Sunday, May 28, 2017

I, Who Did Not Die by Zahed Haftling and Najah Aboud with Meredith May

This is the true story of two men: Zahed, a child soldier in the Iranian army and Najah, a conscript in the Iraqi army.  The men first meet when Najah is injured in attack by the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war.  Zahed, a medic, is ordered to recover any Iranians injured or killed in the operation and to shoot any live Iraqis.  He comes across Najah and points his gun at him.  Unable to communicate in Farsi, Najah tries to plead for his life in Arabic.  The only word Zahed understands is "Muslim".  Najah is trying to convey that he is a fellow Muslim and to have mercy.  He then shows Zahed his Koran in which he has placed a photo of his fiancĂ©e and their son.  Zahed is moved by the picture and puts down his gun.  His mercy does not stop there - he risks his own life in an effort to save Najah's.  Eventually he has no choice but to turn Najah over to the authorities where he becomes a prisoner of war - for 17 years.  Toward the end of the war, Zahed is also captured by the Iraqis and becomes a prisoner for just over 2 years.  Both men are ultimately released as part of prisoner exchanges long after the war ends.  Struggling to survive in their own countries, they each take separate paths and end up refugee claimants in Vancouver.  Somewhat miraculously they meet in the waiting room of a mental health institute for victims of torture.  Zahed himself is a patient as in a state of despair he has tried to kill himself; Najah is there with his father who is struggling with adjusting to a new life.  Here Najah is able to finally repay Zahed by helping him find his footing in Canada.

The book alternates chapters from the perspective of each of the men.  It starts before the war and tells of the abusive family that Zahed tries to escape by joining the army and the relatively successful middle class life Najah lives running a falafel restaurant.  We then hear of their experiences as soldiers, their finding and losing love and their ill treatment as prisoners.  It really paints a picture of a pointless war with significant suffering on both sides.  And it shows how even in these horrific circumstances some level of humanity survives.

While it was sometimes hard to read the details of torture suffered by both men, this was ultimately a really fascinating read.  And has an ending that is stranger than fiction.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Hope has Two Daughters by Monia Mazigh

Monia Mazigh is better known for her tireless efforts to gain the release of her husband, Maher Arar, who was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge.  However, she is an accomplished woman in her own right - she has a Ph.D. in finance from McGill and, prior to this book, published both a memoir and another novel.

According to the author, Hope has Two Daughters, is not autobiographical but is drawn on some of her childhood memories of growing up in Tunisia.  In alternating chapters the book moves back and forth in time from 1984 where we learn of Nadia's experiences during the bread and cous cous riots at that time to 2010 where we follow her daughter Lila on her trip back to her mother's homeland to learn Arabic.  There she becomes caught up in the start of Arab Spring.

Nadia led a sheltered, lower middle class life until her friend Neila fell in love with Manour, a poor law student caught up in the activism of the time.  For organizing a protest against the government by dock workers, Manour is sentenced to 7 years in prison.  This leads Nadia to question her life and the way her parents just accept their fate, whether they like it or not.

Lila, who grew up very comfortable in Ottawa with her Tunisian mother and Canadian father, is similarly awakened when trouble breaks out in Tunisia while she is there, learning Arabic and living with Neila and Manour.

This is an interesting story of how even the most sheltered women are impacted by living under dictatorship, and how even their small contributions can help bring about change.  While that sounds somewhat hopeful, the less optimistic aspect of the book is how in some ways there was little change at all between the 1984 and 2010 riots - and the implication that the more recent riots may also have less impact than their participants wish.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

At first I had a hard time getting into this book; by the end I had a hard time putting it down.  The novel starts in 1988 in a small mountain community in rural China, not far from the border with Myanmar.  Li-Yan is the youngest child and only daughter of poor tea farmers; her mother is the local midwife.  It is assumed Li-Yan will follow in her mother's footsteps.  Instead she shows a real talent for learning and is encouraged by the local school teacher (a city man sent to the countryside as part of the cultural revolution) to further her education; perhaps even one day earning a spot in a university.

The community Li-Yan lives in is part of a small minority in China - they are governed by centuries old traditions and superstitions; some of which seem unnecessarily harsh.  But her mother is a strong character who encourages both her education and her connection with ancient tea trees which were passed down on the female side of her family.  

With her mother's help Li-Yan gives birth to a child out of wedlock and leaves her on the steps of an orphanage in a nearby town (when tradition would have required the women to kill the baby).  The baby girl is adopted by an American couple and moves to California.  After the adoption the novel follows both mother and daughter.

Li-Yan eventually becomes a skilled tea trader; while her daughter searches for clues behind a cake of tea that was left with her at the orphanage door.

I don't want to give away any more than that about the ending because I encourage you to read the book.  The end is satisfying if perhaps a bit predictable.  I really liked Li-Yan's character as well as her mother, husband and mother-in-law.  This is worth the early struggle to get to the end.  Though I will caution that sometimes the descriptions of the tea business and the history of tea were a bit tedious and I needed to skim those parts.  It didn't take away from my overall enjoyment of the novel.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

White Elephant by Catherine Cooper

I struggled through this book because I thought I would gain further insight into the screwed up characters - but it wasn't really worth it in the end.

Ann and Richard and their 13 year old son Tor have moved from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone so Richard can fulfil his lifelong dream of using his medical degree to help those less fortunate.  But Sierra Leone is on the brink of civil war making it rather dangerous and life has not worked out well for any of them.  Richard doesn't get along with his partner - a medical school colleague who he had planned to join for years, but who doesn't take him seriously since he himself is African and views Richard as an outsider trying to impose his western views about female circumcision, herbalists and other local traditions.

Ann seems to be suffering from environmental illnesses which she believes are brought on by mould in their damp house (which was also a problem for her in Nova Scotia).  But Richard believes she is faking.  She is also trying to come to terms with the affair her husband had just before their departure from Nova Scotia and is angry all the time.  She is also trying to avoid the CRA who wish to conduct an audit - and she is hiding this from Richard who is less in tune with their financial situation back home.

Tor is very unhappy to be in Africa and thus exceeding rebellious, particularly against his father who, in fairness, is rather cruel to him.  Ann is sometimes overly protective and at other times also cruel to him.  He has trouble making friends as he is white and therefore so different thus is only able to hang out with a local troublemaker.  He goes on a hunger strike to express his opposition which makes him even more miserable.

The jacket of the book says we will discover why they left home and can't go back but that is revealed fairly early on and I kept hoping for more, but there wasn't really more.

The only sort of interesting piece was the comparison of the Christian missionary practices to the local superstitions - though both parties were suspicious of each other, they actually were not so different.

I wouldn't really bother with this book.