Friday, 30 August 2013

Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (The Inheritance Trilogy, #1)The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think the best way to describe this book is 'layered.' The story centres around family disputes, mortal and godly, composed of layers of love and bitterness and jealousy and revenge, and the problems are never easily resolved. Neither are this world's political problems. The Arameri ruling family hide their cruelty under a layer of order and 'peace' which is really hegemony, and their mistreatment of other races under a veneer of false civility, which as Yeine says, mocks the suffering of their victims.

I loved how Jemisin didn't portray all parties as being equally at fault, or as simply needing to stop fighting and get along, because there is great injustice in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and that has to be acknowledged before it can begin to be changed.

This is a complex, first-person narrative, weaving together Yeine's childhood in Darr and her grandmother's stories and her commentary on her world and her short time in the Arameri capital. (view spoiler) This isn't always a happy book - it couldn't be, with all the terrible things happening in its world - but it's an effective and captivating one.

View all my reviews

Sunday, 25 August 2013

There is no joy but calm

I finally managed to reset my internal clock from the 'sleep after sunrise, wake at noon' Ramadan having a migraine.  I spent yesterday listening to podcasts, not really tracking, and trying really hard not to vomit or scream at the muazzin to shut up, because that would make me feel worse, and the neighbours would finally be sure that I was off my nut. 

Somewhere in there I must have gotten some sleep, because I woke up at eight-thirty this morning, and it was great.  The building was quiet, mysteriously devoid of screaming sprogs (are they still asleep, or have they travelled?  I'm hoping for the latter), and cool - less than thirty Celcius.  Sleeping in the day always makes me feel awful, which does not improve the Ramadan experience any.

I have The Lotos-Eaters (text) stuck in my head, although I haven't listened to it in ages.
"Courage!" he said, and pointed toward the land,
"This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon."
In the afternoon they came unto a land,
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon,
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.

I think I may have discovered this poem in the last Twilight book.  Bella reads it as a lullaby to her horrifying spooky monster sprog, or something.  One benefit to those books' name-dropping of great works of literature of whose themes the author was unaware: I read a few things I'd never gotten around to before.

I really like the reading of The Lotos-Eaters in this Librivox poetry collection.  Kirsten Ferreri's voice is perfect for the poem, low and sleepy and a little resigned.  It's her voice reciting in my head.

Why are we weigh'd upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown:
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber's holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
"There is no joy but calm!"
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?
Theories about the poem's seating in attitudes toward work in the British Empire:

According David Reide, "Certainly Tennyson's relocation of excesses of eroticism to the edges of the imperial world provides a kind of outlet for overflow that might otherwise threaten the orderly authority at the imperial center." I believe, however, that "The Lotos-Eaters" is more of a critique of British work habits and imperial duty than an Orientalist fantasy. Tennyson repeatedly emphasizes that the lotus eaters do no work and bear no responsibility. "Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?" asks one sluggish Grecian. Figuratively at least, the land of the lotus-eaters is a romantic escape from a life of "enduring toil" that most industrial age Britons knew only too well. 

- From 'A Critique of Empire and Toil in Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Lotus-Eaters"'

Friday, 23 August 2013

Poetry: Song for an Ancient City

I have loved this poem for a few years, and now it's up on the new Mythic Delirium site, in English and Arabic, with recordings in both languages.  Do take the time to listen to them.

Merchant, keep your attar of roses,
your ambers, your oud,
your myrrh and sandalwood. I need
nothing but this dust
palmed in my hand’s cup
like a coin, like a mustard seed,
like a rusted key.

I need
no more than this, this earth
that isn’t earth, but breath,
the exhalation of a living city, the song
of a flute-boned woman,
air and marrow on her lips.
 - Amal el-Mohtar, 'Song for an Ancient City.'
It's not my Damascus, quite, mine was candy and garbage and shawarma and eroding concrete and bus exhaust, but the sentiment could be mine.  It's especially poignant right now.

Damascus, how I miss it.

Here's another one:

I looked for you
in the Umayyad mosque
I saw your feet stamp the coriander dust
your fingers swinging old shoes
of leather and brass
back and forth, back and forth—
                                                hooded, grey, wondering and small,
two fingers hooked into the heels
of shoes I carried in one hand.
your hair was bound up, far off from me;
I bound mine, too,
a gesture of loyal symmetry.
I looked for you
I could not find you
in the sun-steeped mosaics,
in that city of silver and capsicum
the figures of fruit trees, bridges, vines.
of frankincense and raisins.
I saw whole cities blooming in the stone
I saw long veils stitched with hexameters
that would not speak to me, would not say
that lied when they breathed:
where they'd seen you last.
she is near.

 - 'Damascus Divides the Lovers by Zero, or The City Is Never Finished' by Amal El-Mohtar and Catherynne M. Valente

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

On dying for one's beliefs, and on living.

There's an image going around Facebook and Tumblr (in Arabic, I don't know if there's one in English) of a woman in niqab and a man in a beard.  Yellow on black, like a yield sign, except the caption is to never yield and never give up your niqab/beard, not even if it costs you your life, because your fate is written.  This is in relation to the massacres in Egypt, where people have been killed who don't display those observances, but the ones who do are targeted especially.

The people I know who are sharing this are outside Egypt, and a few of them have put on niqab recently, and are encouraging others to do so.  I'm happy for them; I love my niqab and I understand how they feel about it.

I have to take my niqab off.

It's easy, to say that you would die for your beliefs, and it's exciting to resist, especially if you're young and the danger isn't immediate.  I understand.  I also understand that upper middle class girls in Amman aren't really risking anything when they put on niqab, except their neighbours' disapproval, and their families' puzzlement.  They won't lose their jobs, if they have them, or their housing, and they won't be shot.

I would gladly die for my beliefs, if it was a quick death, and if it would mean something.  What I won't do is give up my livelihood or accept a marriage I don't want.  I won't live a life of servitude or give up my autonomy. 

Given the choice between a beloved article of clothing and my larger principles, in this case, the clothing will have to go.

I feel guilty for thinking all of these things, when people are dying, but I don't think I've made the wrong choice.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords

I was backing up my files and found a pdf of J.R.R. Tolkien's On Fairy Stories on my external hard drive.  I didn't like The Lord of the Rings as much as I wanted to (as much as I like The Hobbit), I don't think I read it at the right age, but at its best, Tolkien's prose is lovely.  Here are some excerpts:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

Tolkien excludes fantastical travellers' tales, such as Gulliver's Travels, from the category of fairy-story, because "Such tales report many marvels, but they are marvels to be seen in this mortal world in some region of our own time and space; distance alone conceals them."

With respect to Tolkien, I think some of the above quote can be applied to travellers to foreign parts.  As far as our families are concerned, we peripatetics are in a perilous land.  They do not know the rules of the place, or where it's located to any degree of accuracy.  For all they know, we might be swallowed up or enchanted and never return.  We might as well be in faerie. 

We know the perils, and to us they are very ordinary - dishonest employers, landlords, corrupt officials, ever-changing immigration laws, annoyingly persistent matchmakers, stalkers in pointy boots and tight pants and too much hair oil.  No fairy lords here.  But there has been joy and sorrow as sharp as swords, and we will never be able to fully explain it to anyone who wasn't here with us. 

Tolkien wasn't fond of Shakespeare's pretty but dull fairies, or of the saccharine, moralising Victorian flower fairies.  He theorises about how this transformation from the wild fae of old happened:

Yet I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of “rationalization,” which transformed the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip or shrink behind a blade of grass. It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves; when the magic land of Hy Breasail in the West had become the mere Brazils, the land of red-dye-wood.

And there's that thread from the LotR: the wonder that goes out of the world at the end of the age of elves and and the beginning of the age of men.

I think that's the right note to end on.  We are fortunate to have wandered, even if it won't last forever.  Nothing does.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Dreaming: Ice-Cream

All I remember now is that people were pointing at me and saying I was a huge ice-cream cone.  I may have actually been a huge swirly soft-serve ice-cream, but I'm not sure anymore.

It's hot and dusty and often late at night in Ramadan I walked down to the baqalah and got an ice-cream. 

You can get a good one for ten to thirty qirsh, a vanilla bar coated in brown chocolate-like product or a tube of fruit sherbet.  They're not real ice-cream, they're milk and vegetable oil and fillers, but we're used to it.  Everything in this country is a cheap imitation, unless you're rich, but it's been so long since we've tasted the real thing that we wouldn't recognise it any more.  It's cold and it's sweet and it's affordable and that's all we wanted.

Ramadan's over now, and I think the midnight ice-cream runs are too. 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Book Review: From Pharaoh's Lips

(Posting this here for now because I can't get Goodreads or Amazon to load and if I don't post it I will forget about it).

From Pharaoh's Lips: Ancient Egyptian Language in the Arabic of Today

A fun introduction to Ancient Egyptian and Coptic words in modern Arabic, which tells the story of a day in the life of an Egyptian family in a manner suitable for elementary school children, using several Egyptian Arabic expressions per sentence.  On the pages facing the story are lists of the expressions used, in English transliteration, Arabic, Coptic, Greek, and hieroglyphs.  The book also provides lists of the letters of the Arabic and Coptic alphabets and hieroglyphs and brief instructions on how to read and pronounce them, and glossaries of expressions in those languages.

The main problem with this book is that it can't decide whether to be a children's book, or an academic text, and so it fails at both.  The authors state that a word or phrase comes from a particular language, but they don't show the etymology, or justify their statements, or provide any citations, or list more than one or two sources in the bibliography beyond basic language texts and dictionaries.

Written by an Egyptologist at al-Azhar, this book had a lot of potential, but it didn't live up to it.  Scholars of the languages concerned will want a more in-depth book, and children will not understand much of this one.

EDIT:  Many of the phrases in this book are also listed in this excerpt from Georgy Sobhy Bey's 1950 article 'Common Words in the Spoken Arabic of Egypt of Greek or Coptic Origin.'  It's difficult to be certain without citations, but Youssef appears to have drawn heavily on Bey's work.  I talked to an Egyptologist who said that some of the hieroglyphs in Bey were wrong, but it's an interesting read for anyone familiar with modern Arabic (my apologies to those who aren't!  But have a look at it anyway, it's visually interesting).

Copticsounds' resource page has an extensive bibliography of scholarly articles on Coptic Language, many of which deal with the Ancient Egyptian-Coptic-Arabic etymology, with links to PDFs.