Reading in the time of a pandemic

I had two or three books scattered about the living room, the last few I’d bought before the lock down. But elsewhere in the flat is a growing pile of books which have slipped below the radar. William Dalrymple’s latest, The Anarchy, promises to be a great read of the world’s most out of control corporation: the British East India Company. To go with it I picked up an older book which I think I’ll read through, Opium City by Farooqui. This is a history of the rise of Bombay, from a port with nothing to do, into its modern avatar. Two more bits of Indian history round off this part of my collection. One is the highly recommended book on Dara Shikoh, The Emperor Who Never Was by Supriya Gandhi. The other is below most radars, The Deoliwallahs by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza chrolicles the incarceration of all Chinese in India during the 1962 China war. That covers about four centuries. Enough.

Why did I let a Michael Ondaatje slip to the bottom of a pile. COVID-19 gives me a boon: rediscovering one of the great novelists from Africa. I know nothing about Otessa Moshfegh, except that The Family kept telling me to read My Year of Rest and Relaxation after she finished. Now that my year (or less) of rest and relaxation has come around, I’m getting round to it. I know even less about Anna Burns and the book Milkman. It’ll surprise me, no matter what.

Light reading? Yes, I have a thriller: Pythagoras’ Revenge, and a graphic novel, First Hand, by a collection of Indian artists. Nine books for mortal men doomed to die another day.

Preparing for Jordan

I hadn’t thought of visiting Jordan until I saw a post on Jerash by Harinda Bama. Then I realized that right there in the middle of the middle east, a place so full of history, where the remnants of the European wars of a hundred years ago are still being fought, in the middle of a beautiful and once peaceful land, there is a part which is easy for tourists to visit.

There were over 4 million tourists to Jordan two years ago, and that number might have gone up to 7 million this year if it were not for COVID-19. I suppose only a small fraction of travelers blog, but that number still produces a lot of stories and opinions. I started by reading some of what wordpress has on offer: Amman’s street art, Kerak, Raqmu, also known as Petra, Wadi Musa and Little Petra, Jerash and the Cats of Amman.

This was definitely a place I wanted to visit. The Family was also interested. So I looked deeper. The first book I took up was a translation of the travel diaries of Johann ludwig Burckhardt, the man who rediscovered Raqmu (Petra) in 1812. The translation of “Travels in Syria and the Holy Land” that I had contained a very long and interesting foreword by William Martin Leake. I found this really interesting, not only for the description of the geography (it helped to keep a map with contour lines open on my laptop as I read) but also for the interesting tidbits about how accurately the Greeks and Romans had mapped this land. Raqmu need not have been lost at all.

There is quite a bit of European writing on Jordan. The most well known is “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by Thomas Edward Lawrence. From today’s perspective one can see the broad line between Lawrence of Arabia and to the present wars in West Asia. The book is a little too verbose for my taste, but I found it interesting to skim through, pausing at bits here and there. Gertrude Bell‘s book “The Desert and the Sown” was an easier read, from a slightly earlier time, and left me with the same unsettling feeling of imperial powers meddling in local politics. As a travel book, it too has its positive points. One could add a dash of whipped cream by adding Agatha Christie’s “Appointment with Death”, not one of her best Hercule Poirot books, but one in which the murder occurs in Raqmu.

Most of the British books from the early part of the 20th century CE are imperial and racist by today’s standards, and totally ignore the post-Roman history of the area. They deal with the Ottoman Empire as a vile occupying power (an Indian finds this ironic). It was only when I started in on the next phase of reading, guide books, that I began to appreciate the modern history of the area. After some thought I chose the Blue Guide and Lonely Planet. I like Blue Guides for their detailed explanations of cultural artifacts, especially in and around Europe. Byzantine power supplanted Rome in this part of the world, until it was checked by the Umayyads and, later, Abbasids. After the brief Crusader incursion, Ayyubids and Mamluks held this land until the coming of the Ottomans. Each of these periods has left its artifacts across the land. This was a good point from which to expand my reading. I was feeling a little rushed last week, since our plan would have taken us to Raqmu today.

Now, under the new social distancing conventions, I remain in my flat. Airlines have cancelled flights, and the world has broken up into little islands. It gives me more time to read about this tiny country. I hope that when this calamity has gone, The Family and I are still able to take this cancelled trip.

Reading Jordanian literature

The beautiful piece of Arabic calligraphy that you see as the featured image is by Tanya Fedorova. Traditional Arabic calligraphy is very different from the Chinese, but to my untrained eye, this piece incorporates aspects of both. I liked it for this reason.

I was this leaf once
falling slowly

I was the tiger thinking it is free
while in a fenced garden

I was the woodworm gnawing
at the cradle and the scepter

I was the dirt disintegrating
in a pot of Geranium
The hand that used to water it
no longer there

— Song of Myself
by Amjad Nasser
(1955-2019)

I find that my ability to understand the world I live in is very constrained because I can read so few of the many languages that people write in. I was trying to prepare for a trip to Jordan by reading about it, and most of the searches yielded books by Europeans and Jordan emigrés. This coulldn’t be all, I thought. After all, Arabic literature is vast and vital. It turns out that little is translated into English. I was not able to find a translation of Columns of Foam (1987), a book by the Jordanian writer Elias Farkouh, although it has been named as one of the hundred best Arabic novels of the last century by the Arab Writers’ Union. Eventually I traced some of his stories in the magazine Banipal, based in London, which publishes translations of works from Arabic to English.

To this day my conviction is that writing in support of a cause should never be an excuse for lowering the standard of a literary work. It is the way you deal with the cause, rather, that makes your writing different. … For me language is not simply a means of conveying ideas, it is itself the idea, the end of writing, and it embodies memory — the memory of a culture, and the memory of the writer himself. … More and more people are asking me — writers and readers as well as critics — whether I am producing generic short stories or mere texts. It is obviously because I abide less and less by the technical rules of short story composition. But I believe a real artist must be pushing at the edges of generic convention — and constantly experimenting with his compositional techniques in order to do so.

— Elias Farkouh in an interview with Masress

Once I found magazines about Arab literature written in English, it was easy to get small pieces by writers who use Arabic as their main language. I was really fascinated by interviews. Everyone who uses language eventually talks of the craft: how to use language to achieve their ends. This same discussion is common in every language that I know, and it is interesting to see what is common and how much is dependent on the language and the culture it is immersed in.

This rose is made of mud
This glitter is made of coal
This child,
this scoundrel,
this good man,
this acrobat are
made of clay
–From Adam’s Kingdom
by Amjad Nasser
(1955-2019)

Dribs and drabs of Arabic poetry are also easy to come by. It is not hard to find a few pieces in translation from the works of Amjad Nasser; I quote a couple of pieces here. The more recent work of the Bedouin poet, Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya, is easy to come by, perhaps because he has appeared on Emirati TV shows in recent times. The translations don’t read so well. His work is said to be like hip-hop, meant to be heard or read aloud. This description probably means that the sounds and cadence are important, so translations are bound to suffer. Examples of the work of Ibrahim Nasrallah can also be found easily. It is not easy to find translations of their books. There are collections of Arabic literature in bilingual versions published by academic researchers. They seem to be good places to start from if one is interested in the whole of Arabic literature. I was searching more particularly for Jordanian authors before COVID-19 forced me to cancel my trip. I’m still searching.

A Nairobi bookstore

On our way back to Nairobi I asked about bookstores. MONT recommended a local chain called Textbook Center, not a very promising name. After breakfast I checked out its web site, and was impressed by the search engine and the fact that it stocked not only the particular field guide for East African birds that I was interested in, but also several others. So The Family and I paid the nearest one a visit. The staff was knowledgeable, and directed us immediately to the right section. After we’d compared the different guides and picked up a copy of the book by Stevenson and Fanshawe, we decided to take a look at the other books on display.

It is always nice to walk into a bookstore in a different country and see what the locals are reading. It is much more informative than looking at recommendations on the web, which are often dominated by foreigners. We’ve picked up some really interesting books this way. This time was no exception. The Family and I wandered through the maze of shelves looking at the enormous variety of Africa-centric, and Kenya-centric, literature and picked up enough to last us a year. You don’t really have to go to Nairobi to find these books, but it helps you to choose.

Reading about Kenya

With banquets of game and fowl and fish,
Strange fruits, and many an unknown dish.

About Malindi
The Lusiads VI.2
(Luis Vaz de Camoes)

It is hard to find books which would be useful background for a trip to Kenya. There are many books by travelers, usually western travelers. There are books by famous Kenyan authors, which are not about travel. The travel books, sometimes by intention, sometimes through unexamined cultural assumptions, tend to view Africa as exotic. I’d read (who hasn’t) Hemingway’s stories about East Africa, grown up with Tarzan and stories of lost civilizations, read about Idi Amin when I first started reading newspapers. And then, much later, I read Binyavanga Wainaina‘s short savage piece in Granta called How to Write About Africa. It is a very strong reaction to western writing about Africa. I would strongly recommend that you click through that link and read that piece, it is not much longer than this post.

At the head of my current reading list of books by Kenyan authors is Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. This is likely to be the only novel I finish before my trip, but there are a few which I would like to read. A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan classic, and I think that’s the one I want to read next. The Promised Land by Grace Ogot, with its questions about women’s role in African life, is another of the founding classics of Kenyan writing. Years ago The Family had picked up Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and it had settled, unfinished, into a pile of good intentions. I think this trip will make me start on it again. Kenya has a vibrant literary scene, with many authors writing in English, so I guess I will keep meeting new and old writings.

Some Arabic words were mingled
With the language they were speaking;
They covered their heads with turbans
Of fine cotton-weave fabric

About Swahili
The Lusiads V.76
(Luis Vaz de Camoes)

Soon after The Family and I shelved our collection of books together, I picked up a book from what used to be her collection called The Tree where Man was Born. This was written by Peter Matthiesen, one of the founders of The Paris Review. I flipped through this book again in preparation for our journey. The book Safari Ants, Baggy Pants and Elephants, by Susie Kelly, is now on my Kindle, in company with West with the Night by Beryl Markham (hugely praised by Hemingway) and North of South by Shiva Naipaul. Beryl Markham’s book reads like a meeting between Saint Exupery and Hemingway. Susan Kelly is a new travel writer for me. Shiva Naipual, who died at age forty, is now known mainly as the younger brother of the Nobel prizewinning V.S. Naipaul. His book promises a different perspective, since it is the only one about East Africa which is written neither by a native African, nor by an European or European settler. That’s quite a long reading list for a short trip.

A book market

The Beyazit Mosque was hidden under scaffolding: more repair work. We went around it, and there, opposite the library, just behind the mosque was Sahaflar Çarşısı. The name means antique market. Does the name refer to the second hand books here, or to the fact that it was reputedly a book market since the Byzantine times? I couldn’t figure that out. The courtyard was a pleasant place to stroll through. Although I read no Turkish, I love to look at books while trying to figure out who buys them.

The Istanbul university occupies the whole area between the Beyazit and Sulemaniye mosques. So most of the people who pass through this lovely arched gate are probably students; there did seem to be an enormous number of textbooks. But there were some who were looking at the books without picking up a single one; probably tourists like us. One gate of the bazaar opens up to the University, but the other stands just outside the Grand bazaar. In any case, it no longer seems to be the haunt of novelists and antiquarians that it was in the early twentieth century.

The fountains and the structures here are not very old. I’d read about a fire here some time in the 1950s, so all this would have been built after that; even the rococo-looking water fountain near the gate. There was a bust on one side which neither The Family nor I remembered to take a photo of. This was of Ibrahim Muteferrika, an Ottoman diplomat, who published the first Turkish book in 1729, a two-volume Arabic-Turkish dictionary.

Stacks of books lay around on the warm stone paving. From what I’d read, there wasn’t a single market place for books in the early Ottoman times. Some shops in this Sahaflar bazaar and several in the Grand bazaar next door would deal in books and manuscripts. They were moved here in the late Ottoman times, perhaps at the beginning of the 20th or the end of the 19th century. The line of Marvel comics here showed a recent interest in the American superhero, probably due to the movies, which have been as big in Turkey as in the rest of the world.

The interest in Tintin and the other French and Belgian comics is much older. Orhan Pamuk, in his book Istanbul, writes “When the first Tintin film was made in Istanbul, a pirate publishing outfit issued a black-and-white comic book called Tintin in Istanbul, the creation of a local cartoonist who mixed his own renderings of various frames from the film with frames from various other Tintin adventures.” I casually flipped through these books. No luck with counterfeits, they were all the usual genuine articles.

Inside the Grand bazaar we’d seen several shops selling calligraphy and paintings, nice, but very ornately framed. Here I stopped at a shop which was clearly geared to the same tourist market (note the books on Turkish food in various foreign languages). I can barely read any Arabic, but one doesn’t need to in order to enjoy Arabic calligraphy. The Family and I lost ourselves in thumbing through the plates, and wondering about the pencils and brushes and inks to be used. We may have spent no more than half an hour in this place, but we carried away very pleasant memories.

Talking Turkey on World Book Day

April 23 seems to be the International Book Day, designated by UNESCO to be the World Book and Copyright Day. I understand that it commemorates the dates on which Cervantes and Shakespeare died (in the same year, but on different days, the blame for this strange happenstance belongs to Pope Gregory XII). The sheer number of writers across the world means that this is also the birthday of other famous writers. Vladimir Nabokov happens to be one of them.

That’s a good reason to sit down and make a list of the books I’ve been working my way through as I get ready for a trip to Turkey. This part of the world has an amazing history. So many different civilizations washed across this antique land. There are neolithic sites from before the invention of agriculture, the Greek ruins of Ephesus, Troy, Aphrodisias, Miletus (birthplace of Thales, famous for saying things like “The past is certain, the future obscure” and for being the town through which the Maeander river, well, meanders), Persian ruins dotted across Antalya, remnants of the Byzantine empire across the country, and finally, the great constructions of the Ottomans.

I knew too little about the Byzantine empire. So I decided to read the Chronographia written by Michael Psellos in the 11th century CE. This is a series of biographies of the Byzantine emperors in the century before Psellos’ own time, although some of the most interesting parts are the author’s own memoirs. Judith Herrin’s book Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire surprises the Western reader with the contention that the medieval era was not the dark ages, and me by being a good tourist guide as well. I understand that the book The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown has a similar thesis. I haven’t started on it yet. The first book I did finish was the extremely informative Byzantium: a Very Short Introduction by Peter Sarris.

Except for little factoids such as that Cervantes took part in the naval Battle of Lepanto against them, I knew very little about the Ottoman empire. I have started to remedy this lack of education through a short reading list which started with Giancarlo Casale’s book The Ottoman Age of Exploration, which throws surprising light on the Zeroth World War centered on the Indian Ocean. While this is highly educative, it is somewhat peripheral to our forthcoming trip to Turkey. For that I have reserved Halil Inalcik’s magisterial survey The Ottoman Empire: 1300-1600, and Sukru Hanioglu’s book A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire.

I’m afraid that I no longer have the time to finish my reading list before the trip, so I’ll take these books along on my ereader and enjoy them as I travel during the month of Ramadan through the land they describe. The Family is pretty sure that this won’t be our last trip through Turkey. “Its history is quite as interesting as those of China and India,” she said. Not to mention that samosas and koftas originated in Turkey.

Eight and a half (million books)

The new design for Guangzhou is a wide central axis down the length of what is called the Zhujiang New Town, pointed right at the Canton Tower on the other bank of the Zhujiang (Pearl river). Walking around this area, I kept noticing an interesting building off to the east of this north-south axis. I hadn’t marked this down for a visit, but The Family said “Let’s go and look”. So off we went.

Large friendly letters across the top of the entrance said “Guangzhou Public Library”. We hadn’t seen a library building so large. We went in, knowing fully well that we would not be able to read most of the books that they have here. But we are book lovers, the sight of books releases oxytocin in our brains. In any case, entrance was free and easy. I had to put my backpack through an x-ray machine. No further questions; not even a remark about the water bottle in my bag. Before us was a huge atrium, all the way up to the eighth floor. The Family picked up a little pamphlet in English which told us, among other things, that the library held eight and a half million books. This was clearly our heaven, if only we could read Chinese.

On one side of the atrium the ground floor was taken up by the reading area for visually challenged persons. We could see people at computers, and stacks of books. I found later that Chinese braille has two standards. The more modern one is semi-syllabic, and similar to the standard Pinyin transcription of Chinese writing into Roman characters. The glass roof above the atrium lets in a lot of light. In the photo of the atrium you can see the sunlit interior. We took the escalator from across the atrium and reached a landing which led into the children’s section. This was enormous, running the whole length of the building.

We were more interested in the regular library, and that seemed to be on the other side of the atrium. There didn’t seem to be an obvious way to cross at this level. So went down, crossed the atrium again, and took the other escalator up. The first landing was of international newspapers and magazines. The desks were quite crowded (as you can see in the photo above). Many were clearly reading material borrowed from the stacks, but several young students also seemed to use the library as a place to work in. Most people had settled in for a read, as you could see by the flasks full of tea which they had carefully placed on their sides.

Half of the width of the hall was taken up by stacks. The library has open stacks, and is supposed to be the largest open stack library in the world. I peered in and walked along the stacks for a while. Eventually I came out of my daze and began to look for Indian newspapers. I didn’t see them, but I didn’t look very systematically. On the other hand I could see several languages which I could read (not that I understand all of them).

We went up one level where the books started. The library is open from 9 in the morning to 9 in the night. I found later that the library started in 1927, during the early years of the republic. Since then it has closed only during the Japanese occupation from 1938 to 1945. The building we were in was completed in 2013, and the architects were the Japanese firm of Nikken Sekkei, I’m surprised it is not in every guide book as a must see. The curved external walls resemble books stacked up above each other, and the two towers (north and south) together with the glass fronted atrium between are meant to resemble the shape of the character 之 (pronounced zhi, probably meaning “to become”, in this context).

The relatively small windows, and the rooftop garden are meant to insulate the building and reduce the amount of energy required in air conditioning. The orientation of the building also minimizes direct sunlight, so that it does not get too hot inside. The two us wandered through the stacks, touching the books, wishing we knew enough Chinese to read them. Eventually we took the escalator down and walked out the building slowly. What a wonderful place this was. Don’t miss it if you are in Guangzhou.

Fahrenheit 451

In Ray Bradbury’s book “Fahrenheit 451”, books are illegal and the job of firemen is to burn them. Bradbury wrote this during a time when civil liberties were being eroded in the US. Much after I read the book I came across the history of the events which very directly influenced it. One memorial to those is in the open square on Unter Den Linden called Bebelplatz.

In plaques embedded into the flagstones, and in an artwork below the square, are memorials to the burning of books in this place on 10 May, 1933 by the Nazi Student’s Union. The square is bounded on two sides by university buildings, and by the state Opera on the third. It opens out to the Unter den Linden to the north, and across the street is the Humboldt university (the photo below was taken facing it). The building on the west (featured photo) was the university library.

We visited it again on a bright and cold day as the clock struck thirteen. Crowds of tourists cycled about, the middle of Berlin is cyclist’s area. Years ago we’d seen the moving installation by Micha Ullman which can be viewed through a glass panel set into the ground (the cluster of people in the photo above are standing around it). It shows empty shelves, symbolizing the books that were pulled out of the library by students, under the direction of the librarian and professors, to be burnt.

Erich Kaestner was one of the authors whose books were burnt. He stood in Bebelplatz, unrecognized, and later described the heavy rain as the fires kept going out and the firemen had to keep lighting the fire again and again. Bebelplatz is a place one can visit over and over again, because it reminds you that liberties we now take for granted can be eroded by elected leaders who create mobs behind whom they can hide their designs. One of the plaques embedded into the flagstones reminds us to watch out for early signs of such erosion by quoting from an 1820 work by Heinrich Heine: “That was but a prelude: when they burn books they will ultimately burn people too.”

The bookseller

Unter den Linden was dug up. My favourite war memorial, the Neue Wache, was closed for renovation. We walked along and at the gates of Humboldt university, found a stall of used books. I’m a sucker for a bookshop. After I’d admired the bundled-up shopkeeper, I ran an eye over the books.

Many of the hard-bound books were about the history of the second world war. I sort of recognized the book called “The Battle for Moscow”, by the prolific and generally well regarded Polish author of war history, Janusz Piekalkiewicz. The other table contained CDs, records and paperbacks. These were for three Euros each. Used copies of books like the one by Piekalkiewicz sell for less on Amazon. I wonder how these books sell on the pavement.

As you can see, the bookseller was deeply engrossed in a tablet, reading a e-book by the looks of it.