wide-open, sentimental Guyanese country evenings: fry fish and rum and Lata across a night-time canefield on the Corentyne.
‘And yet brother,’ he added, ‘we find that Indians do not consider us to be Indians.’
It was an accurate observation. But I thought it might be patronizing to tell him what I felt, which was two, perhaps conflicting things. That, you know, you are out here where the Caribbean meets South America under these brilliant stars and you should be fucking delighted. The other was that you, brother, are more Indian than I…”
Unfortunately for Guru and his new lady-love, re-entry into Guyana without papers can be dangerous. Soon the couple’s adventure takes a terrifying and all-too-believable turn.
My recommendation on this one is to read as much of Part 1 as you can stomach, then skip immediately to part 2 and don’t feel guilty about it.
Mixed Rating: Five shots of Guyanese rum! (Best in the world, apparently.) And then five hangovers. 😉
I have been a stranger in a strange land since I was 13 years old and entered the foreign culture of my small-town Idaho junior high school. In that tense, hyper-hormonal world, I was never a “been-here” but always a “come-here.” In this novel, the brilliant Hillary Mantel (of Wolf Hall fame) imagines what it would be like to be a khawwadjih in Saudi Arabia. As expected, it’s much harder on the female than the male.
if you’re female, you can’t work or drive
if you’re female taxis won’t pick you up
if you’re female pharmacists will not look you in the eye, or acknowledge your existence–they speak only to your husband
if you’re female you can’t go to the mall with a male who is not your husband or close relative, because the religious police will randomly separate men and women into two groups and match you up according to your IDs and you could be flogged on suspicion of wrongdoing
If you’re female, you end up staying in your dark apartment a lot because big windows could let men look in at you
if you’re female, and you go out for a walk, you will get catcalls from men in cars, and
all the expatriates (ex-pats) make their own alcohol out of grape juice, sugar, and yeast. Like the moonshine of old, the potency is wickedly unpredictable
How Culture Makes Fools of Us All
The Saudis are firmly convinced that many Western companies are “Zionist”–like Marks and Spencer, the famous British clothing store. (I thought Marks and Sparks was owned by Dodi Fayed’s dad–the one-time almost in-law of Princess Diana.)
There is some appalling racism from more than one of the ex-pat workers: An Australian named Jeff Parsons refers to the Saudis as “nig-nogs” — ouch.
The Westerners are firmly convinced that the Saudis are only paying lip-service to the Sharia law, and that much hanky-panky goes on behind closed doors.
In this novel, there IS something going on between closed doors, but it isn’t what the main character (MC) or the reader may think. And it’s very dangerous.
The Good Bits
What I liked about the novel is that the MC steps outside the narrow ex-pat box and befriends the locals–a Pakistani woman named Yasmin, who says that conditions for women are much more free in her culture, Yasmin’s maid Shams, who comes from Indonesia, and a Saudi woman named Samira, who wears tight blue jeans in the privacy of her home.
Mantel seems obsessed with countries and periods in time where the punishment for misbehavior is beheading (Wolf Hall is, after all, about Anne Bolyn). Well, it’s only stoning if you’re a woman. Beheading is for men.
Saudi Arabia and Tourism: What is the Deal?
No deal. I was surprised to learn that the absolute rulers, the Princes of Saud, do not encourage or allow tourism. The only foreigners in Saudi Arabia are there on work visas. Period. I was also surprised to learn that the country takes its name from these princes, who have been in power since the 1930s.
I knew Saudi Arabia had a huge desert, the Empty Quarter, but I didn’t know why it was such a big deal in Middle Eastern politics. Turns out the country is about the size of Western Europe. That’s right, it is the 500-pound camel in the Middle Eastern block. Wow.
And another thing: You can’t go to Mecca or Medina unless you are Moslem. Jews are not allowed into the country. Did they used to live there and were expelled?
Of course, if you possess the 2 most holy sites in your religion in your country, you’re going to get hundreds of thousands of foreign Muslims entering your country as pilgrims. And the wealthy Saudis aren’t exactly happy about the influx of the poor and possibly rabid devout.
Wiki weighs in
According to Wikipedia, the Muslim hajj holiday in October brings about 3 million from around the world to Mecca. But millions more come on pilgrimage before the hajj, with the pilgrimage season peaking in summer and autumn. A 2012 study of French pilgrims said more than 80% returned with respiratory symptoms, and 40% with flu-like symptoms.
But back to the book: a Saudi character says to the MC, haven’t you heard about the Haji Flu?
Anyway, I loved this book. It was so interesting to spend time with these characters, and to learn a little about Saudi Arabia even through foreign (British) eyes. I did wish that Mantel would have found SOMETHING about the country to like, or even love, in addition to the MC’s fondness for Yasmin, who after all is not Saudi. But sometimes that is the ex-pat experience. I must confess that my best friend in Germany was a girl called Gabrielle, an exchange student from Argentina.
Salud! Farewell, Argentina. Farewell, Saudi Arabia. Here is to a better understanding of each other through literature.
There’s nothing I love more than a good crime novel. I’m also a hobby linguist – I love foreign languages. This novel, by a local author (from my patch–Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) was a perfect choice.
Believe It Or Not
Tribal people in Papua New Guinea speak a whopping 836 different languages
Sadly, 12 languages have become extinct as there are no known living speakers
Only 18 per cent of people live in urban centers
The island is the world’s least explored, culturally and geographically
Many undiscovered species of plants and animals are STILL thought to exist in the interior
Crime and Punishment
Drug dealers–ugh. Too much meth–not enough teeth. Tribal communities in particular are vulnerable to substance abuse, due to the pain stemming from historical trauma, not that the crooks care about that. And there are some deliciously bad men in this novel, from Singapore to Burma to Thailand and Australia.
The good guys include a determined Papua New Guinea (PNG) policeman, his retired mentor, a radio host, and a married pair of American medics/missionaries. And the Canadian NGO they work for.
“That’s better,” the Inspector said. “Very good; you are still following up your hunches with investigation. What does your captain think all this?”
Jason felt the heat of that boiling cauldron coming closer again. He took a deep breath. “Inspector Sir, I am embarrassed to tell you that you are the only person in the Department with whom I have discussed this. Considering all the recent influx of weapons and drugs in the Highlands, I have to assume that police inactivity means some officers are taking bribes. I didn’t want the drug dealers warned off.”
“Do I understand that you are including your own superior officer in this assumption?” The old man’s tone was sharp; his gaze steady and stony.
“Sir, I can produce no witnesses that have seen money transferred; I have no facts. I can only quote you the captain’s comment after I placed my Samana report on his desk, and before he had read it. It has echoed through my head for days, and I can quote it verbatim. He said: ‘Kerro, don’t worry too much about those foreigners in Samana. There’s no profit in it for us’. I can’t say for sure whose side he is on.
Very good indeed! I had an awful feeling when I discovered three typos within the first three pages, but that initial impression was misleading. The book is very well-written–it has a good, strong, exciting pace and the dialog is snappy. I also appreciated the very subtle Christian aspects. The characters worked as being good-hearted without being preachy.
A great summer read! Come to find out, this book is in the middle of a series featuring the American doctor and nurse couple, so I will be looking for the others. And if they end up going to different countries, I may feature them on the blog again.
Rating: Five dishes of dia!
(Sago palm starch and bananas cooked with coconut cream.)