A Flag Worth Dying For (All Countries)

The Union Jack
The Union Jack

by Tim Marshall
courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore
Even though this book isn’t about one specific country, it filled in a lot of the gaps left from high school geography. In fact, it taught me more about the history of some countries in a single flag chapter than entire books dedicated to those countries.

I’m going to skip the first chapter, the Stars and Stripes. I mean, your own patch is always the least interesting, right? Or the one you know the most about?

The second chapter is called The Union and The Jack. OK, fellow Anglophiles, let’s dig in! Righty-ho, like all countries, Great Britain has had many flags before settling on THE ONE. Kind of like dating, really. The flag that we all see at Royal Weddings and flying proudly at Buck House used to be called The Union Flag.

Irish Flag
The Irish Flag

It represents the union of Scotland and England, although with Brexit who knows how long that will last. (Could Scott-exit be next?) Anyway, when the Royal Navy started flying the flag, it hung from a pole on the ships called “a jack”. And that is why it is now called the Union Jack. (Not represented: the Welsh dragon, or any Cornish or Irish symbol.)

Oh yes, the Irish, those feisty goobers. (Shout out to Great-Grandpa here.) The orange, white, and green tricolor represents the two fighting factions and the white is the hope for peace and the desire to keep them apart. My book group just learned about an Irish rebel who helped design this flag and fomented revolution on 3 continents before becoming the Governor of Montana and then vanishing.

The Colors of Arabia

Saudi Arabia
The Saudi Arabian Flag. Arabic: Allah is God.

“White are our acts, black our battles, green our fields, and red our swords.”
–Safi al-Din al-Hili (1278-1349)

Because of this chapter, I’m going to kill at the identifying world flags portion of the United Nations-sponsored site Free Rice.

What is an Arab?
So…the Arabs. My one big complaint with this book is that it assumes a level of knowledge I didn’t have. If you live in the Middle East, wear a head scarf, or are Muslim or all three, I thought you were an Arab. And I don’t think this is an uncommon misperception in America. But this chapter starts by talking about the pan-Arab movement during WWI, to overthrow Turkish rule. The Ottomans without explaining that Turks aren’t Arabs. Wait, what?

Turkish Flag
Turkish Flag

And–big shocker here–the Iranians aren’t either. I had to turn to Professor Google to find out that Turkish people are descended from the Mongols, and, it is thought, the Chinese. People in Iran speak Persian, which is distinct from Arabic. So which countries/peoples can be described as Arabic? (In the way that the U.S. is a “Christian country” but has Jewish people, Buddhists, secular people, Muslims, Hindus, etc. living in it.) At first glance, most obviously, the following:

  • Saudi Arabia
  • The United Arab Emirates
Flag of Iran
Flag of Iran. I actually recognize this when it comes up, I think because of how often I saw it when I was in elementary school and our Embassy was taken over. Scary times.

Easy, because they have Arab in their names. There are 20 additional countries in the Middle East and North Africa that could be described as Arabic, according to this book, with a combined population of more than 300 million. “Within this region are many different ethnic, religious and linguistic communities, including Kurds, Berbers, Druze and Chaldeans, but the two dominating factors are language and religion.” (And, I would add, Yazidi.)

Take a moment, close your eyes, and try to name some Arab countries, would you? OK, now here they are: according to Wikipedia. (They don’t count Palestine, but they do count the Comoros Islands.) The top Arab by population are as follows: Egypt, Algeria, Sudan,  Morocco, and Iraq.

If you do click the Wiki link, look at the tiny flags! A British vexillologist (flag specialist) told author Marshall that if you can’t recognize your country’s flag when it’s the size of a postage stamp,  you have a crappy design.

A few notes:

  • Syria is where the Arabs are thought to have originated)
  • Iraq is not Arab and the majority speaks Persian; neighbor and frequent enemy Iran is Arab and and the majority speaks Arabic.
  • “The would-be nation state of Palestine” is listed in the book as an Arab nation (unlike on wiki).

Trivial Pursuit

Flag of Mozambique
Flag of Mozambique

After reading this book, you’ll not only ace Free Rice, but you’ll be great at trivia games in the pub or on board game night. I learned that:

  • Nepal is the only country to have a flag that isn’t rectangular
  • Mozambique is the only country to have a flag with an AK-47 on it, somewhat analogous to an early US flag with a rattlesnake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me”
  • In a more peaceful stance, that wheel in the middle of the Indian tricolor represents the Circle of Life and the concept of re-incarnation
  • Ignoring or dishonoring a white flag of truce is considered a war crime, and…
  • The Jolly Roger that we know today as a pirate flag was originally flown by the Knights Templar. Take that, Johnny Depp!

Carping and Criticism

Flag of Nepal
Flag of Nepal

The ARC of this book was black and white. I figure the publisher was trying to save money, but as a review copy, I would have appreciated color pictures of the flags. Particularly in the Union Jack chapter, where the author claims many Brits can’t tell when their flag is upside down, and that other countries have accidentally flown it this way, offending those who noticed. But these criticisms are minor.

I highly recommend this book. Fascinating stuff. I focused on Arabia, but the chapters on Latin America, Asia, and everywhere else are just as thrilling.

RATING: Five Vexillologists at a Geography Convention!

Flag of Tibet
Flag of Tibet

PS–One more flag, the Snow Lion Flag. How could I resist?


Whatever You Do, Don’t Run (Botswana)

map of BotswanaBotswanas flag is blue with a black stripe bordered in whiteby Peter Allison
As a young Australian, this author worked as a safari guide in Botswana, in the Okovango Delta, for a number of years. His stories are hilarious, scary, sad, touching, and just plain fascinating. One of my great joys of reading this non-fiction work was remembering going on safari myself. But not in Africa.

My friends Gary and Julia and I were bicycling from Delhi to Jaipur to Agra a few decades ago, and stopped at Sariska Tiger Preserve. We stayed in a former palace which employed dogs to keep the monkeys from taking over everything, and peacocks were everywhere. We got up at four a.m., something I only do on holiday, jumped into a Land Rover and bundled up in blankets, were handed coffee and headed off into the park. For animal lovers, there really isn’t anything better than looking at animals.

In Africa, all the game seems to be bigger. The African elephant, for example, is a giant when compared to the Indian elephant. Africa has lions, where India has tigers (both awesome, of course!) Africa has rhinos, and hippos, and giraffes.

The Games People Play When Spotting Game

warthog in grassAfrica also has warthogs, which Peter says are big favorites of his German guests especially. And the Germans, being the orderly and methodical people that they usually are, always have to count the warthogs. This cracked me up. Well, it is pretty fun to say “Warthog” in German–Wartzenschwein. And if I’ve got the grammar right, one warthog would be “Einen Wartzenschwein, which rhymes. Too fun. (Another fun fact: there is also a WWII-era German plane called “the Warthog”.)

People Who Compulsively Count: In India, Gary and Julia and I ran into some “twitchers” at a bird sanctuary, who also had lists to check off all the birds they saw–kind of like train-spotting. I didn’t get the point. Photos, yes. Checklists, no. But as Peter says in this book, his birders, or bird nerds, are a rare breed. Some don’t even seem interested in seeing leopards, cheetahs, or lions. And as he sadly says, most of them seem like the sort of people who would never, or could never, attract a mate. (He identifies with this strongly, for a time.)

Don’t Mess With Texas…Unless You’re From Down Under
Botswana people walkingPeter is the only white guy on the guide team, and there are no women. One game he and his darker mates like to play is that when they get Texans in their group, they pretend that Peter is the Motswana guide BK’s son. Peter claims his mother was Swedish and it bleached him out. On one trip, he goes even farther and says the other guides are all his uncles. The group is intensely bonded. When one of them dies from AIDS, you can feel the sadness and the fear. (AIDS hit Botswana hard. I remember from a book written by a woman whose father was a flying bush doctor in Botswana at the height of the epidemic.)

genetAnd the HIV-infected guide named Rautanga Rautanga is not the only man to fall victim to a catastrophe. Another guide is mauled by a lioness he startled, not realizing she had cubs. His guests save his life when the woman screams at her husband to drive the Land Rover straight at the lion. Another guide, one Peter doesn’t like, picks up a snake to look at it and has to be airlifted to a hospital. (Peter calls this man “Genius” for obvious reasons.) Turns out the approved way to pick up a snake is by immobilizing the head so it can’t bite you, which this fellow had done. Unfortunately for him, the snake was an adder. Adders have fangs that can rotate 180 degrees out to the side and there is no safe way to pick them up. Aaaaand, I’m just thinking, if you have to be told not to pick up strange snakes, maybe you don’t belong in the bush. Genius.

The Animal That Lions Fear

honey badgerOne of my favorite parts of the book is when Peter talks about the animals which visit their camp to try and scrounge tasty people food. One is a genet that lives in the rafters, and one is the ferocious and legendary honey badger. This animal is one of only four that lions will go out of their way to avoid. Elephant, rhino, and hippo are the others. The honey badger is tiny by comparison, but it’s the Dwarf from Tolkien on the African Savannah. A fierce fighter, known to take offense easily, never back down, and go for the genitals with a slash of its sharp claws. The genet twitters asking for food, the honey badger growls and demands it.

I enjoyed the chapter on Botswana’s first King and President, Sir Seretse Khama. I knew from reading the Alexander McCall Smith series, The Ladies’ No. 1 Detective Agency, that Khama was universally beloved, and this book added to my knowledge about why. He was a true leader and a real statesman. I wish we had someone like him in my country. Khama outlasted his nefarious uncle and the last of British imperialism, he genuinely tried to help people, he didn’t become a warlord, he married an Englishwoman in 1947 and had four kids and tried to stamp out racism. Botswana discovered diamonds and Khama shared the wealth.

I could go on and on, but you need to read this book, so I won’t. A must for animal lovers, Botswana aficionados and armchair travelers. All the fun of an African safari with none of the mosquitoes.

Auf Deutsch: Eins, zwei, drei, vier und funf Wartzenschweinen


The Art of Being Kuna (Panama)

Edited by Mari Lyn Salvador
UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History

I didn’t want to read about some white guy’s swashbuckling adventures in Central America in the 1930s, a la Ernest Hemingway, or yellow fever and the Panama Canal. (Having seen Arsenic and Old Lace, I’ve seen all the Panama Canal building I care to. Bully!) So instead, I plunged deep into the world of the Kuna, the Golden Ones– the original inhabitants . I began with the chapter on Medicine.


Unlike many indigenous people around the world, the Kuna have managed to hang on to most of their culture. Ritual medicine is practiced by shamans, medicine men, and chanters (kind of like the different levels of doctors we have in the US). Sometimes all three are needed. Like many Native American tribes, the Kuna believe that sickness starts in the soul.

I was interested to read that in their creation story, as in the Biblical one, death and illness were once unknown. (As opposed to say, the Buddhist tradition that death and rebirth are a natural part of life.) Also like Jews and Christians, the Kuna tales of creation include a great flood.

Other surprises: Since Americans tend to think of Panama as a piece of land holding a canal, it surprised me to read the phrase “the Kuna used to live all along the mainland”, implying that Panama has islands. (It has hundreds.) A less pleasant surprise was that there are rattlesnakes in Panama. (I thought only North America had rattlers).

map of Panama
Panama–note the islands. And, Panama is an isthmus–a narrow strip of land surrounded by water. Looks like a turkey neck.

In the final section, recorded in 1975, the year that I was four years old, a four-year-old Kuna girl, suffering from a high fever, is treated with traditional medicine. When this doesn’t make her better, the local Panamanian doctor arrives, having heard from the community about the kid. He strides in shouting in Spanish, with his Kuna nurse, telling the women to bring the child to the clinic. Once there, he gives her an injection without explanation and the women take her home. The next day he shows up at the dwelling, angry that they haven’t brought the child to the clinic, saying these unnecessary house calls are wasting his time. (It wasn’t clear to me or to the Kuna that this wasn’t a one-time injection.) He gives her a total of five, and then she starts to recover. I would have liked for the author to have mentioned what the little girl’s Western diagnosis was; and what drugs she was being given. I assumed antibiotics.

Wiki tells me that Panama is home to some tropical plants (and animals) found nowhere else on the planet. That could have important implications for medicine, if they don’t get destroyed.

Let’s Talk About the Islands

Some of the islands of Panama

All the maps I’ve ever seen, plus my Dad’s high school globe circa 1956, make it look like Panama has practically no islands at all. But in fact, it has hundreds. There are islands in Lake Gatun. There are islands in the Caribbean Sea. There are islands in the Pacific Ocean. There are 378 islands in the San Blas archipelago alone. The Kuna inhabit 49 of the San Blas islands and the rest are not inhabited. Now you can see how the people may have preserved their culture so well.

The islands and the forests served as refuges for native Panamanians when Europeans arrived from Venezuela in 1501. (Columbus arrived one year later.) The original people were:

  • Chibchan
  • Chocoan
  • Cueva
  • Cocle

Unfortunately, the last two named tribes were almost 100% wiped out by European diseases. (I rather hope the natives exchanged STDs with these men–syphilis is said to have infected European men who slept with Native American women, and since I assume the sex was forced, this made me rather pleased.)

Kuna Writing

Kuna writingKuna tradition involves oral storytelling, but they also have a written script. This seemed unusual to me for indigenous people. In the book on Burkina Faso, Malidoma Patrice Some talks about how the elders of his village didn’t want to learn to read and write, because they said it would cause them to lose their memories. They had observed how white people couldn’t remember the simplest things without writing them down. And in elementary school, we were taught how the Cherokee hero Squanto had devised a written alphabet for his people, who had never had one. I was surprised to read that scholars are now finding that tribes they THOUGHT had only an oral tradition often relied on written symbols as summaries or shorthand for stories. You’ve only got to see a fish symbol on the back of a car to understand how this works: the story of a fisherman from Galilee will pop right into your head.

Kuna script is very pictorial and colorful–more like ancient Egyptian than modern-day Chinese. And like some Asian languages, it is read from the bottom and moving up the page, from right to left. The earliest writings were made on balsa wood.

So what kinds of things did the Kuna write? Well, the book has examples of creation stories and tribal history, medicine chants, etc. Absent are bills of sale, love letters, or records of births and deaths. You can learn a lot about a people by what they consider important.

Are You Kidding Me?

Kuna weavingWhile the book contains a heaping helping of facts about the Kuna, I had two problems with it.

  • Some of the pages are so dense and scholarly as to be almost unintelligible to the layperson and
  • what are these weird and uninformed assumptions about written language?

“Rows of small figurines, of circles, boats, flags, leaves, or flowers accurately colored one by one, on balsawood form the oldest documents that we have; more recently they appear on ruled pages of school notebooks. Kuna healers and chiefs have produced images of this kind for at least a century. Like other picture-writings of the American Indians, these images have been considered with some embarrassment by Western scholars. Historians of art have found them difficult to understand in purely aesthetic terms; historians of writing found them too pictorial to be sound vehicles of information.”

Yes, yes, ok, we know that the Western anthropologists of yesteryear were blinkered racists who couldn’t have found their own blind spots with a spoon. Such as when the Western discoverers of Machu Piccu determined that an alien race must have built it because the modern Peruvian Indians were too stupid.

More Kuna weavingBut it gets worse: “A drawing devoid of phonetic value is, we tend to think, a fragile, even rusty means for encoding a text. Whatever the symbolism used for transcribing words in a drawing, it will be fatally restricted to the domain of the individual. ‘Never mistake a drawing for a text,’ warned E. Gombrich rightly in his famous book on The Sense of Order (1979). …Communication through images is difficult, always arbitrary, inevitably vague. Faced with a document that stands midway between sign and design…we feel uneasy.”

Rightly? What the front door?

Seriously, who is this “we”, White Man?! Both Japanese and Chinese kanji, as the former call it, are stylized representations of nouns and verbs.

Point 1: My friend Hanjo, in grad school, told me that he sees (literally sees) English as flat and boring, with no dimension. When he sees the Chinese drawing for “tree”, he said, he sees a tree. In 3-D. Not just a symbol representing the sounds you make when you say the word for tree. Chinese, he said, is more immediate, more alive, more rich and colorful.

Point 2: There is an entire poetry movement created by Idaho’s much-lauded son Ezra Pound, in which artists try to deal with abstract content by using concrete imagery. It’s called the Ideogrammic Method.

Point 3:  Scientists have discovered that our brains don’t think in words or abstract symbols. They communicate in images and pictures, which we then put into words (and then, in English, into symbols representing words). I have to stop now. Reading this bit was infuriating. I could’ve understood it better if the book came out in the 1970s, but it was published in 1995. GRRRR

I am glad this book exists, for if it didn’t I would have zero information on the Kuna, but at the same time, they could have done better.

RATING: Three Panamanian mosquitoes. (That they are mozzies is bad, but that there are only three is good. LOL)