The Universal Spirit of Islam (Kuwait)

by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf with Judith Fitzgerald and Michael Oren Fitzgerald

caligraphy that says verily God is beautiful and he loves beautyTranslation: “Verily Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty.”

This series is intended to encourage interfaith dialogue. The editors find the tolerant bits in the ancient religious texts around the world and gather them into a collection. The one on Islam has gorgeous color photographs of art and architecture from the Islamic world interspersed with quotations from the Koran and the Haddith.

I wanted to learn more about Islam: it should be understood that I am reviewing this book–not anybody’s religion or belief system.

book coverA Former Lutheran Learns About Islam

So if I’ve understood correctly, the Koran is believed by 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide to be the Word of God as revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. The Haddith (or ahaddith, plural) is a collection of Mohammed’s sayings.

Muslims believe that there have been hundreds of messengers and prophets sent to humanity over the years. Like the Jews, Muslims believe that Jesus was a messenger. And while Islam and Christianity share many basic beliefs, such as the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, Islam differs in two important regards.

  1. Muslims think that Catholics are misguided in barring priests from marrying.
  2. They also think the Church went wrong when it adopted Trinitiarianism back in the time of Mohammed. (That’s the belief in a triune God–three in one.) I happen to agree.
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Of course I enjoyed getting an exposure to Islamic beliefs without having to wade through something tediously dry and dusty. The photos of the artwork and the sidebars with calligraphy and the explanatory footnotes all helped to break it into bite-sized chunks. I would have appreciated even smaller chunking when it comes to the many quotations presented in the book that sometimes run on for pages. This is fine for the devout, but I found myself skimming a lot.

Caveats: The book doesn’t present any differences between Sunni and Shi’ite beliefs, or regional/ethnic group beliefs, lumping all Muslims together. I don’t know enough about the religion to know if this is legit or not. And then I took issue with the good Imam’s statement that there are 3 basic positions from which to enter an interfaith dialogue:

  1. There is no God
  2. God exists but he has only revealed one true religion (and it’s yours)
  3. God exists and he has revealed each of the major religions
The Pink Mosque in Iran
Iran’s Pink Mosque

I am a spiritual person, but I don’t cotton to organized religion. I like the kindness of Buddhism, but that’s it. My position on entering interfaith dialogue is this: God exists, and He/She/It has been misunderstood, misquoted, and flat-out lied about by organized religion, which was created by men for power and control. Sometimes wealth. The intolerance of every major world religion in its fight for its own survival has caused untold suffering in the world. That’s why interfaith dialogue is so important.

Islam is currently seen by many in the Western world as militant and dangerous. Some of my Christian friends forward emails about “the Muslims” filled with ignorance, fear, and hate. But in this book I have read many quotations from the Islamic holy texts that harbor a deep respect for other faiths. The cure for ignorance is knowledge, and this book isn’t a bad place to start.

For more gorgeous photos of Islamic art, check out Emily Nye’s wonderful blog Inside Islamic Art.


Fight for the Forgotten (Congo)

book cover

Advanced Reader Copy Courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore

I started chapter one of this book and within minutes I was in tears. I just spent 9 months getting to know Indian Country in the U.S.: their heartbreaking historical trauma and ongoing suffering today. In this book, I learned that one indigenous group, the oldest people on the planet, have it even worse.

They are the Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest in the Congo: Enslaved by other tribes, starved, refused treatment at hospitals, dying of preventable disease due to drinking filthy water, hunted down and cannibalized in the belief that “eating a Pygmy will make a soldier invincible.” Legal slavery, in 2015! Cannibalism: really? I was shocked.

King Leopold
Leopold’s genocide in the Congo makes Adolph Hitler look like an amateur

Before King Leopold of Belgium came along, the Mbuti Pygmies lived in the forest which they considered sacred, hunting and gathering. (Wiki references their genetics dating back to 60,000 years ago.) Then came colonization, genocide, deforestation, gold mining, civil war and slavery.

The Mbuti used to have a working relationship with the Mokpala where each people group provided the other with things they couldn’t hunt, find, or make themselves. But when the trees were cut down, the balance was destroyed. Having nothing to give the Mokpala, the Mbuti became their slaves, working 14-16 hour days for a patch of goat fur to eat, (this is a deliberate insult) or two tiny minnows.

Enter the fighter

map of the CongoAuthor Justin Wren is a former MMA (mixed martial arts) fighter from Dallas who decided to use his skills to fight for the Pygmies. He became a Christian to do so. I’m not normally a fan of “let’s go convert those pagan people”, but Wren is so obviously focused on loving the oppressed by improving their living conditions that I was able to read those passages with an open mind. It helps that he admits that Christianity has an ugly side, one which put him off organized religion in his younger days. He’s really honest about his experiences whether with drugs, churches, being bullied as a child or getting scammed the first time he went to the Congo.

I liked that he insisted on living with the Pygmies instead of walking to their homes from a hotel every day. I liked that he was adopted by a family and really considers them his family. I liked how he admitted that he hesitated to act, for fear of making things worse. The passages about the romance with his fiancé “EmmyBear” were a little syrupy for me, but hey, I’ve been married 13 years!

The American Bubble of Comfort

black mamba
A black mamba slithers through the Pygmy camp one night, causing considerable alarm. I was fascinated by its black teeth and black mouth. Brrrrr!

As I sit here drinking my coffee and writing this, it is hard to imagine that on the other side of the world, people are waking up and having to drink water that isn’t clean. That they suffer diarrhea, dysentery and malaria for their entire lives, many of which end before age 50. That it’s such a struggle just to find food and clothing.

The Mbuti Pygmy tribes that Justin Wren came into contact with lived beside a river, but it had been polluted by Chinese miners and by chemical dumping allowed by the corrupt Congolese government. Justin and his team drilled 12 water wells for different Pygmy groups on land that a local university purchased. Slaves were freed. It was really interesting to read about well drilling and the difficulties they ran into.

Fight for the Forgotten is an interesting read and will open your eyes and your heart to the suffering in Africa that we, as Americans, are partly responsible for. Our wealth increases their poverty. Our consumer decisions, our corporations, our politics, and our history have all contributed to this sorry situation, although we aren’t hunting down the Pygmies and eating them ourselves. This has to stop.

Learn More







Gluten Free McCall

Eating Gluten Free in McCall, Idaho

Ridleys supermarketI am not a doctor, and this is not advice. You have to do what’s best for your body. Reviews subject to change.

McCall enjoys (or tolerates, depending on whether or not you’re local) a summer and a winter tourist season. It’s an upscale playground for doctors and dentists from Boise and millionaires from California. Therefore I shouldn’t have been surprised at the large variety of GF food available.

Ridley’s Supermarket: One aisle full of GF crackers, boxed pasta, cookies, etc. near the front of the store. One section of the freezer offering GF fish sticks, chicken nuggets, ready-to-eat meals, waffles, and even donuts! Unlike Spokane, the bakery didn’t seem to have any fresh GF baked goods, but they do carry Franz GF pre-sliced in a couple different flavors.

strawberry margaritaMy Father’s Place: Awesome hamburgers, and for the summer, strawberry margaritas. Fries are safe at the time of this writing. Their GF buns are the best I’ve found: they tasted ok and didn’t fall apart on top of the burger.

Fogglifter Café: Good breakfast place. GF bread available for $1 extra. I didn’t try it as I had the Huevos Rancheros on a corn tortilla–2 eggs perfectly poached Over Medium. They mashed up pinto beans and black beans are also available. What I’m trying to say is they didn’t use refried beans from a can which make me sick. Yum!

Toll Station Pizza: Sadly I didn’t have time to drop in and say hello to Jeff and Monte, but Toll Station has been serving McCall’s best pizza since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. And I was pleased to see online that they’re now offering GF options. Check it out.


If I Bring You Roses (Puerto Rico)

by Marisel Vera

*courtesy of the Spokane Public Library*

If I Bring You RosesThe Island

The first half of the book was my favorite. A young girl grows up in the highlands of Puerto Rico in extreme poverty. Her mother has a nervous breakdown. The father decides to send one of his daughters to live in the city with her uncle. There, the girl gets enough to eat and fresh clean clothes to wear, but her aunt treats her like an unpaid servant/idiot bumpkin. (Imagine, she doesn’t know how to deal with indoor plumbing!) Although the aunt is not kind and the uncle is oblivious, the cousin is neither and she and the girl become best friends.

The girl ends up marrying a handsome stranger who passes through her uncle’s bakery, just to escape her situation. (Never a good idea.) And indeed, she jumps from the loaf pan into the fire.

Map of Puerto RicoThe U.S.

In the bitter cold of Chicago, the new bride tries to make her husband happy by cooking and cleaning and doing everything he says. She embroiders roses on every surface. Unfortunately, he isn’t interested. He thinks he has made a mistake. Why?

He is having an affair with a liberated, independent Puerto Rican woman named Marta. Finally his wife smartens up and leaves him, getting a job in a factory and becoming an independent woman herself. Then, his interest in her returns.\

Uniquely Puerto Rican

Puerto Rico highlands
The highlands on the island

The indigenous coqui frogs, such a problem in Hawaii, but no problem at all in their native land.

The unique status of Puerto Ricans in the U.S.: The girl soon notices at the factory how much better her lot is than that of the illegal Mexican and El Salvadoran workers. She works 8 hours per day and gets paid breaks, because she is an American citizen. They work 10 and get no breaks, because they have no legal protection.

Men on the island say that things were much better under the Spanish (!) and that when the Americans took over, their poverty increased by leaps and bounds. Shameful if true.

can of coffeeThe Rating: 4 Delicious Puerto Rican Coffee Beans

Caveat: I didn’t totally buy the ending, in which he finally got tired of Marta and dumped her, but his wife wasn’t much different. She still really wanted to please him, so they got back together, which bothered me.

Meaning, I didn’t think he had really changed that much either. I could see some other tart coming along and tempting him away again, until he got tired of her. Ugh. Nonetheless, I couldn’t put the book down. An enjoyable and informative read.

Note: Although it isn’t mentioned in the book, Christopher Columbus made contact in Puerto Rico in 1492. Within 150 years of European contact, the indigenous Taino culture became extinct. 90% of the pure Taino were wiped out by smallpox and the rest by violence.




Peoples of Southern Africa (Part 3)


Actress playing Mma Ramsotwe
Jill Scott, playing the traditionally built detective Precious Ramotswe

The Tswana are also Bantu-speakers; their language branch is called Setsuana and they are also known as Western Sotho. The country’s first president, so beloved by Mma Ramotswe in the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series was Sir Seretse Khama (1966–1980).

Like many African people, the Tswana revere their ancestors. Before Christianity arrived in 1816, they believed in immortal souls and a supreme creator called Molimo. They still believe in magic, although traditional rain-making ceremonies have given way to prayer days in Christian churches for rain.


It is believed that these people arrived in Southern Africa from the great lakes region of East Africa. They had longbows, which gave them a military edge over the indigenous population.

Unlike Western societies, in which there are no initiation rituals unless you’re Jewish, the Venda culture sponsors a lengthy initial ritual–for girls! It can last anywhere from 3 months to a year. One of the ceremonies of the domba (female initiation society) involves the python dance; accompanied by girls drumming. For boys entering adulthood, sadly, the circumcision ceremony has largely replaced older initiation rituals.


Xhosa people
Xhosa people

Famed warriors and cattle herders of the Kalahari, the Xhosa were led astray in 1856 by a Joan of Arc figure, a young girl who claimed that a vision from the ancestors told her the white invaders would be swept into the sea, the great Xhosa chiefs would return from the dead, and the land would be filled with cattle and crops. They followed her advice into death, hunger, and poverty by slaughtering 200,000 of their own cattle. Survivors of this desperate act of resistance were compelled to work on the invader’s farms. Ugh.

Xhosa storytelling has a healthy oral tradition, followed by written. Important Xhosa writers include the novelist and missionary John Knox Bokwe (1855–1922) and the novelist Guybon Sinxo (1902–1962). Sinxo was passionate in his opposition to the decreasing self-respect of black Africans, and the increase in crime in the townships.

You may also have seen the comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy, which features a Xhosa man encountering some of the stranger aspects of Western civilization.


Zulu beaded love messages decoded
The Zulu are great fighters, but they also look to be great lovers…

The Zulu have been pretty aggressive about invasion and conquest, but they sprang from being on the losing end of the same. Before 1816, the Zulu chiefdom belonged to the Mthethwa kingdom. Well, King Dingiswayo was murdered and his Zulu general Shaka took over. Shaka founded the Zulu kingdom and launched a series of wars and migrations triggered by the rapid expansion of this nation. This wave of conflict lasted from 1819 to 1839 and unfortunately made the region vulnerable to takeover by white settlers. Oh, and 5 million people died. (Shaka was born to a Zulu chief but was “cast out” by his father. The book doesn’t say why…did he recognize a psychopath in the making?)

The Zulu language has one of the most complex grammars in the world, and contains a lot of Dutch and English words also. Zulu women are famous fro their beadwork. In the past, the beads were crafted painstakingly from bone, ivory, clay, shells, wood or iron. Today the tiny colorful beads are mass-produced in plastic so the women can spend more time on design.

The Rating

Long horned cattleI loved how the information in the book was broken up into small bytes, with photos and graphics and language trees. The only thing that baffled me was how some small words were italicized, like vocab for children, when many more complex words were not. It was a bit annoying, like in the Lemony Snickett books when he patronizingly explains words that I definitely know as a adult but also certainly knew as a 10-year-old. Grr! But whatever.

Five Tswana long-horned cattle!



Peoples of Southern Africa (Part 2)

Read Part 1

Ndebele housesNdebele and Matabele

It is thought that these people arrived in Southern Africa around 200 years after the death of Christ. They are descended from the Nguni, a Bantu-speaking people. Ndebele women have become famous for their mural art, which is traditionally applied to the walls of their houses in geometric patterns. Initially the paint was made from clay, ahs, and dung plus natural pigments, but today, brightly-colored commercially-produced paints are used.


The Ovambo are a matriarchal society. Interestingly, they have a proverb that states: “the family does not come from the penis.” Hmmm!

Ovambo people used to make strings of Omakipa, or ivory buttons. A groom would give them to his bride on their wedding day, and add to her collection after that. Nowadays, hunting elephants for ivory is illegal.


the Great Zimbabwe ruins
the Great Zimbabwe ruins

The Shona people built the Great Zimbabwe, which European anthropologists refused to believe, due to a racist conviction that such primitive people could not possibly have constructed such a thing. The Great Zimbabwe is the largest collection of ruins in Southern Africa, and was built between the 11th and 15th centuries.

The Shona language is spoken by many other people in Southern Africa as a second language.


These Bantu-speaking ancestors of the Sotho originated in present-day eastern Nigeria. By about 10000 they had settled in Southern Africa and set about absorbing the indigenous population, the Khoisan. The Sotho are horse people. The Basotho pony is one of the world’s toughest breeds. It originated in the Cape horses brought to Lesotho by Chief Moshoeshoe in 1828.

book coverThe Sotho have professional alternative medical practitioners who employ a wide range of herbal medicines and rituals to cure disease, bring good luck and fertility and protect people from misfortune. In South Africa, since the fall of apartheid, the government has tried to incorporate these people into the official health system at the community level.


Peoples of Southern Africa (Part 1)

by the Diagram Group

*this book appears on my blog courtesy of the Spokane Public Library*

What is Southern Africa?

word cloud of the South African tribes
Southern Africa is made up of over 17 separate ethnic groups. Unlike the U.S., where American Indian and Alaska Native peoples prefer the use of the word “tribe”, Africans sense a pejorative connotation and so “tribe” will not be used here.

The countries of Southern Africa follow arbitrary lines drawn in the Colonial Era. They are:

*Lethoso and Swaziland are separate countries completely surrounded by the larger country of South Africa, much as sovereign American Indian tribal nations exist within the larger context of the United States and are treated on a government-to-government basis.

**Since I have already featured Madagascar on this blog, I will not go into detail about the 18 separate ethnic groups that make up the island’s population. Eighteen in addition to the ones listed in the word cloud above, that is.

Cape Coloreds and Cape Malays

Cape Malay women
Cape Malay women

This group of people would be all one, if it weren’t for religion. Cape Coloreds are Christian and Cape Malays are Muslim. Other than that, they share a language, cuisine, customs, culture, and all that good stuff. Of course the term “Coloreds” is falling into disrepute with the end of the Colonial Era, so the subgroup is searching for something better to call themselves. Fair enough.


These people survived the colonizing Germans’ attempts to exterminate them. (Practicing for World War II, most likely.) The women liked the style of the German missionaries’ dresses and wear them to this day. They have a distinctive mutton-chop sleeve. But unlike the missionaries, they don’t wear drab colors. (Women after my own heart!) Herero women are known for their bright, bold color combinations.


Khoisan people
Khoisan people

I’m always interested in origins, and these folks are thought to be the original inhabitants of Southern Africa. Over time they were pushed out and marginalized by the late-comers, the Bantu-speaking peoples. Khoisan consist of two subgroups, the Khoikhoi and the San, or Xhosa, whom early White writers like Laurens Van der Post would have known as the Hottentots and the Bushmen.

Khoisan languages are tonal and feature the distinctive click or popping sounds made famous in Van der Post’s fantastic novels: A Story Like the Wind and A Far Off Place.

Madagascarian People

The peoples of Madagascar
The peoples of Madagascar

See my post on Madagascar, for which I chose a William S. Burroughs novel. It features a lot of animals, which seemed appropriate, since Madagascar, like Australia, is home to some very unique creatures found nowhere else on earth. Madagascar is just about twice the size of the U.S. state of Arizona. Huge for an island.

Read Part 2


Baba Yaga Laid An Egg (Croatia)

Book cover ripped by puppy
My new puppy thought this book was delicious! #LibraryBookFail

by Dubravka Ugresic

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yugoslavia was split into 6 countries. Appropriately, this book is split into 3 parts:

  1. A daughter speaks about her mother’s memory loss.
  2. The mother, Beba, travels to the Czech Republic with two elderly friends for a spa vacation.
  3. The mother’s companion, Aba, gives a scholarly dissertation on Baba Yaga’s folklore and mythologies plus the misogeny or misandry behind them.

I would give each part stars in descending order: Part 1 = 5 stars. Part 2 = 4 stars. Part 3 = 3 stars. Very enjoyable overall = whole book gets 4 stars.

Part 1: The Best Bit

Bulgarian skyscrapers and beach
Bulgarian beach

Narrator must cope with her Bulgarian-born mother’s memory loss…when “Mum” can’t find the right word she uses a rhyming one. Mum drives Daughter crazy with her obsessive need to control her environment. Not a product of the Alzheimer’s: Mum’s always been this way. Daughter tries to fight back by introducing foreign objects into her mother’s apartment and it’s on!

Daughter is a bit jealous of Aba, a young Bulgarian woman who caretakes for her Mum. Aba is named for ABBA, who were popular all over Europe when she was born. (In Part III, you find out Aba’s last name, Bagay, and it makes an anagram of Baba Yaga. Vladimir Nabokov would approve.) When Aba and the narrator travel from Zagreb (Croatia) to Bulgaria, Aba really starts getting on Daughter’s nerves. Adding to the stress, the beautiful, cultivated Bulgaria of her mother’s memory has been replaced by ugliness and poverty. The country is recovering from Communism and everything has changed.

Part 2: The Pretty Good Bit

Three “old witches” travel to the Czech Republic to a spa. They live it up–one wins big at the casino and hosts a pool party for her friends with champagne. They befriend a quirky young Croatian man who is working as a masseur at the spa. He must pretend to be Turkish to keep his job. The friends learn secrets about each other–one fought with the Partisans in World War II. One has a daughter from a previous marriage who won’t speak to her. One has unspeakably damaged feet and lower legs that she hides with a big fur boot. One has a gay son.

Czech spa
Czech spa

Old women and old age

Ostensibly this book is about aging, and how it affects women, mentally and physically. How they become invisible to men and how they fight to be seen by everyone, including their children. I say ostensibly because the delight of the book for me, beyond the unusually frank treatment of old age, was the glory of the many languages and nationalities: the words, oh yes, the words!

The words

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”

–Proverbs 18:21

If you’ve travelled a lot and you love language, you’ll adore this book. I sure did. The narrator lives in Berlin and visits her mother in Zagreb, Croatia, then travels to Bulgaria. In Part 2, the women travel to the Czech Republic. There are Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, Czech, Slovene and French phrases sprinkled throughout the story. In Part 2, the young masseur called Melvudin falls in love with an English girl who can’t pronounce his name.

“Ah, Mellow,” she sighed.

And he thinks to himself in Croatian, “You’re never going to get it, are you?” Sigh.

Part III: The Not-a-Story-But-Still-Good-Bit

Illustration of Baba Yaga.
Baba Yaga riding a pig and fighting a crocodile. Early 1600s.

About 20 years ago, I was introduced to the idea of Baba Yaga as a strong female elder, rather than a witch/monster ( see Women Who Run With the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes.) Baba Yaga is a dangerous old women, part of a transformation ritual for girls into women and boys into men. In Baba Yaga Lays an Egg, the author explains that rather than an evil witch, Baba Yaga is more of a medicine woman. It seems that in some parts of Central Europe, the “witch-doctor” would pretend to push a child with rickets into the oven. They did this because a sick child was considered “half-baked” and needed to be placed back, symbolically, into the mother’s womb.

So you can see where the witch eating the children idea came from. I did not get to finish this part because the new puppy I was babysitting ate the book!

Anyway, I give it 4 gingerbread houses.

For more about Baba Yaga in folklore, a blogger at Something To Read For the Train has a line I love on embracing your inner Baba Yaga: “I’m going to build a fence made of skulls of the men who have crossed me!” Yeah, baby.