Books: I Am Malala

October 1, 2016

The 2016 Reading Challenge I have been working on includes reading a political memoir. Several times I browsed the Biography shelves at the library, trying to find one that looked at least half-way interesting – and preferably fairly short. But all the volumes I saw with names I recognized from the political area looked quite hefty, and I found it unlikely that they had that much to say that would interest me. Looking through some online book reviews confirmed my suspicion that books of this genre tend to have little value or lasting appeal.

Fortunately I discovered that the same website that lists the Reading Challenge also lists books to read to meet the challenge. And in the political memoir category, the recommendation was I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. I vaguely remember news reports from 2012 when she was shot, and later in 2014 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but I had not really followed the stories much at that time.

This sounded much more interesting than reading about some politician taking advantage of temporary fame to publish a book, perhaps in the hope of not being forgotten quite as quickly as most. Besides, I always enjoy learning about other countries and their culture and history, and learning a different perspective on the world and life in general.

Malala’s story is very interesting. Some reviews criticize the quality of the writing, but all agree that the story makes the book well worth reading. We learn about Malala’s childhood, her family, and her father’s commitment to education for both boys and girls. We learn about the beauty of her homeland and about various traditions that shape the people’s lives. And of course, we learn about the coming of the Taliban and the way most people were too afraid to speak out against them, even while realizing that they were not the champions of righteousness that they initially appeared to be. Read the rest of this entry »

Books: If the Oceans Were Ink

January 3, 2016

I have several times thought about reading the Koran for myself, rather than just depend on what I have read about it. But each time I pick up a copy in a bookstore or library and leaf through it, I find it so inaccessible that I decide to wait until I find some kind of guide to it. (And since such a guide would naturally reflect the religious/social/political perspective of its author, I still wouldn’t know whether I was getting a proper understanding of the subject.)

So when I saw If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power in the library, I thought this could be a very helpful book. Power spent a year studying the Koran with Sheikh Mohammed Akram Nadwi, an Islamic scholar. Along with Power, I would learn from the Sheikh some rudiments of his holy book.

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Books: The Tent of Abraham

June 12, 2013

It seems like most of my posts these days are about the books I read. But then, I do spend a lot of time reading. And the things I’m thinking about are often the things I’m reading about, whether it’s the book that got me thinking about them or I read the book because I was already thinking about them.

It’s the latter in the case of today’s post. In the Bible study I lead on Wednesdays, we’re going through a “bird’s eye” view of the Bible, and this week was on Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob). When I was in the library last weekend, it occurred to me to see if there were any interesting books on Abraham.

What I found was The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I saw that it included chapters written from a Jewish perspective, a Christian perspective, and a Muslim perspective. That would be certainly be interesting, I thought, seeing how the other two faiths view Abraham differently.

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Books: Children of Jihad

December 21, 2010

When I read Children of Jihad this week – and it is a quick and engrossing read – I thought of its significance primarily in making known to a wider audience the views of young people in the Middle East. A twenty-something himself, Jared Cohen found it easy (once he got into these countries to begin with, which wasn’t so easy) to find people his own age eager to talk with them.

Images in American media often focus on terrorists – or their victims. But the majority of the young people – who are also a majority of the whole population – want Americans to know that they are similar to their counterparts in the U.S. They listen to Western music, eat Western food, and wear Western clothing (to the extent that the laws of their country all it – which may mean wearing jeans under a chador).

They admire the U.S. in the abstract as a symbol of freedom, and many of them welcome Americans such as Cohen. But they hate the U.S. government, because they have been taught that it – together with the government of Israel – has caused a great deal of the hardship in their daily lives.

Like young people everywhere, those in the Middle East are more open to new ideas than the older generations. They have grown up seeing the devastation of war, and they want something better. They want an education and better job prospects, and they resent the leaders of their own countries that have failed to provide such opportunities. Through technology such as mobile phones and the internet, they are able to broaden their knowledge of the world and try to find ways to influence it.

When I read reviews of the book at, I found some that had found the book as fascinating as I did. But others point out that there is nothing new in the book for anyone who has traveled in that region. Naturally, most of us have not (Cohen has an appetite for danger, though I also read in some reviews that he seems to exaggerate the dangers he faced), so Cohen’s book is illuminating.

When I looked for more information on the author, I found out that Jared Cohen has since served in the U.S. State Department, where Condoleezza Rice picked him to serve on the policy planning staff. All those interviews with young people in the Middle East convinced him that it was important to pinpoint ways to use technology as a tool in foreign policy. I found two articles, here and here, that give multiple examples of how Cohen has harnessed the power of 21st century technology as a catalyst for change.

Just this fall, Cohen was hired by Google.

Before, he was in public service, reaching out to the private sector. Now he’s joining the private sector to see how it can help advance public goals.

I look forward to reading more about the positive difference Jared Cohen is making in our troubled world.

Who put the genie in the lamp?

November 24, 2009

This morning during breakfast, my son Al asked me, “Where did the idea of genies come from?” I have no idea what brought the question on, as I don’t remember they’re having been part of our conversation up to that point. I was tempted to answer that the origins of legends are almost by definition unknown, and that at most we can say what part of the world they come from. But I don’t think he meant the “where” geographically.

I could also have given an abstract answer about how people have come up with fanciful stories to explain things they don’t understand. But that wouldn’t really answer his question either. He wanted to know where the idea of the genie, specifically, came from.

So I decided to see what I could find out to answer his question. Just how did people come up with the idea of powerful beings with no more substance than smoke, who were kept in lamps and granted wishes when they were released? I’ve read a fair amount of mythology, but mostly that of European origins. Genies, as any kid who has watched Disney’s Aladdin can tell you, come from Arabia.

The word genie is the English equivalent of the Arabic jinn (or djinn). According to wikipedia, it came by way of the French translation of Arabian Nights, where the French word génie (from the Latin word genius for a guardian spirit assigned to each person at birth) was considered a particularly apt transliteration of the Arabic. Most of our ideas about genies came from the stories in Arabian Nights (and modern stories building on those literary foundations), especially the story of Aladdin. Oddly enough, this story was not in the Arabic version, and was added by the French translator, who had heard it from an Arab Syrian storyteller from Aleppo.

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Books: Islam (Opposing Viewpoints)

September 13, 2009

I always appreciate books that present a range of viewpoints on controversial topics. Some books by a single author attempt to do this, but I always find myself wondering how fairly the author has presented views that he himself does not hold. Even if he intends to be fair, he is unlikely to be able to put forward an opposing view as effectively as his own.

I was happy, therefore, to discover a series of books called Opposing Viewpoints, published by Greenhaven Press. Each book is a short anthology of differing views on various aspects of a controversial issue, such as the death penalty, abortion, and animal rights. I doubt I’ll read the one on sports in America, but I’m very interested in learning more about the range of views on criminal justice, education, genetic engineering, health care (especially in light of current events), human sexuality, illegal immigration, mass media, and women in the military. (I’ll skip the one on vampires – though I’m curious now just what the controversy is about.)

It was the one on Islam that interested me first. I’ve read a couple books by Muslims, acknowledging the problems with radical Islamists but presenting a favorable view of Islam as a whole. And I’ve followed the many discussions over at worldmagblog where certain commenters regularly point out books, events, and verses from the Koran as evidence of the great danger the West faces from Islam. Having a variety of views presented side by side seemed like a great way to get a better perspective on the matter.

It’s quite a short book, only 150 pages including an introduction to each author/viewpoint, and a periodical bibliography for each chapter. It is divided into four sections:

  • Are the Values of Islam and the West in Conflict?
  • Does Islam Promote Terrorism and Violence?
  • What Is the Status of Women Under Islam?
  • How Will Islam’s Future Be Shaped?

One thing I noticed was that the viewpoints arguing that the values of Islam and the West are in conflict were all written from the perspective of the West. I suppose that Muslims who see their culture as opposed  – and superior  – to the West likely do not write their views in English. But it would have been interesting to read that perspective also.

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Books: The Afghan

February 5, 2009

I’m not sure which of Frederick Forsyth’s books I read first, nor how many I have read (not nearly all of them). But when I saw a new one, The Afghan, on the audiobooks shelf at the library, I grabbed it. I just finished it today, and despite some shortcomings regarding the plot, it was thoroughly enjoyable to listen to.

Forsyth, like Tom Clancy, fills his novels with a wealth of technical details. I wondered, as I listened, and as I have wondered sometimes when reading (or listening to) Clancy novels, whether terrorists ever get ideas from them. (Wikipediastates that Forsyth did plan a novel that he later dropped, for fear terrorists might try the type of attack he described. After 9/11, he revealed his unused plot: “terrorists hijack a civilian airliner and ram the plane into their intended targets.”)

Some readers complain that there is too much technical detail, but I enjoy it. I also found the background history on Afghanistan fascinating, as Forsyth recounts the political and military developments there over the past three decades. He follows one (fictional) character in particular, showing how a man motivated primarily by love of family and country could become a fanatical member of the Taliban.

The big weakness of the plot is that it depends too much on coincidence to be believable, but Forsyth develops each aspect of the plot so thoroughly that I found myself easily drawn into the story. By exercising willing suspension of disbelief, I was able to imagine that such coincidences did in fact take place. After all, sometimes things do happen that are statistically highly improbable.

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Reading: Wall Street Journal

August 7, 2008

I don’t seem to get much reading done these days, at least not the kind where I hold a book in my hands. I listen to audiobooks, both while riding my exercise bike and while driving. What am I reading more these days is online blogs and newspapers, which expose me to lots of information and ideas I probably would never pick up from books.

Today I found not just one but three interesting subjects in WSJ online, and as I didn’t feel like choosing among them for this post, I decided to include all three.

First I read yesterday’s column by Asra Nomani (a former WSJ reporter), lamenting the circumstances which have closed the door on publication of a historical novel set in Mohammed’s harem. Written from the point of view of Aisha, Mohammed’s young wife, the novel is racy but not – from indications given in the article – derogatory towards Mohammed. But one person was critical and spread word of the novel’s premise, and with the speed of email and blogs warnings of “a new attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam” spread like wildfire. Claiming concerns about safety and possible terrorist threats, the publisher of the book has postponed the book – indefinitely.

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Reading: The Shia Revival

April 19, 2008

Like many Americans, I had heard of Sunni and Shia Muslims but until recently had little idea what difference there was between two. Imam Qazwini’s book American Crescent (see my March 13 post) presented some basic material, but The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future by Vali Nasr tells much more.

Unlike Qazwini, who treats differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims as fairly minor, Nasr depicts the sectarian conflict between the two as the root of much political and military activity within and among Muslim nations. To Americans who for nearly three decades have associated Islam with the glaring face of Ayatollah Khomeini, it may come as quite a surprise to find out that he was a Shia Muslim, which makes him a member of a sect that is considered heretical if not downright apostate by many Muslim fundamentalists.

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Reading: American Crescent

March 13, 2008

I mentioned this book previously in my Feb. 26 post on Ashura in Karbala. Now that I have finished reading it, I am interesting in learning more about several topics that Imam Qazwini discusses – and some others that he does not address.

I found the latter part of the book – Qazwini’s experiences in America – somewhat less interesting that the history of his early life. The first several chapters told about growing up in Iraq, Kuwait, and Iran, including much about the people and culture of those lands, as well as their recent history and political climate. He also told much about the history and practices of Islam. All this was material I knew very little about, and his personal experiences and his passion for his faith made it a much better way to learn about Islamic faith and culture than reading an account by a non-Muslim outsider.

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