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June 10, 2016

Book Review: Magic In Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight


Don't be fooled by the title of Michael Muhammad Knight's newest book. Magic In Islam, published by Penguin/Random House, does not have him doing for magic what his first novel, The Taqwacores did for Islam and punk rock. Rather this is a serious, well mostly serious, academic study of the history and antecedents of the Muslim religion.
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Knight has gone from being an outside the box, iconoclastic, but always reverent, convert to Islam to an academic teaching and writing about his chosen faith. However, this doesn't mean he no longer pushes the definition of Islam beyond what most, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are willing to accept. What he sets out to prove in this new book, via his examination of magic in Islam, is how there is no definitive version of Islam which can be used as the basis for saying this is right and this is wrong.

In order to prove his thesis Knight takes us on a history of not only Islam, but the region in which the religion was born. This enables him to show us how the faith did not grow in a vacuum but was influenced by everybody from mythological figures in ancient Egypt (Thoth) and Greece (Hermes). The prophet Enoch of the Jewish/Christian bible evolved into Idris in the Qur'an and Knight traces this figure back to ancient times.

At one point Knight says this book sprung out of a desire to write a response to all the "What Is Islam" books that have been published since September 2001. Most of those books have looked to only one source for their definition, the Qur'an. Knight's argument is that while the Qur'an is obviously an important source of information for understanding the faith, it can't be the only one we use to define the religion.

Not only are there countless other writings which are used to define the belief and practices of the faith, like other religions there also exist a myriad of different ways in which its expressed. From Mali to North America the various cultures who have adopted Islam have done so through the prism of their own needs and desires. In other words they have made it work for them.

While many would argue against Knight's thesis that Islam allows for this variety of interpretation, he builds his case carefully with impeccably footnoted sources and documentation. If parts of the book read like an academic dissertation, it's no wonder, as Knight has recently completed his doctorate. However, while it makes parts of the book drier than what we have come to expect from him, it also makes his points far more creditable.
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Of course Knight being who he is can't help but let his idiosyncrasies peak through. These not only lighten the tone, but also give the facts a human face. Knight is also pretty straight forward about where his personal prejudices lie when he says "... I have no interest in attempting to patrol the limits of Islamic authenticity or "orthodoxy"; if anything, I want to dig secret tunnels or find holes in the fences." In other words he's perfectly happy with Islam being the glorious mish-mash it is today.

From China, India, North America, and across Northern Africa Islam comes in all shapes and colours. From the Sufi mystics of Pakistan to the 5 Percenters in Harlem, New York - they all consider themselves Muslim even though their practices are widely different. In Magic In Islam Knight has done a fine job of proving the religion's history give precedents for this variety of interpretations.

Like all of Knight's writings on Islam, this is a thoughtful and intelligent book. Not only does it offer insights and observations we rarely hear, they are substantiated with historical facts and references to legitimate sources - a refreshing change from the constant barrage of poorly researched and badly sourced information we normally receive via the internet and television. Sure, you're going to have to make a bit of an effort, and maybe even use your brain a bit, in order to appreciate this book - but isn't it worth it to be properly informed?

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Magic In Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight)

May 27, 2016

Book Review: Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms by Arsalan Iftikhar


Given the horrible rhetoric we've been hearing from various sources during this election year (2016) in the United States, Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms, a new book from human rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar published by Sky Horse Publishing, couldn't be more timely. Television viewers might be familiar with Iftikhar as the "The Muslim Guy" - as he calls his website - CNN and other major networks haul out after every so-called Islamic incident for comment.
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"Scapegoats" is in part a distillation of the message he tries to present during these spots - a small group of insane idiots don't represent the majority of Islam. However, as his voice always seems to become lost in maelstrom of sensationalism and fear mongering television seems to delight in - what sells better than fear and mayhem? - this book offers readers a chance to hear his arguments without distraction.

If you think this book is only going to be about Donald Trump and his ilk, you'll be in for a big surprise. Sure it mentions the usual hate mongers and supposed charitable foundations who fund them, but Iftikhar also points out some of the even more insidious attempts to smear Muslims.

One of the most noxious was Congressman Peter King's decision to hold congressional hearings called "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response". Very rightly Iftikhar likens this to Congressional witch hunts of the past and says it legitimized singling out a segment of the American population and deeming them suspect because of their religious beliefs - beliefs that are protected by the American Constitution.

Iftikhar quotes Richard Clarke, who worked for both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as a counterterrorism czar, as warning this type of inquest would aid America's enemies. "To the extent that they (the hearings) are the object of fear-mongering, it will only serve Al Qaeda's ends", by wrongfully portraying that America is somehow at war with Islam.

However, it's not just conservatives who Iftikhar takes issue with. It's also those so called liberals who hide their fear and hatred behind supposed concern for civil rights and liberties. Those who do their best to make martyrs out the drawers of obscene cartoons and purveyors of hate speech.

He doesn't say the killings at the Charlie Hebedo offices were justified by any means. At the same time he doesn't see them, or the right wing Danish newspaper who published the infamous cartoons of Mohammad, as the great defenders of free speech everyone has made them out to be. How would people have reacted if those publications ran obscene cartoons of Jesus? (The Danish newspaper actually refused to run cartoons of Jesus by saying they wouldn't appeal to their readership)

People can say Muslims shouldn't be so sensitive to people making fun of them or shouldn't be allowed to oppress the free expression of ideas. Yet no one seems to raise much of a fuss when conservative Christians pressure advertisers into dropping support for TV shows they don't like or having books removed from libraries and school districts.

Iftikhar actually does say he thinks Muslims should learn to ignore these obviously deliberate provocations. While he may not like what the cartoons depict, he also doesn't agree with any of those who think they should take to the streets in protest against them. Call it hate speech, explain why these sorts of things are offensive, but aside from that don't give them the attention they desire.
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Iftikhar also deals with how the media differs in its depiction of similar crimes committed by non-Muslims. How is it that someone who opens fire on the clients and staff of an abortion clinic in the name of his God is not a Christian terrorist? Or a white man who walks into an African American church and shoots nine people isn't called a white terrorist? Yet when two people of Muslim background indiscriminately kill people, including Muslims, as happened in San Bernardino California, the media are quick to label it an act of Islamic terrorism even though the couple in question had no connections to any terror groups.

Scapgoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms is a reasoned and passionate defence against the hate filled rhetoric which has been filling American airwaves and print since September 11 2001. In it Iftikhar shows not only how unreasonable the calls for restrictions on Islam are, but how they contravene the American constitution - Freedom of Religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

He also does a fine job of showing how Americans are actually aiding and abetting their enemies through the rhetoric of hate. By making it look like America, from the government down to the media, are attacking Muslims, they give ammunition to those who would whip up support for armed attacks against Americans all over the world.

Unfortunately Iftikhar is only one voice in a very loud wilderness. While he does his best to write in as direct and straightforward manner as possible, his arguments can't be reduced down to a thirty second sound bite. Whether or not the people who need to read this book will be bothered to, or whether it will change anybody's mind about the subject, is questionable. This is a well written and passionate book defending reason and rationality. But the world is no longer a rational or reasonable place.
(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Book Review: Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms)

March 28, 2013

Book Review: Tripping With Allah by Michael Muhammad Knight


The idea of using drugs in order to achieve some sort of spiritual enlightenment has been around for probably as long as humanity. Whether looking for answers to great mystical questions or just on a personal quest for enlightenment the use of external stimulants cut across all lines of race, creed and colour. However, there's also a lot of bullshit associated with the whole take drugs and see god line of thought. First there's the whole one man's sacrament is another man's criminal offence or sacrilege. Then there are those who will look for any excuse to take drugs and pass it off as looking for god in an attempt to justify their actions.

Complicating matters is the fact there seem to be just as many ways to achieve hallucinations without drugs as with. Is a vision more valid because you starved yourself until you were out of your mind instead of ingesting a peyote button? The intent is the same after all. You're trying to enter an altered state of conscience through artificial means. Of course, you also have to ask why does a person feel they need to have some sort of vision about their god. Are they looking to make themselves important because they've received some great communique to spread among the masses? If not that, what is it people are looking for when they try for these visions? They must feel like something is lacking if they are so desperate to talk to god they're going to put themselves through any of these ordeals.

It was with all this in mind I read Michael Muhammad Knight's book about drugs, Islam and his continued attempts to define his place in the world Tripping With Allah, published by Soft Skull Press and distributed by Publishers Group Canada. Knight writes about himself with an honesty that borders on public flagellation. However, unlike most of those who write about themselves it's never his intent to either garner followers or his reader's sympathy. If he ever ended up on Oprah instead of her her audience of repressed middle class housewives' feeling all warm and cuddly from hearing about someone else's suffering, their world view would be so shattered they'd probably wind up trashing the studio before heading home to castrate their husbands.
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Okay, maybe that's a little over the top, but you get the idea. Not only do his books expose things about himself most people wouldn't admit even to their shrinks for fear of being strapped in a jacket whose sleeves face the wrong way, he also has a nasty habit of reminding white Europeans that most of what's happening in the world is as a direct result of actions carried out in their names. Whether it be our colonial history coming back to haunt us or our current form of colonial oppression in the form of global markets and the exploitation of developing nation's natural resources. What's even scarier about Knight is now he has a Harvard education, he can map out the patterns clearly enough, with examples, anybody can understand them, and then cite sources confirming what he's talking about. Examples in this book range from how the desire for sugar cane in Europe led to decimating the population of West Africa via the slave trade to how the colonial powers in Rawanda sowed the seeds of discontent between peoples which resulted in genocide.

So what the hell does any of this have to with drugs and Allah? Well, Knight looks at the world in terms similar to that of chaos theory. What are the ripple effects of him, and others like him, ingesting a drug. What's the history behind a drug's availability in the West and what's had to happen in order for this drug to end up in his hand? Then there's also the whole question of the cultural implications of a white guy taking a drug whose origins lie somewhere in the depths of the Amazon rain forrest and the indigenous people of the region. Doesn't this just make him another one of those New Agers with more money than sense? Taking some indigenous people's tribal rite and by turning into a commercial commodity (pay X amount of money for a weekend retreat with Shaman and drug and see god) make it impossible for them to afford it any more.

Of course there's also the whole question of whether or not there's a role for drugs to play in Islam. In spite of the myths about assassins and hash eating and tales told by the Beat generation of ingesting drugs in Muslim countries, much of mainstream Islam takes the lines in the Quran prohibiting prayer while intoxicated as the final word on the matter. The good scholar he is Knight collects and compares all the arguments for and against using drugs to aid in receiving messages from Allah. While there appears to be some wriggle room depending on interpretations and traditions followed, its really only the mystical Sufis who talk openly about utilizing drugs to achieve enlightenment.

Of course all these arguments and discussions are presented in Knight's own unique style. He flips between scholarly dissertation and free association/stream of conscience without skipping a beat or losing his thread. He circles around his primary subject matter of drugs like a bird of prey hovering over its target until he finally drops out of the sky and brings us smack dab into a moment. However, just as we settle into what are expectations have caused us to anticipate, as he brings us through his experience and their impact on his life, he slams on the brakes and begins to deconstruct the book your holding in your hands.

He had set out to write a book about drugs and Islam in the style of his early novels but Harvard University and academia wouldn't allow it. He worries aloud how and what his university education and studies have done to him. What happened to the wild and crazy voice which spoke to a generation of disenfranchised young Muslims? Has schooling doomed him to the world of footnotes and cited sources? Yet when he looks back on the days when he was the anarchist/punk author, describing the physical, mental and emotional abuse he put himself through, you wonder what he's missing.
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Yet in the midst of this furious retracing of his path he also has what I think is the most important revelation of the book. His drug of choice, his addiction if you like, is writing. He talks of those he's met who say they are writers yet have somehow never managed to put pen to paper. While he, on the other hand, can't stop writing. He's stayed up late into the night abusing his body writing, he has a variety of incomplete manuscripts stored in his desktop computer and he has his clearest visions through the spilling out of words on paper or into his keyboard. Other drugs have proven to be hit and miss in their effectiveness, but writing is the one he always comes back to and the one which always seems to deliver.

Knight is at his self analytical best in this book. For all his apparent flailing in different thematic directions he is carefully guiding us through his personal process. He has travelled the byways and highways of North America, Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia visiting shrines, holy sites, mosques, mosh pits, Seven-Elevens, punk clubs,gyms and wrestling rings looking for his truth. He has read the work of Islamic scholars dating back to the early days of the religion, the writings of Elijah Muhammad and listened to the wisdom of Clarence 13X who would become Allah, the founder of the Five Percenters, via the words of those in the movement today.

The voice he is so worried about losing is strong and clear - it is the culmination of all his experiences. He is a reflection of everything he has seen, been, experienced and prayed for and this book is both a summarization and conclusion to the journey he set out on when at the age of seventeen after reading the autobiography of Malcolm X he converted to Islam. Out of the chaos that has been his life, highlights of which are included in this book, he has come to the calm of acceptance. He's dealt with his personal demons and is now ready to move on to whatever awaits him as an artist, an academic and a Muslim.

Tripping With Allah may not be the great Islamic drug book he set out to write. Instead, Knight has treated us to a kind of post modern Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man. It now seems he's ready, as James Joyce put it, "to go forth to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his people". Don't come looking to this book for the answers to your own questions. What you will find is one of the more vivid descriptions of the artistic soul taking the next steps on its long road of creativity and one man coming to terms with himself and his beliefs written with passion and truth. It might not always be a pretty picture, but its always thought provoking and intelligent.

(Article first published as Book Review: Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)


May 2, 2012

Book Review: William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an By Michael Muhammad Knight


I had a really strange experience while reading William S Burroughs vs. The Qur'an, Michael Muhammad Knight's latest book published by the Counterpoint Press imprint Soft Skull Press. I was almost finished the book and all of a sudden came across my own words staring back at me from the page. It was surreal to find myself being quoted in somebody else's work to begin with, but even weirder to see how the words dovetailed with Knight's theme.

The quote was from my review of his book Journey To The End Of Islam and I had said something along the lines of how if more people were as brave and honest as Knight was in discussing their religion the world would be better off. He freaked out. "The brave and honest porkshit is artistic and spiritual sabotage. When someone puts that psychic poison on you how can you ever write a word?" That might sound like he's being ungrateful, even petulant, but in the context of the book it actually makes perfect sense and I get where he's coming from. For while his books have been all about telling people all about his quest to find himself within his religion, people have started looking to him as if he's the answer to that question for themselves.

In William S Burroughs Vs The Qur'an Knight details how his search for his place in Islam inevitably lead him to an earlier generation of white Western converts to Islam. In particular he tells of his attempt at writing the definitive biography of his Anarcho-Sufi hero and mentor Peter Lamborn Wilson, also known as Hakim Bey. The first part of the book is taken up with his recounting his times spent with Wilson and excerpts from the biography he's destined never to finish. We learn that Wilson's Islam has its sources in both the experiences of Burroughs and other Beats (Paul Bowles, Alan Ginsberg and the rest) in Tangiers during the years of the International Zone and the Moorish Science Temple of America founded by Noble Drew Ali of Chicago.
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While I can understand Knight's attraction to the idea of an Islamic lineage with white American roots, the more he begins to detail Wilson's life and experiences the more I began to wonder whether he was clutching at straws looking to this guy as any sort of spiritual guide. From his experiences with LSD guru Timothy Leary to his wanderings through India he seemed more intent on discovering his capacity for ingesting drugs than any sort of spiritual advancement. It isn't until he ends up in Iran in the 1970s that he even settles to any sort of apparently serious spiritual advancement. Even that is tainted by the fact that the group he joins, The Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, is described by Knight as "a politically ambitious mystico-fascist cult" whose purpose seems to be give the then Shah of Iran the veneer of spirituality.

However, while his association The Academy raises some doubts in Knight's mind, it's not where or who Wilson studied with that's important. It's how he studied and his experiments with various sects and forms of Islam that Knight identifies with. Then there is the whole issue of lineage. In Islam a spiritual teacher's credibility is increased by those he sites from previous generations as being the sources for his wisdom. Wilson traces his lineage back to Medieval times and the leader of the alleged drug crazed sect notorious in the West known as the Assassins, Hassa-i Sabbah, via William S Burroughs. The sect were famous for their doctrine of Qiyamat which cancelled all religious laws which according to Wilson was a call for all Muslims to realize the "Imam of his own being".

For Knight this more or less says each of us our are own god, the basic tenet of the African American Islamic group The Five Percenters who he identifies with. However there's a twisted secret buried at the heart of Wilson's Islam that makes it impossible for Knight to see him in the same light anymore. Although a good part of the book shows us his attempts to find a way that Wilson's writings endorsing pedophilia are merely some sort of shock tactic or an allegory of some kind (after all the great mystic Rumi wrote a poem about two women who had sex with a donkey), he can't escape the fact that his mentor sees nothing wrong with an adult man having sex with a child. Knight even goes to the extent of writing his own homo/erotic Islamic science fiction story (of which excerpts are included) in an attempt to see if he can see a way of justifying his mentor's disturbing writings.

Over the balance of the book, amid segues into excerpts from the above mentioned story, Knight describes among other things, his horror at discovering he's becoming a mentor figure to young Muslims who have been reading his books. They've taken his descriptions of his struggles with identity and his fiction as instruction. They write to him for advice and thank him for being a role model. In a sort of fit of desperation to find direction he heads off to the backwoods of West Virginia to his late father's "Unabomber" shack and creates his own personal mosque amidst the squalor. Living on tinned tuna he experiments with using the cut-up writing method espoused by Burroughs as the way of finding a text's hidden meanings on the Qur'an. This involves literally cutting up a work's text and then putting it back together randomly.

Reading this book within the context of lineage and mentors I have to wonder if its not a deliberate attempt on Knight's part to scare people away from looking to him as a mentor figure. While he's written about other periods of his life when he felt lost, specifically when he returned from studying in Pakistan and rejected the fundamentalist values that his teachers there had attempted to instil in him, he has never seemed so insecure in his faith before. However there's a certain amount of ambiguity as to when the events described in the book took place. The only real clue as to the time frame it represents is at the end he is talking about whether or not he will write the recently released Why I Am A Five Percenter or vanish from the pages of mainstream publications into the world of academia.
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Perhaps the most telling point in the book is his description of an impromptu gathering with some friends. Gathering together at a basketball court they sit around and talk about their faith, what it means to them and how they try to "live" it. Knight ruminates on how maybe this group should form their own "sect" but concludes it was the very spontaneity of the gathering that allowed them the freedom to express themselves. Any attempt at formalization, even to arrange times for them to get together and talk again, would begin to encroach on that freedom and lead to the creation of a hierarchy and rules, all the hallmarks of an organized religion. It puts his balancing act of being a Muslim and his rejection of the structure religions by their nature impose on their followers into stark relief.

A person can spend all the time in the world searching for mentors and gurus or reading the collected works of every mystic and Imam whoever put pen to paper in an attempt to justify how you practice your beliefs and it won't matter. It all comes down to trusting yourself and be willing to accept your beliefs can exist independent of any structure. Knight doesn't tell anybody they should follow his lead, this is what works for him. While he takes obvious pleasure in studying the words and teachings of both the Sufi saints of the past and current groups like The Five Percenters, it seems like its more for the sake of the knowledge he acquires through the study than in the hopes he will find a place where he fits in.

Michael Muhammad Knight is a liar and a coward. Michael Muhammad Knight is honest and brave. What difference does it make. His writing will either offend or inspire you, and in places it might even do both. But no matter what, he will always make you think for yourself, force you into having an opinion and reach your own conclusions. Knight might reject the idea that he has anything to offer in the way of guidance, but he does offer his readers one something few other do - he never once tells them what to do or leads anyone to believe he has the solution to whatever ails them.

(Article first published as Book Review: William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

April 14, 2012

DVD Review: Shades


Most of us still wonder what will become of us after we die. While various religions try to reassure us that as long as we lead a good life here on earth we will be rewarded by an eternity of paradise, only the truly devout accept those promises at face value. What about those belief systems which insist we are destined to come back in different forms until we have gained the amount of spiritual enlightenment required to ascend to another, higher, plane of existence? Than there's the whole matter of ghosts, where do they come from and what's prevented them from either being assigned to an afterlife or taking the next step along the path to Nirvana?

While its difficult to find any religion taking an official line on the whys and wherefores of ghosts, one of the most common theories used to explain them is they are the spirits of people who had unfinished business here on earth. Until such time as they are either able to make peace with themselves or set their affairs in order they are stuck in sort of a half life. Some theories have them wandering among us invisibly, only able to communicate with those they loved indirectly, while other's have them able to appear as spectral type figures who are able to talk to us in spite of being almost transparent.

Ghost are most commonly depicted in popular culture as malevolent creatures intent on causing the living harm in revenge for some crime perpetrated against them when they were alive. Whether in movies or books they are most often associated with old abandoned buildings, long lost treasure or ancient temples protected by some curse or another. However, once every so often, the cliche is ignored and ghosts aren't merely a means to scare an audience, but are characters every bit as substantial as their living counterparts. Such was the case with the British six part mini series, Shades televised back in 2001 and now being made available on DVD in North America by Acorn Media on February 14 2012.

Maeve (Dervla Kirwan) and Mark (Stephen Tompkinson) never knew each other when they were alive but that doesn't stop them from being thrown together when they both die unexpectedly. She was killed by a hit and run driver and he died while undergoing a routine surgery to repair a hernia. While Mark's circumstances seem more poignant, his wife gave birth to their second child while he was dying, it turns out neither of them left behind an idyllic existence.
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Maeve had been having an affair with a married man and had been more focused on her career than relationships. Yet when she finds out her former lover wasn't just cheating on his wife with her, but sleeping with a friend of hers as well she is not only hurt but furious with both of them. Even though she tries to convince Mark she doesn't care what her former boy friend gets up to she becomes obsessed with checking up on him and finding out who he's "cheating" with. Mark, on the other hand, at first appears to have been a devoted husband and father cruelly deprived of the chance to see his son and daughter grow up. However it turns out he'd not been honest with his wife about their financial situation. An independent electrical contractor, his business had been steadily losing money for the last couple of years. The insurance policy that should have provided for his family after his death had been cancelled because he hadn't been able to make the payments. On top of that he had also left them with a pile of debts, including back taxes.

While both Maeve and Mark would dearly love to have direct interaction with those they've left behind, they soon discover anybody who knew them when they were alive is unable to see or hear them. They are able to communicate with strangers, but those people never remember meeting or talking to them. In fact, the second someone turns their back on them, they immediately forget they'd ever met them. This can lead to both amusing and rather sad consequences for both characters, but also means the only people they can rely on for anything are each other. At various times throughout the series they use each other to talk to those they cared for in an attempt to deal with their unfinished business.

Both Kirwan and Tompkinson do wonderful jobs of portraying the two ghosts. Initially their characters follow the same arc as they deal with the traditional three stages of grief; disbelief, denial and then anger, but from the non-traditional stand point of seeing it from the dead person's perspective. As a result they enjoy a sort of misery enjoys comfort relationship for the first little while. However the writers of the series took great pains to make sure that death didn't change them. The only way they're going to be able to correct the mistakes they made during their life is by learning the lessons about themselves they would have needed to learn had they kept on living. In order to do this they won't be able to simply wallow in self-pity or act like they did when they were alive.

One thing that puzzles them for the first little while is why they haven't run across any other ghost aside from each other? Where has everybody else gone? Then they meet an elderly man who is able to remember them from previous meetings. Curious as to why he has this capability they investigate and discover that he only has a short time left to live. As they get to know him they discover he has been keeping a secret from his wife. Finally, just before he dies he tells her and he dies happy. Maeve and Mark see him just after he dies, and he thanks them for giving him the courage to talk to his wife. However, the second they turn their backs on the old man he disappears, and they never see him again.

Now that they understand the only reason they're hanging around is because they have unfinished business to take care of most series of this sort would have Maeve and Mark happily fade away into some sort of eternal bliss by miraculously finding a way to deal with their own unfinished business. However, the writers of Shades haven't been doing the expected, i.e. read sentimental, route throughout, and they don't start now. Just because someone's dead doesn't make them any more insightful then they were when they were alive. I'm not going to spoil the ending of the series for you by telling you how its resolved. However, I will say that it stays true to the way the story has been told all along and it makes perfect sense considering the characters and the plot.

Whether you believe in ghosts or don't, Shades is a beautifully told story about two people thrown together under very peculiar circumstances learning to make the best of it. Well acted and intelligently written, it tackles the subject of death and survival with humour and sympathy without once stooping to cheap sentimentality. Whether seen through the eyes of the two central characters or through those they've left behind, the series never strikes a wrong note. It may not be exactly what happens after we die, but its definitely one of the more interesting takes on the subject you'll see in a long time.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Shades on Blogcritics.)

November 5, 2011

Interview: Author, Michael Muhammad Knight

American author Michael Muhammad Knight's has been referred to as everything from controversial to outrageous. Some have even gone so far as to call him the Hunter S. Thompson of religious writing or something along those lines. Why is it whenever somebody has the bravery to speak from their heart and be as truthful as they possibly can we always refer to them as controversial? Why do we never say, wow this person is really brave,? How about, it sure is refreshing to hear somebody doing their best to be straight with us for a change?

Nope, we always have to look at them as if they were doing something really out there. Of course that says more about us, and that's the big us society, than it does about them. Have we become so unused to people speaking straightforwardly from the heart that those who do are considered something of a freak and maybe even a little bit dangerous? I don't know about anybody else, but I find it a wonderful break from the mindless drivel that passes for entertainment these days to read something where I know the writer has not only put a lot of thought into what he's written but has also been as honest as possible.

Recently he very kindly agreed to answer some questions I had about his most recent book, Why I Am A Five Percenter, his writings in general and religion. His answers are as straightforward and thoughtful as everything else he writes and reading through them I can't see anything outrageous or controversial about them. Integrity and self-awareness are two characteristics noticeably in short supply theses days, which could explain why people have such a hard time recognising them when they see them, but Knight doesn't seem to know any other way of being.

1) As you have written extensively about your early years (Impossible Man) we can skip over most of the biographical stuff I usually start interviews with. However I think its important to talk about your decision to convert to Islam as a teenager. Can you briefly describe the reasons you gave yourself back then for converting?

I converted because I thought that I had found the ultimate truth of the universe.

2) Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight and increased self awareness, do you now discern reasons that you weren't aware of, or didn't want to admit to, at the time?

I don’t think that anyone has ever converted to a religion for purely religious reasons. The average age for religious conversion, across the board, is fifteen. I was fifteen when I found Islam. I was going through the things that some fifteen-year olds go through, and my brain was a fifteen-year old brain. Cognitively and socially, that’s where I was at.

3) This is probably over simplifying but roughly speaking you've described yourself as passing through various stages in your belief: at first you were close to fanatic, second you experienced severe doubts and finally taking it into your heart, but not blindly obedient. Through all these stages, and over the years, what is there about the religion that has enabled you to continue having faith in it. For you, what is it that makes Islam more true than any other religion?

That’s like asking what makes English more true than any other language. The only thing that’s more true about English for me is that I understand it. English is the language in which I think. That’s how I feel about religion. I don’t speak the language of Hinduism, but that doesn’t mean I see it as less legitimate for those who speak it. I have a couple languages that I speak; I speak a few variations of Islam, I speak the Five Percent, and I grew up speaking Catholic so maybe I can remember some of that language too.

4) In Aatish Taseer's book Stranger To History, where he describes his journey through the Islamic world looking for his own sense of identity, he describes a conversation with one Muslim who says something along the lines that Islam is the best religion because its the only one that provides you cut and dried answers to all questions. As long as you follow the word you'll never know doubts again. I find that kind of blind certainty terrifying, be it from the mouth of an American nationalist or an Islamic Cleric - yet isn't that the point of religion - to offer its adherents a way of living and the ideology to walk that path?

Lots of people will say that about their religions, but it’s not what I’m doing with mine. I don’t know what the point of religion might be, but I wouldn’t say that religion has to have the same purpose for every single person who takes part in it. Simply defining the word “religion” is hard enough; there are scholars of religious studies who argue that we shouldn’t even use the word because if you look across cultures and historical contexts, it doesn’t reliably describe anything.

5) As a follow up to that, if not following the strict letter of the law, how can a person say they are part of a specific group, be it Christian, Jew, Muslim or anything for that matter? Why aren't these all or nothing things?

It’s against the law to smoke weed. If I break this law, or disagree with the principles of that law, would it mean that I can no longer claim to be American?

More importantly, religious laws can change, depending on how you read them. Religions aren’t “all or nothing” things because they can’t be. Religions aren’t made of stone; they’re made of water. We like to imagine a religion as this unchanging entity that exists outside of history and remains eternally consistent, always saying the same thing, no matter what is happening around it. Both Muslims and non-Muslims will do this with Islam, saying that Islam came fully formed with the Prophet Muhammad, and has remained intact through fourteen centuries. That’s the crisis that people are imagining when they say, “How can Islam exist in the modern world?” as though Islam has never changed or adapted to anything until after 9/11. This kind of thinking is not rooted in any historical reality.

Or, if people are willing to admit that Islam has changed and taken different shapes, they will argue that these new shapes are somehow less authentic than the original or “real” Islam. They imagine that they have a direct line to the “real” Islam, that it exists somewhere and we can find it if we just look hard enough at scripture or the early history. I don’t take that seriously. You can’t ask me, “What does Islam say about women?” or “What does Islam say about violence?” because these are impossible questions. Muslims say all kinds of things, but Islam says nothing. We can look at Muslims in a particular time and place and examine what they said, but there’s no Islam beyond that.

6) In your most recent book, Why I Am A Five Percenter, you spend a lot of intellectual energy trying to find a bridge between Islam and Five Percenter ideology. What was it about the Five Percenters which attracted you initially and why do their practices continue to exert such a pull on you in spite of the differences between them and even the most progressive elements of Islam?

The Five Percenters gave me a statement on whiteness that spoke to my experience as a white American. I went heavy into the white-devil mythology. I couldn’t buy into it as something rooted in genetics, because “white people” don’t exist as a biological reality. But white people do exist as a political reality, a social reality; so thinking about whiteness as a concept that exists only as a power strategy, a justification for the mistreatment of people, then yes, whiteness is devil. It’s nothing but devil. Spending time with the Yakub myth really gave me something that I could use.

The Five Percenters also provided a critique of religion that spoke truth to me. I was coming from a place of dissatisfaction with organized religion. The basic message that I got from the Five Percent was that it’s all about me; whatever wisdom I pull from the Qur’an, whatever jewels I can retrieve from a particular story, and the meanings that I assign to my tradition, it’s all in me. You can take that idea of Islam as “I Self Lord And Master” and build your own path. Be Muslim, be Christian, whatever, and just know that the religion is in your hands. Make the story what you need it to be, because there’s no one on this earth with any kind of transcendent supernatural power to hang over your head.

7) The Five Percenters, like the Nation Of Islam, were founded by African Americans, specifically for African Americans, in reaction to their treatment at the hands of the white majority in America. While it's one thing to be philosophically aligned with them, doesn't the lack of a shared history make it extremely difficult for someone outside that specific community to be fully appreciative of their goals and objectives?

There’s not a lack of shared history. I got into the Five Percent’s commentary on whiteness because we absolutely have a shared history. It’s our shared history that qualifies a movement of mostly African-Americans to speak about white people. The history of oppression is not only the history of oppressed peoples; it’s also the history of oppressor peoples. Part of my engagement of the Five Percent was coming to grips with that history and thinking seriously about how much that history still writes my reality today.


8) In Why I Am A Five Percenter you stand the whole outsider/insider aspect of race in American society on its head with your description of the level of acceptance you've managed to obtain within them. Your conversion to Islam removed you from the mainstream of American society and now your interest in Five Percenters is making you an outsider in the religion of your choice. Being an outsider seems to be something you fall into, whether consciously or not. What are you searching for that finds you in that position?

It’s just my luck. Being Five Percenter puts me out of the Muslim mainstream; being Muslim puts me out of the Five Percenter mainstream. And I don’t meet anyone’s checklist of required beliefs.

Some people want religion to be that all-or-nothing, clearly defined set of beliefs and behaviors. Get enough of those people in a room together and you have a community. But if it’s all or nothing, then falling out of line isn’t that hard. I don’t see any community, Islamic or otherwise, as answering every one of my needs to perfection. There are things that I love about various Islamic cultures and traditions, but I don’t feel that I have to align with one tradition or group and forsake all others. The Five Percenter lessons taught me to take the best part for myself and leave the worst part behind.

9) You spend a great deal of time in Why I Am A Five Percenter upon the metaphysical aspects of Islam searching for a way to combine the Five Percenter credo of there is no "mystery god" with the Muslim belief in a "Supreme Being". You then relate how when you took this information to Five Percenters they reminded you that their founder told them not to have anything to do with religion. It seems to me like its an either or choice and you can't be both Muslim and a Five Percenter. How do you deal with that issue?

People will tell you that you can’t be both Muslim and Hindu, or Hindu and Roman Catholic, or Muslim and Marxist, but I can show you individuals or even communities that have done all of those things. To me, there’s actually no such thing as “Islam” or “Christianity” or “Hinduism.” I can talk about Muslims a lot easier than I can talk about Islam. Religions are just made-up labels, and the differences between them exist only because enough people believe in the differences, and people build up institutions that reinforce the differences. Religious identity is like racial identity in that way; apart from the power of social constructions, none of it’s real.

That said, not all Five Percenters object to being called Muslims. Most do object, and I understand why. These symbols, stories, and ideas are being used to build an identity, and when you call that identity “Muslim,” then it puts the symbols, stories, and ideas under the domain of Muslims. To think of the Five Percenters as Muslims automatically turns them into an heretical fringe sect that lacks authenticity in relation to the so-called “classical tradition.”

My reality is that I’m coming from a Muslim background, and Muslim-type things are meaningful to me, and I’m married to a Muslim woman with a Muslim family and we share a sense of Muslim community. So my engagement of the Five Percent is going to negotiate with that reality. I don’t personally feel a need to erase that part of myself.

As for reconciling theologies: it’s not really so hard because there are such wide spectrums of thought among both Five Percenters and Muslims. I can find Five Percenters who sound like they believe in a mystery god, and Muslims who sound like atheists, and I have my own thought, in which one tradition actually becomes my portal into the other. The question is whether doing comparative theology just cuts you off from real life and locks you up in your own nerd-world. The lessons warn against wasting trillions of years on those pursuits.

10) I really liked what you had to say about race and the arbitrary nature of who is considered white and who isn't. Would you say it is more of a state of mind than anything else, or is it a combination of things.

It’s not only a state of mind, because that state of mind has produced real effects in the material world. It’s not only a state of mind when there is economic power, political power, and so forth. That’s the trap that white people fall into when they imagine that they’ve ended racism just because they don’t think of themselves as belonging to a race. For me to realize that race isn’t biological doesn’t mean that I stop being white. I wish that it could be so easy.

11) My wife and I come from two very different backgrounds which gave us entirely different outlooks on life based on expectations and privilege. When it comes to your position within the Five Percenters how much has the differences in your background from those of the majority presented difficulties for you?

I realized that to a large extent, whatever I do, I’m doing in my own house. I’m at peace with the Five Percent. I have a lot of friends in the community, I visit the Allah School and it’s all love. Some call me a Five Percenter, and that’s fine, but I don’t try to put myself over as a card-carrying member. I respect that it’s not my territory, and I think that’s what actually makes my friendship to the community possible.

12) Where do you see your search to find a place for yourself in Islam taking you next?

When it comes to my place in Islam, I’m more or less settled. There’s always room for me to grow as a human being, and I approach that process as a Muslim; but I know what I can reasonably expect from a religion, and I don’t ask for more. One alif is all I need, like Bulleh Shah said.

13) What made you decide to first write your works of fiction, (Taqwacore and Osama Van Halen) and then make the switch to the more autobiographical works that have followed.

I’ve bounced around a little. I first wrote a novel (The Taqwacores), then a nonfiction work (Blue-Eyed Devil), and then started my non-fiction memoir, Impossible Man, while also writing my history of the Five Percenters, and then wrote my second work of fiction (Osama Van Halen). The publishing history can make it look as though I deliberately shifted from fiction to non-fiction, but that’s not my writing history. I have a manuscript on my laptop right now, and I don’t even know whether it should be called fiction or non-fiction. If the story ever comes out, I would have a hard time assigning it a category.

14) What have you hoped to accomplish with your writings, and who do you hope reads them?

I started out with wild swings in the dark, writing about Muslim punk rockers and pretty sure that all of my obscure references and unacceptable ideas were just going to alienate everyone. I came from a punk rock ethos, and also a certain kind of Muslim ethos, that made it cool to be ignored and alone on the margins. Now that I have something of a readership, I’ve started to have more questions about what I publish. I mean, I write about Islam from where I stand as an American Muslim, and there’s nothing wrong with that; but my stuff might read differently in Europe, which is a whole other political climate when it comes to Muslims. My books have been translated into European languages, and it sometimes makes me uncomfortable, because I’m travelling into all of these new contexts for which I wasn’t prepared.

15) You have a new book coming out early in 2012, William S Burroughs Vs. The Qur'an. That's a very intriguing title and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about it in general terms.

In general terms, I’d say that it’s about heroes and hero-worshipers, fathers and sons, ego and spiritual authority. More specifically, it’s about Sufism, Iran, Hassan-i Sabbah, race, gender, America, science fiction, writing as a spiritual quest, an unfinished biography of Hakim Bey, an unfinished novel, wahdat al-wujud, Supreme Mathematics, 1960s hippie religion, Tim Leary, Henri Corbin, and I guess William S. Burroughs is in there, and also the Qur’an. For its sense of balance and what it ends up doing, it might be the strongest book that I’ve ever written. It’s also possibly the weirdest book that I’ve ever written, but weird in the right way. My novel Osama Van Halen with the Muslim zombies and psychobilly jinns and kidnapping Matt Damon was pretty weird. William S. Burroughs vs. the Qur’an could be just as weird, but a better kind of weird.

I'd just like to thank Michael Muhammad Knight for taking the time our of his busy life to answer my questions. As is often the case, we were only able to do this via email, so I sent him my questions and what you've just finished reading were his answers exactly as he wrote them.
(Article first published as Interview: Author Michael Muhammad Knight, of Why I Am A Five Percenter on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2011

Book Review: The Conference Of The Birds by Peter Sis

There's a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Whether intentionally or not the line is crossed by the majority of writers who attempt to write about another's culture as an insider. No matter how long you've lived somewhere or observed people you can't help but be a visitor. Without the weight of generations of tradition laying heavy on your shoulders and the awareness of how you are part of something larger than yourself, you can only interpret what you see, not believe in it.

At best the results are merely insulting, but most of the time they are also misleading and give people horribly inaccurate ideas about the cultures in question. Taking somebody else's mythology or beliefs as the basis for a horror story is probably the worst offence carried out by Western writers. What would you think if you were to read something in which the story of Jesus raising Lazurus from the dead was used as the basis for a Zombie novel? (Although the more I think about it the more fun that idea sounds - literally born again christians go on a rampage to convert everybody to their faith and the sacrament of communion really begins to make sense.)

Thankfully there are writers like Peter Sis who instead of slapping their own interpretation onto something offer recreations of the original stories which not only capture their artistry but keep their original intents intact. Proof of this is offered in his most recent publication, The Conference Of The Birds published by Penguin Canada on November 1 2011. The original poem was written by Farid ud-Din Attar, a twelfth century Sufi poet and mystic who divided his life between what is now modern day Iran and Northern India. As with many Sufi poets and mystics his works were parables whose hidden messages offered everything from spiritual advice to the relationship between man and his god.
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One of the reasons why Sufis wrote in this manner was then, as today, they would often deviate from mainstream interpretations of Islam and running afoul of the clergy could result in accusations of heresy leading to exile or death. As Attar could have attested, having been exiled for heresy, sometimes they weren't careful enough. The Conference Of The Birds, which was also known as A Parliament Of Birds, doesn't appear controversial on the surface, but I'm not an Islamic scholar and have no idea if its underlying message would have been considered heretical by people of his time.

In Sis's retelling he has Attar waking from a dream and realizing he is a hoopoe bird, an Afro-Eurasian member of the same family as Kingfishers, who has been entrusted with a message for the birds of the world. The message is they are to undertake a great journey which would involve flying through seven valleys to the mountain of Kaf where their true king Simorgh lives. The names of the seven valleys they must fly through are; The Valley Of Quest, The Valley Of Love, The Valley Of Understanding, The Valley Of Detachment, The Valley Of Unity, The Valley Of Amazement and, finally, The Valley Of Death. Naturally some of the birds quail (sorry couldn't resist) at the idea of making the journey and surrendering their comfortable existence for the unfamiliar. However, the Hoopoe is able to turn each of their arguments for staying put into their reason for making the trip. When the Peacock says he shouldn't have to go because he's special - "look at all my colours" - the hoopoe responds by telling him he should share his beauty with the whole world.

Needless to say each stage on the journey brings a new lesson for those birds who stick with it. Some of them give up even before the first stage is complete while others don't survive to complete the journey. In fact of all the birds in the world who had set out on the journey in the first place, only thirty make it through to the very end to meet their true king. "And they saw Simorgh the king, and Simorgh the king was them".

Unlike other translations or interpretations of ancient stories Sis has not only resisted attempting to interpret the parable for his readers he manages to to tell it in such a way that the beauty and mystery of the original are retained. For this is not just a translation of the text, it is a visual feast for the eyes as well. You see Sis is a magnificent illustrator and this is as much a pictorial retelling as anything else. I suppose some would want to call it a picture book, and dismiss it as being for children only. However, not only would that be doing it a disservice, it ignores the quality of the illustrations and the depth of meaning in the book's message. Each page not only furthers the story of the journey of the birds, its also a work of art.
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As with the text the longer you contemplate the illustrations the more you discover their hidden meanings. A change of hue here, a change of perspective there and what at first looked straightforward is revealed as having depths of meaning. If you were to flip through the pages as a casual reader you'd miss things like the explanation for the transformation of the poet to the Hoopoe bird. An illustration of a human eye within which you see the reflection of a small human being either walking towards us, or maybe even walking out of the side of the poet's head. Taken with the opening lines of the story, "When the poet Attar woke up one morning after an uneasy dream, he realized he was a hoopoe bird", we have to wonder what Sis is trying to tell us. Did the Sufi mystic really believe he had changed into a hoopoe or is Sis giving us a glimpse into the ways in which the inspiration for the original came to the poet?

Those who have any familiarity with Islamic art will know they don't have a tradition allowing figurative representation. Instead, the majority was decorative with designs made up of beautifully executed geometric patterns. In The Conference Of The Birds Sis' artwork pays homage to that style without either simply imitating or claiming it as his own. Instead he has incorporated it into his illustrations - clouds made out of the countless bodies of birds float across the page and the shape of a labyrinth shows up on page after page. Not only does the latter echo the motif of repeated geometric shapes common to Islamic art of the twelfth century, as a symbol long used to represent an inner journey or the path of a person's life, it emphasizes the overall theme of self-discovery so important to the story.

Like the Sufi mystics of old Peter Sis' reinterpretation of Farid ud-Din Attar's twelfth century epic poem, The Conference Of The Birds, works on many levels. Children and adults will delight in its glorious illustrations. The story of a poet turning into a bird and then leading all the birds of the world on a great adventure to find their king is sure to be one that will appeal to young people, while adults can ponder the messages of the story and perhaps even find ways of conveying them to younger readers. There are many different paths leading to self awareness, and Sis and Attar prove they don't have to be devoid of beauty and you can enjoy yourself along the way.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Conference Of The Birds by Peter Sis on Blogcritics.)

October 14, 2011

Book Review: Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight

The supposed rule of thumb for avoiding controversy in polite society is not to have conversations about politics or religion. Apparently there aren't many people who can be rational or calm with either topic. Which could go a long way towards explaining why so many people, even those who nominally share his religious beliefs, have problems with Michael Muhammad Knight's books. Of course the fact that he converted to Islam as a teenager is probably off putting to quite a number of Americans, but his work is controversial in the Muslim community as well. It seems not many approve of the fact he openly questions those aspects of the religion he doesn't agree with and his willingness to explore teachings alternative to mainstream Islam.

Although his fiction, The Taqwacores and Osama Van Halen are perhaps more well known to readers at large, it's his non-fiction; Journey To The End Of Islam, Impossible Man, The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop and the Gods Of New York and Blue Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America which have probably caused the most consternation among those of his own faith. Oh, sure the fiction books are filled with enough bad behaviour to make most parents think twice about sending their children to university no matter what their faith. However, because they're fiction they can be ignored and not taken seriously. It's another matter all together when Knight starts into both the autobiographical stuff of Impossible Man and his analysis of various different Islamic philosophies around the world and throughout history.
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Like most converts to anything, Knight went through a period of attempting to be more Islamic than thou followed by a brief period of disillusionment. (Which, judging by what he's written about that period, seems to have stemmed more from his own issues rather than his religion) It was when he truly began to settle into his faith, that he began to delve deeper into its history and philosophies. While this included travels through Africa, the Middle East (including making a pilgrimage to Mecca) and South East Asia it also involved delving into the uniquely American versions of Islam which developed among African Americans. For even though his education in Islam had been in first a mainstream mosque in America and continued in a madrassa in Pakistan, it had been the writings of Malcolm X that had attracted him to the faith in the first place. However, the Nation Of Islam, of which Malcolm had been a member until his split with them shortly before his assassination, he was soon to discover, is considered misguided at best, or a heresy at worst, by the majority of Muslims.

While the Nation of Islam might have been bad enough, it's an even more heretical group who Knight focuses on in his soon to be published Why I Am A Five Percenter, from Tarcher Books a division of Penguin US on October 25 2011 and Penguin Canada on October 13 2011. Knight delivers a concise and intelligent history of the The Five Percenters, also known as The Nation of Gods and Earths, and their philosophies, while dispelling many of the myths surrounding them - they have been accused of everything from wanting to kill all the white people. a front for gang warfare to a terrorist organization. However, as in previous books, his primary concern is to further his very public discourse on Islam and his place in it. To this end he leads readers on a fascinating discussion on the nature of race and religion and a survey course on Sufi mysticism and Islamic studies as he attempts to reconcile his Five Percenter inclinations with his mainstream Islamic beliefs.

The issue of race is a major factor in Knight's personal journey. As a white American convert to Islam he was doted over by his teachers in Pakistan. For while it was fairly common for African Americans to convert, whites were few and far between. However, both the Nation of Islam and the Five Percenters were created by and for African Americans and make no bones about the fact they see white society as the biggest obstacle in the way of their community's advancement. It's especially problematic among the latter who teach self-empowerment and self reliance by denying the existence of any "mystery god" and insisting every black man has the potential to be their own god. The answer to where does a young white dude fit into this is another question - what exactly is white? The definition has changed legally over the years in the US from where it used to exclude Irish, Italian and other non-Anglo Saxon Europeans in the 1800s to now where anybody of roughly European stock is considered "white" by all save for white extremists.

In actual fact there is no such thing as a white race genetically or any other way people would like to think.The only Caucasians in the world are a somewhat swarthy group of people, including many Muslims, who live in Eastern Europe in Georgia and other Baltic states. According to Knight, being white is more a state of mind than anything else. Now that may sound like he's justifying his position, but he freely admits that he's as capable of being as white as the next person. It's a question of privilege. As a white male he is far more liable to be accepted by society as a whole than somebody of colour. Anytime he wants to he can walk away from his beliefs and be welcomed with open arms by the world at large - something none of the other Five Percenters, the majority of whom are poor people from Harlem and inner cities around America, have as an option.
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How many of them can go to Harvard University to study? How many have the luxury to spend hours studying obscure Sufi mystics when they have to put food on the table for their families? Sure there are a lot of poor people who aren't African American, but history, the history that automatically granted a poor white person higher status than an African American no matter how wealthy or educated, isn't easily forgotten by anyone and colour still designates something. As one of the scholars Knight quotes in the book says, the only people who can afford to be colour blind are those whose colour has never been used against them.

You may or may not agree with Knight's assessment of race, ( I do) but you can't help but admire his ability for being honest with himself. He spends page upon page analysing the writings of Islamic scholars and mystics and a seemingly endless number of interpretations of the Qur'an attempting to find a way for the Five Percenter's rejection of a "mystery god" to be accommodated by Islam. However when he presents his ideas to a couple of Five Percenter gods, the elder one reminds him of one of their basic precepts. It's not just belief in a "mystery god" that allows for oppression and injustice, it's also the time wasted looking for proof of its existence. Five Percenter's teach that despite every attempt by society to degrade you and push you down, the universe is yours and you can accomplish anything. You are your own god.

Why I Am A Five Percenter is by turns fascinating, intelligent and funny. While Knight occasionally meanders into what appear to be exercises in religious and spiritual hair splitting in his examination of what he calls nine thousand pages of Sufi mysticism, which he then refers to as so much naval gazing, even that section of the book has its value. Too often Islam is represented as being a single minded monolith, but here we see the diversity of thought and belief which has developed over the hundreds of years of its history. However, that is only a sideline to his main focus; Five Percenters, the history of Islam among African Americans and his appreciation for the former.

Along the way he manages to touch on topics as diverse as race, the nature of religion and the role each of us plays in shaping a religion. He isn't trying to convince you that his way is the right way, only to tell you about it and why it appeals to him. It's possible the questions he has struggled with are ones readers might recognize as ones they've asked themselves, but he doesn't pretend his answers will be applicable to anyone but himself. He tells you why he is a Five Percenter, in as much as he can be, but never advocates it or any creed as the answer to anybody's problems.

Somehow Knight manages to blend scholarship and personal memoir and in the process of teaching us an important part of American history and telling us about his own quest to find a place in the world. All in all, for a book about subjects we're not supposed to talk about in polite society, a remarkable achievement.

(Article first published as Book Review: Why I Am A Five Percenter by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics)

October 14, 2010

DVD Review: The Infidel

People are always surprised at how many similarities there are between the Hebrew and Arabic languages: the word for peace in the first is Shalom and in the second Salaam. As both Jews and Arabs are originally from the same part of the world and share a common Semitic heritage it really shouldn't be too much of a surprise, but because of the current political strife between the two over a few thousand square miles of what is basically desert land, its something most of us tend to forget. We also tend to overlook that historically speaking relations between Muslims and Jews were often far better than those either ever had with Christians.

Up until the 20th century Jewish people living under Arab rule fared much better than they did under Christian rule. In the Middle ages when Jews were begin persecuted all across Europe as scapegoats for the Plague and other social evils they were living relatively comfortable lives in Moorish occupied Spain. In the Cordoba region a Jew even served as advisor to the Caliph, something that would never have occurred under a Christian ruler of the time. It's only been since after World War One and the British occupation of what is now Israel that the two people were thrown into direct conflict. Instead of trying to figure out a peaceful means of creating space for the two people to live in the same area after their withdrawal - like maybe making a common country with shared rule - the British arbitrarily drew a line splitting the country and Jerusalem in half. Relations between the two people have been pretty rocky ever since.
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While most people might be hard pressed to find anything humorous about the division between the two people, thankfully there are some who don't think there's any cow too sacred to be tipped on its ass and laughed at. The Infidel, being released on DVD October 26/10 by New Video and Tribeca Films, is bound to offend or piss off everybody who takes themselves far too seriously on both sides of the great Semite divide. Starring Omid Djalili, he played opposite Heath Ledger in the movie Casanova as his servant, and Richard Schiff, best known for his work in the TV show West Wing, as a Muslim and a Jew who are thrown together under highly outrageous circumstances. The movie takes great joy in rubbing our faces in the bigotry and idiocy of the extremists in both religious groups, yet also manages to find the common ground between the two so often overlooked and forgotten.

Djalili's character, Mahmud Nasir a second generation Pakistani Brit, refers to himself as a relaxed Muslim, meaning he would much rather take in a football match than attend mosque. Happily married with two children, the only cloud on his horizon is his son's future father-in-law. It seems the fiancee's widowed mother has re-married a radical Muslim cleric she met in Pakistan, and he will only allow his new daughter to marry "proper" Muslims. In order to make his son happy, Nasir agrees to lay off the beer for a while and to even learn a few lines from the Koran. However, plans hit a really nasty speed bump when he's packing up his late mother's belongings and discovers papers showing he was adopted. Following the paper trail back in time, to his horror he finds out that while he has been raised Muslim, his birth parents were Jewish. Needless to say this results in a wee bit of an identity crises.

At first he tries to cope by becoming more anit-Zionist and anti-Semitic than thou, but when that doesn't help he seeks out the advice of Lenny, (Schiff), an ex-patriot American Jew who lives across the street from his late mother's house. Together they trace down his birth father to a Jewish old age home where Nasir is refused admission to his father's room by a rabbi. The rabbi is worried that the shock of finding out he has such an obviously Muslim son could kill the older man, and tells Nasir he can only see his father if he can be more Jewish. Turning to Lenny for help he begins a crash course in what it means to be a Jew, including learning how to shrug, say Oi Vey, dancing like Topel in Fiddler On The Roof and attending a Bar-Mitzvah. (One of the movie's best lines occurs at the Bar-Mitzvah when Schiff defines a Buddhist Jew as being a person who rejects materialism but keeps the receipts)

While the movie follows the expected pattern; Naisr's Jewishness being exposed at the worst possible moment; his alienation from family and friends; his son's wedding being called off; the denouncing of the radical cleric and a happy reconciliation, the way it travels that road is what makes it so much fun to watch. Schiff and Djalili are an absolute joy to watch working together as they verge back and forth between trading insults and learning to find common ground with each other. The contrast between Djalili's over the top bombast and Schiff's sarcastic wit makes for some of the film's funniest moments. There are times the movie will make most people cringe as it holds up a large mirror reflecting the bigotry each group has towards the other through some of the nastiest Jewish and Arab jokes ever told.
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That's when the movie is its most effective as it forces the audience to confront the reality of racial jokes and answers that old question of "Where's the harm in telling it?" The harm is the underlying hatred that is the basis for those types of jokes in the first place. When Djalili joins in a round of Jewish insults at work as he's still trying to come to grips with his own identity he transforms from a basically likeable guy into both a figure of ridicule and something genuinely ugly. Change the accents and the skin colour and it could be a group of guys in North America hanging around the water cooler making jokes about rag-heads and swearing about the fucking Muslims.

The divisions between Jews and Muslims aren't going to be closed without a willingness on both parts to step down from their positions of self-righteous indignation. The great thing about The Infidel is how it holds both sides up to ridicule while also showing why each also has every reason to be nervous of elements on the other side. It does the truly remarkable job respecting each groups beliefs while pointing out how ridiculous they are being. It may not bring instant peace to the Middle-East, but it might just give some people a different perspective on the situation.

The Infidel on DVD has many of the bonus features we've come to expect these days including commentaries from the two lead actors, the director and the script writer, interviews with the actors and director, a gag reel and bonus jokes. As usual it will sound and look best on newer home theatre equipment as its presented in wide screen format with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Infidel (2010) on Blogcritics.)

September 7, 2010

Book Review: Pirates Of The Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Fate is as capricious a whore as any whose plied her trade in the bordellos and inns of the seaports and fortress towns frequented by the soldiers and sailors fighting for God, King and country during the reign of his good Catholic Majesty Philip IV of Spain in the mid 1600s. How else could you explain how a loyal soldier of the crown and his young protégé, (having served with distinction in the fields of Flanders against the heretic Dutch, carried out a daring raid to secure much needed gold for the royal treasury and finally saved the most royal hide itself from suffering the indignity of being impaled upon two feet of finely tempered steel) find, in the interests of their own health and safety, seek exile at sea? Well, if one insists on competing with his most sainted majesty for the affections of a certain actress, one must realize that no matter what heroic deeds or services one may have performed for the crown in the past, it might be perhaps in one's best interest to make oneself scarce for a period of time.

Which is how we find "Captain" Diego Alatriste and his now seventeen year old page, Inigo Balboa, once again serving their country as stolid infantry men. This time thought it's with the planks of heaving galleys beneath their feet instead of solid earth and the blazing sun of North Africa on their backs instead of the fog and rain of the Dutch lowlands. Pirates Of The Levant, the latest chapter of Arturo Perez-Reverte's story of life in the declining years of the Spanish Empire, published by Penguin Canada, takes the reader to yet another of Spain's outposts in her holy war of greed and expansion in the name of God and lining the pockets of an equally corrupt nobility and clergy. From their home port of Naples in Italy to the narrow gap of sea separating Spain from Muslim Northern Africa the crew of the war galley Mulata have harry French, Dutch, Turkish and English ships for booty and protect Spain's interests from her enemies.
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This is no world for the faint of heart or those with weak stomachs, as life aboard the galleys would be unpleasant even if one were merely peacefully rowing between one port and another. Exposed to the elements and at the mercy of the winds and the sea, sailors, soldiers and galley slaves endure hardships that would test the fortitude of the bravest. While the latter have no choice in the matter, either having been sentenced as punishment by the Spanish courts or prisoners captured in battle and set to row instead of dangling by their necks from the yardarm, to power the craft when the winds fail, one has to wonder what would make any sane man volunteer for duty as one of the former. From the diet of lice ridden biscuits, and even less savoury meat accompanied by wine watered with brackish water, and with death being the least of evils that could befell one in combat, ("Don't let them take you alive" is the advice given to every soldier before his first encounter with a Turkish vessel) there seems little to recommend it as a viable career option.

However this is Spain and if an "honest" swordsman or soldier desires to be paid for his services to his country he must take creative measures. For, as Inigo explains, the money supposedly meant for their wages somehow never quite finds its way into their pockets no matter where they serve. Most soldiers return from battle with no money in their pockets and no prospects for finding a way to earn what's needed for even the barest of necessities save to become a sword for hire in the alleys and back streets or to re-enlist and hope to survive long enough to enjoy the spoils of a few victories. Alongside Alatriste Inigo has managed to stay alive for a season on the sea so far. After wintering in their home port of Naples they and their fellows are once again broke and hunting the waves in search of booty when we catch up with them.

As in the previous books in this series Perez-Reverte not only brings the field of battle his characters find themselves upon to life with such vivid detail that you almost feel the salt water spray in your face, he ensures the reader is aware of how this particular battlefield came into being. Unlike Flanders, and the other battlefields of Europe where Spain fights to preserve empire or the Ottoman Empire of Turkey looks to expand its borders, here in the no man's waters off the coast of Europe, and in port towns scattered through Northern Africa, a different sort of battle is being fought. On the seas Dutch, Turk, French and Spanish boats prey upon each other and their cargos with no thought for gains in territory but merely as a means of swelling their respective coffers. Each vessel's captain is issued with a charter from its respective crown to seek out and find such prizes as they may. Unlike pirates, who keep all they win for their own pockets, they must pay tithes to their various benefactors before lining their own pockets.
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The animosity between Turk and Spaniard is particularly fierce as it has only been within the last hundred years that Spain was able to finally push them back beyond the borders of Portugal and into Africa. In the years since then Alatriste has witnessed some of the horrible indignities his fellow men are capable of committing against each other. When he was part of the campaign that saw the expelling from Spain of Muslims who had converted to Christianity he saw innocent men, women and children not only cut down by soldiers, but were stoned and set upon by civilians as they attempted to flee with what little possessions they could carry. For him there is nothing glorious or noble in what he does - he will do it with as much honour as he can bring to it - but it is simply a matter of kill or be killed as far as he's concerned. If he had any other means of making a living he'd do so. but that option is not available to him.

Unfortunately Inigo still holds onto notions of glory and is full of both righteous indignation and himself. Even after he, albeit inadvertently, starts a full scale riot between Spanish and Venetian sailors while on the island of Malta, he retains an over inflated opinion of himself and his abilities that almost results in his death. So naive is he that he's not even aware that Alatriste has had to take matters into his own hands in order to prevent Inigo from being found in an alley with his throat slit. In fact Alatriste shows remarkable restraint in not being the one to slit his throat himself for some of the things Inigo says to him in his pride and stupidity. He even debates leaving the boy to his fate, but in the end his own sense of dignity pushes him to intervene and take the steps necessary to keep him alive.

Any who have been following the adventures of Captain Alatiste and Inigo for any length of time are aware of Arturo Perez-Reverte's skills as a writer. In Pirates Of The Levant he has brought all of his considerable talent to bear in creating a work riveting in its historical and realistic details while still managing to be an action packed adventure. Alartiste remains a fascinating character. The anti-hero of the swashbuckling world, on one hand a cold callous killer who has no qualms about killing someone for a perceived slight to his honour, but who is yet reluctant to kill those others wouldn't think twice of dispatching. Fiercely independent, he doesn't like anybody telling him by inference or otherwise, who or what he should kill. If that means killing a couple of Spaniards he catches trying to rape a young Muslim woman when most of his contemporaries would have turned a blind eye, so be it.

Inigo thinks he may understand the Captain, and even for a time believes he no longer needs anybody, especially the Captain, telling him how to live his life. However, he's fortunate enough to learn that until he's lived a great many more years, killed, and seen killed, a great many more men, and stood on a quite a few more battle fields, he's as much chance of learning to fly as he does of understanding Diego Alatriste. It's not every man who will one moment be prepared to challenge his king for the right to sleep with a woman, and the next risk his neck to save the same king. That's Captain Alatriste, and this is the latest recounting of his checkered history. We can only hope Perez-Reverte continues recounting it to us for years to come, or at least as long as the glory of Spain persists.

(Article first published as Book Review: Pirates of the Levant by Arturo Perez-Reverte on Blogcritics.)

June 11, 2010

Book Review: Impossible Man by Michael Muhammad Knight

I've been gradually working my way through a number of books written by the American author Michael Muhammad Knight's. He's most widely known to readers at large for inspiring Islamic punk rock groups through his book The Taqwacores. However, aside from his works of fiction depicting the activities of fictional punk rockers, he has written extensively about his personal experiences with Islam and how its practiced both in America and in what we would refer to as Islamic countries; Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Pakistan. While his journeys have taken him around the world, his internal pilgrimage to find a way to reconcile his adopted faith with his Western ideas of equality and individualism have been the real basis for his non-fiction writings.

In Journey To The End Of Islam he explained how he thought that writing The Taqwacores would signify the end of his relationship with Islam. Instead it showed him it wasn't because he was a convert to the faith that he had doubts about certain aspects and practices. Hearing from young Muslims across North America who appreciated his work inspired him try and reconnect with the religion. While part of him still doubted his integrity as a Muslim because he wasn't willing to abide by the rules as dictated by the Qur'an, he also realized he couldn't go back to those days again. However, for those reading the book, the question of how he came to be an unquestioning follower of a religion that most people in America either fear or hate remained unclear. For while he had dropped hints of a troubled past and an abusive and mentally disturbed father, he'd not gone into details of the events leading up to his conversion.
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Impossible Man, published by Soft Skull Press, turns back the clock as Knight takes us back in time to recount the details of his life from early childhood, his conversion to Islam, his subsequent loss of faith, to his wandering aimlessly in search of direction. The picture that emerges is of a person with little or no self-respect desperately looking for acceptance and needing to believe in something bigger than himself. This is not an easy book to read for Knight doesn't shrink from recording even the most embarrassing and personal details of his story. However, it's saved from the self pitying, or ever worse, the look at me aren't I amazing for overcoming this stuff, tone of other autobiographies of this nature, by his refusing to depict himself as a victim.

As he has shown in his other writings Knight is almost brutal in his honesty when it comes to recording the details of his story. This allows him to tell the story without embellishment or editorializing. He doesn't censor his younger self's arrogance, idiocy, and self-delusion. He even refuses to use the benefit of hindsight and try to explain away his behaviour at the time. Instead everything is told as if it is happening in the present so we travel along with him instead of hearing about it being recounted as a memory. This is the story of a kid whose mother had to live through two years of a husband who threatened to murder her or her child during the night, and then locked them up during the day in order to protect them from Satan. Somehow she escaped to flee with him to her parents home and the protection of her brother who was a police officer.

Young Michael escaped into fantasy worlds. first the world of George Lucas' Star Wars in which he was able to find parallels to his own life with a father who had surrendered to the dark side. From there he graduated to the world of Hulk Hogan and professional wrestling, with its overblown cartoon figures and epic battles of good versus evil. It was a friend in high school who, worried over his lack of self respect, told him he should read the autobiography of Malcolm X, and it was literally the book which changed his life. While Malcolm's words struck a chord within him, it was Spike Lee's bio-pic, Malcolm which fired his imagination and spurred his desire for conversion.
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Thinking back over story, the picture he drew of himself was of a person ripe for being taken by unscrupulous people and turned into an empty vessel. It says a lot for the people he went to initially for help with his conversion to Islam that he didn't become one of those sad figures you read about who disappeared into cults out who end up becoming mindless terrorists. They treated his desire to convert with seriousness and respect but never abused their positions of authority or did anything more than try to instil in him the values of his new faith. When he expressed a desire to go and fight in Chechnya during the times of the Russian invasion, with visions of glory dancing in his head, he was calmly dissuaded from throwing his life away uselessly.

It was his intelligence his new teachers valued so highly that resulted in his disillusionment with Islam. He made the mistake of asking why. Why should Allah care so much if his mother didn't convert to Islam that He would send her to hell? He knew his mother had suffered and struggled, had been supportive of him in everything he did including buying him the books he needed to study Islam, driving him to nearest mosque and never questioning his desire to convert. Once the first why is asked and doesn't receive a satisfactory answer, others follow fast and furious. While he never lost his faith entirely he drifted back into the self-destructive behaviour that had marked his early years, including "Backyard Wrestling" which included stunts like being beaten with barbed wire clubs and wrestling on beds of thumbtacks.

There's something pathetic, in the real meaning of the word, reading the boastful thoughts of a young man who takes pride in the amount of punishment he's able to absorb and inflict upon himself. The fact that Knight is almost clinical in his description of these and other activities, never once trying to make himself an object of pity, makes it all the more powerful. His ability to act as a detached observer of events distinguishes this from similar types of work and makes it as compelling as any work of fiction. For those who have ever questioned the why's behind Michael Muhammad Knight's story, what answers he has to offer can be found in this book. For there is no simple answer as to why we do what we do and by not attempting to analyse his younger self's motivations, or second guess any of his decisions, Knight acknowledges that fact. Some might think that's a cop out, but the answers are there in the narrative for anyone who is willing to read them. He is brave enough to let the facts stand on their own and let the reader draw their own conclusions, so the least you can do is make that effort.

(Article first published as Book Review: Impossible Man by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 10, 2010

Book review: Osama Van Halen by Michael Muhammad Knight

When your first novel turns out to be a controversial and somewhat well received effort that centres around your own confusions about a choice you made in the past, what's an author to do for an encore? Although he hadn't been a character in The Taqwacores, the story had expressed Michael Muhammad Knight's confusion over, and dissatisfaction with Islam, the religion he had adopted as a teenager. While on one level the characters represented the confusion typical of many second generation immigrants who are being pulled between the traditions of their parent's culture and the freedoms enjoyed by their contemporaries, they also reflected the many sides of an argument Knight was having with himself.

Was he or wasn't he a Muslim? Were his motivations for converting legitimate and how could he call himself Muslim now considering the lifestyle he had been and was currently leading? Could you be a Muslim even if you didn't follow all the rules and blindly obey everything that was written in the Qur'an? All of these questions had come up in one form or another, plus many more, over the course of that first novel. Therefore, since he was intellectually such an integral part of the first book, it only makes sense that he write himself into Osama Van Halen. Although written in 2005 controversy over its predecessor prevented it from being published until 2009 when Soft Skull Press released it along with a new edition of The Taqwacores so they could be read in sequence as intended by the author.
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Knight isn't the only "real" person who makes an appearance in the book as he's dotted it with fictional representations of friends of his from the Taqwacores movement that developed from the first book. The lines between fact and fiction start to blur in places as Knight the author and Knight the character in the book turn out to be two different people and both make their presence felt during the story. At times you do wonder which one it is you're reading about, but usually there's not that much confusion as he's quite clear in his own mind who's real and who's fictional. Although things do get a bit weird when he meets up with a couple of friends in "real life" and tells them about their fates as characters in the book.

Thankfully he's not made himself the only main character as his fictional self plays the role of side kick to the main character, Amazing Ayyub. When he steps out from behind the character of "the author Michael Knight" to become Michael Knight he acts as sort of a spelt out sub-text explaining the whys and what the fucks of the story. For, while Knight is out looking for some inner truth about himself through conversations with young Muslim women he's had contact with in the past, Ayyub is busy with his own tasks. Amazing might have been a minor character in The Taqwacores, representing the extreme end of the Islamic punk movement with his rampant alcohol consumption and blatant crazed and anti-social behaviour, he now finds himself cast in a starring role which requires him to rise up and become a defender of the faith - Taqwacore.

For as punk rock before it was co-opted by an industry bent on making money out of rebellion, Islamic punk has been discovered and is about to have its rebellious soul ripped out of it in the name of marketing. The Amazing Ayyub has seen the enemy and its name is Shah 79 and it must be eradicated before the heresy can take root. Much to his horror he discovers that they have set up shop in his home town of Buffalo while he is on the other side of the continent. He had been in Los Angeles with Rabeya, the burqa-wearing radical punk woman from the first book, kidnapping Matt Damon in an attempt to force Hollywood to depict Muslims in a more positive light. At a pit stop in a gas station he not only discovers the new heresy threatening his core belief system, he loses Rabeya and Damon when he discovers the van they were in has left without him.
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What follows are a series of adventures designed to both test him and hone him for his final confrontation. Part biblical, part science fiction and all punk his quest begins behind the wheel of a van transporting a thrash metal punk band across America. Fuelled by speed and his own manic energy he drives his motley collection of passengers into the desert where they are set upon by zombies who have taken over a mosque. Saved by Basim, the lead singer of the Kominas (The real life lead singer of an actual Taqwacore band), from the undead, Ayyub is then outfitted with a really big gun and a prayer of invisibility that will allow him to carry out his mission.

Blending fact and fiction is a difficult stunt to pull off, especially when you include yourself as one of the characters in the book. However in Osama Van Halen Knight carries it off with skill and dexterity. It would have been easy for this to turn into an exercise in self-indulgence, however the author's sense of the absurd and ability for self-satire never allow it to descend to that level. Instead what you have is a quite brilliant piece of writing which not only deconstructs the relationship between an author and his characters and their role as his mouthpiece, but also ensures the reader understands the depth of the author's sincerity. We not only see the confusion he feels as represented by his fictional self and his fellow characters in the book, we see him struggling with the questions that lie at its root.

While sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, the blending of the two will sometimes reveal truths neither on their own are capable of dealing with. Osama Van Halen is an example of how it is possible to construct a book that straddles both worlds without sacrificing the integrity of either. Thought provoking and thoughtful, it raises more questions than it answers about the nature of religion and our relationship to it, but they are questions that need to be asked if we have any hope of ever finding our way out of the mess we've made of the world. Bravo to Michael Knight for being brave enough to ask them, and being equally brave for not claiming to have the answers. It's just too bad people are too busy condemning him to follow his lead.

(Article first published as Book Review: Osama Van Halen by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

June 5, 2010

Book Review: Journey To The End Of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight

Have you ever noticed how the person who converts to a new religion, or philosophy of any kind, tends to be a whole lot more fanatical about their new faith than those who were born into it? Perhaps they feel a need to prove themselves in order to win acceptance as quickly as possible. Some people adopt a faith in the hope of finding answers to questions they have about life, others because they are desperate to find a place they fit in, while others are looking for something to make order out of any chaos they have lived through. In the latter case it's no wonder a convert becomes doctrinarian, it's such a relief to have order in their lives they'll follow the rules without questioning or doubting their necessity.

When author Michael Muhammad Knight was a teenager he converted to Islam in order to break as much as possible with his white supremacist father. However, when you consider the brief descriptions of his childhood that he offers readers in his book Journey To The End Of Islam, published by Soft Skull Press, you have to wonder how much Islam represented a place of order which would relieve him of having to make his own decisions about good and evil and wrong and right. Like Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Christians who take the word of the bible as law, Fundamentalist Muslims take the Qur'an as their rule book to live by. There aren't any grey areas for any of these people; if God says something it's the law and there can be no disputing it.

While that may work for some people Knight found he couldn't live like that and thinking to leave Islam behind wrote his now infamous book The Taqwacores about a group of Islamic punk rockers. Ironically the book became a beacon for young American Muslims who were questioning many of the same things he was. Whether they were gay, straight, female or male didn't matter, they weren't happy with the status quo of Islam, or even what passed for mainstream progressive Islam, but weren't prepared to surrender their faith either. So instead of leaving Islam behind, Knight found himself at the heart of a movement looking to define a new identity for the religion. In Journey he finds himself at a crossroads, trying to decide and define what Islam is to him.
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So, in 2008, while the rest of America is trying to figure out whether or not it should elect its first black president, and being Muslim is something Obama is having to deny as if its something evil and un-American, Knight sets off on a trip that will see him visit shrines, temples, and other holy sites in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia and finally to Saudi Arabia and the holiest of holy places, Mecca, to make hajj, in an attempt to discover what it means to be Muslim. We not only learn about the history of the religion and the schisms that have divided the faith almost since its beginnings along the way, Knight also provides us with an overview of the uniquely American versions of Islam that were fostered by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, The Nubian Islamic Hebrews, and the Five Percenters. However, the major focus of the book is on his internal debate; the fight between his intellect and his heart over matters of faith and politics and how to separate the two.

In Pakistan, Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia Knight takes us on visits to various shrines, tombs, and other sites of holy and historical significance to Islam. With each site we not only learn about the various figures in the history of the faith, we find out what role they have played in the split behind the formation of its two major sects, Sunni and Shi'a. In Pakistan there's the added confusion of the mystical branch of Islam thrown into the mix as he visits the tombs of a variety of Sufi saints. While strict Islamic practice forbids the worship of graves or humans, even worship of the Prophet Muhammad is prohibited, that doesn't stop people from praying to their local saints or performing other acts of worship that would be frowned on in other places.

Harar in Ethiopia is considered the fourth holiest Muslim city, and its here that Knight discovers some of the strangest forms his religion can take with its mixture of ancestor worship and animalism. Shrines were built around or joined to fig trees and hyenas were treated with special honour because the prophet would not kill them. Every night hyenas would come through small doors in the wall surrounding Harar to be fed by an individual designated specifically for that job and given the title "Hyena Man". For the author they came to represent a human's lower self, our ugly spirit which only thinks of fulfilling physical needs like food and sex.
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So many divergent views of Islam of course don't make it any easier to find your way to the heart of your religion or to being any clearer about your own place in it. By taking the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca along with millions of other Muslims Knight hoped that he would be able to find what he was looking for. Unfortunately, most of what he found was evidence of how Saudi Arabia, where the city of Mecca is located, has tried to put its stamp on the religion to ensure its control over it. He finds Muslims from all over the world attempting to memorize the Qur'an in Arabic even though they don't understand a word of it. While initially he feels superior to them because he's not allowing himself to be led blindly, that gradually changes to guilt because he can't shake the feeling that maybe that's what faith is really all about.

Who is he to feel superior when they can accept the word of God so easily, but he has to question everything? Are they right and he's wrong? Yet, blind obedience means accepting verses in the Qur'an that allow a man to beat his wife and other things that he can't accept. Can you be a Muslim and not accept those passages in The Book? Or are you something else when you do that? According to Knight there are those in the progressive Muslim movement who try and "reinterpret" those offensive lines, but they still refuse to denounce them as wrong. What can a person of conscience do about Islamic law that makes a woman a man's possession upon marriage?

Knight has proven himself to be almost brutal in his self-honesty in the past and Journey To The End Of Islam is no exception. Not only does he recount his journey through the Islamic world physically and supply the reader with a highly readable and intelligent recounting of the faith's history, he takes us on a journey into his soul with an equal amount of integrity and interest. These types of books are desperately hard to write without them coming across as self serving and of no interest to anyone save the author's navel, yet Knight has managed to turn his highly individual story into something universal.Anybody who has ever questioned their faith, or sought to find out more about themselves, can find something to identify with. I'm sure that conservative religious types of all faiths will be offended by a great deal of what he has the honesty to talk about and admit to. However, those of you who have faith and are experiencing difficulty reconciling your religion, no matter what your religion is, with your own feelings and beliefs on how the world should be, will find that Knight has a lot to say to you.

Knight has an uncanny ability to write about what others would consider insanely complicated issues with a clarity and straightforwardness that make you wonder what all the fuss is about. He doesn't pretend to have the answers to any questions readers might have, he's not even sure if he's been able to answer his own questions. However, to my mind, there has never been a more honest book written about the nature of religion and an individual's relationship to their belief system. If more people were as brave and honest as Michael Muhammad Knight when it came to their religion the world would be in far better shape.

(Article first published as Book Review: Journey To The End Of Islam by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

Book Review: The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight

While it's true that all immigrant children in North America have to deal with a certain amount of conflict between the culture of their parents and the new society they've landed in, some have a harder time of it than others. Obviously those arriving from English speaking European countries have the easiest time making the transition to the new world. Not only do they have an easier time passing because of skin colour, they usually share a common cultural heritage, or at least one not to far removed, from that of their new contemporaries. While they might have some minor adjustments to make, they're nothing to what faces the kids who not only speak different languages, but have a completely different cultural background.

While ethnic heritage can play a major role in determining how easy it is for a child to fit in with his or her new surroundings, those from different religious backgrounds deal with issues that most of us can't even begin to understand. This is especially true for those whose religion teaches a moral and cultural code that is in conflict with what is considered acceptable behaviour in our society. Not only do they find themselves being pulled in two directions at once, being attracted to some aspects of the new but wanting to remain loyal to their traditions, there is also the guilt they feel for any transgressions they see themselves as having committed when they do surrender some of their old moral code.

One of the ways some groups deal with this is by creating insular communities within the overall community at large so as to preserve the integrity of their culture. One of the earliest examples of this were the Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who established their own districts in cities in Canada and the US which included places of worship and schools for their children. Gradually over the years the community itself demanded a relaxing of the rules governing their lifestyle and out of that was born the three tiers of Judaism we have today; Reform, Conservative and Orthodox. This compromise has allowed people to continue to be faithful to their religion while accepting the ways of the world around them to whatever extent they are comfortable with.
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Michael Muhammad Knight's first novel, The Taqwacores published by Soft Skull Press, has been labelled everything from a manifesto for the Muslim punk movement to a Catcher In The Rye for young Muslims. While those make for catchy tag lines on a book cover, they actually have little or nothing to do with the actual contents of the book. While it's true most of the characters in the book are both punks and Muslims, so you could make a case for the manifesto comment, the comparison to Salinger's work is a bit more of as stretch. Sure both are about young people, but aside from that they have little or nothing in common.

Knight's book is set in a house in Buffalo New York occupied by a collection of young Muslims. The protagonist, Yusef Ali, is an engineering student at the university and from a middle class family in Syracuse. His family encouraged him to live outside the university in a Muslim house as "there were things in the dorm that were bad for him". However if they knew what went on in his house they might not have been so sanguine about his living arrangements. For while its true the occupants are all Muslim, they also spend most of their time smoking drugs and drinking, two things high on the list of no no's as far as most Muslims are concerned.

On the other hand the house's occupants do their best to observe the prayer times, and the four male inhabitants pray together on a regular basis. However they open their Friday night prayers to the whole community which means allowing men and women to pray together and having a woman take the role of Imam to lead them in prayer and give the sermon, neither of which would are considered acceptable by conservative Muslims. Even more disconcerting perhaps would have been the fact that immediately after the Friday prayers, the house would fill up with a mixed bag of local punks and play host to wild parties.

While we witness all of this behaviour through Yusef's eyes, he doesn't participate. He describes himself as the token nerd who is allowed to hang out with the cool kids, and he keeps up a continual internal dialogue about those around him questioning their behaviour. He is torn between what he's been taught is right, what the laws of his religion and tradition tell him defines a Muslim, and the reality he sees in front of him. Sure his friend Jehangir drinks like a fish, smokes dope, has sex and has a bright orange Mohawk haircut, but he also calls himself a Muslim and is as devoted in his prayers as anyone. Yet even this apparently free spirited Jehangir is plagued doubts, and after a while you begin to think a great deal of his excess is a result of not being completely certain he's doing the right thing in breaking the rules.
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While the book spares no detail in its description of people's behaviour, and no doubt it won't be just Muslims it will offend, it's beneath the surface that the real story resides. Knight's talent lies in his ability to create this incredibly diverse group of characters who not only spring off the page because they are so vividly described, but also represent a variety of viewpoints when it comes to what constitutes being Muslim. What's even more realistic is how he shows that doubts can cut both ways; for while the liberal punks might doubt themselves on occasion, the hardline character has cracks through which his doubts about strict adherence to the scripture comes through.

Western Judaism began its shift into the modern world through politics in the early part of the 20th century with the beginnings of the social justice movement. At the extreme end of the spectrum were the communists who rejected religion entirely. While they might not have represented the mainstream anymore than Knight's punks represent the mainstream of Islam, the ripple effect of their activities resulted in the gradual liberalization of their religion. The more extreme characters in The Taqwacores will not be acceptable to most Muslims, but like the communist Jews a century ago they don't expect or want to be. Their dream of a Utopian Islam where all are welcomed by all may never be a reality, but its the fact they dream at all that might end up making a difference.

What Knight has depicted in his book is the natural questioning of traditional values that occurs when an insular people are exposed to different views of the world. The questions his characters ask themselves are ones that have been asked many times before, and like those before them they discover there's no such thing as only one correct answer. While a lot has been made out of the book because its characters are predominately Muslim, its as much a book about the clash between tradition and new that occurs in all immigrant communities as it is about being Islamic. Knight has done a fantastic job of bringing that struggle to life as his characters navigate through the challenges that face any young adult, while doing their best to remain as true to themselves as possible.

If there is any hope for a world where religions and cultures can peacefully co-exist with respect and tolerance, we are going to need far more books like this one. It doesn't shy away from asking difficult questions or depicting things some might find unpleasant, but it does so without negativity or cynicism. This is not a blank generation without hope for the future. They might not be quite sure what the future will be or how to make it happen, but they'll do their best to make it better than what we have at present.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2010

DVD Review: Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam

When he was seventeen years old Michael Muhammad Knight followed in the footsteps of Muhammad Ali and converted to Islam. However unlike Ali, and the majority of other Americans who become followers of the Nation Of Islam, Knight isn't an African American. Brought up in an Irish/Catholic household, his conversion to Islam was in reaction to his white supremacist father. Like many other converts to a new religion he became something of a zealot to begin and travelled to Pakistan to study at a very conservative mosque.

However there came a point where the dogma became too much for him. Islam was still important to him, but not the narrow minded view of the world the conservatives dictated should go with it. So he ran from one extreme to another and sat down and wrote the novel The Taqwacores, which supposed the existence of a house full of Islamic punk rock musicians sharing a house together in Buffalo. Initially self published the book began to strike a chord with disaffected Muslim youth across North America and Knight was constantly writing people to tell them the characters in the book didn't exist.

In a strange twist on the old life imitating art thing though, it came to pass that Michael and a collection of Islamic punk musicians - mainly the young people who contacted him in the first place - came up with the idea of bringing the book to life. In the book the musicians set out on the road to tour around North America with their ultimate destination being the annual Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention in Chicago. So, piling into a school bus painted green and decked out with graphics and slogans, bands like the The Kominas from Boston, The Secret Trial Five from Vancouver, Al-Tharwa from Chicago and individual musicians like Omar Wagner from Washington DC, set out to shock and awe America.
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Joining them on the bus, and for the the tour and beyond, was a documentary film crew headed by Canadian director Omar Majeed. The resulting film of this strange pilgrimage, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam (not to be confused with the soon to be released film adaptation of Knights book The Taqwacores) is now available on DVD through Lorber Films. The film is roughly divided in two with part one introducing us to the various bands on the tour, following their misadventures as they attempt to play gigs, get stopped by cops, spend the night in a mosque in the middle of a corn field in Ohio, and finally make it to the ISNA conference. Part two picks up at some point after the tour in 2007 as two members of The Kominas have moved back to Pakistan and are attempting to bring punk with them and Knight comes to visit with camera crew in tow.

As we meet the young people involved in the Taqwacore tour (Taqwa - the Muslim term for God consciousness - core for hard core punk) we realize that like Knight they are all trying to find a place for themselves in the world. As young Muslims in North America they don't want to give up their faith, but at the same time they want the freedom to be who they are as individuals as well. Gay, straight, male and female their songs range from the overtly political like The Secret Five's "Guantanamo Bay" or tongue in cheek satire like The Kominas' "I'm An Islamist" - their version of the infamous Sex Pistol tune.

While watching them wander across America in their green school bus I couldn't help but be reminded of another school bus forty some years earlier and the book that recorded that journey. American author Ken Keasy and his band of Merry Pranksters drove an old converted school bus around the country in the early 1960's preaching the gospel according to LSD and were memorialized in Tom Wolf's Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. However the great thing about film is that we have a much more direct link to the action and it's not so blatantly filtered through an author's voice. With Wolf's book you have the feeling it was written with the idea of giving middle class liberals a few cheap thrills, while Taqwacore is far more intent on telling the story and perhaps broadening viewer's minds as to who Muslims are.
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While the attempt to bring punk to an Islamic audience in America met with mixed success; when they performed at the ISNA conference they were closed down by the organizers for having female singers and dancing but the audience of young girls wearing headscarves were more than happy to sing along with lyrics like "Stop the hate"; what kind of reception would it get in an Islamic country? When Knight arrives in Lahore Pakistan he finds that his two old buddies from the Taqwacore days have sunk into a bit of a hash soaked stupor. They've pulled together a band but are finding it next to impossible to play gigs. What they hadn't counted on was the fact that popular music is mainly for the small percentage of affluent people, while the poor people whose message punk is aimed at are much more interested in traditional music or Bollywood. It's also almost impossible to bring the two audiences together in a single venue because of the class differences still very prevalent in that country.

While they eventually do manage to give a successful free concert in downtown Lahore, the majority of our time in Pakistan is spent with Michael Knight as he travels around visiting various shrines and mosques. He even braves going back to the mosque where he studied years ago and sits and talks with the cameras about himself for a while. What's really quite amazing about him is his incredible ability to be completely honest with himself. At one point he talks about his behaviour when he first converted and how he used to lecture his mother about her way of dressing and the fact that she would have a glass of wine before sleep. At first he thought her reactions to this, soft smiles and not arguing with him, were the sign of a mother's loving patience, but then he realized it was also the behaviour of a person who had been seriously abused for a long time.

His father used to threaten her endlessly and she had to sit through hours of torment while he would accuse her of everything from having the Devil for a lover to giving birth to the Devil's son. Her only defence was to never fight and passively let him rant on and on. When Knight finally put two and two together he understood that his lecturing his mother on her behaviour in the manner he was doing was abuse. When someone is able to admit this to himself any doubts you might have had about their sincerity are lost. His conversion to Islam may have initially been an act of rebellion, and his subsequent conversion to punk an expression of frustration that Islam wasn't able to supply all the answers he wanted, but the journey he and all the other young people we meet in this film are on, are sincere attempts to find a path that honours both their faith and themselves.

While the idea of punk rock Muslims might sound ridiculous to some people and to others it might even be blasphemous, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam is inspiring and hopeful. Not only do those involved dispel any stereotypes you might have about Muslims, they also show how it is possible to be a religious person without letting your religion dictate who and what you are as an individual. The underlying message of tolerance and respect, mixed with a healthy dose of the benevolent chaos of punk, is one the world could stand hearing over and over again.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Taqwacore -The Birth Of Punk Islam on Blogcritics.)

May 20, 2010

DVD Review: Griefwalker

Death doesn't seem the most inspiring of topics for a film does it? If I were to hazard a guess I'd say that the majority of us do our best to go through our days without thinking about death or dying. After all who wants to think about such a gloomy subject? What purpose would it serve anyway? Wouldn't thinking about your impending doom, because we are all going to die eventually, just serve to depress us? So it might surprise you to hear somebody say that by denying our eventual deaths we reduce our ability to live our lives to their fullest.

Stephen Jenkinson has a Master's Degree in Social Work, is a graduate of the Harvard School of Divinity, worked in the centre for children's grief and palliative care in a major children's hospital in Canada and as an associate professor in a Canadian medical school. He counsels individuals and their families helping them come to terms with their impending death and all its implications. He also lectures and leads workshops for people who work in palliative care and offers workshops to the general public on how to get the most out of your life - through a better understanding of death. Griefwalker, produced by The National Film Board Of Canada and distributed by Alive Mind Media, is a documentary about Jenkinson that was filmed over a twelve year period by director Tim Wilson who also happens to be Jenkinson's friend.

There are two parts to the film; one deals with Jenkinson and his work and includes footage of him working with clients, leading seminars and interviews with people who have worked with him, while the other is a mixture of the director's personal recollections of his relationship with Jenkinson and an examination of the man's philosophies and how his approach to life has shaped them. At times the director steps out from the behind the camera and becomes part of the film as he cross examines his friend or recalls personal memories. For at one point the director had come close to dying after what was supposed to have been routine surgery and Jenkinson had said something to him that pissed him off at the time. In the movie the two men discuss that time and it works into their discussion on death and people's relationship to it.
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The interviews with clients are some of the hardest things you'll ever watch in a movie because of their simple realism. These are real people talking about their circumstances and that makes it all the more poignant. There are two incidences where we are witness to Stephen at work counselling people, and a third is a young couple recounting their experiences with him when their infant daughter died. What we quickly find out about Jenkinson is that he's genuinely serious about helping people come to terms with the reality of impending death, and does so by forcing them to confront their fears. He doesn't come across as necessarily sympathetic - at least in the sense we might think of based on the sentimental ideas of sympathy we've been raised on. However there can be no doubting his compassion for the people he is dealing with as he coaxes them into admitting what they are really feeling or facing up to their situation.

The case of the young couple is a good example of this. Their baby was being kept alive by blood transfusions. Every two or three days she would need another transfusion but there was no promise of her ever recovering. The mother recalls how Jenkinson gradually helped her realize how she was in denial about her baby's chances of survival by making her say out loud the false hopes she was clinging to in her head. Eventually she and her husband took their baby home where she could die in peace and without pain. They were able to enjoy their child's last days to the fullest because of this instead of the gradual wasting away that would have occurred in the hospital.

I've a natural mistrust of people who assume the trappings of a culture other than there own as most of the time they have only a superficial knowledge of what they've adopted and make no attempt to actually live their lives according to what they supposedly believe in. So the sight of Jenkinson with his hair tied back in a braid was at first slightly off putting. However as the movie progresses you come to realize this is not someone who had merely taken on the appearance of his Algonquin neighbours, he has an understanding of their culture and belief system, and attempts to live his life accordingly. He has also looked to indigenous cultures around the world for the basis of his program for teaching people how to cope with death based on their connection to the world around them.
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The movie does a great job of only presenting Jenkinson's ideas on death and dying, but introducing us to the man and showing us not only how he formulated his concepts, but how the life he has chosen to live embodies them. He is what he preaches and does his best to live according to what he espouses. Whether you agree with his ideas or not, and the movie is a pretty convincing argument in favour of what he has to say about our fear of death and how that impacts our quality of life, you can't help but admire him for his dedication to helping people and his compassion for everybody he comes in contact with.

Probably everyone has seen a silly Western movie at some time or another where an Indian character on the verge of going into battle will say "It's a good day to die". However, the real meaning of that expression is live each day as if it were your last and enjoy it to its fullest. Greifwalker is the story of a man who does his best to make any day a good day for people to die in by helping them confront and defeat their fears surrounding death. While the DVD doesn't come with any special features, the person you meet in the film is probably one of the more special people you'll come across in a long time.

If you're interested in learning more about his counselling services and workshops be sure to go to his Orphan Wisdom web site where you'll find complete descriptions of what he has to offer and a listing of his scheduled appearances - so far - around North America for 2010.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Griefwalker on Blogcritics.)

February 6, 2010

Interview: Aatish Taseer - Author Of Stranger To History

Twenty years might seem like a long time to go without knowing your father, but for Aatish Taseer that gap was easier to bridge than the gulf that formed between them when his father accused him of having no understanding of what it meant to be either Muslim or Pakistani. After being raised in India by his Sikh mother and her family, Taseer accepted that his father had a point. In his book Stranger To History Taseer recounts the journey he undertook in an attempt to gain that understanding by travelling through the Muslim world and the people he met along the way.

The book is fascinating for both its description of the world he travelled through, and the voyage Taseer took mentally and emotionally as a result of his quest. While he himself came to some personal resolutions because of what he experienced, he doesn't pretend they're anything more than that. What I most appreciated about the book, was not once did he try and push the reader in any direction. This was a recounting of what he saw and heard reported with an integrity and genuine objectivity that was as refreshing as it is rare.

That's not to say I didn't have any questions after having read the book, because I did, and thanks to the good people at Random House Canada I was able to pass them along to Aatish Taseer via e-mail. I'm sure some of my questions arose from my own lack of knowledge or even from misunderstanding of what he said in the first place. Thankfully he very patiently has taken the time to respond to each of the questions with the same care he showed in the writing of his book. So if you appreciate this interview, you'll definitely find the book a fascinating experience, one that I highly recommend.

Before you began your journey what if any expectations or hopes did you carry into it with regards to both your Muslim heritage and how it might help to bridge the gap between you and your father?

I was never in search of any personal religious fulfilment or identity of any kind. I wanted only to understand the distances that had arisen between my father and me. The reason I wanted to do this was because I felt instinctually that there was something deeper behind those distances, something that would help illuminate a situation wider than my own personal context. And if there was anything that aroused my curiosity at that early stage, it was only the question of what made my father—a disbeliever by his own admission—in some very important way still a Muslim.

Why did you consider it so important to make the journey - you had been estranged from your father for nearly two decades what type of connection were you hoping to forge between you?

Yes, but I had overcome that initial estrangement with my father. The silence between us was new. And I found it difficult to turn my back on the goodwill and hopefulness that that reconciliation between my father and me had produced. It was not just our personal relationship, but Pakistan too. Which formed such an important cultural and historical component of my family history, both maternal and paternal, as well as the history of the land I grew up in. It would have been very hard to pretend that the new estrangement with my father was not wrapped up in a deeper feeling of loss. But I was not travelling in search of reconciliation; I would have found it strange to travel with those kinds of personal objectives in mind. I was travelling to understand.
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You mention the term "cultural" or "secular" Muslim in reference to your father, can you define what you mean by that?

It is a term that my father gave me and it is term that grew in meaning as I travelled. I took it in the beginning to mean benign things such as an adherence to customs and festivals, a feeling for food and dress. But as I travelled I found that it contained other things besides. And these were usually political and historical attitudes, attitudes that were themselves like articles of faith, now related to Jews and American, now to Hindus and India. They almost always included a certain prejudiced view of the pre-Islamic past of a Muslim country. They often translated into a historical narrative, at the centre of which was the 7th century Arab conquest and the triumph of Islam, and on either end of which, were enemies of the faith. Now these things are not in the Book; they are not, as such, a part of the religion; neither are the prejudices that go along with them; but to many they are more important than the religion itself. They were what could make my father, despite his faithlessness, a Muslim.

What inspired you to tell a very personal story - your relationship with your father - and why is it integral to the book? Could you have undertaken a similar examination of the Muslim faith without raising the subject of your father?

No. The personal, though it had wider ramifications, as the personal often does, was what lay behind my interest. I am not a professional writer of books on Islam; my next book, The Templegoers, has nothing to do with either Islam or Muslims. I wrote about the subject because I felt I had to. And it would have been very strange for me to ignore, especially in a book like this, a first book, the reasons that I was drawn to the subject. Which, by the way, are not simply my relationship with my father; that was one aspect; but much bigger than this, in fact towering over the narrative, is the Partition. And it is in relation to this event—in my opinion, the forerunner of what began to happen throughout the Muslim world during the latter part of the last century—that my parents’ relationship became important, as did my maternal grandfather’s grief at being separated from his country.

Although you visited more than just the countries mentioned in the book during your journey you chose only to talk about four, aside from Pakistan. What was it about Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran that decided you to talk about them instead of some of the others?

They all represented, in different ways, the trouble Islam had had in adapting to modern political life. In Turkey, secularism had been turned into a soft tyranny, where the state was writing sermons and choosing clerics. In Syria, it was for years not part of the program, but was slowly creeping back. In Iran, the fury of the revolution had come and gone, and we could have a window into what might come next. Finally there was Pakistan, which, in my opinion, had paid the heaviest price for the faith. It had broken with itself and its history to form a nation on the thinnest of thin grounds. And the nation had been, from start to finish, a disaster. It had left millions of people sixty years later dispossessed and full of hateful lies. All of that remained to be dealt with; the ugly idea of a religiously cleansed society had yet to be fully discredited in the minds of people, though on practical terms, it had completely perished. And to have to do all of this in a climate of war and insecurity, with interference from foreign powers! It was a very bleak picture; hard to see how the land—not the country—would return to itself. (I won’t speak of Saudi, because it formed a small part of the narrative in the book.)

At one point in the book you mention the Wahhabis and their influence upon modern Islam especially in Arabic countries like Saudi Arabia. Who are they, what is their influence and how is it expressed?

They have had forerunners, and interestingly, always at times when Islam felt itself in danger. Some consider Ibn Taymiyyah, a 13th century scholar, living in the times when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, to be the first Wahhabi. But truly, the movement began in the 18th century with an alliance between a Najd scholar and a chieftain. The movement, mainly decrying the excesses that had come into the faith and preaching a purer, more Arab Islam, had some political and religious success before it was crushed, and crushed completely, by the Ottomans. Its resurgence in the 20th century can be linked to the rise of Saudi Arabia and its tremendous oil wealth, which it has used to spread Wahhabism to places, which practised milder, more tolerant forms of the religion. But I think it would be too easy to say that, and it doesn’t explain the first Wahhabi success. My own feeling is that Wahhabism represents a tendency within Islam—and perhaps also in other forms of organised thought—to close its doors, and retreat within itself, when it is faced with a political or intellectual threat too great to confront.

Do the Wahabis have anything to do with the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and are you able to explain the difference between the two groups?

No, nothing whatsoever. That was a split that happened some 1000 years before. And there was, I suspect, a kind of anti-Arab feeling, originating in recently conquered Persia, behind it. But yes, the Wahhabis have exacerbated the tensions between the two groups because they are deeply intolerant not only of Shiism, but of any local form of Islam.

In the book you talk about how history is being distorted by certain religious leaders in order to justify the notion that Muslims are persecuted. What purpose is served by creating this attitude among the faithful?
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It is comforting to them. It makes them feel that they are not responsible for their wretchedness, that it is all the work of a grand conspiracy which seeks to keep them down. They then, can carry on feeling envious and resentful about the big, modern world, without ever having to do the hard work of engaging it. But it is a very pernicious cycle. Because the less you engage it, the faster you fall behind, the harder it becomes to pick yourself up. And in the end when you’re nothing it becomes very easy for some greasy-faced fanatic to feed you comforting lies.

You've ended up presenting a rather negative view of the current state of Islam, from your depiction of Iran and Syria, the sentiments expressed by young religious Muslims in Turkey and Britain, to your description of your father's "moderate Muslim" as being "too little moderation and in the wrong areas". Was there anything you came across in your travels that countered that impression - that perhaps gave you something you could identify with or the hope there was more to Islam than anger and resentment?

This is the kind of question that makes assumptions I do not share. I don’t consider it ‘positive’ to travel in a country and shut your eyes to its realities. Neither do I think it is at all helpful for schoolboy English travellers to go to these places and come back with reports of their teeming bazaars and lavish hospitality. Fortunately, I come from the sub-continent, which has its fair share of crowded bazaars and generous people, so I feel no need, when I am travelling in the Islamic world to overlook the gloom of Syria or the tyranny of Iran, in the interest of feeling upbeat when I come home. I think it is cynical and patronising to go to these places and tell tales of how the people are capable of a good joke and a cheerful chat as if people and societies should not amount to more. And for people who are coming from societies that have achieved more, this kind of attitude expresses the worst kind of foreigner’s disregard.

Do you have any concerns about what non-Muslims will think after reading this book? What do you hope they will take away from it?

No. The book is published in eleven countries, some of which I have never even visited. It would be impossible for me to conceive what ‘non-Muslims,’ as a whole, might think.

Stranger To History was released a year ago, and I was wondering what the reaction to it has been from Muslims in general and your family in particular?

Again, this is not the kind of judgement I’m in a position to make. What I will say is that despite the fact that the book is only distributed and not published in Pakistan, I have received the maximum number of letters from that country. I was particularly moved by one Pakistani student who wrote: ‘a lot of us agree with you but wouldn’t write this sort of thing for reasons that need not be explained to you.”

However, I know that Muslim reviewers, whether they be in Australia, India, England or Pakistan, have all given the book a rough time. Which is an interesting thing in itself.

At one point you refer to both yourself and your father as the "Stranger To History" of the book's title. Could you explain what you mean by that?

The title, I feel, works on different levels. In the case of my father, I was thinking of Pakistan and how it turned it’s back on its shared history with the sub-continent in the interest of realising the aims of the faith. That was one historical break. But I was also thinking of a more general rejection of pre-Islamic India among the sub-continent’s Muslims, a rejection, which has translated into deeper illusions about their place of origin, many believing they came from Islamically purer countries, such as Afghanistan and Persia. There was also, of course, the personal estrangement, when it came to my father’s relationship with me. That was my estrangement, too, along with an estrangement from the land that is Pakistan, and to which both my parents are linked.

You mention near the end of the book, the one benefit you derived from your journey was it reconnected you to Pakistan. What makes that connection so important to you in light of the divide between your father and yourself?

It is the connection to the land and people of Pakistan that is important. That land, and its culture, is still, for all the distances that have been created, a part of the shared culture of the sub-continent. The things shared are language, dress, ideas of caste, poetry and song. And it is of these things that nations are made, not religion; that has shown itself to be too thin a glue. When one considers that enduring shared culture, despite everything that has been done to break it, one is forced to reject the intellectual argument for the Partition as false. There is no two-nation theory; there are no separate Indian nations; there is just the giant plural society of India, held together by an idea no less subtle, and yet no less powerful, than that of Greece or Europe. It is this society that must on some level regain its wholeness, not along angst-ridden national or religious lines, but as part of a peace worthy of a continent.
 
You set out to find common ground with your father by seeking to gain an understanding of how someone who doesn't practice the religion can still call themselves a Muslim. After what you observed in your travels, do you still refer to yourself as a Muslim in spite of the fact that you appear to have nothing in common with people like your father?

No. During the journey itself, I realised that neither on a religious level nor on a ‘cultural’ one could I ever be part of the ‘civilisation of faith’, which is, in the end, a vision of purity. I have too much hybridity in my life, welcome hybridity, to accept a world-view such as that.

I'd just like to conclude by thanking Aatish Taseer for the honesty and directness with which he answered the questions I posed, and his patience with any questions I may have asked out of ignorance and lack of awareness. Part of the problem in this world today is our inability to communicate with each other because of our refusal to be sensitive to how our perceptions of the world have been shaped by environment and conditioning. People like Aatish Taseer, who are willing to take the time to answer those questions while pointing out why they are inappropriate, are our best hope to bridge what right now seems like an insurmountable gap that exists regardless of religion or creed. How we respond will dictate the future of our world

February 3, 2010

Book Review: Stranger To History by Aatish Taseer

Most of us have little or no difficulty in understanding our heritage and what it means to us in terms of our belief systems as we usually have the example of either our parents or the community around us to go by. However, what if one of your parents comes from a culture that's not part of the majority and that person has never been part of your life? It may take a while, but sooner or later you're going to start to notice your different from everyone around you, and eventually you might start to become a mite curious as to what you've inherited from your absent parent.

Aatish Taseer was born in Delhi India as a result of an affair between his Sikh mother and his Pakistani Muslim father. While his mother never kept from him the truth about his heritage he grew up surrounded by cousins his own age wearing the turbans emblematic of their faith, making his uncovered head feel very conspicuous and out of place. It's not until he's twenty-one that he finally makes the journey across the border to visit his father for the first time. While he is welcomed by his father's wife and children with open arms, the man himself is far more reticent. Salmaan Taseer is an important political figure in Muslim Pakistan, and the knowledge he has an Indian son who may or may not be Muslim could create difficulties.

However, as Taseer describes it in his new book from McClelland and Stewart, which is partially owned by Random House Canada, Stranger To History, even if his father is reluctant to recognize him in public, at least by the end of his first visit he begins to feel they have developed the basis for a relationship. Like many other Pakistani's Salmaan is a secular Muslim, so the fact that his son is a Muslim in name only shouldn't make any difference to him. (In Islam the father's religion dictates that of the children)
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However when Taseer, now a journalist in England, writes an article about second generation Pakistani immigrants becoming fundamentalists and extremists because of estrangement and failure of identity, his father takes him to task in a letter for not understanding what it is to be a Muslim and for spreading anti-Muslim propaganda. Taseer is confused, how can the man who once said "The Koran has nothing in it for me" be offended as a Muslim by what I had written? It's obvious his father is right when he says that Taseer has no understanding of the Muslim or Pakistani ethos as he can't understand his father's apparently contradictory attitude. What does his father mean when he calls himself a "cultural Muslim"?

Attempting to find an answer to this question, Taseer sets off on a personal pilgrimage through the Islamic world. Starting in the fiercely secular Turkey, where many Islamic religious practices are forbidden by law, he makes his way slowly to Pakistan via Syria, Saudi Arabia - where he travels to Mecca, and finally the nominally Islamic state of Iran. Through conversations with various people, and his observations of life in each country, it becomes clear that there is no set answer. In Turkey he meets young men who dream about a world where everyone is ruled by Islam because it is the only faith which can tell you how to live properly. In Syria he see how that dream is being actualized by a regime with its own political agenda and not above cynically manipulating people.

By offering people a version of the world free of all contradictions and questions, a world in which there is only one "truth", they can control them with the help of a compliant clergy. In Abu Nour, a centre for international students in Damascus, people come from all over the world to learn Arabic and take classes in Islamic studies. However sermons in the mosque include distorted views of history designed to depict Muslims as being persecuted throughout the ages and work up antagonism against an enemy simply referred to as the West. The result is the creation of a world that exists in isolation designed to equate being Islamic as a supporter of the Syrian government and any who oppose Syria are enemies of Islam.

When the book shifts to Iran the depiction Taseer offers is no different than any other description you've read of people living under any totalitarian regime. Here he finds that Islam is being used to harass people over trivialities, like the length of their shirt sleeves, in order for an insecure government to exert control over them. In fact in what is supposedly an Islamic republic where you'd expect to be able to find answers as to what is a Muslim, there is even less chance of discovering that here than anywhere else. For, as one person he meets puts it, a professor at a university, "People were very connected to religion even though the government was not religious. But now the government is religious most people want to get away from religion... It is very hard for me to say I am a Muslim."
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Taseer is by profession a journalist, and while that comes through in his ability to ask the right questions of people, his writing style is far more personal than you'd expect from a reporter. He makes no pretence about this being an objective study of Islam, rather its a personal voyage undertaken in the hopes of bridging the gap between himself and the father he was estranged from for over twenty years, and that comes across in his writing. His yearning to understand both his father and the religion he professes to practice, and the frustration and confusion they generate in him, predominate throughout the book as he intersperses accounts of his travels with recollections of his attempts to find common ground with his father.

In many ways this is one of the bravest books you'll ever read, as Taseer doesn't hesitate from voicing opinions that are going to be unpopular with people at all ends of the political spectrum. His compassion for the people he meets allows him to see beyond their words to the need that gives them birth, giving the reader a deeper understanding of where their opinions were born. The title of the book. Stranger To History refers obviously to Taseer's ignorance of his father and his Muslim and Pakistani inheritance. However, it can also relate to what he has witnessed in his journeys in Syria and Iran where history is being rewritten to generate hatred against the West in order to solidify the current regimes power bases. While he doesn't offer any solutions or comfort that there is some easy way to change or prevent what is happening, hope can be taken from his time spent, in all of all places, Iran in the people's determination to deny the regime in any small way they can.

Although his attempt to reconcile his own history with his father is somewhat of a failure, Taseer consoles himself with the fact that he has been able to connect with his personal history of being a product of both parts of the Indian sub continent. By having both countries he has had the chance of "embracing the three tier history of India whole, perhaps an intellectual troika of Sanskrit, Urdu, and English. These mismatches were the lot of people with garbled histories, but I preferred them to violent purities. The world is richer for its hybrids." While he may not have come any closer to discovering his father, or his father's religion, he has discovered himself.

Unlike those who think what the world needs is surety and purity, Taseer reminds us that sometimes there are questions which don't have answers and history isn't always divided up into winners and losers. If for no other reason, that makes this an important book to read, as it not only shows you the dangers of a world where black and white dominates, but it makes you realize just how wonderful a little confusion and uncertainty can be. Well you may not come away from reading this book any more enlightened about Islam then you were before you started, you'll have a better understanding of the variety of people who fall under the umbrella of that word. After reading this book you might not be so quick to make generalizations based on a person's religion and have a better understanding of what lays behind many of today's headlines.

November 10, 2009

Book Review: "Self-Surrender", Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Goose": Poems And Prayers From South India by Appayya & Nila-kantha Dikshita and Vedanta Deshika

I can't think of a more difficult job for a translator than translating poetry. Unlike prose it's not just a simple matter of turning one language into another, you also have to worry about conveying whatever ideas are suggested but not spelt out in the poem. How many times have you read a poem where the poet has made use of a word's dual meanings, or the combining of words in a specific way, to suggest something other than the literal meaning of the words in question? There's almost no way you can do a literal translation in those circumstances. On top of that you also have to worry about staying true to the form of the original poem.

While that's definitely not an easy job, a sure fire way of compounding it is if the poetry in question happens to have been written in a language that's no longer in current usage and by writers whose culture has little or nothing in common with your own. For the last couple of weeks I've been working my way through a deceptively slim volume published by the New York University Press of four works written in Sanskrit from Southern India dating from between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, "Self Surrender", "Peace", "Compassion", & "The Mission Of The Grey Goose": Poems and Prayers From South India. Translators, and Sanskrit scholars, David Shulman and Yigal Bronner have not only taken on the task of translating four pieces from the classical Indian cannon, the items in question represent the work of three pre-eminent philosopher/poets, one from the Vaishnavas tradition of Hinduism, who worshipped Vishnu as the original and supreme being, and two whose worship was directed more towards the god Shiva.

Vedanta Deshika reportedly lived to be 101 (1268 - 1369) and has contributed two pieces to this collection, the story poem "The Mission of The Goose" and "Compassion" with its ironic sub-title "The Iron Shackles Of Mercy". Appayya Dikshita and his nephew (or grandson - there seems to be some dispute about this as a couple of sites refer to him as the latter) Nila-katha Dikshita lived close to two hundred years after Deshika, 1520 -1592 for the elder and 1580 - 1644 for the younger, and their contributions to the book are "Self Surrender" and "Peace" respectively. While the former reflects the author's devotion to Shiva, the younger poet's work is more along the lines of what we would consider satire as it details the lack of peace in his life due to his association with a ruler and his court.

Those familiar with the epic poem The Ramayana will recognize the circumstances and characters depicted in "The Mission Of The Goose". Rama, one of the avatars of Vishnu worshipped by those who follow the Vaishnavas tradition, is attempting to send a message to his wife Sita who has been kidnapped by the ten headed demon Ravana, and taken to his island kingdom of Lanka. While Rama is awaiting the construction of a bridge to carry him to Lanka and rescue his beloved he sends a message to her by goose. The poem details instruction he gives the goose to make the journey in safety and what he will find when arrives there.

Without the historical context the translators provide in the introduction to the book, the reader wouldn't understand some of its deeper complexities. For instance part of the directions Rama gives to the goose include visiting a temple that won't be built until the time of the poet - a temple that was built in honour of Rama. Throughout the poem the poet has depicted Rama as a man desperate to be reunited with his wife and embodied him with all the attributes of a lover and husband that we'd expect. With this reference he reminds us how he considers Rama the god on earth in human form and the importance of worshipping him. In fact the majority of the directions contain that sort of double reference to help guide people in their worship. Rama's warning to the goose to not let the beauty of what he sees in flight distract him from his purpose, is a reminder to not let material things distract from the worship of the divine.

Obviously not being either Hindu or an expert in Sanskrit, I'm not in the best of positions to judge as to the quality of the translations. However I couldn't help but be jarred by something I noticed in their translation of the second of Deshika's pieces, "Compassion". Time after time they refer to Vishnu using the pronoun God. To my mind, and I would think to most Western readers, the word god with a capital G has very specific connotations, that of a supreme deity in a monotheistic tradition. While its true that Deshika does practice a form of Hinduism that elevates Vishnu above the other gods, this usage still seems out of place in the context of the poem and the culture its referring too.

However the same usage also appears in both "Peace" and "Self-Surrender", neither of which are about Vishnu. The question for me became what are they trying to imply with the word God? In the minds of most people reading these translations it will conjure up images of a supreme deity who not only dictates how we are to behave, but sits in judgement on that behaviour. Even if there is a god above others in a pantheon that's not the role they play. Couldn't there have been a better way of referring to whomever it was they meant by that pronoun to ensure that those connotations were avoided?

Having read an adaptation of The Ramayana I enjoyed "The Mission Of The Goose" and was looking forward to reading the balance of the poems included in the book. Maybe it's being unreasonable on my part, or overly sensitive, but I found the use of the capital G god pronoun so questionable, I was too distracted to give myself over to simply enjoying the poetry and appreciating them for the works they were. Perhaps it's also a sign that I'm unable to overcome years of conditioning which tell me that God is the bearded guy in the clouds who smites us down if we misbehave. However, if I, who am not an adherent to any of the monotheistic religions can't overcome that - how could those who are?

It's the responsibility of translators when working in another culture to ensure they don't impose, whether on purpose or by accident, their own beliefs or ideas. Whether or not Bronner and Shulman intended to imply there was a similarity between the monotheistic traditions of the West and Hinduism, they did so by the use of one word. As a result, what had started off as an enjoyable adventure in trying to learn more about the poetry of an early and fascinating period of world history, turned into me questioning the veracity of what I was reading to the point of giving up in frustration. Perhaps we should leave the translation of works in other cultures to them and stick to our own in the future. That would sure save a lot of confusion.

September 16, 2009

Book Review: Gods Of War By Ashok Banker

One of the wonderful things about science fiction is the way the good authors are able to encourage you to look at the universe and the way it works with new eyes while fulfilling all their obligations as a story teller as well. There are some authors who can spin great webs of knowledge that will have you scratching your head in wonder for days, but their books read like physics texts not stories, or their characters are so one dimensional that you don't really care what happens to them. You can pluck your characters from any period of time you want or send them across the universe, but if they don't capture a reader's imagination what's the point? There are two words in the genre's name, science and fiction, but far too often authors forget the latter leaving you wanting to forget the whole damn thing.

Thankfully that's not the case with Ashok Banker's new release, Gods Of War, simultaneously published by Penguin India for Indian readers and by Banker's own AKB imprint for international audiences on September 15th/09. Best known for his modern adaptation of the Indian epic The Ramayana, a science fiction novel might seem like an abrupt change of pace, but the deeper you travel into Gods Of War the more you'll realize Banker hasn't written a typical "hard" science fiction novel. In fact I don't think you could call this "typical" of any genre in particular, and its all the better for it.

For while Gods Of War begins with what most would call a fairly typical science fiction set-up, a mysterious space craft appears in Earth's atmosphere causing widespread consternation among the populace and its leaders, Banker soon lets us know we're going to be going where few have gone before. First he takes us on a quick hop around the world, Mumbai, Tokyo, Birmingham in England, and New Jersey in the United States, where we meet each of the five main characters whom we're going to be following throughout the book, and then he has us witness the next stage of the story through each character's eyes.
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While all that sounds conventional enough I suppose, the fact that our five leads end up being the only people on earth conscious when everybody else enters into what looks like a type of suspended animation as they have fallen into such a deep sleep it's impossible to wake them is the first sign that some sort of higher power is at work. However that soon becomes the least of our character's worries as they each receive a visitor and then an invitation. If it was disconcerting enough to be visited by someone they assume to be from the space craft hovering in orbit, you can imagine their surprise when it turns out their visitor is, Ganesha, the elephant headed Hindu deity. While it might make sense for the son of Shiva to appear to Santosh, the ten year old boy from the slums of Mumbai, what on earth does he want with Ruth the red necked lesbian who works in a ship yard in Jersey; Salim, a Muslim business man from England; and the twin magna artists Yoshi and Akechi from Japan whose differences are more significant than their similarities.

It seems no matter what they believe, or who they are Ganesha wants the same thing from each of them. To come with him to the ends of the universe in a desperate attempt to save the world, if not all of creation itself, by stopping a war that's being fought for control of what they are told might as well be the City of Heaven. When they reach their destination they discover they aren't the only beings who have been invited along, as there are creatures of all shapes, sizes, smells, and sounds from all over the universe involved as well. Yet what is it they were watching when they witness the war taking place in and around the City of Cities - the home of the Gods? Who would have the nerve to attack the gods?
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In Gods Of War Ashok Banker shows us the great battle line that exists in our world today between faith and science. The war may not actually be taking place in as graphic a manner as he depicts in this book, but what else would you call the actions of people who use the name of God as their justification for rape and murder but an attack on the Gods themselves? Yet in spite of the heavy theme of the book, Banker never forgets he is a story teller, and its within that framework that he delivers his message.

We get to know each of the characters in the book as intimately as possible and we see the story unfold through their eyes. It's because he takes that care his message is so powerful. As readers we are absorbed from the moment we first meet Santosh in Mumbai until the last page because whether we like the characters personally or not, they have become so real for us that it's like we are their sixth companion. While we may not fully grasp the significance of what's happening, or fully appreciate what each character is experiencing, there are enough universal elements to allow us to relate to each of them on some level. Emotions are emotions no matter who you are, and Banker's ability to describe people's emotional reactions to circumstances act as a bridge carrying us into the heart of the action.

Yet in spite of its large scale, he somehow manages to keep the story remarkably personal so that we take in each detail of what his characters are feeling and experiencing. Banker has an unerring knack of being able to bring any scene he describes to life in vivid detail, and although there are times in this book we may wish he wasn't quite so good at this job, the fact that location after location graphically comes to life in our mind's eye pulls us deeper and deeper into the story. In some ways its like watching an epic film unfold as scene after scene comes alive on the page.

Gods Of War proves once again that not only can Ashok Banker describe the great sweeping events of history, but he can do so in such a way that we are all able to relate to them on a personal level. He takes a complicated theme, and instead of dumbing it down or trivializing it, he integrates it into his story in such a way that it comes to life. This is a wonderful story, by a remarkable and gifted storyteller.

July 11, 2009

Music Review: Tsuker-zia Frank London & Lorin Sklamberg

When you mention Jewish music to most people they will most likely either think of Fiddler On The Roof, groups of Kibbutzim dancing Israeli folk songs, or maybe even Klezmer. However most people don't associate Judaism with religious music, and for the longest time music was forbidden to Jews by Rabbinical edict as a symbol of their mourning the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. Yet, by the middle ages those strictures were relaxed and instruments were once again to being used to help celebrate religious feasts and secular events.

Of course with such a huge break in their own musical tradition, and the fact that most Jews were now living in Eastern Europe instead of Jerusalem, their music was heavily influenced by the folk music of their gentile neighbours. Like Yiddish, the language spoken by the Jews of Eastern Europe for day to day usage, you can hear traces of everything from German, Polish, Czech, to the Romani (gypsies) in Klezmer and Jewish religious music. While Klezmer music has obtained a level of popularity recently and there are any number of recordings available, the same can't be said for the religious music. However two musicians who were instrumental in creating the interest in Klezmer music through helping found the band The Klezmatics have now begun making recordings of Jewish religious music as well.

Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg have just released Tsuker-zis on the Tzadik label, a collection of fourteen songs celebrating various holidays and aspects of Jewish religious life. The title is Yiddish for sugar sweet, and according to notes accompanying the release Jewish imagery often uses sugar metaphorically to describe the divine sweetness of our lives. That doesn't mean the songs on the album are sickeningly sweet, rather they are expressions of the joy the various holidays bring to people. For even a holiday as intimating sounding as Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement, can be considered joyous as its a part of the overall sweetness of the divine in a Jewish person's life
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However, you'd be forgiven for wondering what kind of disc of Jewish religious music features an Armenian oud player, Ara Dinkjian, a tabla player from North India, Deep Singh, and an electric guitar player, Knox Chandler, whose credits include Cyndi Lauper, the Psychedelic Furs, and Siouxie & The Banshees. Well, when you consider that trumpeter and keyboard player London has worked with everyone from Itzhak Perlman to LL Cool J and vocalist and accordion player Sklamberg has taught Yiddish singing from Maui to Kiev, the fact that they have elected to work with three musicians from such diverse backgrounds makes a little more sense. Anyway, remember the Jewish musical tradition that has inspired this recording drew upon a wide variety of musical influences to begin with. It only follows that modern day adaptations of these songs should follow in their footsteps by drawing upon the world around them as well.

Right from the opening track, "A Sukkah Of Branches", you realize you're in for something completely different from what you're used to if you've heard any Jewish music before. While I have to admit that swirling, atmospheric keyboard music was the last thing I expected to hear when I hit the play button, it not only suited what they were doing with that song in particular, it served as an overture to the whole recording by giving you fair warning of what was to come. This isn't another "ethnic" recording that would look good on stage in "authentic" clothes accompanied by "traditional"cuisine for those looking to take a Disney world tour of cultures.

Instead of merely being content with recreating music as it would have been played five hundred to six hundred years ago, the musicians have found new ways to turn music into a celebration of the presence of the divine in people's lives. While four of the tracks either are composed by, or include text written by, others, the remaining songs are either originals or new arrangements of traditional songs. Not only does this make the music more relevant to a modern audience, it also has the added benefit of allowing them to make the music accessible by including instruments not normally associated with the Jewish tradition.
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Now that doesn't mean they have done anything stupid like disguise what it is they are singing about by hiding the fact that the songs are about religious celebrations. With titles like "Our Parent, Our Sovereign", "The Lord Sent His Servant", and "Elijah The Prophet Bought A Red Cow" it's pretty hard to miss the fact that the songs aren't just pretty little tunes or interesting music to listen to. In fact even just listening to the music without knowing the titles, or understanding every word being sung should be enough to let you know what's going on.

For somehow these five musicians have created music that no matter what your belief system communicates the joy and sweetness that's to be found in the act of believing. However, even if you should somehow miss the point from the music, once you hear Lorin Sklamberg start to sing you can't help but understand what the music is about. I'm not one to use the term divine inspiration lightly, but when you listen to Sklamberg sing you can't help but feel like he's been inspired by something beyond the mundane. It's hard to describe, because he's not doing anything overt like engaging in histrionics or any of the other melodramatic things some singers do to indicate their "sincerity" and "passion". Yet, there can be no doubting the depth of his passion or the level of his sincerity. He has integrated himself into the ensemble as another instrument to the point where he sounds like he's giving voice to their feelings letting you know its the message that's important, not the messenger.

Taken as a whole Tsuker-zis celebrates the belief in the divine on a universal level even though its content is specific to one religion. For even if you're not Jewish, you can't help but be moved by the what the musicians involved have created in the name of that belief. If you're Jewish you will definitely be moved by this disc, but if you're willing to listen with your heart as well as your ears, you can't help but be moved no matter who or what you believe in.

June 23, 2009

Music Review: Jon Balke, Amina Alaoui, Jon Hassell, and Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche - Siwan

The common perception most of us have of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire until the fifteenth century is one personified by the title the period is designated as; The Dark Ages. Its depicted in our histories as being marked by the spread of the Black Plague, ignorance, and superstition. It wasn't until the miracle of the Renaissance, which literally means re-birth, that Europeans began to drag themselves out of the mud and filth and started to create beautiful art and rediscover the teachings of the ancients. Reading most standard histories of the time you could get the impression this awakening was somehow spontaneous; one morning people just woke up and looked at the world differently.

The reality is that the knowledge was never really lost and not all of Europe had descended to the same depths of ignorance, only Christian Europe. Al Andalus was the area of Spain ruled by Muslims until 1492, and during those dark ages all the so-called lost knowledge and arts were alive and kicking. Everything from the concept of zero in mathematics, philosophical concepts of the self which would have seen you burnt at the stake in Christian Europe, to the arts and music, thrived in the city states of Cordoba and others through out the region. Muslims, Christians, and Sephardic Jews lived in relative harmony and there was a free exchange of ideas and learning between scholars of all three faiths. It was from here that the knowledge which fuelled the so called Renaissance trickled into Italy, France, and other countries.

How much of this beauty and knowledge was lost when the Spanish Inquisition purged the region of heretics and non-believers by forcing Muslims and Jews to either convert, flee, or burn, will never be known. However much of the great poetry and ideas on music were preserved and passed on. The music was probably the easiest to spread as wandering minstrels and troubadours would have carried tunes and lyrics across borders and passed their ideas on. It's this music, and the poetry that sometimes supplied the lyrics for it, that forms the basis for a collection of music being released on ECM Records under the guidance of Norwegian pianist Jon Balke on June 30th in North America.
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Siwan, the title of the disc, is the word for balance in Aljamiado, the Latin-Arabic hybrid language spoken in medieval Andalusia, is a collection of eleven tracks, nine of which feature the work of poets from that region married to music inspired by the era. The earliest song, "Thulathiyat" was written by the Suffi mystic Husayn Mansour Al Hallaj who lived between 857 -922 AD while Lope de Vega's "A la dina dana" demonstrates how the influences of the era lived on after the re-conquest as he lived from 1562 - 1635 and is considered one of the major voices of the golden age of Spanish literature for his plays and prose. The booklet accompanying the CD not only gives a history of each song and the poet who wrote it, but their lyrics in the language they are sung in, either Spanish or Arabic, and an English translation.

Jon Balke has an extensive background in both jazz and world music with credits including compositions for theatre, dance, and chamber orchestras. The three other main musicians, vocalist Amina Alaoui, trumpeter Jon Hassell, and violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche each have experience and talent relevant to the work at hand. Alaoui and M'Kachiche are Moroccan and Algerian respectively and both have extensive backgrounds in the history and playing of the music of Al Andalus. Jon Hassell's musical experiences have seen him studying from Europe to India and he has created what he calls "fourth world" music - music without borders that combines classical,pop, secular, and sacred elements from all over the world. With these four serving as the nexus, and the rest of the musicians drawn from traditions and cultures ranging from traditional Persian to early European music like baroque and renaissance, everybody involved has had their musical experiences influenced by what was born on the Iberian peninsula.

As for the music itself, I'm struggling to find the words to describe it. If you're familiar with any of music from North Africa, Spain, Persia (modern Iran), or renaissance Europe, than you're bound to recognize elements in each song no matter what language they are sung in. In fact there are times while listening to various songs that you'll swear you've heard it before as patterns that you've heard in another context will tug at your memory. However, all of the compositions have been created for this recording. What Balke and his fellow musicians have done is compose music which reflects the depth and breadth of the influence Muslim Spain has on us to this day. It shows, no matter what anybody would have us believe, that Islam is one of the cornerstones of Western culture, as the philosophy and thought that went into the creation of the music from that region continues to strike chords of recognition with us today.
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One of the great wonders of Siwan aside from the beauty of the music, is the singing of Amina Alaoui. While all the musicians are wonderful, it's around her voice that the nine tracks with lyrics live or die. The more I hear female vocalists from traditions other than North American pop or European opera, the more I realize why I've always felt there has been something lacking in our music. There's nothing forced or controlled about Alaoui's voice like what were used to. While I've always been able to admire the technical prowess of an opera voice, its lack of human warmth has always left me cold. Alaoui's voice is every bit as technically proficient as any I've heard sing opera, but she has the humanity they lack. Rich like velvet her voice also retains the rawness of human emotion that allows us to identify with her song even though we may not speak or understand the language she's singing in.

Carl Jung talked about the idea of race memory wherein we remember things that date back thousands of years through a type of collective unconscious. While some of that has been formed by specific associations like religion and language, some of it we share in common with all humans. In some ways the music on Siwan is like that as you recognize it without actually knowing any of the songs on the disc. However, what's important is the music on this disc is beautifully sung and wonderfully played. It doesn't matter what you know or don't know about history, or even if you give a damn about who influenced who. Listening to this disc is an experience that transcends any of those concerns, proving once again that regardless of what anyone thinks or does, great art exists in a world of its own.

June 10, 2009

Book Review: Shalom India Housing Society by Esther David

I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised to learn that there were Jewish communities in India. After all its close enough to the Middle East that it would have been easy for people to end up there accidentally or on purpose during one of the many times of forced exile. According to legend over 2,000 years ago a shipwreck landed a group of Jews fleeing Greek persecution off the coast of India. Although they lost many of their books during the ship wreck they preserved an oral tradition of major prayers like the declaration of faith, Shema Yisroel, and the prayer to Eliyahu Hannibi or the prophet Elijah.

As strict adherents to the laws dictated by God to Moses, Jews are prohibited from worshipping idols or graven images of anything or anyone. However in her introduction to her most recent novel, Shalom India Housing Society published by The Feminist Press, Esther David informs us that the Bene Israel Jews (Children of Israel) of India had taken the prophet Elijah to their hearts. Perhaps, she speculates, that on finding themselves living in a country surrounded by images of a multitude of gods, elders created the cult of Elijah in order to help preserve Judaism.

Elijah not only will herald the coming of the Messiah, but each year he visits every Jewish household during the Passover feast to drink from the glass of wine left as his offering. At one point during the Seder, as the ritual Passover meal is known, the door to the house will be opened to let Elijah know that it's all right for him to enter and have his drink. In Bene Israel houses, unlike those of other Jews, there's usually a picture of the prophet on a wall of the house. It's common practice for these families to offer prayers to Elijah, asking him to intervene in their lives to help them with everything from their love lives to making sure their children do well in school. Sometimes he answers and other times he doesn't, and sometimes his answers don't come in quite the way hoped for.
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In the twenty-first century the descendants of those shipwrecked have seen their numbers depleted by immigrations to Israel, but they continue to attend synagogue, fall in love, and live their lives watched over by the spirit of Elijah. Following the religious riots of 2002 the Bene Israel in Ahmedabad created a distinct community for themselves by constructing the Shalom India Housing Society apartment complex. While not specifically targeted by either Muslim or Hindu, the Jews felt at risk from mob violence when it was observed how a group of radical Hindu's stripped a Muslim boy and then killed him when they found he was circumcised. It was hoped that by living in an area designated as Jewish they would be safe from being mistaken for Muslims.

David guides us through the Jewish community in Ahmedabad by introducing us to the various inhabitants of the Shalom India Housing Society. It's only fitting, because of the importance that the Bene Israel people place on him, that we first see their households through the eyes of the prophet Elijah. It's the first night of Passover and Elijah is making the rounds of all the Jewish households in the world in order to drink the glass of wine left for him. As his spirit enters each of the various apartments in the building he comments on the quality of the offering left for him (he's not above jogging the occasional elbow here and there if it looks like somebody is being less than generous). While his pleasure at such offerings of Chivas Regal, neat gin, and a good red wine are quite genuine, he's also disturbed by the disquiet he senses in more than a few apartments.

The first few chapters focus on the preparations being made for the costume competition being held at the synagogue for the younger people. As is the case in so many families conflicts differences between the more traditional older generation and the modern younger generation are causing no end of problems. Leon wants to dress as his favourite Bollywood starlet, complete with skirt, a blouse of his mother's, and a padded bra. However his father takes one look at him, adjusting his breasts and shaking a hip, and he's reaching for his cane to beat his child. Leon's mother had hoped that her son's fascination with women's clothes and make-up as a boy was just a child's playing, but when he continued to experiment with her clothes and cosmetics as a teenager, even the most doting of mothers can't help but realize it's more than just a phase.
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Rivka and Yehuda aren't the only ones to be troubled by their child, as parents through-out the complex look on aghast as their children push against convention. While it's one thing for Yael to disobey her mom and aunt by wearing a backless shirt that also shows off her waist and a dancing girl's skirt, it's another thing altogether when Juliet wanted to marry Rahul. As there weren't enough Jews for all the apartments in the Shalom India Housing Society, it had been decided that Block B would be made available to sympathetic non-Jews like Rahul's family the Abhirams. The Abraham and Abhiram families were close, and their children had played together since they were toddlers, but it was still a shock to everyone when Juliet was caught in bed with Rahul.

Of course it's not only young people who have troubles in the Shalom India Housing Society. Mother-in-laws quarrel with their son's wives, husbands worry about what their wives are getting up to when their away, and a lonely widow debates about whether she could possibly date a non-Jew. While there's something genuinely exotic reading about Jews wearing Saris and talking about Bollywoood movies, the people in this book aren't made out to be anything extraordinary. This is their life and they have been leading it for two thousand some years. David has done such a wonderful job in bringing these people to life that while we may not be able to identity with the idea of an arranged marriage, or the need to marry within one's own community, we can still relate to the feelings of the characters we meet.

Shalom India Housing Society brings a community alive through the lives of its people. David has opened the doors of the apartments in this Bene Israel complex, and like the prophet Elijah we are able to slip in unseen and sit at their tables and observe their lives. While we may not get the opportunity to imbibe quite as much as the prophet does, (and boy is he hung over the day after the first Seder) we are treated to a healthy feast for the senses as we become everybody's confidant and party to all of their secrets. By the end of the book you'll know all about this group of Indian Jews and their unique circumstances which sees them having both maintained their traditions and embraced the culture of the country they've settled in. A delight to read, and an education as well, Esther David's new book is like being dropped down into the midst of an extended family's reunion. You might not know everybody when you first get there, but it's only a matter of time before you feel right at home.

June 8, 2009

Book Review: Between The Assassinations by Aravind Adiga

There's a literary tradition of creating a series of stories that are tied together by their location. By creating a series of vignettes featuring the lives of a variety of individuals who live in a community the author attempts to leave readers with an overall impression of what life is like in the locale. Probably the most famous of these types of collections were Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio and James Joyce's Dubliners. Although from different worlds, and stylistically miles apart, both men brought their chosen cities to life in ways that left indelible impressions upon the reader.

In Between The Assassinations, published by Simon And Schuster Canada, Aravind Adiga tries his hand at the same thing with the city of Kittur on the south west coast of India. The assassinations of the title refer to the 1984 death of Indira Gandhi and the killing of her son Rajiv seven years later in 1991. While neither event has any direct bearing on the course of action in this book, they were of course important events in the history of India. Sandwiched between the two, the "life as normal" scenes depicted by Adiga, are a history of a sort that you don't normally read in text books.

Adiga has laid the book out as if it were a tourist guide to the region. He starts off by telling you that in order to properly "do" Kittur you need seven days, and the book is divided up into those seven days. While some areas of the city might take a full day to explore, others only take part of a day, so you'll find some chapters will take a whole day and others only a morning or an afternoon. Needless to say the guidebook descriptions for each chapter are rather tongue in cheek as the landmarks include a pornographic movie theatre, a cathedral that's never been completed, a historic monument that's fallen into disrepair, and violent slum. Kittur seems best known for being half way between a couple of other places and having a very high population of lower caste Hoyka people. In fact of the total population of Kittur only 89 people self identify as being without religion or caste.
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Therefore it shouldn't be of much surprise that caste, class, and religion play a role in the majority of the stories. Everything that occurs in the city does under their shadow and they're a constant presence lurking in the backs of people's minds. For in Kittur your place is very closely defined and even thinking about crossing the line could result in disaster. It's all right for a servant to make himself indispensable, but to try and be treated as an equal and see what happens.

Like any good tour guide Between The Assassinations divides your seven day sojourn in Kittur up by location. However your guides change by day and location, and the perspective they offer on the sites they are responsible for showing off isn't one that you'd normally find offered by the standard tour companies. How many companies would use an unskilled labourer like George D'Souza to show you around the famous unfinished cathedral? Nor would many be likely to hire the student who exploded a bomb in his science class to show you around the well known Jesuit school St. Alfonso's Boys' High School and Junior College. No they'd be more likely to hire the assistant headmaster Mr. D'Mello instead, a firm disciplinarian who after more than thirty years of teaching can anticipate what mischief young men can get up to before they even know themselves. Although they may not have had him lead a group of adolescent boys on a tour of the infamous "Angels' Talkies" pornographic cinema.

I'm also certain most tour companies wouldn't have on their agendas the sights our guides show us in and around the locales they represent. How many tourists are going to want visit the back allies where the poor sleep? I don't think they'd appreciate it either if their guides ran a sideline selling fake cures for venereal diseases or included visits to clinics euphemistically named "Happy Life" as part of the tour of the historic fort The Sultan's Battery. However it's these guides and their lives that give our tour of Kittur the authenticity that most lack.
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While the majority of the characters we meet in Between The Assassinations are those who feel the weight of caste and class the heaviest on their shoulders Adiga doesn't become just give us one group's perspective as so many others seem to have developed a habit of doing. For it's a factory owner who gives us a tour of The Bunder, the area of town where criminal activity is concentrated. It's not that he's involved in anything illegal, but among the drug runners and smugglers he finds a sympathetic audience to unburden himself to about the number of bribes he has to pay in order to stay open.

However, no matter whose eyes we see the city through the picture is not a pretty one. Corruption is rampant and poverty is a child's normal inheritance. Even the poorest having to pay off someone for the privilege of sleeping in a back alley. Adiga's characters aren't always the nicest of people, but they're what their world made them and the connection between who they are and the conditions that shaped them is drawn accurately without being sensationalized. Although it's is beginning to feel like every book released in North America set in India is mainly concerned with recounting social ills that tarnish the economic miracle image that is trumpeted in the press, Adiga's study of life in Kittur only does so indirectly. For instead of themes like religious violence or corruption being the focus, they are simply part and parcel of the lives his characters live.

Like Joyce and Anderson before him Adiga has concentrated his energies on the people of Kittur. By giving us glimpses into their lives; opening their hearts and minds to us so that we the city through their eyes, we are given a multi-dimensional view of life there. In the same way turning the tube of a kaleidoscope changes the image that one sees through its viewfinder, each chapter offers a different perspective. As a result, this is a remarkably well developed picture of life in a specific city and a number of the people who live in it. Although we may mark history with designated dates like the assassinations of major figures in society, individual's stories are continually being played out, and taken together they form the story of the place where they live.

Between The Assassinations is being released in North America on June 9th/2009 by Simon and Schuster and can either be purchased directly from them or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

Music Review: Take Me To The Water: Immersion Baptism In Vintage Music And Photography 1890 - 1950 Various Performers

It's not a sight you're liable to see that often anymore, at least not in big cities in the northern United States and Canada. A congregation of people gathered by a river, stream, or other body of water deep enough to submerge a person in. Ritual, mass public baptisms in a natural setting, like the banks of a river, are as foreign to most of us these days as the rites carried out by distant cultures in far off lands. Aside from practical matters like finding a body of water clean enough near a major population centre that you'd want to be immersed in it, the whole deal seems like a relic from the past.

Now I'm not saying that full immersion baptism isn't still practised today, there are too many Christian denominations and sects that see it as an integral part of their practice. However, I can't see the practice being as wide spread now as it was in the earlier parts of the twentieth century and before simply because people in general don't have the time for such elaborate rituals when it comes to their religion. Now I'm no expert on the matter, but I'd say as the practice was always limited to the Protestant denominations, specifically the various Baptist churches, that the actual number of people who participated in these rituals was always a minority. As times, and people's attitudes towards religion, have changed, I'd think that minority has gradually been reduced.

All of which make Take Me To The Water, a CD of baptismal music and sermons from the first half of the twentieth century released by the Dust To Digital label, as important as it is intriguing. As their name implies Dust to Digital specializes in rescuing pieces of Americana from the dust of history and restoring them as much as possible. In this case they have gathered together old recordings of sermons and music associated with full immersion baptismal celebrations on a CD and reproduced a collection of seventy-five photographs of+ baptisms from the same time period.
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While listening to the music and the various sermons on their own gives you some indication of what these ceremonies meant to those who participated in them, listening to them while looking at pictures of people gathered for, and participating in, baptisms gives you an even deeper appreciation of just how significant these events used to be. While the posed images with everyone standing solemnly facing the camera are an indication of how important these occasions were to people, it's the images of the actual baptisms that communicate the joy experienced by those taking part.

Let your eye wander away from the focal point of those shots, the minister and the person being baptized, and look at the faces of those observing. Their eyes are glued to the action in mid-stream as if it were the centre of the universe. In some of the photos you can even spot those caught up in the throes of ecstasy as they have thrown themselves into the passion of witnessing a loved ones affirmation of faith. Perhaps this is one of the reasons these ceremonies are uncomfortable for us, as we aren't used to open displays of passion when it comes to our religious practices. Compare that scene to the average Christening held in a church in front of the font where the priest or minister sprinkles a few drops of water on an infants forehead. Aside from the involvement of water, the two ceremonies have almost nothing in common.

While the pictures tell one part of the story the twenty-five songs and sermons on the CD give us an even better idea of the passions generated by participating in an outdoor baptism ceremony. It begins right from the opening track with Rev, J. M, Gates, recorded in 1926, leading his congregation in singing "Baptize Me" and introducing it with a sermon about how anyone who is born again needs to be baptized. Aside from the fact that the good reverend is a powerful speaker, it's the sound of those listening to him shouting out their agreement that drives home the intensity of the feelings that are generated during one of those events.
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While a great many of the tunes and groups performing them are liable to be unknown to anybody but an avid collector of Americana, there are still some recognizable names among the performers and song titles gathered together on this collection. What collection of early twentieth century gospel music would be complete without a contribution from the Carter Family? This is no exception as they perform "On My Way To Canaan's Land". While they don't match some of the African American choirs in terms of passion, there can be no doubt at the depth of their sincerity when they sing about being "Baptized in Jesus' name"

Both the musical recordings and the pictures in the book show the effects of age as the former are full of hisses and pops, while the latter are stained or even ripped in places. Not only does their condition do nothing to reduce their impact upon us, it gives them an air of authenticity that makes them all the more powerful. Original source material of this nature allows us to experience events without anyone's opinion or viewpoint obstructing our view. It's the difference between reading a history of an event written long after it took place, and reading an eyewitness account of the same incident. What you lose by having a slightly narrower focus is more than compensated for by the vividness of detail generated by its immediacy.

The Dust to Digital label has done a magnificent job of putting together packages that bring very specific periods of the past to life. Take Me To The Water lives up to the high standards they have established with their previous releases. It offers the opportunity to experience, as much as possible without actually being there, the old time public baptisms that were once an integral part of the fabric of life for a great many North Americans. This package gives us all an opportunity to appreciate just what a wonderful thing faith can be, and the joy and pleasure it can bring. That's a lesson we could all stand to learn, as we have somehow managed to twist faith into being weapon these days instead of the celebration it once was. Who says we can't learn anything from the past?

May 7, 2009

Book Review: Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour

The imagination has always been the enemy of repressive regimes or any group hoping to dictate the way people think. For, how can you control a person's thoughts if they are constantly wondering, "What If"? The time honoured method employed for controlling people's imagination is to control those who do their best to inspire them to pose the question which opens the door to a million possibilities. Writers, film makers, playwrights, musicians, and anyone else involved in artistic creation, have always been the target of those wishing to ensure a population's thoughts don't stray in directions they shouldn't.

From the pressure groups who try to have films and books banned because they disagree with their message, to governments who prevent works from seeing the light of day because they encourage people to think in ways that they don't approve of, censorship has been the favoured means of controlling artists. Whether it's by the simple expedient of locking troublesome individuals up, dictating what is permissible to be published, or editing work to make it acceptable for public consumption, they do their best to stifle anything that would encourage thinking they deem unacceptable. Yet such is the creative impulse, that artists of all stripes will continue to try and produce works no matter what the circumstances, and attempt to encourage those flights of fancy considered so dangerous.

In its first English translation Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour, that was just released by Random House Canada, depicts an author's attempt to write the novel he wants while doing his best to assure its approval by Iran's censors. In a society where it is forbidden for men and women not married or related to be seen in public together, writing a love story that will win permission to be published is fraught with difficulties. Simply figuring out the logistics of how a couple can meet in a way that's acceptable to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance under these circumstances is probably more of a creative challenge then most writers face writing an entire novel.
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Mandanipour's Censoring An Iranian Love Story is written from the point of view of an author as he tries to tell the story of how Sara and Dara meet and fall in love. Told in the form of a conversation with the reader, our protagonist guides us through the ins and outs of writing one thing and meaning another, the importance of "..." at the end of an incomplete sentence in contemporary Iranian literature, and how to best make use of stream of conscience to express forbidden thoughts. While the author is telling us the story of his two characters, he reproduces excerpts from the manuscript he's writing recounting the same events in a manner he hopes will meet the approval of Mr. Petrovich, the censor who decides if a book can be published or not.

Obviously he can't include such details as Dara's history of being a political prisoner for selling illegal videos, as Mr. Petrovich would never allow such a morally degenerate character to be the a romantic hero. Nor can he describe their clandestine meetings in Internet Cafes, their fear of arrest for being seen in public, or any of the thoughts they might have of each other. For Mr. Petrovich couldn't allow anything to be published that would encourage people to commit similar offences or encourage immoral thoughts. However, instead of dampening people's imaginations, it seems as if censorship has had the opposite result. For according to our author the modern Iranian reader has become very adept at filling in the blanks left by those three dots at the end of a sentence and interpreting the hidden meanings behind seemingly innocent phrases.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Censoring An Iranian Love Story is the way in which the relationship between the author and the censor Mr. Petrovich is described. For instead of hearing the voice of a muse of inspiration in his ear while he is writing, our narrator carries on an internal conversation with his censor. The manuscript he periodically shows us is full of sentences with lines through them where he's gone back over his text and censored it himself in anticipation of what Petrovich won't allow. While most writers only have to struggle with finding the words they require to tell their story, our author spends a great deal of his creative energy on devising the means to tell his story in such a way that it will be published or marshalling his arguments to convince the censor that a sentence will not lead anybody to have sinful thoughts.
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While Mandanipour's book does nothing to dispel the image we have of Iran as an autocratic theocracy, it brings to life the faces normally hidden behind the veils and beards imposed on its population. The Persian culture is one of the oldest civilizations in the world and has a tradition of poetry dating back more than a thousand years that was redolent with sensuality and passion. However, we also learn that the Sufis, who were the greatest of the Persian poets, almost never used explicit language. Instead they wrote in such a way that their words could be interpreted as praise for the divine as well as more earthy matters. So, ironically, a modern Iranian writer who is forced to write one thing and mean another, is actually carrying on the legacy of these long dead poets.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story is a beautifully written book in which moments of satire rub up against examples of humanity found in the most unlikely of places. (The blind film censor "watching" Al Pacino playing a blind character in Scent Of A Woman, understanding and appreciating it better than his sighted advisors and demanding they leave him alone to watch it.) While it could have easily been a bitter and angry book that railed against the tyranny of censorship and the Iranian regime in general that merely reenforced our perceptions of a monochrome society, he's elected to take a different approach. By focusing on the dilemma of the author trying to write his story, and the efforts his characters go through to establish their relationship, Mandanipour has infused a difficult subject with warmth, love, and humanity. This is not the Iran we read about in the media, and that makes his message even more powerful.

Censoring An Iranian Love Story can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

February 4, 2009

Music Review: Art Rosenbaum & Various Performers Art Of Field Recording Volume ll

Cultural anthropologists and music historians have been making what are known as field recordings ever since Thomas Edison invented his wax cylinders more then a hundred years ago. A field recording is pretty much what its name implies, any recording that's made out "in the field", or in other words, the home location of the people who make the music. A majority of the time these recordings are done not with public consumption in mind, but as a means of obtaining samples for future study and analysis or of simply having a record that will preserve a sound for posterity.

However there are also those who make field recordings for the simple love of the music and hearing it played in the way its been played for generation after generation. The sound quality of these recordings are obviously going to be inferior to anything that's been recorded in the studio, but the compensation lies in the immediacy of the performance and the connection between the performer and the music. In his introduction to the book that accompanies his Art Of Field Recording Volume ll on the Dust To Digital label, Art Rosenbaum talks about how the context of memory, history, and associations each performer has connecting them to the songs he recorded them singing makes them makes them resonate with an audience.

Art should know what he's talking about for the subtitle of the collection is "Fifty Years Of Traditional American Music Documented By Art Rosenbaum". With recording equipment in hand Art has travelled across America for the last fifty years listening and recording music on back porches, living rooms, churches, and anywhere else that people gather to play, listen to, or dance to the music that their parents and grand parents taught them. The four CDs of music that make up "Volume ll"; "Survey", "Religious", "Accompanied Songs And Ballads", and "Unaccompanied Songs And Ballads", not only show the amazing diversity of music that has been and is being sung across America, it demonstrates that personal connection between performer and music on every track.
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There's so much wonderful music in this collection that it's hard to know where to start when talking about it. "Survey", the first disc, contains twenty-nine songs from all across America representing everything from French Canadian fiddle tunes found in New Hampshire, Fidel Martin playing "La Grondeuse" (The Scolding Woman) that was recorded back in 1967, to Tony Bryant playing "Broke Down Engine", an example of Georgia blues that was recorded forty years later in 2007.

This first disc can make your head spin a little because one second you might be listening to the Cajun sounds of The Balfa Brothers and Nathan Abshire from Luisiana, and the next your listening to a teenaged Kirk Brandenberger recorded in the 1970's playing amazing fiddle tunes and sounding wise beyond his years when he talks about how he's not so sure whether he likes the fiddle competitions that he keeps on winning because of the hurt feelings of those who lose. (I hadn't read the background information on this track until after I heard it, and I thought Kirk was a much older man when I heard him talking and playing. Not only did his voice sound like that of someone who'd lived for a while, his playing did as well)

While the second ("Religious"), third ("Accompanied Songs And Ballads"), and the fourth discs ("Unaccompanied Songs And Ballads") each contain songs of a similar type, that doesn't stop them from being any less diverse than disc one. I have to admit that I've always preferred African American gospel music to old time country religious music save a few exceptions. However after listening to disc two of this collection I realize that was only because I'd rarely had the opportunity to hear the latter played by people with conviction. Listening to The Myers Family and Friends singing their version of Hazel Houser's "The River Jordon", originally written for the Louvin Brothers, you know these people feel what they are singing about as it sounds like each word is drawn out of their hearts.
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Of course there are plenty of examples of the African American style of gospel music we're most familiar with, my favourite on the disc being "Lets Have A Family Prayer" performed by The Travelling Inner Lights, but there's also some examples of older styles of African American gospel. "A Charge To Keep I Have" by Rev. Willie Mae Eberhart, Sister Fleeta Mitchell and Eddie Ruth Pringle is done in the old style called "lining" where one person intones the words of a line and then the congregation repeats the line in song. This style of music also contains the unique feature of the congregation moaning the last line of the piece, which according to Rev. Eberhart allows an individual to feel the music deeper in their spirit. As listening to these three women sing that final line gave me chills I'd have to agree with her.

The last two discs contain music that probably more of us are familiar with, standards such as "Barbara Allan", "John Henry", ' John Hardy", and "On Top Of Old Smokey" to name only a few. But until you hear someone like Mose Parker sing "John Henry", growling out the lyrics and strumming and beating on his guitar like it was old John Henry's hammer, I don't think you can say you've actually experienced the song. I don't know any other way of describing what it was like to hear him sing it except to say that if he didn't live through that experience he knew somebody who did.

It's easy to forget just how potent a single unaccompanied voice can be until you hear somebody like Mary Lomax on the final disc of this set. By no one's definition does she have a refined voice, or even one that's easy on the ear, but it's easily the realist voice you'll ever hear. Listen to her version of "Fair And Tender Maidens" and you'll understand more about a woman's broken heart than any poet could tell you and hear more real emotion than if you combined all the modern pop divas together.

Art Rosenbaum is not only a music collector he's also a gifted painter, (the painting above is one of his) and each CD cover as well as the box set's cover is graced by one of his works depicting people playing the music that he loves so much. For Art Of Field Recording Volume ll is nothing if not a labour of love. Why else would you wander the backwoods roads and into villages in the hopes that you'll find someone who not only plays music but will let you barge into their living room with no introduction and record them? Reading the accompanying ninty-six page book, full of photographs and illustrations by the author and his wife and blurbs on each song and the people performing it, and Rosenbaum's descriptions of how this music is unique because of the love that each performer has for their music, you can hear his love for them and the music shine through.

Art Of Field Recording Volume ll is an amazing collection of music and people that can't help but make you feel better about the world. There are fewer and fewer people today who play music because of what the song means to them in terms of their family's history or the people who taught it to them. To have the opportunity to experience listening to that type of music is a rare treat and one that might not be available to us for that much longer. Thanks to people like Art Rosenbaum though we will at least have records like this one to help us remember just how good that music was.

January 7, 2009

DVD Review: Brideshead Revisited

It's difficult enough as it is to try and adapt a well known novel as a movie without disappointing audiences, but when somebody else has already made what many consider the definitive adaptation of the same work, the job becomes nearly impossible. Such was the case for director Julian Jarrold and the rest involved with bringing the version of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited to the big screen in 2008 that's now being released on DVD January 13th/09. Back in 1981 Granada Television of England had produced an eleven part television serial that not only faithfully reproduced the entire novel, but featured truly iconic performances from Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in the lead roles of Charles Ryder and Lord Sebastian Flyte respectively.

Of course comparisons between the two are decidedly unfair as this latest version is trying to tell the same story in around a tenth of the time. The entire movie is probably only a little longer than two episodes of the television series and it can't afford to spend the same amount of time paying attention to details. Very wisely Jarrold and his script writers decided to not even attempt to compete with Granada's production, and have streamlined their focus to an investigation of the interrelationship between the characters.

While the story begins and ends during the Second World War, the majority of the action takes place between the wars. Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is from a stolid middle class family and is just beginning his first term at Oxford University. Although he is ostensibly studying history, his true ambition is to be a painter. His introduction to Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) is not what one would call auspicious, as one evening the young aristocrat leans through Charles' window and vomits. The next morning an apology in the shape of three large bouquets of flowers and an invitation to lunch are delivered to Charles, marking the beginning of their relationship.
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Sebastian and Charles come from two decidedly different worlds, and not just in terms of social position. For as well as being landed gentry Sebastian's family are Catholic. While that may not be a big deal now, in England at this time it was a very significant difference, especially among the nobility. Since the days of Henry Vlll and the establishment of The Church Of England, Catholic nobility were viewed with suspicion and mistrust because it was believed their loyalties were divided because they obeyed the Pope over their own monarch. They had been subject to persecution since that time and had subsequently become a very insular community dividing the world into us and them.

While Charles doesn't understand the significance of the difference in faith, he does understand the significance of the wealth represented by Sebastian's home, Brideshead. From the first moment that Charles sees Brideshead he falls in love with its grandeur, and the wealth that it represents. Sebastian is loath for Charles to meet his family, or even visit the estate, but during the summer break from classes he invites him to come and stay. It's during this visit that Charles first meets Sebastian's sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) and their mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), and the events are set in motion that will shape the three young people's lives.

Sebastian is gay, and very much in love with Charles. While Charles is undoubtedly infatuated with Sebastian, he's equally infatuated with the lifestyle that Sebastian's wealth allows them to lead. Although he's initially content with Sebastian, the introduction of Julia quickly changes the dynamics of their relationship as he becomes increasingly more attracted to her. When Lady Marchmain asks Charles to accompany Sebastian and Julia on a trip to Venice to visit their father Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) and his mistress in order to keep Sebastian out of trouble he agrees readily enough, but ends up abandoning him in order to pursue Julia.
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While Charles seems on the surface to be perusing a relationship with both Julia and Sebastian, the truth of the matter is he's really in love with Brideshead and the wealth and power it represents. However, with both Julia and Sebastian, what he failed to understand was the role religion played in their lives and how much it dictated how they behaved. For them Charles was a means of rebelling against the confines of their faith, and in the end they both choose their religion over him. Dazzled by the grandeur and wealth they both represented he failed to see who either of them really were.

While this version of Brideshead Revisited was unable to go into the same depth of detail as the television series, it did a remarkable job of depicting the book's major themes of betrayal and faith through its examination of the relationship between the three young protagonists. It's important to remember that Evelyn Waugh was a devout Catholic while watching the movie, for although there are times it appears that it is being critical of the church, it is also very clear in showing the comfort that faith can bring to troubled people.

The acting is superlative throughout the movie, but Ben Whishaw as Sebastian and Emma Thompson as his mother are truly remarkable. Thompson manages to make the formidable and easy to hate Lady Mrchmain very human by giving us glimpses of the scared and vulnerable woman hidden behind the mask of propriety. She gives us occasion to ask ourselves what it must have been like for a woman of her position to have spent the majority of her married life with her husband living abroad with a mistress. It's a remarkable job that I don't think another actor could have carried off with the same grace and style.

Whishaw as Sebastian is a brilliant combination of vulnerability and charisma. While he is obviously effeminate he never once crosses the line into camp or making his character an object of ridicule. While to all outward appearances he is the epitome of dissolute nobility, Whishaw is able to make him substantial enough that we can understand why Charles is attracted to him. There is an inner core of steel underneath the fey exterior that gives him the strength of character needed to survive the betrayals and hurts his character experiences at the hands of those he loves the most. It's a breathtaking performance by an incredibly skilled and talented actor.

The version of the DVD that I viewed was widescreen which helped to emphasis the grandeur of the Brideshead estate so that, like Charles, our first view takes our breath away and leaves us slightly awe struck. As is the case with all new releases the sound is 5.1 surround, but it was a bit overwhelming at times with the orchestration drowning out some of the dialogue even when played through a surround sound system. As far as special features go there is the usual optional audio commentary that can be listened to while watching the movie, a collection of deleted scenes, and a making of featurette.

When I first heard that a film version of Brideshead Revisited was being released I admit I had my doubts as to its ability to compete with the mini-series that had been released in the early 1980's. However through a combination of superlative performances and intelligent film making, the people behind this new release have created their own masterpiece. A remarkable achievement and a wonderful film.

November 28, 2008

The Vatican "Forgives" John Lennon

An article published in the official Vatican newspaper, "Osservatore Romano", officially "forgave" John Lennon for comments he made in 1966 about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus Christ with young people around the world. The editorial said that the remark was the boast of a young working class Englishman faced with the flush of unexpected success, implying it was made more in ignorance than with any blasphemous intent.

Well I'm sure that's a great load off the minds of all of Lennon's surviving family members knowing that he's been forgiven by the Vatican. They must have been frantic with worry. So what if it was more than a little condescending - it still wipes his slate clean with the Pope which means ... well actually it means dick all. Talk about a load of sanctimonious bullshit, as if anyone cares anymore what Lennon said forty-two years ago. It smacks of a cheap attempt by the folk in the Vatican to show that they are wise and benevolent without actually having to do anything.

Sure at the time it raised quite a stink when Lennon made his statement about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus among young people and got completely blown out of proportion. He never meant they were more important, which was how the idiots interpreted his comment, but more popular, and there's a good chance he was right. In 1966 if you asked the average teenager would you rather sit and read a parable by Jesus or listen to a cut from Help I bet the majority would have picked the latter. Heck, ask the average young person today if they would rather watch an episode of The Simpsons or Southpark or sit down with the New Testament and see what kind of reaction you get.
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Of course I always find it hugely ironic whenever the good folk in The Vatican try to stumble up to the moral high ground and make these sorts of groundless statements. After all this is the same church who funded a poster campaign in Tanzania claiming that condom use leads to death. Considering that one in ten adults in that country's capital city, Dar, are infected with the HIV/AIDS you'd figure it was the other way around, but maybe their logic is different.

Of course we shouldn't be so surprised when they come up with stuff like this as the Catholic Church's track record when it comes to moral issues has been, how shall we put it, spotty at best. It, along with the conservative Christian Protestant churches and hardline Muslim leaders have led the war against teaching people how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS throughout Africa and South-East Asia.

First of all it's sinful to have sex before marriage so you can't tell people how to safely have sex with someone who they aren't married to. Besides that, safe sex means using condoms, and using condoms prevents a woman from becoming pregnant which defeats the only purpose of sex - procreation. If you happen to have fun while attempting to have a baby that's forgivable (heck if they can forgive John Lennon they can forgive you that), but heaven help you if you decide you want to have sex just because you love the other person but don't want to have a baby.

Of course the institution has always made stellar contributions to the spread of disease, overpopulation, and famine. The people in Calcutta who really deserve beatification are the ones handing out condoms and teaching women that they don't have to baby machines, not the person encouraging them to make souls for God. Jesus taught that we should walk in another person's shoes and try to understand what they were experiencing in order that we might be more compassionate to their needs. I can't see how encouraging people who have to beg for a living to have babies is being compassionate.

How can an institution like the Catholic Church that has ordered people to be burnt alive for their beliefs, encouraged the faithful to kill those who didn't worship the same God, and been responsible for cultural and actual genocide among indigenous people the world over, without ever asking for forgiveness itself, presume to sit in judgement on others? Oh sure the Church admitted that "mistakes were made in the past", but it doesn't seem to have learned from them or be particularly troubled by them.

If the Vatican was genuine in its regret for past actions that saw millions of people persecuted would they send letters filled with veiled threats to countries passing legislation legalizing same sex marriages? Would they allow clergy to openly advocate the criminalization of homosexuality as the Bishop of Alberta, a province in Canada, did in the run up to Canada legalizing same sex marriage? Would they cover up child abuse by priests to protect the Church's "good name" as they did most recently in New England? That behaviour might not sound as heinous as The Inquisition to you, but ask the parents of any of the abused children how they feel and I'm betting they're not too happy with the church as an institution.

While Catholicism has the potential to be a beautiful religion, and there are people around the world who are Catholic who do their best to fulfill that potential, the institution itself has yet to live up that promise. Instead of issuing statements of forgiveness for matters nobody gives a damn about, maybe they should start figuring out ways of earning the forgiveness of all those they've caused damage to over the years.

When Jesus Christ said "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone", he was telling us don't be so quick to judge others because we've all got our dirty little secrets. The Catholic Church is no different from the rest of us and has no right to pass judgement on anyone or anything.

November 12, 2008

Book Review: The Siege By Ismail Kadare

When the world first started hearing the term "ethnic cleansing" coming out of the Balkan countries that made up the former Yugoslavia, once they recovered from the shock of understanding what that reality meant, probably their next reaction was surprise. Where had such a large community of European Muslims come from and what was the basis for the amount of hatred being directed towards them? To properly understand that you would have to travel back close to five hundred years to when the Ottoman Empire was carving its way through the Balkan states in an attempt to follow the Danube river all the way into Europe.

Like all wars where religion is a factor, the ones between the Christian defenders of the various Balkan countries and the Muslim Turkish invaders were pursued with a certain amount of fanaticism on both sides. While some countries were able to mount a fair resistance and even repulse their would be conquerers, others weren't so lucky. While the Ottoman Empire would have tolerated other religions under its rule, there would have also been advantages to converting to Islam in terms of standard of living and comfort. However those who did would have been considered traitors and betrayers by their neighbours, and history doesn't get forgotten easily in some parts of the world. Five hundred years after the fact people were forced to pay with their lives for the so called sins of their ancestors.

I'm sure most people have heard the tale of Vlad The Impaler, who supposedly slew hundreds of Turks by impaling them on stakes, and is the purported model for a certain blood sucking fiend from Transylvania. While Vlad may not have actually drank his victim's blood, there is no denying that the war between the Ottoman Empire and the various Balkan states they invaded were bloody and protracted affairs. Instead of engagements in the field, where the superior numbers of the Empire would prevail, key castles and strongholds were defended, with the result that long and bloody sieges were common. In his recently translated book The Siege, published by Random House Canada, Albanian author, Ismail Kadare, takes us back to the 15th century to witness a Turkish army's attempts to break through the walls of an Albanian castle .
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For many years Albania had been completely cut off from the West, and even when the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries were following Russia's lead and throwing off their communist leadership, Albania remained a sealed book. It's only been since the upheaval in the Balkans that we have had our the opportunity to see what was hidden for all of those years, including the work of writers like Ismail Kadre. The Siege was first published in Albania in 1970, and this edition is actually a translation of a French edition released in 1994 that is now considered the definitive version of the text.

For the majority of The Siege we are camped with the Turkish army outside the walls of the castle under attack and we are party to the innermost thoughts of everybody from the Pasha who is leading the army to the four members of his harem that he brought with him from home. A good deal of the time though, we are witnessing the fighting and life in the camp through the eyes the campaign's official chronichler, Mevla Celebi. Even before the actual battle begins he discovers he is faced with a problem of trying to come up with adjectives that will be suitably impressive to describe the important personages involved in assault.

He must of course reserve the more ornate one for his commander in chief, but what to do about all the other members of the War Council. For the truth of the matter is the majority of them just aren't designed to be recorded for posterity; one has a sty, another asthma, and yet another a humped back. It's as if all the officers of the army were formed in such a way as to make it harder to record his chronicle. Unfortunately it soon becomes obvious to him that those are going to be the least of his worries when it comes to recording events. For instead of being the quick and decisive victory that everyone was anticipating, after the first attack is successfully repulsed by the defenders, both sides have to hunker down for a long siege.

While there is a great deal of finger pointing and acrimony among the besiegers, (the spell caster is put to death, and the astrologer is sent to help dig an underground passage into the castle as punishment for their failings during and before the first assault) up in the castle they're not feeling too relieved. They know this was only the first of many assaults, and they have to be prepared for any sort of subterfuge and trickery on the part of those arrayed against them. In the past water supplies have been poisoned and animals infected with diseases have been released over the walls so they know they must be vigilant.
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The carnage as described by Kadare in the book is horrible as wave after wave of attackers are killed with boiling oil, or set on fire by being covered in pitch and having torches dropped on them. As the chronichler wanders the camp he sees countless numbers of men horribly disfigured and crippled by the wounds they have taken. His mind reels from the smells and the sights of the carnage, as well as the intrigues that continue apace among the captains of war who are supposed to be vanquishing the Empire's foes.

Yet they seem to be more intent on preserving their status within the hierarchy of the camp, and even more importantly, the court back home, than on winning the war. In fact as soon as it looks like they will have to retreat - back to the Empire - they begin to do their best to make sure they start distancing themselves from the Pasha in charge of the army. Like jackals and hyenas they circle their wounded overlord and look for some advantage that will serve them when they are home and off the cursed plains of Albania.

Kadare does a great job in describing the chaos of battle through the eyes of the Pasha as he sends wave after wave of men to crash against the walls of the castle, and we realize that he has no idea of what is going on at the walls. While it looks like the Turkish army is making advances, the reality is that they aren't able to breach the wall and are repulsed time after time until they are no longer able to sustain the siege. While you'd think, as the book is written by an Albanian, we would be feeling a great deal of joy that the author's historical countrymen were able to repulse their invader, instead we can't help feeling sorry for the Pasha. Kadare has been at great pains to ensure that the people on both sides of the wall are shown as human beings, not monsters. We've spent far too much time among the Turkish soldiers, getting to know various ones among them, to not have formed genuine attachments to people like the Chronicler of the battle.

Somehow Ismail Kadare is even able to inject a little humour into the proceedings as well, for he has a fine sense of the ridiculous on top of everything else. Some of the scenes of camp life, the gossip between the soldiers for instance, are very funny, but also a little sad. For it's here you realize these are just simple men taken from their farms to fight in a war they don't really have any understanding of.

The Siege by Ismail Kadare takes you into the heart of war at its most intense and finds something quite extraordinary, the human beings on both sides of the conflict. While there is nothing pretty in the surroundings, there is a haunting beauty to this book in its depiction of men who don't surrender to brutality or fear in spite of the ease which those around them are doing so. When you finish reading the book, the main feeling you have is one of regret; regret for all the lives lost, and regret for the fact that men will insist upon trying to kill each other for something as trivial as power and glory.

The Siege can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

November 1, 2008

Movie Review: (DviX Version) Kingdom Of Heaven

A couple of months ago I signed a free lance contract with the German based web magazine Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World. Qantara is the Arabic word for bridge and the site is an effort on the part of the Federal Centre For Political Education, Deutsche Welle, The Goethe Institute, and The Institute For Foreign Cultural Relations to bridge the gulf between the Islamic world and the West by promoting dialogue between the two cultures.

It seems only fitting that the first article of mine they published was an updated version of an interview I had conducted with Algerian author Yasmina Khadra. It was his criticism of the West during that interview for being ignorant of Muslim culture that spurred me to seek out the material that brought me to the magazine's attention. When you consider that the majority's, and I include myself in that number, view of Islam has been shaped by either the romantic image of Sheherazade telling a story a night for 1001 nights to preserve her life or suicide bombers, he had a pretty good point.

It's not only recently that the Muslim world has been subject to stereotyped representation, although the "War On Terror" hasn't helped matters. The silent movies of the 1920's perpetuated the romantic lover image, and before that, swarthy devils showed up in literature and paintings making off with beautiful maidens. Unfortunately it will take more than the efforts of one on line magazine to offset the accumulation of over a thousand years of misrepresentation and propaganda disseminated about Islam to encourage people to be a little more broad minded in their outlook. So it was a pleasant surprise to see how Ridley Scott's 2005 movie Kingdom Of Heaven presented such a balanced view of both the Muslim and Christian worlds during the fight for control of Jerusalem in 12th century AD.
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I hadn't read very much about the movie when it was first released, but when I came across it at My Movie Download.com, a site where you can download DivX versions of movies cheaply, there were so many actors in the cast whose talents I appreciate that I figured it was worth the price just to watch them work. Liam Neeson, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Jeremy Irons, Edward Norton, and Eva Green were sufficient incentive to overcome any doubts that I may have had about Orlando Bloom's ability as a dramatic leading man.

Bloom's character, Balian, is a poor blacksmith and when we meet him he's just finished burying his wife who had committed suicide after the death of their new born child. A party of knights headed towards the Holy Land stop nominally to have their horses shod, but their leader, Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) has an ulterior motive. Many years ago he seduced a young woman who subsequently gave birth to - you guessed it Balian. After announcing that he's his father Godfrey offers to take Balian to the Middle East to give him the chance for a new life. Initially Balian turns him down, but after he kills the village priest in a fit of rage - the priest tells him his wife has gone to hell because she committed suicide - he takes him up on the offer. Unfortunately the church doesn't think too highly of those who kill their anointed ones, and send out a party of soldiers to bring Balian back. In the fight that ensues when Godfrey refuses to hand Balian over, Godfrey is fatally wounded and only lives long enough to make Balian his heir and knight him.

When Balian finally makes it to Jerusalem (after a shipwreck that leaves him alone in the desert and a duel with an Arab warrior in the desert) he takes his father's place in the court of King Baldwin of Jerusalem (Edward Norton). For three years Baldwin has managed to maintain an uneasy peace with Saladin (Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud) leader of the Muslim army. Under Baldwin's rule all faiths are welcome and free to practice their own religion in Christian held territory. Unfortunately this policy has led to a rift among the Christian forces as the fanatical knights of the Templar order desire to wipe all non-believers from the face of the earth.

With Baldwin dying of leprosy, and his sister next in line to the throne, whoever she's married to becomes very important. Unfortunately for those who wish for peace Sibylla's (Eva Green) mother had married her off to Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) a fanatical Templar. When Balian refuses Baldwin's deathbed request that he marry Sibylla, Guy will be killed, war looks to be unavoidable. Templars under the leadership of Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson) had been staging raids on Muslim caravans even when Baldwin was alive, so it's not difficult for Guy to convince him to lead the raid against the camp site where Saladin's sister is living that provokes the war he desires.

When Guy foolishly leads his army out into to the desert to meet Saladin, they are slaughtered because of dehydration from being too far from a source of water. Balian, who refused to take his soldiers into the field, as he knew what the result would be, is left to defend Jerusalem with only his household's soldiers and those citizens willing to fight in order to survive. They know they can't beat Saladin, but they hope to hold out long enough to force him to offer terms for surrender. A knight's first duty is to protect those who can't protect themselves, and Balian hopes to buy their protection by making the cost in human lives of taking Jerusalem higher than Saladin is willing to pay.

If I compare the movie to what I remember of actual history, Scott's depiction of events is accurate. After the first Crusade there was a period of peace between the peoples of all faiths in the Middle East, and Jerusalem was indeed open to all. It was an uneasy peace, and factions in both the Muslim and Christian courts fulminated against it. As Scott's main focus is on activities taking place within the Christian army that becomes a key element in the story of the movie, as it was in history, and the depiction of the Templar's fanaticism is accurate.

While we spend far less time among Saladin's people, it's refreshing to see Muslims portrayed with the same amount of diversity of character as the Christians. Some of them are similar to the Templars in their desire to kill the infidels, while others, like Saladin, are more moderate. They won't stand idly by and see their people wantonly cut down by the Christian armies, but if it's possible to avoid war they will. However, one does get the feeling that Saladin would have eventually taken the offensive even without the provocation offered by the murder of his sister. The Christian armies are invaders occupying his people's territory and they need to be driven away.

As is to be expected from the quality of the actors involved, in most cases the acting in this movie is exemplary. Although he has a relatively small role, one performance that stood out for me in particular was Brendan Gleeson's depiction of Reynald de Chatillon. While Maton Csokas' villain was a little one dimensional, Gleeson's characterization had surprising depth. However, the most pleasing surprise was Orlando Bloom's performance. Finally given an adult role he rises to the occasion, doing a masterful job of showing the growth and change that his character goes through over the course of the movie.

As this movie was downloaded from the Internet, there were no special features included with it. Unlike some DivX movies I've downloaded in the past both the sound and picture quality of this film were fine. Even with all the proper codices installed I've had troubles with things like the soundtrack overwhelming the dialogue or the dialogue being slightly out of sync with a character's lip movements.

Kingdom Of Heaven is not only a wonderfully acted and staged movie of epic proportions, it does a superb job of presenting all its characters in equal detail. Muslim and Christian alike are treated as individuals, not as types, so that we can respect and admire those on both sides of the conflict for their characteristics not because of what they are. In these days when we are surrounded by continuous reminders of "us" and "them", it's refreshing to see a movie notable for an absence of that attitude.

October 22, 2008

Book Review: The Aventures Of Amir Hamza By Ghalib Lakhnavi & Abdullah Bilgrami - Translated By Musharraf Farooqi

It's always been a source of amazement to me that stories from the days preceding the written word have survived down through the ages to this day. How many years after Homer sat around the fires at night relaying the history of the sacking of Troy was it before the words were written down on paper in an attempt to preserve them? Of course we have no way of knowing how much what is written down today resembles the original stories that Homer recited to his companions. Yet in spite of that it remains the touchstone for Western epic fantastical narrative to this day.

Without Homer where would the world of fantasy as we know it be today? Perhaps we might have invented giants on our own, but single eyed ones named Cyclops? I think not. Mermaids probably share a common ancestry with the sirens and the first witch to lure men to their doom. appeared in this tale to turn Odysseus's companions into pigs. Sadly, as we are beginning to discover to our chagrin, cultural chauvinism robbed us of access to even greater resources for inspiration as epic tales from both before and after Homer, that are equal to, if not surpassing, The Odyssey in splendour and imagination, recount the tales of heroes and the histories of peoples all over the world.

While Valmiki's Ramayana might be the oldest and most renowned of the great epics from South East Asia it is not the only one. Via the Muslim migrations and invasions of what is now India came the great heroes and villains of the Islamic world. Like the heroic tales of other cultures the dastan (literally tale or legend) of The Adventures Of Amir Hamza had its origins in history. However, as Musharraf Ali Farooqui reveals in his recently published English translation available through both Random House and Random House Canada, that although the central character is named for the historically real figure of the Prophet Muhammad's uncle, Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib, who was renowned for his bravery, aside from that, very little of the subject matter is historically accurate.
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This pattern of using real names from history or legend in the story, but ascribing them different characteristics and histories then had been previously recounted, holds true for all of the characters in the story. While the identity of Hamza remains a constant, over the years various legends and folk tales have been grafted onto the story which has led to the contradictory claims as to its origins. Some hold that it first began being told by the women of Mecca to honour the deeds of the original Hamza after he fell in battle, while others say it was first composed by the dead man's brother. Whoever originally began compiling it, whether it was in the 8th or 10 century CE, the version Farooqi has translated into English from Urdo - the language of Islam in Pakistan and the rest of Indian sub-continent - was first compiled in 1855 by Ghalib Lakhnavi and then revised and expanded by Abdullah Bilgrami in 1871.

One of the first things you'll notice in setting out on this epic journey, we're talking nine hundred plus pages, is the ornate style employed by Farooqi. Unlike another recent new edition of an ancient classic, Ashok Banker's Ramayana, this is not an adaptation but a translation, which means that he has adhered to the style of the original. For those who have read Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton's (not the actor, but the nineteenth century British explorer and writer) translation of The Book Of One Thousand And One Nights, popularly known as The Arabian Nights, you'll see similarities between the two. This has less to do with the translation as with the material Farooqi was working from as both the original text and Burton's book were subject to the same influences.

In spite of the fact that Lakhnavi, and later Bilgrami, both wrote in Urdo they seemed to be no less influenced by their colonial masters, the British, then Burton had been by the Muslim world he was interpreting. The result is that both texts, while set in Arabia, Persia, and India, have a distinctively nineteenth century British aftertaste to them. This isn't a judgement on their quality, merely an observation, and a compliment to the skills of Farooqi as a translator for being able to recreate that sensibility. Don't worry though, because once your ear has acclimatized to the sound of the text, and it should only take a few paragraphs or pages at most, you'll find that not only does the style fits the content, it increases the verisimilitude of the experience.
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I've always asserted that if you want to learn about a people, the best thing to do is read the stories that the people tell about themselves. What do they admire in their heroes, what do they consider appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, and other characteristics are revealed in these epic stories that will tell you more about a culture than any history book ever written. Not only that, but as they were created to glorify the people involved they are full of countless adventures that range from waging battles, outwitting devious enemies, and battling with fearsome monsters.

The Adventures Of Amir Hamza actually begins before he is born as there are events that occur prior to his appearance on the face of the earth that help shape his destiny. We also learn valuable information as to the various factions within the kingdom where the story originates. We see how even before his conception he has had created some deadly enemies who would along with their descendants, conspire against Hamza for his entire life. Of course once he's born the action really picks up as at the age of five he's all ready having adventures that would put grown men to shame. As Hamaz ages his exploits continue to grow and his reputation expands as he fulfills the destiny foretold before he was born of rescuing the Emperor's throne and crown from the clutches of a notorious outlaw while still a teenager.

One of my favourite characters in the story isn't Hamza, but one of his boon companions, Amar bil Fatah. Amar is a trickster who delights in the discomfort of others and a great thief. As an infant he contrived to steal the milk from the breasts of the wet nurse who was caring for him, Hamza, and another baby so that he grew plump while the other two stayed small. At first his trickery is indiscriminate and mean spirited so that only through the friendship of Hamza is he saved from being sent away or cast aside. While he never loses his taste for stealing and trickery, as an adult he puts his talents to good use to take revenge upon those who would discredit or harm his dearest friend and patron Hamza.

Not only does Amar provide comic relief from the seriousness of other events he is also, like other trickster characters throughout history, a teacher of humility. He takes especial delight in deflating those, even his closest friends, who have let pride puff them up beyond their worth. He is a constant reminder to all the characters and the reader of what happens to you when you think too highly of yourself and that it is important to retain a certain amount of humbleness at all time.

The Adventures Of Amir Hamza is not only interesting to read because of its subject matter, its a lot of fun. It contains all the adventure and excitement of some of the best of sword and sorcery stories while supplying an introduction to the legends and mythical heroes of a culture few of us in the West know little or anything about. While reading this book might not answer all the questions you have about the history of the Islam or the Muslim world, it will give you a far different perspective on it than any you'll have had before now.

The Adventures Of Amir Hamza can be purchased either directly from Random House.com in the United States, Random House Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca.

October 14, 2008

Book Review: Isaac's Torah By Angel Wagenstein

In the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed, followed by the communist governments in the Eastern Bloc, and Yugoslavia, countries that the majority of us had never heard of before started appearing on maps of the world again for the first time since the beginning of WW Two. Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, and Macedonia were just some of the new place names that cartographers had to try and squeeze onto maps of Eastern Europe. While this might have seemed like an upheaval of unsurpassed proportions to some of us, at the other end of the century, from 1900 to the end of WW Two things were just as tumultuous.

In that time a person could literally not move an inch and wake up one morning to find yourself living in a new country. At the onset of WW One parts of what's now present day Poland were part of the Austo-Hungarian Empire. When the end of that war resulted in the dissolution of the Empire, out of its ashes were formed countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and many other Eastern European countries. Those borders didn't last long as the European powers gave Czechoslovakia to Germany without a fight in attempt at appeasing Hitler. The Russian - German pact of 1939 split Poland between them, so when the Germans invaded Poland from the West, the Russians came in from the East for their bit. Of course those was some of the first territories "liberated" by the German armies when they invaded Russia in June of 1941, only to see them revert back to Russian control four years later when the tides of war swam the other way.

For those keeping score that meant if you lived in Eastern Poland between years of 1900 - 1945 you would have had to change your passport five times, if you somehow lived through it.While your chances of survival weren't great no matter who you were, they were reduced dramatically during the period of German rule if you happened to be Jewish. Only with the greatest deal of luck could you have survived the liberation of Poland by the Nazis if you were a Jew.
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In Angel Wagenstein's Isaac's Torah, his most recent work translated into English, published by Handsel Books and distributed in Canada by Random House Canada, we follow the life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, one of those "lucky" few to have survived. I'm not normally one for reading "Holocaust fiction" as I call it, books that detail the suffering and horrors of the camps, but the way the book was described made me think this would not be the usual book about this period of history.

Among the Jews of Eastern Europe, long accustomed to poverty and persecution, humour was one of the few reliefs they had from the drudgery of their existence. Aside from jokes that deflected anti-semitic attitudes around them, or deflated the pompous in order to remind people they were all equal in the eyes of God, one of the more popular comic traditions the fool. While this fool is very often an object of ridicule, he is also like the Fool in Tarot decks who, although always of the verge of falling off the cliff manages to somehow never quite topple over the edge. So it is with Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld as he weaves his unsteady way through life.

From a very early age he learns that if you act the fool chances are that not many are going to take you seriously enough to consider you a threat or worry about what you're doing. At various points through-out the story Isaac draws upon this rich vein of Jewish humour to help tell his story. Aside from providing momentary relief from the events that Isaac finds himself helplessly propelled through, these jokes also often serve as moral lessons and parables. They offer a kind o backwards logic that throws the absurdity of a world in chaos into relief that helps you see just how ridiculous life can be.

For example, Mendel was looking to take the train from his home to Moscow and he goes up to the wicket where's he's told the price of a ticket to Moscow will be twenty rubbles. When he tires to bargain and offer fifteen he's told to go away. So, he goes to the back of the line and eventually ends up at the wicket again where he again he offers fifteen rubbles for the twenty rubble ticket, and is again told there will be none of that and to be off with him. So, again he goes to the back of the line, and this time when he gets to the wicket the train to Moscow is pulling out of the station - and he looks into the wicket and says to the clerk, in his most satisfied voice, "Now look, you've missed out on fifteen rubbles".
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How ridiculous is Isaac's life? Well he's drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army just in time to for the war to end and comes home to discover that he's now Polish. In 1939 he's drafted into the Polish army to defend his homeland against the German invasion in the West, and just as he and his troop are preparing to head out Russian tanks pull into their village. In June of 1941 when he's drafted into the Russian army to go East to Manchuria to fight off the invading Japanese, the train he's travelling on is bombed by the German airforce as he gets caught in the opening salvo of that invasion.

As he says, it's a good thing they come from a small Jewish town. Russian trains never stop in Jewish villages, so he'd become adept at boarding and disembarking trains through the windows while they are moving. Otherwise he might have been scattered around the wheat field with the rest of the train. As it is, he is now a Jew in German occupied Russia, which isn't exactly the healthiest of circumstances. Lucky for him though he is able to acquire identification papers that recognize him as a Polish national which should keep him safe. However, he has the misfortune to be caught out on the street when three trucks pull up and grab everybody off the street to come and do emergency war work for his new fatherland - and he's shipped off to Germany.

However things don't turn out so bad for him. As a Jew he speaks Yiddish, which is as close to German as you can get without speaking German. So when the labour camp's commandant asks if any of new workers can speak German without sounding too much like an idiot, Isaac volunteers. All is well, until one day a general roll is called and two Gestapo agents come into camp and take every tenth person away in trucks. The hundred men, among whom of course Isaac finds himself, are taken to a prison where they are locked up with other undesirables of the state; Jews, Communists, Gypsies, and even some real criminals. In the middle of the night the guards come into the cell blocks yelling Jews move, and foolishly Isaac responds only to find himself on a train heading for a concentration camp. Which may sound pretty awful, and it is, but he finds out later that the other ninety-nine people he came to the jail with were taken out and shot the next morning.

Like the Fool, Isaac blindly steps off the edges of cliffs and makes it through, yet lest you think this is a light hearted romp through one of the darkest periods of modern history, his wife and children either die in the camps or fighting the Germans. His village's Jewish population, as all the fit men had been sent to fight the Japanese, wasn't even considered worth sending to a concentration camp. They were herded out of their houses one night, lined up at the edge of a ravine, and machine gunned. The ravine was then filled in with gravel and everybody he had known, including his parents and the rest of his family, ended up in that mass grave.

There are no lurid details of conditions in the camps, Isaac says why should he talk about that as others have done so before him and he figures he can spare us and him details, yet still sorrow stalks the pages of this book like few other book. It is a such a human book, full of laughter and love, that the horrors of what's going on as backdrop to the absurdities that Isaac describes are somehow even more disquieting than the most graphic descriptions could ever be. No matter how much we are able to laugh in the face of adversity, no matter that we are able to see how absurd life can be, it doesn't prevent us from tasting the salt of our tears or feeling the bitterness of anguish.

Laughter may take the edge off, and it may indeed be the best medicine, but it can't hide reality. Isaac's Torah doesn't hide reality, if anything it brings it heartbreakingly to life. At the same time though it shows how it is possible to find hope in what many would consider the most hopeless of circumstances. After all, as Isaac says in conclusion, if life was given us to live it, we will live it, there's no other way.

Isaac's Torah can be purchased either directly from Random House Canada or from an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

September 13, 2008

DVD Review: Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music Of Islam

It's nothing new for the West to be predisposed to prejudice against the Islamic world. Our irrational hatred of Muslims dates back to the time of the Crusades when we took it upon ourselves to "liberate" the Holy Land from the rule of non-believers. The fact that the so called non-believers were native to the region and the "liberators" were invaders whose only reason for attacking those countries was religious intolerance has set the tone for Muslim and Christian relations for the past 1500 hundred years.

Of course the crusaders were indiscriminate when it came to the destruction of so called "infidels", and wiped out villages of defenceless Jews with the same enthusiasm they showed for attacking Muslim armies. It's interesting to note that during the intervals between Crusades when there was no fighting, those Christians who settled in the Middle East learned how to co-exist quite peacefully with their Muslim and Jewish neighbours. It was only those who lived outside of the region, those with no personal experience of Muslims, who fermented hatred against them.

When you look at the world today not much has changed since those times. It's still the people with the least direct contact with the Muslim world who spew forth the greatest amount of hatred towards them. In the last sixty to seventy years this behaviour has provoked the rise of what we call fundamentalists among the Muslim people; radicals who are dedicated to a dictatorial interpretation of the laws of Islam. The fact that the West calls these people fundamentalists only proves the depth of our ignorance when it comes to the Muslim faith. Only people ignorant of the religion's tenets would consider people dedicated to the practices espoused by the radicals as fundamental to Islam.
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Like the Puritans of old, and the conservative Christians of today, the radical Muslim, who we are convinced is out to kill us all, represents a minority of the total Islamic population, and have through out the history of the faith. Anyone who needs convincing of that only needs to watch the forthcoming DVD release from Riverboat Records, part of the World Music Network, Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music Of Islam, and they will soon see how great a difference there is between the radicals and the majority of the population. While the movie examines the practices of one specific sect of Muslims, the Sufis, it shows how much greater an influence those people wield on the population at large than do the radicals and explores its manifestations in various countries.

For nearly fifty minutes we are taken on a guided journey by historian and writer William Dairymple of Sufi sites in Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Morocco as he shows us examples of how music and poetry have been incorporated into Sufi worship and philosophy. Along the way he also explains through interviews with various musicians the basic tenets of Sufism, and gradually builds a picture of a faith that is far different from the one the majority of us have come to believe in. He doesn't deny that the more uncompromising practices exist, but he opens our eyes to the fact that just like there are more then one kind of Christian, Jew, Hindi, and Buddhist, there is more then one kind of Muslim.

In Turkey, where Sufism has been outlawed since the 1920's and followers are forced to meet in secret, the former rituals of dance and music have been turned into "performances". Whirling Dervishes now perform for tourists instead of as a means of communicating with God as they used to, but that doesn't prevent the philosophies behind the dance from being remembered. Human beings see the world as divided between the physical and the spiritual. According to Sufi beliefs it's through dance and music we can be bring the two visions of the world together and bring ourselves closer to God.

In temples, meeting houses, and private homes Sufis in countries throughout the Muslim world gather to sing and create music in an effort to bring themselves closer to their God. In each country the approach is different as local musical traditions are incorporated into the practices. Some practices are raw, elemental gatherings where drummers play with an ever increasing frenzy that whips themselves and their audiences into a frenzy that breaks down physical and emotional barriers allowing them to enter into a trance like state they believe necessary to best experience God.

In the temple to one Sufi saint who died in 1752 music has been played every day since his death upon the instrument that he invented. Plucked like a guitar or other strung instrument it is also beaten like a drum in accompaniment to the songs written by the saint praising God. Like Catholics Sufis believe that God can be worshipped through veneration of their various saints, and celebrations held in the various temples honouring the saint on the day of their death, or the day they met God, can be extravagant festivals that take on the appearance of concerts with performers setting the words of the saint into song.

Translations of the lyrics might take people by surprise, because it was very common for the saints to describe the love of God in terms associated with human relationships. For them poems about the love between a man and woman were a metaphor for expressing and exploring love for God. So a poem celebrating the love a man feels for a woman would actually be celebrating the poets love for God. Perhaps the most famous of these poet saints was the thirteenth century mystic Rumi whose poems and philosophy has shaped much of modern Sufi thought, and enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the 1990's when he became the best selling poet in the United States.

William Dalrymple is a wonderful guide as he is not only unabashedly enthusiastic about the subject matter, but wise enough to let the music and the performers speak for themselves. He is also honest enough to admit that he too was forced to overcome his prejudices about Islam when he was first introduced to Sufism while living in India. It was at a temple in Delhi that he first encountered the practice and he was amazed to find as many Hindus as Muslims attending ceremonies there. To him, and me by the way, this was more than enough proof that the Sufis weren't exaggerating when they say that all are welcome in their places of worship. For, if in India, where violence between Muslims and Hindus is a depressingly common occurrence, interfaith worship can happen, it can happen anywhere in the world.

While there is no denying that there are Muslims who teach and are taught to hate other religions and to work towards the establishment of an Islamic State the DVD Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music Of Islam reminds us that another, peaceful aspect of the religion exists. The Sufis believe that through music and song people can learn how to love God. It doesn't particularly matter to them how you express that love, or whether you want to call that expression of love Christianity, Hindu, Judaism, or Islam, what matters is that you love.

As a special feature for the DVD the film makers have included bonus material of extended performances by five of the performers featured in the film. This give you a chance to not only hear somebody talk about what the music is designed to do during worship, but an opportunity to experience it. Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music Of Islam goes on sale in the United States on September 30th/2008. Take the opportunity this disc offers to learn how much more there is to know about Islam than what we've been led to believe by centuries of prejudice and stereotypes.

August 7, 2008

New Words To An Old Refrain At The 17th International Aids Conference

The 17th International AIDS Conference, taking place this year in Mexico City, kicked off on Sunday August 03/08 with the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, officially welcoming around 22,000 delegates from 175 countries to the gathering. While Mr. Hinojosa's appearance makes a change from 2006 when Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper refused to attend the Conference taking place in Canada, it looks like nothing much else has changed from two years ago when it comes to actually dealing with the disease.

Of the 22,000 or so people who have shown up in Mexico City, one has to hope that they are all aware that HIV/AIDS can only be spread by an infected person sharing bodily fluids with an uninfected person. So in order to prevent the spread of the disease all you have to do is reduce the chances of that happening. Statistical evidence gathered over the past twenty years by organization such as UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that making condoms available for sexually active people and supplying clean needles to intravenous drug users are the two most effective ways of preventing the disease from spreading as those are the two most common ways the disease is spread. (Please see Elizabeth Pisani's reference page at her Wisdom Of Whores web site for support documentation and statistics)

However, judging by the way things are shaping up at the conference people are either reluctant to talk about the issue of prevention directly or even worse oppose the means of ensuring delivery of preventative measures. For example instead of talking about condoms and needles, the latest refrain is "prevention by treatment". While it is of course inexcusable that only four million out of the thirty-three million people world-wide currently estimated to be infected with the disease are receiving treatment, arguing that ensuring everybody infected is treated will prevent the disease from spreading is a fallacy.

Although it is true that once a person is on the anti-viral medication used to prolong an AIDS sufferer's life expectancy they are less infectious, they can still transmit the disease and need to take the same precautions that anyone else does. The problem is that statistics are showing that once people start taking the medication they believe they aren't a threat anymore and stop taking preventative measures.

Other problems with this approach is what do you do about people who are infected but don't know it? If you don't know you're infected with the virus you're not liable to be taking the anti-viral cocktail of medications required to fight the HIV/AIDS virus are you? Now consider that in light of recent statistics that show 1 in 5 of homosexual men in New York City who test positive for the virus already have full blown AIDS. Considering how long it takes to develop full blown AIDS after you have contracted the HIV virus - sometimes ten years - it means these men have been infectious for that length of time without knowing.

What makes that statistic truly alarming is that the gay community of New York City has been one of the most effective and organized in combating the disease and educating its membership about the dangers of unprotected sex and the importance of early testing. If those conditions exist among as an aware and active community as that, you have to wonder how many other people around the world are walking around un-diagnosed. The normally reliable U.S. Centres For Disease Control and Prevention just announced that the figures they released detailing the number of new cases of HIV in the United States for 2006 was off by 16,300 as there were actually 56,300 not the 40,000 they had originally estimated.

What the hell's the good of using treatment as prevention if we don't even know how many people are even sick, or if they've been sick for any number of years before they even obtain treatment? Anyway the whole idea smacks of closing the gate after the horse has escaped the barn. If you can prevent someone from getting the disease they aren't even going to need treatment. It seems to me the folk recommending this new plan really need to remember the old adage of an ounce of prevention equalling a pound of cure. Especially since we don't even have a cure, only treatment that will prolong life - not save it.

Of course the real problem isn't the people who are pushing this new strategy, the problem is the people they are trying to do the end run around. The biggest problem faced by people working in the HIV/AIDS field has been having to work around politicians and religious leaders who still live in caves and wont fund anything to do with needles, condoms, sex trade workers, or homosexuals. In order to secure funding they have had to convince these folk that "innocents" (women, children, and straight men) are at risk and talk about everything but the people most at risk and the ways that can best prevent the spread of the disease.

Just look at what happened yesterday, at what is supposedly a conference on how to fight HIV/AIDS. Canada's idiot Health Minister, <Tony Clement, gave a press conference attacking Insite, the safe injection site for intravenous drug users in Vancouver British Columbia. He chose to do this in spite of the fact that it completely disregarded the information released by WHO spelling out how effective such sites are for harm reduction, specifically the spread of disease. His government's reason for not liking Insite or any other safe injection site? They can't arrest the people who use them.

Is it any wonder that HIV/AIDS new infection rate still outstrips the number of people receiving treatment by a ration of 5:2 (according to the latest statistics from UNAIDS, for every two people receiving treatment there are five new cases of HIV/AIDS reported) when we're dealing with people with this type of attitude? For the longest time people have even tried to avoid saying which groups are most at risk from the disease for fear of marginalizing them even more than they are already.

Thankfully people like Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy to Africa for HIV/AIDS, and Joe Amon, health and human-rights director at Human Rights Watch, are at least demanding that the rights of those most at risk must be protected and steps taken to ensure their access to treatment. It's a small step, but at least it's a step in the right direction. Still it's a sad state of affairs when at a conference dealing with a disease for which there is no cure and no vaccine, they can't talk about the best ways of preventing its spread in the opening addresses.

I know it's early days yet and the 17th International AIDS Conference still has a way to go, but from the looks of things we're no closer to dealing with the reality of HIV/AIDS now then we were when the first conference was held. As long as we continue to allow a moral code based on bigotry and hatred to dictate health care people will continue to die and the disease will continue to spread.

August 1, 2008

New HIV/AIDS Figures - Same Old Story

Well, for a change there's a little bit of good news in the world. The 2008 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic by the United Nations agency responsible for AIDS, UNAIDS, shows that efforts around the world are finally starting to pay off as there are declines in both the numbers of people being infected with, and dying from the virus. On top of that the number of people living with AIDS has stabilized and more people are receiving proper treatment as well.

While Paul De Lay, director of evidence, monitoring, and policy at UNAIDS, said that the increased efforts in teaching people prevention methods are beginning to make a difference, as shown by the drop in the infection rate, he also cautioned that the epidemic was not over in any part of the world. The number of cases may be stabilizing - i.e. not showing any increases - but that number is still very high, and there are parts of the world and marginalized communities where the virus continues to run rampant. As an example he sited the figure that two of every three new cases of AIDS occurs in the Sub Saharan region of Africa.

While some of the figures the report sites show improvement on various fronts: actual number of people living with HIV/AIDS 33 million, new infections down to 2.7 million from 3 million in 2001, total deaths down from 2.2 million in 2005 to 2 million in 2007, number of children infected down from 410,000 to 370,000 in the same period, and the percentage of infected pregnant woman receiving anti-viral drugs has risen to 33% from 14% in those two years, they also show just how far we have to go in order to bring the disease under control. With a new infection rate of 2.7 million people each year and no cure in sight for the disease, it means that any let up in prevention efforts could see the numbers spiralling upwards again.

An example of the breadth of the problem that's still being faced can be found in another figure quoted by Dr. De Lay: for every two new people receiving treatment in the world there are still five new people contracting the disease. Treatment is very expensive, and according to Purmina Mane, deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, the cost to supply everybody currently infected with the disease would be 11 billion dollars American annually. That's a cost that will continue to rise substantially of course, unless something is done to reduce the annual infection rate.

While it's possible that the United Nations might reach the target date of 2015 for achieving an actual decline in the numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS, it's goal of universal access to treatment, prevention, care, and support for all those living with the disease by 2010 is not looking good. That makes me wonder how much of the first goal will be met by people currently infected dying, and how much by any actual reduction in new cases of infection? If we can't provide universal prevention, how can we possibly stop the spread of the disease?

The problem is that universal prevention isn't going to happen given the current political climate in the world. The simple facts of life when it comes to HIV/AIDS is that nothing has changed since the 1980's and in order for the virus to spread you need an infected person, an uninfected person and an exchange of bodily fluids between the two of them. The most common ways that happens is through unprotected sex and intravenous drug users sharing needles. Theoretically it should be easy to prevent the disease from spreading, simply ensure that neither of those events occur.

Unfortunately there is quite a bit of disagreement on how you prevent unprotected sex or intravenous drug use. According to the Catholic Church, the current American administration, certain conservative Christian groups, and various Muslim sects the use of condoms is worse than spreading disease, so they recommend abstinence. Actually, they insist on it, at least as much as they are able to. In the case of the current American administration that includes refusing to fund any program that advocates condom use anywhere in the world.

While some countries have remarkably sane attitudes towards ensuring a supply of clean needles for intravenous drug users, Iran has needle dispensers on the streets of Teheran and a needle exchange program in its prison system, others are like Canada and the United States where needle exchanges are barely tolerated and they refuse to admit that drug use even exists in prison. Of course the prisoners don't have sex either, so there's no point in supplying them with condoms.

The solution offered by these folk is for everybody to abstain from pre-marital sex and using intravenous drugs. While the second suggestion is noble, and a good idea, the former is utterly ridiculous, and both deny reality. In the United States itself only twenty-seven per-cent of those people who sign so-called abstinence oaths promising to refrain from pre-marital sex, actually follow through on their vows. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the majority of those who succumb to temptation don't use a condom, so not only risk contracting a sexually transmitted infection, but the other, more traditional, side affect of sex, pregnancy. If the programs success rate is that poor in the U.S. among those who are supposedly willing, what does that say about it's validity as a means of prevention elsewhere?

I started off by saying that there was some good news for a change, and have pretty much gone on to refute that statement with the balance of the article. However, any signs that inroads are being made against the spread of HIV/AIDS are positive and a reason for hope. The problem is that the position is still very precarious and it's not being helped by those who willing to risk other people's lives by imposing their morality on the world. If you don't want to use a condom when you have sex that's your choice, but don't force somebody else to risk their life for a little pleasure.

As former UNAIDS employee Elizabeth Pisani says commenting on the report at her "Wisdom Of Whores" web site, "...somewhere between two and three million people are still getting infected every year with a completely preventable disease that we are spending over 10 billion dollars a year on. That’s a scandal that no amount of report-writing has been able to change."

We've known for close to thirty years how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS yet the disease was allowed to reach epidemic proportions because of so called moral issues and those attitudes haven't changed. The miracle is that there has been any decline in the number of deaths and infections - thank God for the immoral people out there passing out condoms and making a difference.

June 1, 2008

Book Review: His Dark Materials - Special Omnibus Edition Philip Pullman

According to the Book of "Genesis" it's been all down hill since Eve took a bite out of the apple. From that time forward we humans have supposedly laboured under the curse of that "original sin" with little or no hope of salvation. Christians caught a break though, because they believe a young Rabbi from Nazareth to have been their saviour and if they accept him as such, and live their lives according to whichever sect of Christianity they adhere to, they will obtain salvation after their death and ascend to heaven.

Of course we would have been a lot better off if that silly Eve had never let herself be sweet talked into chomping on that forbidden fruit in the first place. If only she could have resisted temptation, humanity's fall from grace would never have happened in the first place, and the curse of consciousness would never have been released. If we hadn't gained awareness in the first place, we never would have even dreamed of questioning authority, and how much easier a time the church would have in ensuring our salvation.

If they had the opportunity to prevent Eve from succumbing to temptation what do you think the folk running the Roman Catholic Church would do? If it looked like they would be given an opportunity to rid the world of awareness - to somehow reverse the process that was precipitated by biting the apple - would they jump at the opportunity? How much easier it would be to ensure that everybody obeyed God's will, as expressed by the Church, if they could be reverted back to that state of grace - that state of unthinking obedience.
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Pretty heavy subject matter for a series of books supposedly composed for young people don't you think? Yet, that's the basic premise behind the spectacularly successful trilogy His Dark Materials by British author Philip Pullman. Published to coincide with the release of The Golden Compass, the first instalment of the movie adaptation of Pullman's work, Random House Canada recently published an omnibus edition of the trilogy bringing all three titles under one cover for the first time. Included in the publication are new afterwards to each book by the author, that encourage the reader to let their imaginations speculate about characters and places mentioned in the book, beyond the confines of the original story.

On the off chance that someone reading this isn't familiar with the story of Lyra Belacqua and her world, His Dark Materials is composed of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Long ago the witches of the world Lyra inhabits prophesied that a young girl would be born upon who existence as it was known would depend. Her actions would dictate the fate of not only the world in which she lived, but all worlds everywhere.

In Lyra's world each human being coexists with an extension of itself known as a daemon. Taking the form of an animal, these daemons constantly change their forms while their human is a child, only settling on one self after puberty. It's the relationship between these daemons and their people, especially between children and daemons, and how it is connected to the birth of consciousness that the trilogy revolves around.

Lyra becomes the central figure in the war to control the flow of awareness to human beings. The equivalent of scientists in her world have managed to isolate the particle which they believe carries consciousness and self-awareness to sentient beings. While decrying the existence of "Dust", as its called, as a heresy, the Church in Lyra's world is actively working to eliminate its effects upon the world. A branch of the Church has figured out that a child's daemon doesn't settle on a single form because awareness is still developing. The daemon is a manifestation of a person's awareness and once it settles, that means its person has passed from the state of innocence of childhood into the full awareness of adulthood.

Like I said, quite a heavy topic for a work supposedly geared towards a young audience, and one that you'd think would be nearly impossible for an author to make enjoyable to audiences of any age. Sounds dry as, forgive me, dust doesn't it? Yet, Philip Pullman managed to make His Dark Materials an intelligent and exciting fantasy/adventure story that's loved by millions of readers. How he did so was by the simple expedient of keeping in mind what goes into making a great story: memorable characters, exciting action, and a plot that manages to be intricate without ever becoming convoluted.

Lyra is bright, daring, and fiercely independent. Left in the care of the Scholars of her world's Oxford University in England, she's allowed to run wild. She doesn't attend school, and roams the streets of her town getting in and out of scrapes all the time. She has no compunctions about telling lies, especially if it keeps her out of trouble, and is only really scared of one person - the man she knows as her Uncle Asriel.

The two adults who figure most prominently in Lyra's life, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, are both powerful and ambitious people. They also represent the two sides in the fight between the church and science. Mrs. Coulter is in charge of the Church's attempts to isolate "Dust" and successfully remove its influence on people, while Lord Asriel is leading the fight to ensure its continued existence. While neither character is presented in the most sympathetic of lights, they both are far more complex than we originally think. In the end, they are able to set aside their differences to fight for something they both believe in - Lyra.

It's not until the second book, The Subtle Knife that we meet Will, who is the counterpart to Lyra in more than just gender. Roughly the same age, their experiences growing up couldn't be more different. First of all Will is from our world so he doesn't have a daemon companion to act as his confident. Second, unlike Lyra, he has been forced to be responsible from the time he was old enough to understand what that meant. Will's father had vanished in the Arctic leading an expedition when he was newly born, and his mother became emotionally unwell as a result. In order to prevent his mother from being institutionalized, and him being placed in a foster care, Will had to learn how to manage everything a parent normally would.

Each of the children, Lyra and Will, end up with the gift of an object that forces them to learn how to enter a heightened state of awareness. Lyra is gifted with the Golden Compass of the first book's title. The alethiometer is a strange instrument that allows the reader to know the future and find the truth of things through interpreting the symbols around the edges of its dial. Will becomes the bearer of the subtle knife that the second book takes it's title from. With it he is able to cut openings in the fabric that separates the worlds and open doors between them. The two children use their gifts to help them overcome the horrible odds they face on their quest to save "Dust", but its the shared gift of heightened awareness needed to work them that matters most in the end.

Philip Pullman says that he drew heavily upon John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost for inspiration for the His Dark Materials trilogy. However, instead of depicting the obtaining of awareness as a fall from grace, or something bad that we need to atone for, he has made it into a goal that we should all be striving to realize. The innocence we shed as we enter adulthood is in reality ignorance and there is nothing blissful about it. Finding one's true place in the universe is not an easy task - just ask Will and Lyra - as it involves sacrifices and a great deal of soul searching, but the end result is worth the struggle.

Pullman takes us on a wild and wooly trip around an imaginary universe with worlds inhabited by talking bears with prehensile thumbs who are fierce warriors, celestial beings like angels, species who've evolved into sentient beings in spite of looking nothing like us, and all sorts of other strange and mysterious creatures and wonderful people. The His Dark Materials trilogy does what all great stories should do; entertain and inform without letting one interfere with the other. This is not an easy read, nor is it as light hearted as the movie version has proven to be so far, yet they are probably the most rewarding and intelligent books of their kind that I've ever read.

This special omnibus edition of His Dark Materials can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or any on line retailer.

May 19, 2008

Logic & Reason: The Latest Victims Of HIV/AIDS

There's an old saying about health care that follows along the lines of something like an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure. That's probably not it exactly but you get the general idea; preventing an illness is a heck of a lot more effective a means of health care than curing it. It only make sense, once somebody gets sick there's no telling what could develop and how serious it could get, so it's best if they never get sick in the first place.

It seems to me that it would make even more sense when it's a disease as fatal as HIV/AIDS. There's no cure for HIV/AIDS, but there are many ways which to prevent the spread of the disease, even among those at the highest risk. Condoms for people who have sex with multiple partners and clean needles for people who inject intravenous drugs isn't a hundred percent guarantee that HIV/AIDS won't be passed from one person to another, but it's a heck of a lot safer than any of the alternatives out there.

What about abstinence you ask? Well sure, if everybody, everywhere in the world, stopped having sex before they were married and only ever screwed one person in their whole life, it would go a long way to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, I don't know what world you're living, but for the one I live in that's not what I'd call a realistic proposition for even the heterosexual population. In fact according to statistics reported in Elizabeth Pisani's wonderful book on HIV/AIDS The Wisdom Of Whores in North America alone 70% of people who sign abstinence oaths end up having pre-marital sex. As an interesting aside the majority of those people also have unprotected sex, as nobody seems to have bothered educating them about condoms.

So with evidence like that you'd think that it would be a no-brainer for there to be a concentrated effort the world over to ensure that we focus on getting condoms to people in the sex trade or in other high risk groups, and ensure that intravenous drug users are given every opportunity possible to get clean needles. Unfortunately there are people who think that people dying of a horrible disease is less important than forcing everybody live by their moral code. So the Catholic Church, conservative Christians, and fundamentalist Muslims the world over have formed an unholy alliance to ensure that people don't commit the horrible sin of practising something that could be construed as birth control or that we even give the appearance of condoning drug use..

According to these good folk the only reason to have sex is for procreation, and if you're having sex for procreation than you don't need to use a condom. Which is all very well and good, but when was the last time you knew of a prostitute having sex for reason of procreation? Or how about gay men; do you think they have procreation in mind when they have sex? Of course homosexuality is probably an even bigger no-no than birth control in the eyes of the previously mentioned trinity, so you can't expect too much in the way of compassion from them on that front.

In fact for supposedly compassionate religious people, and both Christianity and Islam have great swathes about being compassionate in their holy books, these folk seem pretty vindictive. It's amazing how many of them seem to be of the opinion that intravenous drug users and other deviants are only getting what they deserve. What's unfortunate is how many people think like this and control the purse strings when it comes to the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Everybody knows by now how not a single penny of the money that George Bush has allocated for HIV/AIDS is allowed to be given to any group that hands out or recommends condoms as a means of fighting the spread of the disease. Now it seems like his fellow traveller, Prime Minister of Canada Steven Harper, is going down the same path. His government is planning on cutting HIV/AIDS funding to community organizations that do front line prevention work to the tune of 26 million dollars and redirecting it towards the development of a vaccine.

This comes on top of the cuts which last year saw Quebec's funding reduced by 30%, Ontario's by 24%, and Alberta only being funded for six months. What worries people most is that the cuts are going to be to the programmes which focus on prevention to those people considered to be most at risk; intravenous drug users, prisoners and gay men. While nobody is arguing that funding research to develop a vaccine to prevent HIV/AIDS is a bad thing, taking money away from programming aimed at preventing the immediate spread of the disease to do so is dangerous and irresponsible.

So why is Steven Harper's government doing this? Well in the last election he ran on a platform that included a promise to try and repeal Canada's same sex marriage law, and once elected cancelled the previous government's plans at decriminalizing marijuana. If that doesn't give you some idea of this government's mindset, how about this quote from our honourable Prime Minister when it came to the question of harm reduction among addicts: "If you remain an addict, I don't care how much harm you reduce, you're going to have a short and miserable life."

This is the same government that is doing it's best to manipulate figures to show that a trial safe injection site in Vancouver British Columbia has led to more people using intravenous drugs and has caused more harm than good. The actual truth of the matter is that every time a person shoots up on their own in a controlled environment they will not be sharing a needle and not risking the spread of disease to anyone else. There is also statistical evidence that intravenous drug users who come to safe injection sites or needle exchanges are far more likely to enter into treatment programmes than people who don't, as they are in constant contact with people who will help and encourage them to rehabilitate.

Logic, reason, and statistical evidence all point towards spending money on programmes geared towards preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS is currently the most efficient and effective means we have of controlling the disease. All the statistical evidence points to the fact that needle exchanges, safe injection sites, and the use of condoms are the most effective preventative measures going, therefore it only makes sense that those are means we should be using to prevent the spread of the disease.

Unfortunately it seems that logic, reason, and statistical evidence mean nothing to people like the Prime Minister of Canada and his fellow travellers. It's obviously much more important for them to impose their morality on the rest of us, no matter how many people they kill in the process.

References to statistical evidence in this article are supported by the work of epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani's work as sited in her book The Wisdom Of Whores. You can find a listing of all her references at the reference page of her Wisdom Of Whores web site.

April 27, 2008

Book Review: Pagans In The Promised Land Steven T. Newcomb

It remains a cause of wonder to me that people express surprise at how powerful conservative Christianity is in the United States. Do they not remember who it was that sailed on board the Mayflower that put ashore at Plymouth Rock? The history that's taught to American school children says that the folk who celebrated America's first Thanksgiving were fleeing religious persecution in England. Technically I suppose that it's true they weren't being allowed the freedom to practice their brand of Christianity back home, but did anyone bother to find out what exactly they weren't being allowed to do that so impinged upon their liberty?

One doesn't need to look much further than the reign of Oliver Cromwell to understand why they weren't being allowed to do what they wanted back home. Cromwell led a Puritan revolution that saw the overthrow, and execution of King Charles 1 of England. During his reign of terror Cromwell and his Puritan followers outlawed any form of worship that wasn't in compliance with their strictures, closed all the theatres as sinful, and invaded Ireland and razed it to the ground for being Catholic. Saying that the Puritans were fleeing persecution because they weren't allowed to do what they wanted is sort of like saying denying the Klan the right to hold a lynching impinges on their civil rights.

Of course in 16th and 17 century, nearly anyone crossing an ocean anywhere and travelling to a "new world" was a Christian of some sort or another. Portuguese and Spanish sailors were circling the globe and "discovering" South America. The French and the British were dividing up North America between them as everybody was trying to find an easy way to get to the East. It was the great era of Christian exploration and conquest. According to a new book by Native American author Steven T. Newcomb, Pagans In The Promised Land, published by Fulcrum Publishing, it's here we need to look to find the roots of American policy towards the indigenous people of the North American continent.

Steven Newcomb is a columnist for Indian Country Today and co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute(ILI). In his work for ILI he works to support indigenous nations and peoples to protect their sacred and ancestral homelands, restore and revitalize traditions and to heal from the past five hundred years of colonization. A good deal of that kind of work involves finding the means to advocate for various nations in courtrooms across the United States, which in turn means he's had to make a study of the rationale behind Judicial rulings that have found both for and against Native Americans in the past.

In Pagans In The Promised Land he has distilled some of that information to offer proof of his theory that American government policy towards Native Americans has been justified by concepts of Christianity. He also categorizes the relationship of American governments towards Native Americans as one that follows an empire-domination model based on an inherent right of Christian rule by discovery.

While he offers various examples throughout the book substantiating his theory through the history of America, three concrete examples, or proofs, form the core of his argument. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull known as Inter Caetera in response to a request from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to justify their claiming any lands that Christopher Columbus discovered or may discover in the future. The only codicil that the Pope added was that no Christian King could claim any land already claimed by another. The Pope saw this as being a way of spreading a Christian Empire, fulfilling his desire to subjugate non-Christian nations, by whatever means necessary, and making them all Christian.

Those landing at Plymouth Rock claimed the land in the name of the Puritan Christian God. They may not have exercised the letter of Alexander's Papal Bull, as they weren't Catholic, but they sure followed its spirit through their treatment of the local indigenous population. Yet, according to Newcomb, while the Inter Caetera may have defined their relationship with Native Americans, it has been American governments likening themselves to the Israelites of the Old Testament in Exodus and America as "The Promised Land" that has had the farthest reaching consequences.

The Puritans saw themselves as the Chosen People and the new world as their promised land where they would be able to live as they wanted, but it didn't stop with them. Benjamin Franklin suggested to the Continental Congress that Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea should appear on the Great Seal of the United States, while Thomas Jefferson said it should depict the Israelites crossing into the Promised Land guided by clouds and fire. Both images were designed to reinforce the image of Americans as The Chosen People and America as the Promised Land.

Of course, as in the Old Testament, in America there were Canaanites who needed to be smitten before the Chosen People could move into their Promised Lands, and smitten they have been. According to various proofs offered by Newcomb throughout the book this mindset has permeated the attitude taken by America during their expansion across America and their treatment of Indigenous people's everywhere.

One of the key arguments in his book in support of his theory that the relationship between the American government and the Native population is based on the rule of Christian discovery is a legal case from the 1820s - Johnson v. McIntosh. Chief Justice John Marshall actually based his ruling in part upon the Papal Bull of 1493. In the case he said that the discovery of "heathens" by Christian people gave the Christians "ultimate dominion" over the "discovered Indian". This decision has never been overturned and remains the legal foundation for all American government dealings with the Native populations of the Americans.

Steven Newcomb has studied judicial history, and has in some ways approached this work like a lawyer proving his case in court. Fortunately, he refrains from using legal terminology, whenever possible, and has formulated his case in a way that all lay people can understand. The other thing to realize is that this book has been written for a native audience to help them understand the situation they face. One of the parts I found wonderful about this book was how he offers cognitive counsel for Native people to help them overcome the mindset of feeling like they are a conquered people. He reminds them that governments can not control how they think, what they imagine, how they use their language, or where they direct their attention. As long as they remember that, and continue to work on keeping their languages, traditions, and cultures alive, no matter what constraints the government puts on them they will still be free.

Pagans In The Promised Land is a must read for anybody wishing to understand what truly motivates American policy towards the Indigenous people's within in its borders. While at times it can make for a depressing and angering read, the author ends with a message of hope that is applicable for people anywhere in the world struggling to maintain their identity in the face of what seems to be overwhelming odds.

April 8, 2008

China, Tibet, And The Olympic Games

There are layers of irony surrounding the protests over China's occupation of Tibet and the forthcoming Olympic Games in Beijing that would make an onion envious. From the signs that read "Free Tibet" to the fact that China was even awarded the Olympic Games in the first place it's hard to know where to even start. What do people have in mind when they demand a free Tibet? What were the International Olympic Committee(IOC) thinking when they awarded a country that depends on slave labour and has one of the world's worst human rights records in the world the Olympic Games?

The Dali Lama has captured the imaginations of people in the West for the past few decades in the way that no other spiritual leader, except maybe the last Pope, has been able to. He is welcomed in nation's capitals the world over, and people of all faiths hang onto his every world as if he has some particular insight into the human condition that everyone else has missed. Supposedly, he is the reincarnation of a previous Dali Lama, and was anointed as such when he was a young child by the hierarchy within the Tibetan Buddhist priesthood.

The royal families of Europe use to have this quaint notion call the Divine Right of Kings, (and Queens). Since they were God's appointed rulers of their country's they were above reproach from lesser beings, like their subjects, and their word was law. Who, after all, could gainsay them if God had put their buts on the throne. That was all very well and good as long as the majority of a country's population remained downtrodden, and dependant on their feudal lord for survival.

Once the economic picture started to change and a middle class of educated and monied people started to emerge, people weren't willing to buy that line anymore. Kings and Queens were reduced to being merely human and lost most of their authority. That doesn't mean there aren't countries in the world that are either theocracies or ruled by someone who considers themselves a divine ruler. Prior to the Chinese invasion year ago, Tibet was one of those countries.

What freedoms are people demanding so vociferously on behalf of Tibetans exactly? The freedom to revert back to being the feudal theocracy they were prior to the Chinese invasion? Where every man, woman, and child who was not part of the priesthood spent their lives in servitude to the monks. Much as in feudal Europe the labour of many was used to sustain a select few who claimed that God had selected them to rule.

While the Church in Europe promised the masses eternal salvation in the afterlife as a reward for their suffering and threatened damnation in hell if they stepped out of line, Tibetans were offered the solace of potential reincarnation as something better off the next time around if they toed the line. They'd only themselves to blame that they were toiling in the fields this time; obviously they hadn't earned enough merit badges in their previous life to be elevated up to the next rung on the ladder of enlightenment.

People need to be asking themselves what would happen in Tibet if the Chinese were to withdraw tomorrow and the Dali Lama found himself reinstated. This is a country that has gone from one form of autocratic rule to another, and has no history of anything remotely resembling representational government. Would political parties miraculously spring up overnight? Who would be responsible for crafting a constitution that would create the Free Tibet, they are calling for? Or would they be satisfied if the country were to return to a feudal theocracy where the population was in thrall to the priesthood?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying any of this as an endorsement of the poor, put upon, misunderstood Chinese government either. This is a government that turned tanks upon its own people twenty years ago, that still routinely puts people in jail and even executes them for being a little too outspoken in their opposition. Yet somehow they expect us to swallow the crap they're spouting about peace, friendship, and harmony and that their decision to send the Olympic Torch on a global relay was to encourage people to build a more harmonious, better tomorrow.

The Olympic Games have been about propaganda since Hitler tried to turn them into a showcase for White supremacy in 1936, and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional at best. Why else would countries like the United States who barely spend a cent on social programs, dump millions of dollars into amateur sport, or China, where millions of people live without running water, build an entire network of Olympic facilities from scratch in only eight years? It's just another variation on the age old pissing contest.

When the decision was made to award Beijing the Olympic games do you think that the boys in the IOC gave any consideration to the human rights situation in China? Do you think they cared that all those shiny new facilities would be made with what was virtually slave labour? I doubt those considerations even crossed their minds, and why should it? They've never troubled themselves about trivialities like that in the past; why break with tradition now?

The Chinese government figures it can tighten the screws in Tibet and not worry about anyone boycotting these Olympics because the whole of the industrialized world has been whoring itself to them for the last decade. Just the thought of a billion people waiting to be served has CEO's salivating and frothing at the mouth like a pack of rabid dogs. If they're really lucky they might even be able to go into business with the Chinese and open a factory there. China is every corporations idea of a wet dream; no environmental regulations, no unions, no health and safety standards to worry about maintaining, and best of all, a population in desperate need of employment.

No government will dare and rock that boat or they will find themselves replaced in the next election by someone more "sensitive" to the needs of the business community. It's amazing how the words freedom and human rights can vanish when they no longer serve your purposes. It's all right to fight for human rights in Afghanistan and freedom in Iraq, but not in China, and the Chinese government knows it.

The real irony of this whole business is there are so many reasons for people to be protesting against China being awarded the Olympic Games, and yet they've latched onto a cause which has no meaning. Instead of demonstrating against the horrors of life inside of China; starvation, cultural genocide, slave labour, environmental horrors, and the absence of anything even resembling individual rights, they've taken up the cause of a feudal theocracy.

If it wasn't so sad it would be funny, as it is it's just sort of pathetic. Protesting for a free Tibet has done China a huge favour by diverting attention away from the real problems that exist in that country. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Chinese staged it all just for that reason?

February 20, 2008

Book Review The Age Of Shiva Manil Suri

When India was given her independence in 1948 it should have been a time of celebration. After decades of protest and a failed revolution in the 19th century, she was finally stepping out from under the heel of her colonial master Great Britain to be a unified country for the first time in centuries. Instead it was a time of horrible turmoil and sectarian violence, as in their last act of contempt for their former subjects the British arbitrarily split the country into Muslim and Hindu halves.

While in theory Muslims and Hindus could have stayed on in what were to become Pakistan and India, in practice people fled in both directions in fear of their lives. Families left homes that they had lived in for generations with nothing more than what they could carry on their backs. The British troops who were supposed to oversee the transit of people from one part of the country to another somehow or other never materialized and thousands of people died in riots.

Is it any wonder that India's first prime minister, Nerhu, dreamed of a secular state where what mattered was your nationality not your religion? Unfortunately bigotry is stronger than dreams, and it's easier to hold on to hatred than to learn tolerance. People are always going to need someone to blame their troubles on (heaven forbid they take responsibility for their own actions) and there's nothing like the convenience of a readily available scape-goat. So in spite of Nerhu's desires, and Gandhi's death at the hands of a fanatical Hindu must have given an inkling of the obstacles he would have to overcome, India in the years immediately following partition was a powder keg of resentments just looking for a fuse and match.
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Manil Suri's recently released novel, The Age Of Shiva begins in 1955, just prior to the festivities marking the 7th anniversary of India's independence. Meera Sawhney is seventeen when the story opens and according to her father, a firm believer in Nerhu's secular state, her generation is the one that will shake off the shackles of religion and the blinkers of tradition and lead India into the modern world. Yet if her father is the future of India her mother is the past. Deeply religious and illiterate she was married to Meera's father at the age of ten, and moved in with him four years after their marriage.

While Meera's father is extolling the virtues of a woman making her own way in the world to his three daughters, her mother fills their childhood with tales of Shiva, his wife Parvati, their son Ganesh, and the rest of the pantheon of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. In spite of their different views on the world the parents agree that Meera's life, as second daughter, should revolve around her elder sister Roopa. It seems her father's protestations of fairness and equality don't play out in practice as well as they do in theory, and it's this hypocrisy, combined with resentment at the bullying she receives at the hands of Roopa that end up dictating Meera's early life choices.

Roopa is enamoured of Dev, the younger son of a poor rail yard employee's family, who has the romantic appeal of being a gifted amateur singer. Meera's first glimpse of Dev is from a darkened balcony as he is crooning a sentimental ballad made popular in the movies on his way to winning a singing competition during the Independence Day festivities of 1955. Listening to a recording of Nerhu's speech from Independence Day, declaiming a future of opportunities, elicits thoughts in Meera of stealing Dev away from her sister and having him sing only for her.

With Roopa all of a sudden engaged to an appropriate suitor, Meera puts herself in Dev's way, with the result that she finds herself having to live her fantasy and marry him. Suddenly she is removed from her comfortable life of upper middle class ease to living in a two room house with her husband's family in the rail yards. She also receives her first introduction to the politics of Hindu nationalism and virulent anti-Muslim sentiments at the feet of her father-in -law.

In many ways Meera's life with Dev; the choices that she is faced with, and the decisions she reaches, are a reflection of the choices and decisions India as a country deals with. Yet while there is much of her life that is specific to India, plenty of what she experiences will be familiar to all women of that generation. I only have to think of women of my mother's generation, who who were encouraged to receive an education, but not allowed to do anything with it. Unlike their mothers they know there is more to life than being a servant to their husbands whims, and are not fulfilled by being a house wife.

With no real job opportunities aside from a menial one translating for a publishing house, and the reality of being married to Dev not coming anywhere near to living up to her fantasy, it's not until the birth of her son that Meera feels any sense of fulfillment. Unfortunately, as happened with so many women of that time with no other options, she pours everything into her son to the point of unhealthy obsession.
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The Age Of Shiva is a fascinating study of an individual's desperate search for identity and purpose. While Meera's elder sister Roopa is able to play the game of upper middle class matron, and her younger sister gains identity through scholarship, she is stuck somewhere in between. She can't find solace in religion like her mother or her husband's family, but than again nothing the secular world has to offer brings her any comfort either. The obsessive nature of her love for her son is of course dangerous in that she will be left with no identity of her own when he leaves home.

Of equal interest is tale of India that plays out in the background, a history that I was unfamiliar with before now. I had known about the attempts by Pakistan to invade the territory of Kashmir, and of an earlier war with China, but had not known that the United States had armed Pakistan for it's wars against India as far back as the 1960's. Facts like that go a long way to understanding the feelings of resentment and betrayal that the Muslim countries of that part of the world must feel at the way their former allies now treat them.

The Age Of Shiva is a well told narrative with fully realized characters, that provides insights into the struggles educated women of the post World War two generation faced in many societies. They could see what would it be like to have their own identity, but were not allowed to touch it.

December 5, 2007

Book Review: Sovereign Bones: New Native American Writing Edited By Eric Gansworth

"Why do you insist on calling yourselves Indian?" asks a white woman in a nice hat..."Listen" I say. "The word belongs to us now. We are Indians. That has nothing to do with Indians from India. We are not American Indians. We are Indians, pronounced In-din. It belongs to us. We own it and we're not going to give it back"... So much has been taken from us that we hold on to the smallest things left with all the strength we have. Sherman Alexie, "The Unauthorised Biography Of Me" Sovereign Bones 2007
Why do you write? Me, I write because I don't feel whole unless I get my fix everyday. I'm sure the same goes for everybody who feels the urge to paint, sing, dance, yodel, build, photograph, chip stone, melt steel, carve wood, and recreate something they've heard, seen, imagined, visualized, conceptualized, or dreamed. Each day we get up and put fingers to keyboard, piano keys, guitar strings, paintbrushes, modeling clay, microphones, hammers, pencils, charcoal, and paint and take a stab at godhood by attempting creation.

A short story writer, you start to write but are brought up short when you realize you're writing in a foreign language. An Englishman or North American writes in English because that's the language of her people. French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Celtic, Zulu, Swahili, Mongolian, and Russian alike can all write in the language that their ancestors have spoken a variation of for generations.
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Your grandparents had their names stolen from their tongues and your parents have the vocabulary of infants, while you are illiterate and mute in the language of your people. The voice you once thought so alive, now sounds dead in your ears as it tell your stories, the stories of your people, in words that have no bearing on the subject matter, and that don't believe in the same things you do.

Sovereign Bones published by Nation Books and distributed in Canada by Publisher Group Canada is a collection of writings by contemporary Native American artists about what it's like to be an artist when your culture hasn't been yours for more than a century. It can't be "Indian" if it doesn't have braids, feathers, and buckskins riding a horse with mournful dignity into the sunset because today is a good day to die.

Anyone who does any creative work at all knows just how difficult it can be without any additional demands being made upon your already taxed brain. Can you imagine what it would be like to put your heart and soul into a painting, and be told that there is no such thing as contemporary art from your people? Artistically you only exist in the past as artefacts picked over by those who know that modern Indians have nothing to say; nothing to say that matches everybody's conception of what an Indian is anyway. Why doesn't your stuff look like other great Indian artists, like you know, Edward Curtis?

Actor's, writers, poets, painters, sculptors, photographers, film makers, fashion designers, and musicians alike have run into the wall of 'it's not Indian enough to be Indian', no matter how Indian they are. Indian men are noble stoic warriors or drunks who talk in short clipped sentences that are filled with meaning. Indian women are meek, and docile who over the centuries have been exploited by their lazy husbands, or beautiful Princesses waiting for the just the right European they can fall in love with for a little bit of that starred crossed lover stuff that can end tragically for all parties involved leaving everybody older and wiser. (It's okay to have your bit of fun with the pretty Indian girl, but don't bring her home to mother is the moral of that story)
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Yet in spite of this, or maybe if they're contrary enough, (it's no coincidence that in many traditions the creator is also a trickster who works in opposition to what makes sense), because of this, it hasn't stopped people from all nations from doing just what they are meant to do. Creating works of art that are about them and their people in the world around them, just like the rest of the world's artists.

Perhaps like Wayne Eagleboy's painting "We The People" near the beginning of this review they will make social political commentary? Perhaps like Shelly Niro's installation at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, (pictured to the right), of "Skywoman", they will tell their traditional tales. But she hasn't used any feathers or buckskin, and what's with the turtle – where's the buffalo?

Buffalo never played any role in the life of the Haudenosaunee, people of the long house, or Iroquois Confederacy, in the woodlands north and south of the St. Lawrence River in what are now New York State, and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec in Canada. Nor did men wear the full headdress of feathers; at least not until the 1950's and they wanted people to pay attention to them as Indians.

No one is surprised when they find out that German and French people have a history of different styles of dress, music, art, literature, and architecture, even though they share a common border. Yet these same people refuse to understand two distinct nations that live over a thousand miles apart can be just as different. From the food eaten, to the clothes they wore, the only thing the Lakota, or any of the other people from what is now North and South Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota have in common with the Six Nations who are the Haudenosaunee, is they were conquered by Europeans.

Sovereign Bones is by turns heartbreaking, life affirming, inspiring, and most of all real. Each artist, no matter what their medium, relate what it is they are trying to do as artists, and what it's like to be an Indian artist today. The burden of recovering what is so close to be being lost forever has been placed squarely on their collective shoulders. To each of them falls the task of keeping alive the collective unconscence of their people in a world that doesn't recognize that differences between their people exist.

Maybe I can think of something that would be as difficult to cope with as an artist, but not right off the top of my head. It's hard enough as it is getting published without having to fight against other people's expectations of what my work should be like for it to be my work.

"Sherman," says the critic, "How does the oral tradition apply to your work?"..."Well", I say, as I hold my latest book close to me, "It doesn't apply at all because I typed this. And when I'm typing, I'm really, really quiet." Sherman Alexie "The Unauthorized Autobiography Of Me" Sovereign Bones 2007

December 3, 2007

Immigrants In Canada And The U.S.: Multiculturalism Vs. The Melting Pot. Pt. Two

This is part two of a look at the supposed differences between the United States and Canada when it comes to the integration of immigrants into our respective societies. Canada has long clung to the designation of a "Cultural Mosaic" while making disparaging comments about the United States being a melting pot. Is that a fair assessment on the part of Canadians, or do they need to watch out for their glasshouses if they're going to throw stones at the Americans. Part Two continues from where Part One left off.

In the year of her centennial, 1967, Canada hosted it's first major international event, The World's Fair –"Man And His World" was both its title and lofty theme. The event was held in Montreal, at the time Canada's largest and most cosmopolitan city. With pavilions from countries all over the world, it was the epitome of a Multicultural celebration, and Canada appeared to be the a leading light in a brave new, multicultural world.

However, Canada is first and foremost a bi-cultural nation – French and English – and in 1967 Quebec nationalism was beginning to crest. "The Quiet Revolution" of French speaking intellectuals and nationalists of the early sixties had divided into two camps. Those who followed the thinking of Pierre Trudeau that Quebec was part of Canada and her problems could be solved at the federal level of politics, and those who believed as Rene Leveque did that only a Quebec separate from the rest of Canada could guarantee the rights of French Canadians.

Bombs set off by the Front de Liberation Quebec (FLQ) had blown up the occasional mailbox in the streets of Quebec since the early 1960s, but had never really been considered a threat to the community. That all changed in the fall of 1970 when they kidnapped Quebec's Minister of Justice, Pierre Laporte, and the British High Commissioner to Quebed, James Cross. When Laporte's corpse was found in the trunk of a car conciliatory talk went out the window and Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act.

A little known clause in the old Canadian Constitution allowed the Prime Minister to suspend the civil liberties of all Canadians in times of dire emergencies and bring the army out into the streets to enforce order. While the authority wasn't abused on the federal level, in Montreal thousands of people were rounded up by the police and held without charges. That some of them were the incumbent mayor's, Jean Drapeau, political opponents in upcoming municipal elections only increased people's anger.

It becomes difficult to lay claim to being a multicultural society when the two largest cultural groups are unable to reconcile their differences. It becomes even more difficult when sudden influxes of visible minorities exposes latent racism lurking just below our civilized, multicultural, surface.

In the early to mid 1970's events in the wider world caused an influxe of visible minorities to enter Canada refugee claimants. In 1973 Idi Amin Dada, supreme ruler of Uganda, took it into his head to expel the entire South East Asian community in his country. Thousands of people were left suddenly bereft of homes and cast adrift into the world.

While the Canadian government opened the country's borders to them, her citizens were another story altogether. It got to the point that it wouldn't matter if you had been one of those misfortunate enough to be a refugee or not; as long you were a certain colour you were considered open season by the red necks and other scum.

People were accosted and beaten in Toronto Ontario's subway cars in full view of fellow passengers - who either were too stunned to help or didn't care enough. The "Paki" joke entered the lexicon of the racist and to this day some (half)-wit will crack up the room with one of those disgusting examples of ignorance – excusing themselves with the disclaimer "that it's only a bit of fun".

Bigots are bigots and there is nothing to be done about them but fighting back by making certain it is obvious, their behaviour is unacceptable. In the city of Toronto and its suburbs, where the majority of the attacks took place, credit has to be given to local politicians for taking practical steps to curtail the attacks. They followed that up by implementing zero tolerance policies to racist activities in the school boards under their control, ensuring that it wasn't going to on the unofficial curriculum of any school.

Even more heartening were the reactions from other minority communities, and faith groups throughout the city, who spoke out against the attacks and the attitude behind them. As it became clear that people were serious about zero tolerance – including not being afraid to press alarm strips installed in subway cars to alert the police an attack was happening, and doing what they could to stop attacks while they were occurring – the physical violence stopped.

Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about what people think and feel, and the ingrained fears of the different and unknown that are the root cause of racism are still as prevalent today as they were thirty years ago. On the face of it, Canada appears to be a shining example of multicultural tolerance, but there too many worrying trends that give lie to that appearance.

If we were truly so multicultural why are conservative politicians able to score political points by playing on people's fears of the immigrant? Not only are all the old lies still being trotted out: "they steal our jobs", "they leach off our social systems", but new ones have been invented. Let there be one incident of strife within a minority community and you can count on a politician to start bleating about "bringing their wars to our streets" and innocent (read blonde blue-eyed, children) bystanders being caught in the crossfire. They don't bother to mention that 99% of people who come to Canada have done so because those wars have made them refugees, and they want their children to grow up in a place where they aren't potential innocent bystanders.

If it weren't so appalling, it would be amazing to hear how so called pundits are able to equate multiculturalism with nationalism. They play on people's fears by asking them if they want their neighbourhood to turn into another Rwanda or Bosnia, as if hundreds of years of history, and the political and social climate of those two countries, had nothing to do with the events that happened there. They take one grain of truth, ethnic violence happened in those places, and distort it to mean that anytime two or more ethnic groups are gathered in one place you are guaranteed a firestorm.

Therefore, immigration equals multiculturalism; multiculturalism equals nationalism; and the result is fire in the streets and dark skinned barbarians raping lily-white girls. The sad part is that though their words are lies – they succeed in fermenting an atmosphere of intolerance that leads to the death of a pluralistic society. Even sadder is the ease with which they are able to achieve this result.

It means that despite claims to the contrary, Canada is no more tolerant of immigrants and cultural differences then anybody else, including our neighbour to the south. Canada has hidden its intolerance behind a facade of happy ethnic groups performing happy ethnic dances one afternoon a year in the community hall. We've lied to ourselves, or let ourselves be lied to, and called that multiculturalism.

When Jacques Parizeau, the former leader of the Quebec separatist political party, the Parti Quebecois, blurted out that immigrants voting no in the last referendum on separation lost French Canada the chance to separate from Canada, he was pillared in the press. Nevertheless, his attitude was an accurate reflection of what appears to be two, very common, sentiments in Canada – immigrants are to blame and have no business in the business of "our" country.

In the United States, the current administration relied on generating fear of the unknown and the different in order to get the backing of the population for implementing their various policies – domestic and foreign. Anti-American Canadians have taken great joy in ridiculing these attitudes and the intolerance they have fostered. That's what happens, they say, when you try to assimilate everyone – intolerance and fear of the unknown dictate your behaviour.

It's time for Canadians to get off their high horses and wipe that smirk off their faces. For all our claims of tolerance because of preaching multiculturalism, we are no different. The same fears and intolerance exist in Canada as they do in the United States. We can blame it on the recent administration in Canada if we want, but that's as much a lie as any of the others we tell ourselves. If it didn't already exist, the current crop of politicians wouldn't have been able to exploit it so successfully.

We were able to pretend otherwise for a while, but when it has come to the test, our multiculturalism has proven no more effective in creating a pluralistic society than the melting pot of the United States. We are both countries that were built on the backs of immigrants, but the race of the original colonial masters still rule and seems intent on never letting go.

In spite of the differences in name that each country adapted toward its immigration policies – there has been no real difference in result. The prevailing attitude towards immigrants, or anybody different from "us" is that of fear and intolerance. Welcome to Fortress North America.

November 13, 2007

Blissful Ignorance

Anybody who has ever experienced the loss of someone they loved dearly probably understands the feeling of wondering why the world didn't come to a screeching halt with the person's death. How can it be business as usual when he's dead? What does it matter what the latest gossip is about some Hollywood or Bollywood star when she's dead?

Well that's how I feel all the time. How can people be so complacent in the face of what we are putting the planet and her people through? In North America I'd hazard a guess and say the nine out of ten people are somehow actively hastening the destruction. Every time one person climbs behind the wheel of an SUV to just drive around the city by themselves they are increasing the demand for fuel and replacing oxygen in the air with carbon dioxide.

How about living in a world where we reached critical mass in population years ago, but millions of people still believe that practicing birth control of any kind is sinful. Isn't it a worse sin to have children come into a world where they are not wanted or there isn't enough food to feed them? How many children die of starvation each day? How many are neglected, emotionally, physically, or sexually abused because there's nobody who cares anymore?

In 2005 the world watched in horror as first New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina that forced thousands upon thousands of people to become refugees. Three months latter the Indian Ocean exploded with tsunami that destroyed villages and coastal towns forcing hundreds of thousands of people into temporary camps and shelters. Concert were given, speeches were made, and money was raised to try and help the people in both locations rebuilt their lives.

Instead of housing being rebuilt and lives resurrected the land where fishing villages have stood for generations is being sold to developers to make hotel /condominium complexes that cater to the rich tourist trade. This government sanctioned land theft (a government official in India called it a "golden opportunity") is echoed in New Orleans where the city is refusing to repair any flood damage until people come home.

But how can people come home if they have no homes, and no infrastructure to serve them. According to Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine if the government has their way the people will never come home and the whole area will be converted into private housing well out of the range of it's original inhabitants' pocketbooks.

Is anybody keeping track of all the countries where we are killing each other? Iraq and Afghanistan of course come to mind first because we in the West are involved in those ones so they "merit" our attention. Does anybody remember the reason that George had for invading Iraq – Weapons of Mass Destruction that nobody has yet to find a trace of.

Has anybody asked why George is so determined to keep spending the lives of his citizens on a daily basis in Iraq? It wouldn't be because they haven't finished stripping the country of all her assets could it. That they aren't going to leave until they've sold off every scrap of useful property and service to the people who bought him power has become increasingly obvious to everybody but the United States public.

Over the years, North Americas have perfected the ability to be completely self-absorbed and ignorant of the world around them. Until of course the minute it affects them. We hide behind our gadgets and our noise so that we can't see or hear anything around us until its far too late and somebody flies an airplane into our buildings.

It's our behaviour out in the rest of the world, or at least the behaviour of those whom people take to be our representatives that goes a long way towards creating resentment. When the multinationals come in and strip mine a country of its natural resources the locals don't think too fondly of them or the country they come from.

Since they were allowed into the country in the first place because the International Monetary Fund (IMF) made the government sell off nationally owned assets at a penny to the dollar there's bound to be a little local resentment. Especially since the IMF also makes governments stop spending money on infrastructure and social services like education and health.

Yet, I'm sure if you were to ask, the majority of people in North America would have no idea that the IMF policies worked to take money out of the countries they were supposed to be helping. If we don't become aware of what's being done by agencies in the control of our governments to other countries soon we won't understand why they are so upset with us half the time.

I don't believe I have any special powers, or am I super intelligent, but I try to keep myself up to date about what is happening in the world. Doing so makes me realize that while not on the verge of complete disaster, our situation is precarious. It also makes me want to walk down the street shaking people to let know that there is something beyond their iPods and iPhones that they need to start worrying about.

October 26, 2007

Canadian Politics: Intolerance Rising

When you witness a sudden change in the attitudes of a majority of people in your community it raises a number of questions. The first question you are bound to ask is how could so many people change their minds so fast. Perhaps what you should be asking yourself though is not why or how the change happened, but how much of a change was it really. What might have looked on the surface to be the truth about people's beliefs had no real depth and was as easily dispersed as topsoil in a dust bowl.

Canada has developed a reputation as being a tolerant country over the years and seemingly has some of the most liberal attitudes on issues of race, sexual identity, and gender discrimination. Ever since the implementation of the Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1980 any legislation or activity that would allow for the discrimination of anyone based on race, gender, religion, creed, or sexual preferences have been successfully challenged and overturned.

When this has been combined with Canada's willingness to support progressive legislation in the health care field like supplying patients with medical marijuana and our former reputation as Nobel Prize for Peace winner because of peacekeeping efforts it certainly makes us appear to a kind and compassionate country. But there's a difference between what can be legislated and what are the genuine feelings of a people.

As long as people aren't confronted with situations that stretch there tolerances, they usually are able to live up to the laws of the land. Unfortunately, it looks like Canada's famous tolerance was only skin deep and at the first sign of trouble has up and vanished. Currently it's the ugly smell of racism mixed with xenophobia that's wafting around the halls of power and the streets of cities, towns, and villages.

It started innocently enough with Elections Canada, the government agency responsible for administering elections, declaring that Muslim women wouldn't have to remove their veil in order to vote, in spite of their being a new law in place requiring picture identification in order to vote. Elections Canada was willing to make an exception to this law in order to respect the traditions of devout Muslims if they did not feel comfortable revealing their faces in public.

In response Prime Minister Steven Harper came out and said he "profoundly disagreed with this decision" and that he hoped Elections Canada would change their mind. It was Harper's government that passed the new legislation, demanding visual identification of voters, so it's not surprising he'd object to the decision.

While in of itself this seems more like an etiquette decision, how to accommodate someone's religious beliefs in a situation where they come into conflict with the law, it should be asked why wasn't this issue considered when the legislation was being created. Secondly, in the past when this type of conflict has arisen, governments have acted with a little more flexibility then Stephen Harper is it this situation.

When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) first started taking Sikhs on as officers, it was decided that they could wear their turbans instead of the regular headgear, as it would not interfere with their ability to do their job. On the other hand Sikhs who took construction jobs would have to wear a hard had. Instead of showing any sensitivity to the needs of another's religious belief, and trying to find a compromise like was achieved in the case of Sikhs, it can only be all or nothing for Mr. Harper.

Of course as is the case with most politics, there is a subtext that might help explain his stance and the lack of anything being said by the opposition in answer to his statement. It has to do with the current political situation in Quebec, where they are experiencing a sharp increase in xenophobia. When the small town of Herouxville Quebec passed bylaws prohibiting the wearing of the bukra, and stoning as forms of punishment, just in case they ever had to deal with hoards of Muslim immigrants, they were looked upon as a group of intolerable red neck bigots.

But, in the last provincial election, the party who ran on a nationalistic/protect us from the immigrants/ platform ended up in opposition in a minority government situation. Although the Premier spoke out against xenophobia he formed a commission of inquiry to go from community to community to let these bigots have their say in public. So now, all levels of government feel like they have to try and appease these folks and reassure them that if the Muslims invade Quebec disguised as immigrants looking for a better life, they won't be given any special treatment.

Did I mention that there were three seats being contested in by-elections in Quebec right about now as well? Do you think that may have anything to do with any of these signals being sent out to the ultra nationalists in Quebec?

While the whole issue of whether an Islamic women be asked to remove her veil for identification purposes before voting may seem trivial. (We never had to produce any identification at all to vote in Canada except proof that you were on the voters list and that makes me wonder about the validity of the new law requesting ID anyway) However, against the new background of fear mongering and xenophobia that is beginning to fester in Quebec and elsewhere it takes on the appearance of being a symptom of a growing intolerance to anybody who is different.

What kind of message do we send when even the slightest accommodation for another's religious practices is called wrong? Where has our tolerance gone for another person's differences, or did they even exist in the first place? Fear of something because you don't understand it is the behaviour of a coward, and intolerance is the coward's defence against fear. Are we a country of cowards?

October 25, 2007

Book Review: "They Called Me Meyar July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust Mayer Kishenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

In 1980, my mother and I moved into an apartment in the neighbourhood she had spent a large part of her childhood. Forty-seven years earlier when she'd been brought home from the hospital five blocks south of where she now lived just north of Spadina and College in Toronto Ontario. In 1933, Cecile Street and it's environs, The Kensington Market area of Toronto, was still primarily Jewish, and home to a good many immigrant families who had fled Europe one if not two generations ago.

Although some families had already gained a good enough measure of success by this time for Jewish enclaves to be established in slightly more affluent areas of the city, Kensington Market was still home to a large percentage of the city's Jewish population. By this time, many families had children like my mother who represented a second generation born in Canada but life remained hard for them. It was the middle of the depression and work was scarce, especially for minority immigrants.

When I used to walk through the neighbourhood in the early eighties when we moved back you, could still see traces of the old community. A sign on an old building advertising a kosher butcher, or a house on a back street that was still an active synagogue, reminders of an earlier time when a village had moved over together and people had done their best to create a familiar atmosphere in a foreign environment.

In the years from my mother's birth leading up to September 1939 when the German's invaded Poland, a thin trickle of new immigrants arrived with whispers of a new pogrom, far worse then any the Tsars had conducted, being carried out by the Nazis. It is to Canada's and the United States' eternal shame that they refused to lift their quota's on how many Jews were allowed entry at that time in spite of having impartial reports confirming the round up of Jewish people in Germany and the confiscating of all their property.
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Mayer Kershenblatt was one of the lucky ones who got out before the war started, and came to Canada from the village of Apt in Poland in 1934. When he had a family of his own he would regale them with tales of life in the Jewish community in the small city to the point that later in life his daughter, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, encouraged him to try and bring the people and places to life through paintings.

It wasn't until one day when he was meeting some friends and realized that no matter what happened their conversation would turn to reliving their days in the concentration camps. It was as if no life existed before the war for any of them. In his introduction to,They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust, Mayer recounts these conversations as being the motivation for finally surrendering to his daughter's wishes that he set brush to canvas in an attempt to preserve the memory of Jewish life before the war in Poland.

At seventy-three Mayer started to attend drawing and painting classes in order to create a visual record of the time. His method for a painting was simple he says, first he needed a subject, and then the subject had to have a story attached; either one he knew first hand, was told by fellow citizens of Apt, or that had been written down in the "Apt Chronicles" the memorial book of his town.

When people began to show significant interest in the paintings; an exhibition and offers to buy work surely count as interest, Mayer and Barbara began to piece together the stories of life in Apt he had been telling her since her childhood to work as complements to the paintings. They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust, published by University Of California Press, is the end result of their joint efforts to ensure that the life of a vibrant community won't vanish from our memories like the smoke from a chimney dissipated in the wind.

The narrative and the paintings are all from the viewpoint of a child, but filtered through an adults understanding of how the world works. What could have easily turned into an exercise in sentimental nostalgia for something that never existed, is instead a steadfastly honest depiction filled with the excitement and wonder that a child bears for the world.

On the one hand, we experience the author's joy at adventuring out into the millpond in a small skiff with his friends and pretending to be pirates, much as children the world over create imaginary worlds for themselves. However, we also read of the tenements where families sleep five to a bed while sharing a room with two or three other families. This is no simplistic singing of praises to the good old days that suggests we would all be better off if we only lived like they did back then.

Things that we take for granted now, such as a ready and easy supply of water, aren't available to the people of Apt. Either they hire a porter to carry the water to them as required or they make the trip to one of the town's two wells. Mayer describes in detail all of those who congregate at the water, from the town prostitute, the soldiers from the local barracks, and of course the housewives who would also stay to exchange the latest gossip.
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At first glance, the illustrations appear to be simplistic; work that any grade school student might have done with his or her mother's fridge door the intended gallery. But on closer inspection you realize you are looking at work of a sophistication that belies it's appearance. The detail that is included in each of the works is astounding, from the wall murals that decorate the interior of the synagogue to the elaborate ritual of the Black Marriage staged in the Jewish cemetery.

Of my mother's family it was her father's Romanian people whose stories I was most familiar with. Her mother's Polish family was always something of a mystery. I never heard stories of what their life was like for them back in Poland in spite of the fact that all my grandmother's brothers and sisters were born there. But after reading, and experiencing They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories Of A Jewish Childhood In Poland Before The Holocaust I can image in my head the streets they may have walked down before they came to Canada.

In the past century there have been attempts to erase various peoples from the annals of world history. From the Armenians and Kurds in the Middle East, indigenous peoples throughout the world, to the Holocaust. As a result, we run the risk of losing the stories of these people's lives in specific places and times. Each people are a unique strand in the tapestry that make up who so many of us are today that to allow those stories to vanish would be to throw away a piece of our selves.

Mayer Kirshenblatt and Barbara Kirshenblatt –Gmblet have given the world the precious gift of bringing the town of Apt back to life. Leafing through the pages of They Called Me Mayer July you can almost hear the sound of the Klezmar band as they perform in accompaniment to the Purim Play "A Krakow Wedding". As Mayer is peeking through a window in his painting of this scene to try and catch a glimpse of the performance, we are peeking through the window of his eyes catching glimpses of what life was like in Poland for Jews before it was ended so horifically.

No on can bring the past back to life, or reverse the course of time and history, but we can strive to ensure that people are not forgotten and that their memories are cherished. As long as one copy of They Called Me Mayer July exists the people of Apt Poland will live on indefinitely. Now that's a blessing.

October 9, 2007

Family Obligation

In Canada we start the family obligation - holiday season a lot earlier than our neighbours to the South. This weekend that just past was our version of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and while it doesn't start the official opening of the panic before Christmas, it does mark the beginning of the long descent into family hell.

Does that sound a wee bit bitter? Could be because it is. Now I'm not saying that there aren't families who genuinely enjoy each other's company, and look forward to the times they get together as a single unit. However, isn't it about time we acknowledge that there are an equal number who would as soon skinny dip with piranhas as spend "quality time" with their families.

Why is it that we consider the family unit so sacred in the first place? True there are other examples in the animal kingdom of families staying together; prides of lions, wolf packs, and troops of the great apes and monkeys are either made up of family groups or are a family unto themselves. But that's largely due to their need for either safety in numbers or for ease of hunting.

Humans on the other hand don't stay together as a physical unit after a certain age, but are expected to still recognise an obligation to those of the same bloodline. Somehow or other because somebody was responsible for bringing you into the world we're told our lives are irrevocably connected. Children may have left home ages ago, but still are at the beck and call of parents as if they still live at home.

Independence is primarily an illusion of space within the family unit as every decision taken by one member is second-guessed or analysed by the rest. If you're the parent the children will wonder if there is something wrong with you if act differently from the way they think a parent is supposed to act. A child can't make a career choice or pick a romantic partner without everybody within the family feeling justified in passing judgement.

Depending on the moral and religious code that a family follows the approval or disapproval of the family over a person's choices can be grounds for disagreement, or even worse control of a person's life completely. Supposed adults are still told whom they can marry, what they are allowed to wear, and what they should be doing with their lives.

All of this is supposedly being done with "your best interests at heart", but in reality whose best interests are being expressed? If a person within in a family unit decides she or he would like to go to university, but no one else in the family has graduated from high school, how is anybody going to be able to understand that person's ambition?

There is a really good chance that they won't be able to understand the desire to receive an education just for the sake of learning, and will see it only as a waste of time because they don't see a job at the end of the line. So their response to that person will be couched in those terms and little or no attempt will be made to appreciate their ambitions because it doesn't fit within their body of experience.

Families are like any society in that they are geared to the lowest common denominator so that those in charge don't feel like their authority is being tested or challenged. In fact, there are quite a number of ways in which the family is merely a microcosm of the society around them. Haven't you noticed how it is set up along the lines of the chain of command within most religious bodies?

A patriarch who makes all the final decisions; a matriarch who is supposed to nurture everybody as well as create life, and the kids who are supposed to grow up to reprise the roles of their parents. The problem is that nobody is screening people to see if they're qualified to fill those positions. Just because you're a man doesn't automatically give you any magic ability to be fair and impartial let alone wise enough to make decisions that will affect another person's life forever. And, believe it or not, there are actually women who are not suited to be mothers and who ought not be allowed within a hundred miles of anybody requiring a little unconditional love.

But none of that is important to those who hotly defend the concept of family that we are living with right now. For them it is about the ability to control people's behaviour. By making claims as spurious as "the family is the backbone of our nation", they give unwarranted power to the father, who then is able to exert control over the rest of the family and ensure they play by the rules set out by society. It's in their best interest after all, as it gives them their own personal fiefdom to rule over in much the same way as the divine right given to Kings in days gone by.

In these families when people talk of love they are really saying duty and obligation. When they talk of responsibility they are really talking about emotional blackmail and the power of guilt. How else would you describe a system where a person can say do this for me because of who I am in relation to you. There's no talk of earning respect, only that it's due, no matter how badly somebody behaves.

At holidays like the one that just passed in Canada, people are obligated to go and visit with people they may not want to have anything to do with. Is it any wonder that so many family events end up with people getting far too drunk and arguing? Resentment, booze, and unhappiness are a volatile mix, and it doesn't take much to spark that fire.

Both the holiday season and election season are upon us on both sides of the 49th parallel these days. That's a mixture guarantying that we're going to hear quite a lot of bullshit about families from advertising executives, politicians, and religious leaders. The next time you hear that sort of drivel coming from a sanctimonious mouth think about the families you know, even your own, and compare their reality with the myth that's being propagated.

It really makes you wonder what else they know nothing about, doesn't it?

September 23, 2007

Book Review: Who Moved My Secret Jim Gerard

Have you ever noticed how those guys willing to teach you how to sell real estate so you too can be rich like them always have a "Secret To Their Success", or that weight loss groups promise you the "Secret To Losing Forty Pounds In Six Months". Everybody's got a secret these days, from their own "Secret Sauce" guaranteeing great barbecue to the secret of "Being The Best Possible You".

Most of these folk seem to live either on the home shopping network or on infomercials late at night or first thing Sunday morning, the time slots most affiliate stations never seem to be able to sell. Some of these folk with secrets have also written books about how they became such success. If you're really lucky you'll be able to buy their collected speeches for just $14.99, including a full colour booklet explaining how you can best use these tapes to help you emulate their achievements and learn their "Secrets"

But the folk who are the hands down winners, and make these television pitch guys look like rank amateurs in the "Secret" business, are the New Age proselytisers. The Secrets they know! From ancient Egypt to the court of Arthur and all points in between, beyond, under, and so far out I don't think they'll ever come home again. They sell methods of telling your future based on their Secret knowledge of Lord Of The Rings which inspired them to create a Tarot Deck based on fictional characters.

Some of them have even channelled the secrets of the Angels and have written out their conversations with them so you can find out what Michael and Gabriel think are your chances of getting laid this weekend. Or, if you're into something a little more down to earth, there are plenty of womyn ready to reveal the Secrets of the Earth-Mother/Goddess/Bunny Rabbit.
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But now we are all so very lucky, there will no longer be any room for doubt, because someone has finally written a book called The Secret which I assume will make all those lesser secrets obsolete. In between the covers of that book you must be able to learn how to do everything from selling real estate with no money down, have buns of steel in just twenty days, and learn just what Michael and Gabriel are thinking about.

Proving once again that the majority of North American's are looking for a quick fix and somebody else to do everything for them, this book has become an immediate best seller. If it wasn't so sad that so many people think the answer to all their problems could be found in a book it would be funny. Thankfully comic and author Jim Gerard has come to our rescue to poke fun at the whole phenomenon of The Secret with his book Who Moved My Secret. Published by Nation Books an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada. Who Moved My Secret exposes the real "Secret" behind all these books, makes fun of the idea that a secret exists to make life easy, and generally pokes fun of New Age sillyness.
Of course the real secret behind these books is greed and gullibility. Everybody wants to be able to have "abundance" in their lives and of course interprets that to mean material wealth. Authors of books like The Secret use that as their hook, and rely on those same people to be gullible enough to believe that their book will either tell them something new or tell them anything at all.

As Jim Gerard points out the real "secret" for the author's success lies in being able to sell as many of these books as possible. Yes, you too can make massive amounts of money if you can figure out how to pray on other people's frailties. It's quite amazing how the more somebody promises you something wonderful, the more they end up taking from you.

What I really enjoyed about Mr. Gerard's book is how he's managed to nail so many of the worst characteristics of the New Age movement and expose them for the idiocy they are. So much of New Age centres on the theory of manifestation. You can call forth anything you want just with the power of your mind and positive thinking. Which is all very nice and good, but there's a flip side to that.

Anytime anything goes wrong it's your own fault. You get sick with cancer, well it's because you're far too negative and so you're only getting what you deserve. You stay poor all your life only because you keep having nasty poor thoughts – if you can't think positive rich thoughts well you don't deserve to be rich.

New Age teachings talk continually about energy; giving off positive and negative energy and how it affects your life. In Who Moved My Secret we learn that all thoughts actually have energy and vibrations. "Every time we have a thought it vibrates at a certain frequency. Some thoughts only dogs can hear. God has thoughts that only George W. Bush can hear."

According to Mr. Gerard's theory this is how we can manifest anything we want. If we think about it hard enough we can achieve anything from obtaining fabulous wealth to causing somebody's head to blow up. Of course, if we have negative thoughts and vibrate to a negative pitch, bad things could happen to us and they'd be our own damn fault for having bad thoughts.

For those of you like me, who have grown tired of the inane promises made by everybody from television sales dudes to New Age Snake Oil salespeople, than you will appreciate Who Moved My Secret. Not only does it poke fun at the recent best seller The Secret it takes a swipe at the whole New Age movement with intelligence and humour.

I'm sure you'll be able to find Who Moved My Secret in most bookstores, well maybe not New Age ones, and I can predict, without even having to consult my oracle, that it will definitely put a smile on your face.

September 16, 2007

DVD Review: Dear Jesse

No matter how hard I try I can't understand how any society that claims to cherish freedom, justice, and democracy as much as the United States of America does would allow a creature like Jesse Helms to have power in shaping the policy of the country. What's even more disgusting is the fact that he is treated with respect and dignity when he deserves to be shunned, if not tried for crimes against humanity.

In the 1960's, he fought against the racial integration of schools in North Carolina. Since his election to the senate in 1972, he has done his best to deny rights and liberties to any group he sees as not fitting into his narrow definition of the world order. Whether its been women seeking equality under the law, Hispanics and African Americans asking for assistance to redress the years of inequality in quality of education and job availability, and for the last twenty years anything allowing homosexuals even the appearance of equality in the eyes of the law, his has been the voice raised loudest in opposition.

His apologists say things like, well one thing you can say for Jesse is that you know where he stands on things, which isn't something you can say about lots of politicians. Well you can say the same thing about Hitler and Stalin but that didn't change the fact they were despotic monsters. Anyway what difference does it make that he's honest about being a bigoted hate monger or not, it doesn't change the fact that he is one.

At first glance, you wouldn't think you could find someone more diametrically opposed to Jesse Helms then Tim Kirkman if you tried. He's gay, works in the arts as a film director and scriptwriter, and lives in the epitome of the liberal north, New York City. What could these two men have in common?
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Actually, quite a lot; they were both born in the same small town in North Carolina, attended the same high school, spent a year at the same college, worked in radio and for newspapers while in school, and both obsess over gay men. For all those reasons, and maybe the last one in particular, Tim returned to his hometown with camera and crew in an attempt to understand Jesse Helms, and the state that has elected him to the Senate since 1972 that they both call home.

The resulting documentary film Dear Jesse has now been released on DVD by Sovereign Distributors and goes on sale this October. Tim criss-crosses North Carolina speaking to people from as many walks of life as possible, both supporters of Jesse and those who oppose him, creating a picture of the man who represents them in the eyes of the world that's not very flattering.

I don't know if it was his intention when he started out on this journey, but along the way it also becomes an examination of his own life and his relationship with his family and friends that still live in North Carolina. Through interviews, news clips, and voiceovers Tim tells the story of two of the state's native sons. He does his best to be an objective observer, and let other people and the historical record paint the picture of Jesse Helms, and to a large degree, he is successful. The majority of the analysis he indulges in centres around his own life, and the choices he's made along the way.

It's there where we can make our own suppositions of course. How much were those choices a product of the environment he grew up in; the environment fostered and created by Jesse Helms. Would he have been more open about his relationship with another man to his parents if Helms hadn't so poisoned the atmosphere of North Carolina with his riling against same sex relationships?

Even during the filming of the movie, he is still too unsure of how his parents would be able to cope with him talking about how upset he was because a man he had loved had just committed suicide. Can you imagine not being able to turn to your parent's for comfort when someone you love dies? Can you imagine how lonely and isolated that would make you feel?

That's what made Dear Jesse such a powerful movie is the fact that it was able to show the subtle and insidious ways that prejudice can affect the lives of people. It's not just the overt hate mongering that causes so much damage, it's the atmosphere of fear, and suspicion that it generates that can cause as much grief. Is it any wonder that a disproportionate numbers of teenage suicides are gay?

To the person who is already insecure, like most teenagers, add the fear of being rejected by ones own family to the lack of support in the community at large and you can feel like the loneliest person on the planet. The interviews that Tim conducts with individuals who have been affected by the poisoned air of North Carolina that is the legacy of Jesse Helms show just how insidious it can be.

The mother of a boy whose son died of AIDS, who had received a personal letter of condolence from Senator Helms when her husband died of cancer, reads from a letter that Helms wrote her in response to her plea for more research into the AIDS virus. In it, the Senator tells her it was her son's own damn fault that he died and that he got what was coming to him. What kind of human being would write a letter like that, rubbing salt into the wounds of a person's grief?

In Jesse Helms' North Carolina in 1996 the Klu Klux Klan were still marching in the streets without people rising up in protest against their presence let alone the fact they existed at all. Any place that hate mongers feel confident enough to stage public marches with out the worry of harassment is not going to be one where minorities are going to feel welcome no matter how long their families have lived there or how deep their roots run.

In Dear Jesse Tim has created a documentary that condemns its subject the harshest by showing how normal North Carolina looks. Yet since 1972 they have elected an openly racist, misogynistic, and homophobic man as their senator. That's the scariest thing about this movie, and I don't even know if Mr. Kirkman was aware that result was showing up on the screen.

A few years ago, a young man by the name of Matthew Sheppard was pistol whipped and left tied to a fence in the Montana where he died. The only reason he was killed was because he happened to be gay. Hate crimes like these are only possible because the people who commit them have been told by people like Jesse Helms that Matthew Sheppard was less then human and didn't deserve to be treated like a person.

At one point during the filming of Dear Jesse Tim goes to a small college in North Carolina where Jesse Helms was to have given a speech. They ended up missing the speech, so he did interviews instead with people outside the building. Ironically, one of the people he interviewed was Matthew Sheppard and his boyfriend. It is the only known film clip of Matthew.

Dear Jesse made me shed tears of sadness and rage when I heard how life under Jesse Helms had affected the lives of so many people through his hate mongering. Hopefully now that he no longer is in the Senate things might begin to change, but I wonder how long it will take for his awful legacy to be obliterated. One thing is for sure, there is no need to build him a memorial, – there are plenty of tombstones across the country of people who died of AIDS that will serve quite well.

Who knows how many of the bodies buried under them might still be alive if it hadn't been for his obstructionist policy against funding research into treating AIDS. I really wonder how he sleeps at night.

September 12, 2007

Terror Is As Terror Does

I remember having a conversation with the mother of one of my acting students back in the early nineties about how easy it would be to become a terrorist. She worked with abused children in a custodial treatment centre, meaning these were children under the age of fourteen who had to be kept under lock and key because they were considered uncontrollable.

One eight year old boy had burnt down the house he lived in, and his mother had woken up to find him standing beside her with a knife, and had only just missed being fatally wounded. As it was she ended up in hospital with a punctured lung and her son had ended up at this facility. The boy had been sexually abused first by his father, and then by one of the mother's boy friends.

In it's wisdom the government of the province where I live decided that these children didn't need a separate facility and could be housed within a wing of an adult facility. It was all about cutting costs so they could give tax breaks to their wealthy buddies of course. Anyway, there was nothing wrong with these kids that a little taste of the belt wouldn't take care of - single moms was what the real problem was of course. They let their kids run wild while they get drunk, do drugs, cheat the welfare system, and screw anything in pants.

After another week of fighting that attitude while trying to save the facility, she said there were times she just felt like putting a bomb in a mail box.

"The only thing stopping me is the fact that somebody's kids are going to be walking by that mail box. I know how devastated I would be if my kids were killed, and I could never do that to another person."

There was a flatness in her eyes brought on by more then just physical exhaustion. It was as if everything she had believed in had been torn out from under her and the ground under her feet was no longer certain. Bombs might not have changed anything, but they sure would have provided her with a type of certainty. Thankfully, it wasn't the type she was looking for.

Unfortunately, the certainty of violence is a good fit for far too many people. Blowing somebody up is one way of making sure you get the last word in an argument. There's no need for messy ambiguities about who is in the right and who is in the wrong if the other person is lying dead on the floor with.

These days it seems that everybody who has a point to make does so by blowing things up. The problem is that instead of solving anything, each time it happens situations just get worse. From the suicide bomber blowing him or herself up in a crowded market place to an invading and occupying army fighting insurgency, nobody seems to be getting any closer to resolving any of the disputes that have been the supposed cause of the violence.

Of course it's pretty hard to listen to anyone when you're busy blowing things up. "Eh, sorry could you repeat that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of the tomahawk missile going off." Conversely, no one is going to be listening too closely when they're dodging the hundredweight of nails that have been sent firing across a market place either. Dispute resolution works a lot better if you at least attempt to hear the other person talking.

Terror is in the eye of the beholder of course; one man's freedom fighter has always been another man' terrorist, it simply depends where your vested interests lie. To the British the guys throwing the bales of tea into Boston harbour were terrorists of a kind, while to the colonists at the time they were brave heroes. But no matter who the bad guy is and who the good guy is, when you come right down to it violence is violence no matter who sanctions it.

To the people living in Baghdad when the bombs were falling the Americans were just as much terrorists as the people who flew the jets into the World Trade Centre were to the American public. People on the receiving of bombs and explosions don't really give a damn about politics or justifications. When your home is in ruins and members of your family have been killed and wounded everything else is irrelevant.

Violence is the first resort of the coward and the last resort of the brave. The problem is that most of our leaders are cowards and liars. If Osama Bin Laden put the energy and money he puts into terrorism into building schools and farms in Afghanistan he would be securing his people a much better future then the one he's paying for now with their lives.

If George Bush and his allies really wanted to wage war on terrorism they could start by not propping up governments around the around the world that treat people like dirt. They could also stop insisting that International Monetary Loans be conditional on practices guaranteed to keep countries in perpetual poverty, and they could spend a fraction of the money the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan is costing to do what's ever necessary to help eradicate the conditions that create willing followers for terrorist leaders.

Everybody is far too willing to see weapons and violence as the solutions to their problems, but every time one person picks up a gun, somebody else responds in kind. Until one person is brave enough to put down the weapons and hold out an empty hand, mothers will keep losing their children.

I fail to see how that is making the world a better place for anyone.

September 6, 2007

Book Review: The Solitude Of Emperors David Davidar

In recent years, it seems that every major publishing house in the West has "discovered" the near East in terms of authors. While the braver might be tempted to publish the occasional Arab or Muslim voice, the real flavour of the hour has become Indian authors. It would be a disservice to these fine men and women to call them tokens, as the majority of them are fine authors deserving of the recognition they receive, so I hope that no one thinks that's what I'm implying

But there is a troubling pattern emerging concerning the themes of the books that are being published for Western consumption. Almost without fail, stories revolve around the sectarian violence in the streets of the big cities. In some the religious hatred between Muslim and Hindu may only be the backdrop against which the characters play out their lives, but even that only serves to reinforce the picture of a society on the verge of a civil war along the lines of the tribal violence in Rwanda and Bosnia.

Prior to this most people when asked about India would have thought about poverty, probably known who Gandhi was, and maybe said something about sacred cows. In the sixties, there was minor interest among the drug addled in various forms of meditation as they looked for other ways to alter their senses of perception. This served to perpetuate the old mysterious East stereotype and made every Indian a guru.
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How many books published in North America, or the English-speaking world beyond the borders of the Indian sub-continent, by Indian authors can you name that have dealt with topics unrelated to Indian's version of the "troubles"? How many have even brought it to our attention that India is one of the oldest living civilizations in the whole world? How many of these "Indian" novels mention that India has a tradition of epic literature that is as old if not older then Homer?

At first glance David Davidar's newest book The Solitude Of Emperors, published by McClelland & Stewart an imprint of Random House Canada, has all the appearances of being cut from the same cloth as other recently published books. While there is no denying that Hindu nationalism does feature prominently, there are elements about this book that distinguish it from the pack.

Vijay is a young man bored with life in his small provincial town in rural India. Quite by chance, the opportunity presents itself for him to escape when he's offered a job with a magazine dedicated to advocating plurality in India. It's when he moves to Mumbai (Bombay) to begin the job that he receives his own bitter lesson about the violence that plagues India. He is assaulted by Hindu thugs during the riots of 1992. It hadn't mattered that he was Hindu; they were exacting revenge on anyone or anything that was better off or different than they were.

After he recovers his employer figures it might be good for him to take a vacation away from the city and sends him to find out about the threat to a Christian shrine from Hindu fundamentalists in a small town. He also asks him if he would do him the favour of reading over a short manuscript that he has written about three figures in Indian history whose ideas and stories he wants people to remember.

He believes that the only chance India has is for another person like one of these historical figures to come along and set the example for the rest of the country to follow. His hope is that by describing these individuals' characteristics it will enable people to be able to recognize the next great "Emperor" who comes along to lead the people away from the path of mutual destruction.

It's from this manuscript that the title Solitude Of Emperors comes from. It is Rustom Sorabjee's (Vijay's boss) belief that Emperors are able to sit in solitude and face up to his or her own demons and learn about themselves sufficiently to develop a true path. He cites as his example three men of legendary status from the annals of India history who have all dedicated themselves to preserving her plurality.

Samraat Ashoka was known as the Emperor of Renunciation for giving up the ways of the sword and dedicating himself to the well being of his people and ruled circa 300BC. Shahenshah Akbar (1542-1605 AD) was known as the Emperor of Faith because although he was a Muslim, he encouraged people of all faiths to settle in India. He was famous for trying to create one faith for India comprising elements of all the religions. The final emperor was the Mahatma, Gandhi, who never ruled India, but was one of the catalysts behind Independence and dreamed of a pluralist nation

Although Vijay had gone to report on the situation dealing with the Christian shrine, it soon becomes for him a symbol of the fight against fundamentalism. With the assistance of a local eccentric, Noah, he tries to rally support against the planed occupation of the shrine by Hindu extremists. Unfortunately, the same apathy that grips most of India around doing anything about preventing violence is prevalent here and he can't rouse anyone into believing that anything serious will happen.
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Vijay is no Emperor and in spite of all his efforts ends up only able to record the events of the attempted occupation and not be an active participant in its defence. In fact, like so many others of his generation, he flees the country for Canada to escape. Partly he is looking to escape himself, and partly the violence of his country. In the end, he realizes he can't escape either one.

Mr. Davidar has created a situation and characters that bring a different perspective to the violence that periodically surfaces in India. He does not shy away from the reality of the situation, and in fact manages to make it far more realistic then the majority of authors. His depiction of the leader of the fundamentalist Hindu group as a pillar of society whose arguments in support of his extremist views are ever so reasonable, make him far scarier than the usual wild eyed fanatic that we find in the pages of a novel.

At heart The Solitude of Emperors is still a novel about the religious conflicts that plague the India, but unlike some of its contemporaries, readers learn that there is more to her then that. Until recent times India was a pluralistic society the envy of any so called modern civilization, and that dream is still cherished by a great many people. That's a view we don't often hear expressed, and one we can all look to as inspiration.

I think the world could do with a few more people like Samraat Ashoka, Shahenshah Akbar, and Mahatma Gandhi. Don't you?

Canadian readers can purchase a copy of The Solitude Of Emperors either directly from Random House Canada or from an online retailer like Amazon.ca

August 21, 2007

Book Review: The Assassin's Song M G Vassanji

Nikos Kazantakis wrote one of most beautiful books on the life of Jesus Christ that I have ever read called The Last Temptation Of Christ. I first read the book after finding out it was on the Vatican's list of proscribed books, striking me as a great recommendation if I'd ever heard one. When I finished the book what puzzled me the most was why the Vatican had considered it so horrible.

Not once in the book does Kazantakis ever question the divinity of Christ or any of the miracles. The last temptation of the title is while he is on the cross the devil shows him what it could be like to marry and have a normal life. On the cross he lives out his days as a mortal man but in the end he accepts his destiny and dies on the cross not in his sleep.

Maybe the Vatican didn't like the fact that Jesus openly questioned his fate throughout the book, or the whole debate about predestination and fate that Kazantakis raises irked them. Personally, although beautifully written, I found the book far too dogmatically Christian for my taste and came away knowing that Kazantakis was as devout a believer in Christ as anyone I'd ever read.

It may seem odd to begin a review about a Sufi Muslim in India with references to a book on Christ, but in M G Vassanji's latest release The Assassin's Song published by Random House Canada through the Doubleday imprint, the central character faces an almost identical struggle to Christ's. Karsan Dargawalla's family have been the keepers of a shrine to a Sufi mystic since medieval times, and the eldest male in the family has always been groomed to be the Avatar of the God on earth.
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The family lives in the compound where Nur Fazal, The Wanderer, finally settled and where his remains and those of his descendants are buried. They are the direct descendants, supposedly, of the God's first follower, Arjun Dev. It was said that Dev had a vision that called him forth from sleep to welcome Fazal at the gates of Patan Anularra when he arrived there in 1260 AD.

It was to Dev's family that Fazal would turn to when he needed someone to act as his representative while he lived, so after his death the tradition continued. But it’s now the 1960s and the world is a far different place than it was even during the time of Karsan's father's ascension to Saheb of the shrine. Men are travelling through space to the moon, and knowledge in the world that far outstrips the accumulated writings and texts of the shrine's library. How can he be expected to spend his days pondering the deeds and wisdom of The Wanderer while all that awaits him beyond it's gates?

While part of him loves the shrine and wants to fulfil his destiny as the anointed heir and future Saheb of the Shrine, he also desires the learning and enticements offered by the material world. When he applies for admission to Harvard University in the United States it's not with any real hope of being accepted, or even if that miracle were to happen, of being able to attend. But when the unthinkable occurs and they offer him a full scholarship, including airfare how can he turn it down?

He knows that if his father forbids him he would stay and not even be too resentful, but he is allowed to choose for himself, in spite of his father's worst misgivings. He assures one and all that he will return to take up his duties when his schooling is done, and he is certain it will only allow him to serve the people with even greater wisdom after being in the world beyond their village.

India is also different from what it was during Karson's father's youth; for one it is now India and Pakistan, Muslim and Hindu, and that gap is too wide for the way of the Sufi to straddle in safety anymore. During the first Pakistan – India war it starts to become apparent to even Karson that things aren't going to remain the same as they once were.

They do not worship Allah at their shrine, but their names are Muslim, and across the road from their shrine is another, a Muslim shrine, where the body of the Suffi's grandson is entombed and worshiped. For some the associations are only too clear, and if you are not one of us you are one of them is the obvious conclusion that is drawn. But for a time peace is kept in the village, and the sancity of the shrine is respected.
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But Karson is determined to leave everything behind, including thoughts of the ugliness that lies beneath the glamour of India. He too is offered the temptation of worldliness over Godhood, and he steps across the line in reality and accepts the offer completely turning his back on that he was supposed to have been.

The Assassins Song is not based on any real mystic, according to the author's note at the end of the book. It's rather an amalgamation of stories told about Muslim seers who came to India in the 11th and 12th centuries AD preaching a benevolent practice of worship based on neither the Muslim or Hindu faiths, although freely recognizing both. Through this invention M G Vassanji has brought to life a world that very few of us in this age will recognize. We might call it blind faith in our ignorance and wonder about people today that still believe a person can be the avatar of a god.

This is a beautiful book about duty, faith, and the search for self awareness and how they are all inter-related whether we know it or not. Like Jesus who is given the life of a husband and father as a temptation, so too did Karsan yearn for the ordinary, but unlike Jesus, Karsen's final choice is made for him by fate, chance, or maybe even his destiny.

Sometimes it is only when we are stripped down to nothing, or hit bottom, that we truly begin to understand ourselves and where we belong in the world. Vassanji doesn't tell us what to believe; he merely shows us the various stages of a person's exploration of self. At the end, what should have been the prodigal son's return and taking up of his destiny, we are left without the certainty that the situation requires to make it a final ending.

Endings only come with death, not while we still live, and that is the lesson that Karson has learnt, more than any other, from his travels. From what he's seen of the world and the ruinous consequences of when people are certain their way is the only right way, perhaps a little uncertainty, a little doubt, is what the world needs more than anything else right now.

Canadian readers can buy the The Assassin's Song either directly from Random House Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca

July 27, 2007

It's All About Guilt

I was going to try and write something profound about the role guilt plays in helping keep our society ticking over. You know one of those think pieces that analyses trends in people's behaviour and shows how that everything they do can be put down to guilt. But for the life of me I couldn't think of an opening paragraph to introduce the topic.

I guess I could have started with the family unit and how large a role guilt plays within that dynamic. How so many people use a blood connection in lieu of decent behaviour as a means of having people pay attention to them. "Family matters most" and count on guilt to make you drop everything for them at a moments notice no matter how they've treated you up until that moment.

Of course I could have just a easily started off by citing how most of North America's spiritual life is based on guilt. First there's the whole idea that we're all born guilty because of Adam and Eve committing that original sin with the apple. Talk about holding the sins of the father against the children.

If that isn't bad enough, how about this scenario: God sends down his only son and sacrifices him for our sins! Talk about your guilt trips – look what I did for you, so you'd better behave. Just in case we didn't get the picture there are all sorts of things you can't do without having to pay some sort of price or doing some sort of penance.

Some folk take it so far that they equate all pleasure with sin and believe the only way to avoid it is to work constantly and live a life of abject misery. They must feel guilty for having being born and I'm sure that they only had sex because they felt guilty about not going forth and procreating. Heaven forbid they enjoy it though because that would have been a sin and there would be a price to pay.

Religion is an easy target though, so I maybe could have talked about how government only works because we're made to feel guilty. For instance if you dare to disagree with something that the government decrees your made to feel guilty for not loving your country enough. Or if you don't agree with the war the government sends troops off to fight in they imply you're guilty of wishing the soldiers harm because you won't support them.

Or on the domestic front when they want to cut taxes and slash and burn social programming they will either find someway of making the poor guilty of stealing from the rest of the population or make you feel guilty for stealing the money out of your children's pockets. If we spend money today what will be left for your children?

It's not just the government who uses guilt against us. So do far too many environmental groups, human rights organizations, foreign aid fundraisers and anyone else with a cause. Hell I'm probably a lot more of an environmental extremist, believer in human rights and social justice then most of them and they piss me off with their attempts to make people feel guilty in order to change their ways, give money, or whatever they want them to do.

What's the point of making some poor guy who needs to drive his barely working vehicle so he can go to work and feed his family feel guilty for polluting? How's that going to change the world or do anything to make it a better place for his kid or grandkids? It's not any one individual's fault that people in Africa are starving to death or dying of AIDS and whether or not they contribute ten dollars isn't going to make a bit of difference.

When they show you pictures of starving orphans living behind barbed wire in refugee camps and say you can make a difference they might as well be saying it's your fault if they continue having to live like this. Not only is that unfair, it is of course patently untrue. Hundreds of years of history lay behind the reasons for those children living in refugee camps and only a change in the so-called developed world's attitude towards the developing world will make a difference.

Now that I think about it some more I could also have talked about the reasons why we are made to feel guilty by all these different people. It's to cover up who the really guilty parties are. As that guy who worked for Clinton said, "It's the economy stupid", but probably not in the way you think.

Did you know that in the time since the great Depression there was only a very short period of real prosperity in the post world war boom in the 1950's? Since then there has been a gradual erosion of the middle class and more and more wealth and power has been accruing in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Governments can preach all they want about free trade and open markets making a better atmosphere for business which makes it better for all of us but they are only getting it half right.

While the workers are made to feel guilty for demanding basic needs like job security, environmental protection, and workplace safety businesses go where they want and rack up bigger and bigger profits everywhere around the world. They exploit natural resources, people, and environments until they have exhausted them and move on leaving worse poverty and political unrest in their wake.

Religions have long used guilt to control their people, and people in turn use it to control their families so that they will not run afoul of the church. In the twentieth century governments who are sponsored by businesses use it to ensure that their patrons have clear access to everything they need to make their profits.

Most of us really have nothing major to feel guilty about in terms of society, yet we are constantly inundated with messages from all sides insisting we are guilty of a multitude of sins. Listen to the way messages are delivered by politicians, preachers, and advocates and you can't help but hear the accusation in their voices.

Try telling yourself the next time that it's not your fault, or not the fault of whomever is being offered up as a scapegoat and see who that leaves you with to blame. It maybe that the Church is right and we are all sinners and guilty of something, but there are some who are guiltier than others.

June 24, 2007

Music Review: Kudsi & Suleyman Erguner Turkey - Whirling Dervishes

The great thing about the Internet is the fact that you can look up information on almost any subject you wish. The only problem is that if you don't know anything about the subject you are researching you have no means of judging the accuracy of the information that a particular page is supplying.

While some sites may have a better reputation for reliability, Wikipedia for example, they are still only as accurate as the people supplying the information. The only review process that most sites have is from other users, and when dealing with subjects of an obscure or esoteric nature that's not the most reliable form of editorial control.

I was running into this problem when I started writing the review for the Allegro Music disc Turkey, Whirling Dervishes from their Voyager Series. The amount of questionable material seems to increase with the spiritual quality of the subject, and it wasn't until a stroke of luck brought me to Mevlana.Net, the official web site of the descendants of the great Persian poet and thinker Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi that I found anything I felt comfortable with.

While Hollywood and other mass entertainment outlets may have given us the idea that Whirling Dervishes were isolated crazies who were out in the middle of nowhere never stoping their relentless spinning, nothing could be further form the truth. "Sema", the name given to the ritual, which Whirling Dervishes or Semazen take part in, is practiced by followers of the Suffi Muslim sect who take their name, Mevlevi (the sons of Mev) and inspiration from Rumi.
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The sect was founded in the late 1200's following the death of Rumi under the leadership of his son Sultan Veled Celebi. As they believe that everything in the world is continually whiling including the stuff that we humans are made of, the best way to offer prayer is to become one with that motion. So the dance of the Whirling Dervish is their way of being one with the universe and praying to Allah.

Music of course plays an integeral part in these proceedings and has a specific role and place in the ritual. After the initial opening enterance and prayer of the "Semazen" ("Sema" litterally means Human being in the Universal Movement) who will be doing the dance, finihes the second part is taken by a solo drum symbolizing God's voice ordering creation to "be". It is the third and fourth parts – still prior to the dancing – where the music plays it's most important role and where the recording Turkey: Whirling Dervishes takes its inspiration from.

The third part is called a "Taksim" and is played on a type of flute called a "ney" made from reed. This piece of music is improvised each time by the player of the ney as he attempts to find the right combination of notes to communicate its meaning. This piece represents the breath of Allah, more specifically the first breath which gave life to everything – the Divine Breath.

The fourth segment, which is the music that's primarly represented on the disc Turkey – Whirling Dervishes is called "Peshrev". Durring this time the Dervishes walk three circles around the space greeting each other. This is to symbolize the souls greeting each other through the physical boundaries of their bodies.

What I find most interesting is that Rumi site makes no mention of any music during the four stages of the actual Whirling. There was another site I went to where they mentioned music being played, but I'm not that confident in its authenticity because of it being North American and some of the attitudes expressed and the inaccuracy in terminoligy.
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The key instrumentalists on Whirling Dervishes are Kudsi and Suleyman Erguner who have been playing and promoting appreciation for, Sufi music in North America and Europe for twenty years. Kudsi has in fact played with European performers like Peter Gabriel in his attempts to get the music out to the rest of the world.

At first the music is deceptively simple and appears to be nothing more than drum and flute playing a straightforward pattern. But as you listen you begin to hear more of what the music is doing and the patterns appear to be getting more and more complicated. Of course those patterns could have been there all along without you knowing it and as the music slowly seeps into your awareness you gradually start to hear more and more of the subtle distinctions.

At all of the sites I went to regarding the performance of the Sema ritual they stress that at no time is the purpose to induce a loss of awareness or to fall into a trance. However at the official Mevlana site their description of the process does state that during one aspect of the dance the salute to Allah takes the form of the transformation of rapture into love and requires the sacrifice of the mind and a complete submission of self to the state of loving the creator.

Somehow or other you're supposed to be able to do that with out slipping into a trance or a permanent state of ecstasy. All I can say is that the dancers must undergo some pretty amazing training when it comes to their ability to focus the mind. Just listening to the music, without performing any of the dances, was enough to induce a light trance state.

As I said earlier the more attention you pay to the music the more intricate it starts to become. The more you listen to the intricate patterns the deeper you are pulled into the music and the more you begin to notice about it. The next thing you know the CD is ending and you are sitting there feeling awfully bemused because you can't remember what had happened except that the music was some of the most beautifully patterned you had ever listened too.

In some ways it puts me in mind of the interior design of some of the Mosques still standing in Spain as leftovers from the days of the Ottoman Empire. Huge swaths of checked geometric patterns that swirl along the floors and walls in black and white tiles as far as the eye can see. I'm sure if you were to stand in there for any length of time and let your focus go soft you would find yourself starting to drift into the same sort of trance like state that the music induced.

It's not a dangerous thing or anything malicious, and if you learned how to train yourself it could very well bring about a state of mind which approaches the highest rank of ecstasy as described on the web site. But since that state in Islam is reserved only for the prophet, and even he is still only a servant of God and can never become one with him, normal supplicants aren't allowed to either. There is no striving towards this as other religions say is possible through trance in order to reach that ultimate state of ecstasy, Nirvana.

Through this CD I came to have a deeper appreciation for the beauty that is inherit in the worship of Allah by the practitioners of Islam who follow the Sufi path. I'm not about to run out and convert or anything, but simply by listening to the music and coming to understand the principals behind it I understand the Muslims who talk about theirs being a religion of love, not of hate, just a little more. Salaam

June 18, 2007

Three Little Words - "I Love You"

I love you. Isn't it amazing how three little words can have such an impact? What other words in the English language do you know that can bring a conversation to a complete standstill in quite the way those three single syllable words can? I hate you delivered in just the right tone comes close, but even they don't have the bone jarring, hitting the brakes hard effect of I love you.

A couple, for arguments sake let us say a man and a woman, have been seeing each other for some time. They've discovered they have a lot in common and really enjoy each other's company. They've gone to bed a couple of times and the sex has been good. All in all things are, as the books say, developing.

Yet the first time one says I love you to the other – and no matter what guys like to think it's as likely to be the man as the woman – almost inevitably it will be followed by a long pause. Of course a lot depends on the timing, there's a big difference in saying I love you in the heat of passion from blurting it out while doing dishes.

While you can sort of gloss over it in the former circumstances as being caught up in the moment, in the latter there's no escaping the consequences of truly meaning what you are saying. Saying I love in the middle of doing something as prosaic as the dishes has infinite more depth of meaning than when in the midst of sex. It's a definitive declaration of devotion not coloured by passion or lust.

Which is of course what brings about the aforementioned sudden stoppage in conversation. Sometimes it will end quickly and be followed by hugs and joyful tears. Other times it will be followed by a pause that you can drive a truck through, stop and unload it, refill the gas tank, and climb back into the cabin before a vocalized reaction is forthcoming. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it sure is unnerving to sit through before the other party bursts into a big grin or at least says "I love you" in return.

Of course if the silence stretches just that little bit too long, and then continues for a little more after that, it's usually a sign that the other party isn't as ready to make that declaration with the same amount of feeling. An "I love you too" might eventually be forthcoming but it there is a conditional quality to it that is inescapable.

There's more than semantics involved in the differences between being in love with someone and loving someone. The general consensus seems to be that to be in love implies a singularity of devotion while loving implies nothing more than a general affection. Friends can love friends, but that doesn't mean they are in love with each other anymore than a sister and brother are in love.

It all sounds pretty darn confusing doesn't it for such a simple little phrase like I love you but that's just the beginning. It's absolutely astounding the many uses that simple phrase can be put to. While it may sound like a simple avowal of affection it seems to get utilized for other, less savoury purposes, quite often.

The use of "I love you" in emotional blackmail is one of the more common occurrences of this phenomenon. Not to be confused with guilt, emotional blackmail is used by nasty, manipulative people in order to ensure that world revolves around them continually. In order to successfully utilize emotional blackmail one must be completely without scruples and selfish beyond belief.

A petulant "I love you" that implies there is no possible way the other person can actually care for you as deeply as you do for them is a wonderful tool to use for emotional blackmail. It infers that if the other person really meant their "I love you" they would hasten to oblige you with whatever you wanted as proof of their devotion.

Not quite as subtle as emotional blackmail the ever-popular guilt trip is nearly as insidious. What it lacks in nastiness is more then compensated for by its pervasiveness. Used in situations where you need to get the emotional upper hand on the other person. Your use of "I love you" should imply a "but" preceding the phrase in order to create the proper "how could you do this to me" effect required to induce or accentuate guilt.

We human beings are complicated creatures, creating ties that bind us together. While ostensibly claiming they are based on love, a great many are based on expectations and obligations. These in turn create roles for us to play and duties to be fulfilled in order to be able to say, "I love you". The dutiful wife who shows love by preparing supper for husband who shows love by bringing home money are two obvious examples of this.

Even though those two roles have fallen pretty much out of favour there are many others that still exist. It's these constructs that create the means for three simple words to be used as weapons. We all have some preconceived notions of what "love" is supposed to be and what is supposed to happen when we are in love. The majority of those ideas have been formed by observing what's around us.

Failure to deliver on that promise of ideal romantic bliss, or whatever it is we are looking for, will result in resentment and jealousy. In turn that will result in the games I've described above as people try to make their roles work. Somehow we have construed love to mean that a person owes you something in return for you loving them. Do this for me because I love you is emotional blackmail and a direct result of that belief..

Instead of acting as though loving somebody entitles you to demand things of them shouldn't it be the exact opposite. If you truly love somebody you are grateful to them for being in your life and demand of yourself what you can do for them. In turn they will do the same for you. A loving relationship shouldn't be about coercion, it should be a reciprocal arrangement with equal amounts of give and take flowing both ways.

I love you are three of the most potent word in the English language. It's only unfortunate that too often it is for the wrong reasons. Isn't it about time that we leave behind the idea that saying I love entitles you to something in return? I thought only prostitutes were paid for love.

June 16, 2007

Gifts Are Given Not Stolen

Four hundred years ago you welcomed some strangers into your homes. You showed them how to survive, where to find food, how to build shelter, and what plants were good for fighting off sickness. At first they seemed pretty grateful and appreciated the help. But when their extended families began to show up and instead of being polite and asking for help they began demanding you give them what they wanted.

At first you went along with it but eventually you said enough is enough, you guys are your own. Unfortunately by that time they were pretty well established and were able to start pushing you around. They forced you to leave your homes so they could use the land they were built on for themselves.

Well that was okay you had cousins on the other side of the mountains you could go and live with. But it seemed they're were a lot more of those strangers than you first thought and they had lots of friends and family who wanted places to live as well. Eventually there were just too many of them and they took all the land for themselves leaving little pieces for you to try and scratch out a living on.

If that wasn't bad enough they decided that what you believed in and the language you spoke wasn't what they wanted you to teach your children so they took them away from you too. When and if they came home they didn't know who they were anymore. The strangers didn't want them and they didn't know how to live with you.

Finally, and only in the past little while, your people have begun to figure out who they are again and to try and reconcile that with the world as it is today. Some of you have started learning the ways of the new people and using that knowledge to help your people get back some of what they had lost.

Children are learning the language of their grandfathers, and singing the old songs again. The stories that you used to tell each other to help you understand the world and teach you how to live a good life are being told again and the dances and songs that celebrated your way of life are being sung at gatherings of the people. Some tongues have been stilled forever and some stories will never be told again, but a lot has been saved.

When you consider that history, and the many attempts that have been made to eradicate you and your way of being from the face of the earth, recent events are even more disquieting. There has always been the occasional one of them who has appreciated your way of life and emulated it. Some of them have even been stupid enough to pretend to be one of you like that English guy who called himself Grey Owl.

But now things are getting really out of hand. First of all the same people who had tried so hard to summarily obliterate all that you stood for have taken to setting you up on pedestals as the epitome of harmony with nature. You have become a bizarre mixture of Rousseau's Noble Savage, St. Francis of Assisi, and pagan environmentalist.

Your women are being treated like they are some sort of Earth Mother/Goddess creatures who know all the secrets of creation. Your men are all depicted as deep thinkers and brave warrior types who are stoical in the face of any danger or pain. Being merely human and alive don't seem like sufficient justification for your existence.

If your grandparents had wondered about Grey Owl's sanity in choosing to portray himself as one of you, what would they think of the crop of folk who are either passing themselves off as being descended from your blood or as having been taught your "secrets" to a better life by people unnamed.

What makes all this especially nauseating is that these people are doing this all in the name of their twin Gods Money and Ego. They write books and teach and turn a quick buck and make themselves out to be something special. Who knows what kind of misleading ideas they are filling people's heads with about you and your people while raking in the dough and looking great in tailored deerskins.

Some of the things you read are so incredible that if you hadn't read them you wouldn't believe then. That anybody would make claims such as they are direct conduits for people who lived hundred's of years ago is astounding. They call it "channelling" but you can think of quite a few words that are far more descriptive than that to describe what you think of it.

The irony of the situation hasn't been lost on you. All that you've struggled so hard to reclaim from the times that nobody approved of you is now being stolen from you again. A culture that evolved over thousands of years has been reduced to being packaged as Enlightenment: It's Yours In Twelve Easy Steps or variations on that theme.

Those doing the selling all have impressive sounding names that mean nothing to anyone but themselves and their publishers. But they can call themselves "Where The Sun Don't Shine" and still not come close to understanding anything about who you are and what your experiences have been.

Isn't it bad enough that they tried to destroy your culture by tearing it out of the hearts and minds of your children for three generations? But now they want to claim it for their own selfish uses and diminish you and it in the process. Some people say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that maybe so in terms of some things. But when you imitate a people's belief system it's nothing but disrespect and theft.

They can talk about being "gifted" with special abilities all they want, but under normal circumstances gifts are given not stolen. That's not something any of them seemed to have grasped yet.

Not much has changed in the past five hundred some years of them taking from you and giving nothing in return has it?

June 6, 2007

Book Review: The Peacock Throne Sujit Saraf

The past two decades or so has seen the beginnings of a shift in the power base of the world from the West to the East. Japan has of course been an economic power almost since the end of World War Two and South Korea came on strong in the 1970s. When oil was discovered under the sands of the Arabian Peninsula formerly impoverished sheikdoms became movers and shakers through Petroleum power.

But the country that has captured the most attention in the past ten years has been India. Always one of the world's most populated countries, it has been lumped into the category of developing nation since the end of British rule in the late 1940s. So for most of the West India's entrance onto the world stage as one of the most vibrant economies in the last few years has been like the emergence of a new popular star from nowhere.

Of course like all supposed "overnight sensations" that have appeared out of "nowhere" India has always been there. But for most outsiders the country has been synonymous with poverty and spiritualism and not much else. It was the country the Beatles went to and where George Harrison learned about the sitar.

It sounds ridiculous now saying that, but such was the chauvinism of people in the West that they were able to distil a culture that was thousands of years older than our own down to those base elements. Now of course that has started to change and we are beginning to learn a little about the people and the country that has become a world player.
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One of the happy results of this his been the interest in novels written by Indians about India. The Peacock Throne by Sujit Saraf, just released in the past month in Canada by McArthur & Co is one of the most recent examples of this excellent phenomenon. If you haven't heard his name before now, that will change with the publication of this book.

The Peacock Throne is set in the Indian city of Delhi. Specifically in one street – Chandi Chowk, in the district around the historic Red Fort - the former seat of Power for the Mogul's and the British, and the former home of the Peacock Throne. It was from the walls of the Red Fort that the British hung participants in the uprising of the 1860's and perhaps because of that, the Prime Minister of India makes a speech from the walls every independence day.

But Saraf's story is about modern Indian history and concerned with the people who are the power of the neighbourhood and the street, not the past or the country itself. But even modern history can be violent and chaotic especially in such a divided country as India. The book opens on the day that Indira Gandhi's Sikh bodyguard shot and killed her in retaliation for her sending the Indian army into the Golden Temple, the most sacred of Sikh temples in all India, in an attempt to roust out anti government forces.

For a night the streets of Delhi and the country descended into violence as violent mobs hunted down and attacked Sikhs wherever they could find them; including raiding their houses and killing women and children, and destroying their businesses. But India has long been used to sectarian violence and Delhi picks itself back up and goes back to the business of politics and business.
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In Delhi it seems everybody conducts business from the six-year-old living on the street to the richest storeowner with political aspirations and the only difference is the scale. The percentage that the beggar pays to the police constable on the beat is equivalent to the "donations" made by the shopkeeper for blind eyes being turned to a variety of irregularities.

What is history when you live through it but just another day in your life where you try and get by as best as you can? The people who populate Saraf's Delhi are people doing just that. He doesn't judge his people, they are who they are nothing more or less, and their characters are so well written that you never once doubt the veracity of their actions.

He doesn't hold back when it comes to depicting the uglier side of life in India and the continual religious turmoil. Nationalist Hindus and Muslim extremists ally to hunt down Sikhs one moment, then are at each other's throats the next. Politicians can say the words "for the good of the community" with sanctimonious pomposity while plotting for the destruction of other people's livelihoods because they are of a different religion.

Intolerance, greed, and ambition are the only things that all characters seem to have in common, and while that may on occasion make them allies, it can also result in carnage. Caring for the people seems to be code for cynical manipulation for far too many politicians the world over, and the Indian councillors and Members of Parliament are no different. While one hand is extended in a pretence of brotherhood and unity, the other is exhorting crowds to throw rocks and break heads.

The sounds, smells and sights of Delhi come alive through the words of Saraf. As you walk the streets of the neighbourhood with his characters it is impossible not to see, hear, taste, and smell what they are experiencing. On some occasions you may not wish to, but raw sewage is as much a reality as the tantalizing smells of food and spices.

The India of The Peacock Throneis like that, a series of contradictions. Where generosity is tempered by, what will I get in return, and, how will it benefit me, on too many occasions. The only balm Saraf supplies for us comes in the shape of a holy fool type character named Gopal Pandey, who stumbles through the story just trying to find his way through the complications that others create for him.

From his accidental rescue of a Sikh in the aftermath of Gandhi's assassination at the beginning of the book he becomes the one character we can easily care about. He's never quite sure what's going on around him and peers out at the world through glasses through which he can barely see. To everyone around him he is a figure of ridicule and in some cases an embarrassment. But his still continues to doggedly press on because what other choice does he have.

He is the only truly sympathetic character in the book who has no hidden agenda aside from the one we all have which is to try and make do as best we can with what we are given. Perhaps Sujit Saraf is offering him as an example of the confusion that besets most decent people when confronted by horrors beyond their comprehension and events they can't control.

The Peacock Throne is about India and Delhi specifically, but it is also about the human condition. Sujit Saraf has written a wonderful novel full of aptly drawn characters and evocative settings. He is unsparing in his detailing of the seamier side of life in the streets of Delhi and the less savoury side of Indian politics.

But in spite of that he is still able to create a picture of Delhi that is exciting and intriguing. It may be scary in places, but what big city isn't? Up until now I've only read books which have featured Bombay – Mumbai – as it's now known, and known very little about India's other famous city. Like others before him have put Mumbai on the map Saraf has turned a spotlight on Delhi and given her closeup.

June 4, 2007

Book Review: Trance Jorge Luis Alvarez Pupo

Throughout the Caribbean and up into the United States slaves shipped over from Africa brought more than just their bodies and music. From the various tribal groups represented a variety of stories and belief systems were also brought over. Most of us have heard of Voodoo and all the misconceptions that accompany it, but other religions assumed some characteristics of the dominant Catholic faith in Latin and South America in order to blend in.

In Cuba one of those religions practiced among the African population was Santeria, or Regla de Ocho – the Kingdom of Ocho. Ocho was the primary deity of the religion, which chose the name Santeria – way of the Saints- in order to disguise their traditional practices of worship By pretending they were worshiping individual Catholic Saints and not the Gods who lived in Ocho's realm they kept the Catholic Church happy.

Of course if the Church had ever shown up at a Santeria ceremony they might have a different reaction; heck if they'd even understood any of the doctrine being taught they would have closed it down pretty quick. They would have been pretty appalled by the fact that Santeria didn't believe in the existence of Evil. All men are capable of performing good actions, some just haven't being able to get it together but don't need to be frightened by threats of hell into doing it.
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Jorge Luis Alvarez Pupo is an Afro-Cuban photographer who grew with this religion as the spiritual base of his community. So when he set out to create a record of the ceremonies and the way a belief system can affect a person's way of seeing the world around him or her, he had the advantage over the casual observer of already being in tune with the significance of events.

The images he has recorded and presented in his book Trance, which was released in 2003 by Perceval Press, capture people in moments of either high emotion or on the edge of entering the trance like state that enables them to perform remarkable feats with fire and metal. At first glance some of the photos are quite terrifying.

Faces contorted in what appears to be pain as they brandish flaming rods, swallow fire, hold a sword point to their throat, or exhale huge gouts of flames. But upon looking closer the body language is at odds with the initial interpretation; there is none of the tension that one normally associates with pain or fear knotting the muscles of the participants
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What I find remarkable about the pictures of these events is that they were taken at all. They look like highly intense and personal moments that I would not necessarily want recorded for others to see publicly in a book. It's not that there is anything wrong with what they are doing but there is a level of spiritual intimacy that's caught by the camera that makes one feel almost voyeuristic. Then again it's that emotionally charged nature of the photographs that makes them so powerful.

Jorge Luis starts off the series of photos dealing directly with ceremony with pictures of their beginnings; an individual lighting a candle in front of an alter, a woman slipping into a trance state, and a man caught in mid step while dancing and drumming. While not much preparation, they do give us sufficient warning that something unusual is about to ensue.

It's not until the midpoint of the book that explanatory notes are offered. Written by Mabel Llevat Soy they give us an explanation of what we have just experienced and what is to come. The second half of the book features photographs which in some ways are even more potent than those in the first.

While the earlier work has some shock element to them, and their power is genuine enough, the second half's offer an interpretation of how a believer of Santeria sees the world. These works are therefore the creation solely of the artist, not pictures of actual events. In my mind that makes them more powerful.

According to the notes in the book the creation story for the Santeria has men and women being pulled from the shadows and crawling out from the earth to be first brought to life. So there is life in the shadows of their world, lurking just outside of our vision.

Alvarez Pupo has made phenomenal use of light and shadow to give us a taste of what that must feel like in the mind's eye of a believer. One image that especially stands out for me is just a hand pushing up through grains of sand, but somehow he has made it so that the sand is slowly falling away from the hand and fingers slowly exposing them to the light.

Trance is a unique view of a world few of us have ever experienced. Normally the only time we see Afro-Caribbean religions are the twisted exploitive verions used in movies and sensationalistic novels. Jorge Luis Alvarez Pupo is able to make the real thing far less scary and twice as fascinating meaning he's a photographer of some talent through his ability to overcome those rather large preconceptions.

As with all titles available through Perceval Press Trance is half price until June 17th 2007.

May 18, 2007

Book Review: Cake Or Death Heather Mallick

It was a few years ago when I first was introduced to the joys of a Heather Mallick column. This is not to be confused with a Doric Column with a cap that supports old Greek ruins, but a collection of around 900 words that was written usually in a fit of pique by a woman writer for The Globe And Mail newspaper in Canada.

On alternate Saturdays I would eagerly click the generic link "Columnist" on the newspaper's home page (they very rarely gave her a name link maybe hoping people wouldn't find her so as to cut back on the irate letters to the editor) and jump into her pool of righteous indignation. It was wonderful – somebody was actually writing about all the issues I would have written about and in a style that made me weep with envy.

Not only was her wit so acerbic that it could eat through the walls of the Teflon uber-bunkers that politician, pundits, and other spewers of lies, and garbage live behind, but she could also break your heart with her minimal description of real misfortune. She doen't have a drop of sentimentality in her blood, just real emotion and a formidable intelligence.

When she had occasion to turn upon herself and remark upon her own idiosyncrasies it wasn't to enlist our sympathy or even out of some masochistic need for public self-humiliation. It was more along the line of showing people how easy it was to admit to your humanity and to revel in your own eccentricity. Who needs to be the same as everyone else – even if it's only in the way you've planted your rows of flowers this year – it is still a statement of your uniqueness as an individual and you should be proud of it.
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On occasion I would be moved enough by one of her writings to email a commentary or words of approval. To my surprise she actually would answer her mail, and not just with a thank-you for writing form letter either. I was beginning to enjoy our sporadic correspondence and I think she was beginning to recognise the name at the end of the letters when all of a sudden it ended.

A polite form letter informed me that she was no longer able to answer her mail as she was writing a book and she hoped I'd (and everyone else I assume) understand how she just couldn't spare the time anymore. I was a little disappointed but that was nothing to what was to come.

One Saturday as usual I clicked over to the Columnist section only to find her gone. There was no notice, no hints as to her whereabouts, nothing. It was if she had been abducted by Aliens or worse spirited away by some secret government plot to abolish free speech. Of course it was something far scarier – she was on publicity tour for her first book Pearls In Vinegar: The Pillow Book Of Heather Mallick.

Maybe it was some dark recess of hidden resentment, or the fact that I was broke, but I never got around to either buying or reading book one. Now that Knoff Canada has released Cake Or Death, her second collection of essays on modern life I decided to let bygones be bygones (the nice people at Random House Canada sent me a review copy) and see if she's changed at all in her new digs.
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Will she have moderated her tone in the hopes of increased sales? Will she stop accusing Tony Blair of being the most duplicitous man on the planet and describing George Bush as the ultimate spoiled rich boy in the hopes of attracting the moderately well heeled to shell out the necessary readies to buy her book?

I guess Heather figures there are enough people out there (here) with as highly tuned sense of outrage as she has because she has not moderated her tone a whit. Oh certainly she might spend some time ruminating on the finer things in life. Those that allow her a respite from the reality of a world where in certain countries she's unable to leave her hotel room without crying because of how the people are forced to live.

I'm not going to deny her those two weeks in Paris because she is astute enough to know that the glamour she is revelling in for those fourteen days is an illusion, is in fact a glamour, a spell. If she were to live there all year round, as she occasionally fantasises, she knows that reality will exist in spite of where you live. That death and cake are always going to be our choices and the former in all its shapes is far more plentiful than the latter.

She makes no secret of her loathing for what she calls the unfeeling nature of conservative politicians who justify everything through greed and the bottom line. She declares her unstinting support for those people everywhere and anywhere who are appalled by what their leaders do in their name. She avows undying love for the Americans who have sent photos to the site apologizing to the world for re-electing George Bush. And she loves taxes. (Read the book)

She's opinionated, gutsy, bull headed, pretty much all the things that most people who use the words family values in a sentence despise in a woman. She has a marvellous conversational writing style that let you walk alongside her through the pages of her opinions. Even if the chat is a little one-sided in that you can't address her directly with your response at least you feel like you're involved and not just being lectured.

When I started writing articles, if I was attempting to emulate anyone, it was Heather. She sees no shame in expressing how something makes her feel, and doesn't hesitate in using herself as an example when the need arises. She's honest in a world where that means something and she speaks from the heart. Those are two attributes I will always admire and that still haven't changed an iota in her writing. Obviously fame hasn't gone to her head.

Readers in Canada can order a copy of Heather Mallick's Cake Or Death from Random House Canada or through some other equally reputable online retail outlet like Amazon.ca



April 30, 2007

Book Review: Dakhmeh Naveed Noori

Why would anyone who managed to escape Iran as a child decide to return after reaching adulthood in the United States? We're not talking about obtaining a visa to go and visit but moving back permanently. Maybe it would be more understandable to our eyes if the person were old and wanted to see his old haunts one last time before he crossed over.

But a young man who has his whole life in front of him; I'm sure that most of us in the west would question the sanity of anyone who'd want to go and live in that country. Maybe if the lifestyle of the west so appalled them and they were a devout Muslim it would make sense, but if they had never shown any interest in living in accordance to those rules it becomes even harder to fathom.

Yet that's exactly what Arash, the protagonist of Naveed Noori's (not the novelist's real name; he uses a nom de plume) first novel Dakhmeh, has done. After years of exile living in California he decide that he wants to return to Iran. He can't even explain it himself completely all he knows is that he doesn't fit in America so he hopes to fit where he was born.

The thing is we know that he doesn't fit into Iran either. Even as he tells us how tired he was of having to explain about being an Iranian refugee so people won't look at him funny in the States, he's doing so on scrapes of paper that have been smuggled into his jail cell in the notorious Evin prison on the outskirts of Tehran.
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The opening lines of the book, "Evin is not such a bad place if they leave you alone" lets you know right from the start his circumstances. It's only as we go deeper into the book that we discover anything about his life and how he ended up in his jail cell.

He was a child during the time of the taking of the hostages and the revolution. He remembers when the Shah left the country and how everyone celebrated in the streets. But it wasn't long before Komethi houses began to appear in neighbourhoods. These were properties that zealous followers of Khomeini "occupied" and used to make sure that the rule of their master was being followed to the letter.

They also became bases of operation for subsequent crackdowns on those who were not as attuned to the true nature of the revolution. Like all revolutions there were different factions that had opposed the Shah, and some of them didn't necessarily like the idea of the state being run according to how the followers of Khomeini interpreted the Koran.

We learn this information from a source whose credentials in these matters are impeccable. Mr. Soleymaani is one of the arms of the regime that reach out and snag people who have drifted into counter-revolutionary behaviour. In name he is policeman, but in reality he is the secret police.

The scariest thing about Mr. Soeymaani is how reasonable and compassionate he appears to be, at the beginning of the book we see him casually condemn the man who gave Arash his paper and pen to death, by simply having the driver of his car take the hapless
man away.

But when compared to the brutes that torture Arash during the first days of his imprisonment he is even more terrifying. His very reasonableness is what does it. Everything he does is valid and justifiable, especially since he even shows that he doesn't agree with all the laws of the government. But none of that stops him from condemning people to death.

Arash writes about how in America he felt cut off from his roots; that he didn't feel like an American even though he'd been there for the majority of his life. But that's the point he says, I left Iran too early and never got to grow my roots. The trouble is when he gets to Iran there is no soil to nurture his roots, just memories of a different time when he was young, before the revolution came and cut away everyone's roots.

People his generation treat him with mistrust because he escaped having to serve in the army and missed out on some of the worse excesses of the young regime. They ask him the same question that everyone wants answered – Why when he had escaped did he come back to prison?

For that's what Iran is, a prison. Maybe not everybody is behind walls but in Dakhmeh Naveed Noori describes a country so tightly controlled and monitored that everyone might as well be in cells. Judgements are passed quickly and sentences are handed out immediately. Everyone is guilty, and just one finger pointing away from ending up forgotten about and rotting in a cell.

Men and women are forbidden to be seen together in public unless they have papers that proves they are related or married. Women must be completely covered when in public, and saying anything that sounds remotely critical of the regime is a death sentence.

The title of the book describes perfectly what happens to Arash. Dakhmeh is a Persian word meaning, tower of silence, referring to a complex on top of a hill where Zoroastrian funeral rites were performed. The body would be left exposed to be eaten like carrion by vultures, crows, wild dogs, and other creatures and it is disposed of gradually.

The Iran described in Dakhmeh is like those rites. It feeds off its people, gradually eating away at them until they are bare bones with nothing left to them. Arash is just one more morsel that has been chewed up by the state. He returned to Iran in the hope of rediscovering the beauty and joy of his childhood, where he didn't have to explain himself to anyone.

Instead of the romantic ideal that he was chasing, he finds that the land he thinks he loves doesn't want his love or his idealism. They only want his obedience and his soul. Dakhmeh is a damning and believable look inside a totalitarian religious state, and serves proper warning to us of the dangers of letting religion have too much say in government.

April 29, 2007

Book Review: Three Dreams On Mount Meru Francois Devenne

Africa. The Dark Continent. The realm mystery and romance for European writers from the time of "Dr. Livingston I presume" to the African Queen and Raiders Of The Lost Arc and home to the Great White Hunter and the loyal black porters. A land of mysterious impenetrable jungles and wide expanses of hostile plains filled with man eating beast lurking under every tree waiting to devour the innocent blond maiden and missionaries tied to a stake for the cannibal stew pot.

These and other images have been the backdrops for plots ranging from searching for lost gold to stories of a human raise by the great apes. Our view of Africa and her people has long been coloured by purple prose and the white man's burden with "Bawana" always having to play father to his childlike native servants who just can't keep a stiff upper lip and fall apart during a crises.

Either that or our heads are filled with the images of recent history. The post colonial tribal hatreds, the famines, the tin pot dictators that come and go, and of course the pandemic of AIDS. Surely there has to be more to the people and the continent than this rather limited and pejorative view. The trouble is trying to find any writings about Africa that aren't written about either politics or, to steal from the Irish, "troubles".
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Well one such antidote has been supplied by French writer Francois Devenne. Although born in France and a European he exhibited a fascination for Africa from an early age and wrote his student thesis on the geography and agriculture of the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania. He moved to Kenya where he worked the French Institute of African Studies. It was during his time working in Kenya that he wrote his first novel; a novel about an Africa that few of us know anything about.

Three Dreams On Mount Meru is the story of the path we all travel to adulthood, but told within the framework of two cultures that are just staring to merge. Bayu, the youngest male in a clan renowned for their abilities as carvers and craftsmen in wood, is both African and Muslim. So while the message of the prophet is still law and sacred to him, the belief in magic and respect for the spirit world of dreams is still strong in his people.
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For wasn't it a dream which made their families fortunes when his ancestor from eight generations back obeyed a dream he had as a child in his efforts to rebuild a mosque. If we were talking about Native American's we would be talking about animal guides and vision quests in reference to the dream in question, for the ancestor was led to his revelation by a leopard and even in Bayu's day the leopard remains a figure of mystique and power.

It was Bayu's ancestor, who instituted the tradition that the young men of the clan intent on following in his footsteps travel to Mount Meru and dream three dreams to complete their passage into manhood. But it's not until the women he is supposed to marry challenges him to return from Mount Meru with a flower that he's given birth to, that he is given his first clue as to the true importance of the both the tradition and the leopard.

With his fiancées' last words of "…the leopard is the creative breath of the clan" still loud in his ears he begins his quest to find his three dreams. When he returns they will marry, but first he must survive the ordeal – something not everybody who sets out on the journey have done. For not only does he face the perils of crossing the Savannah on his own where he will be easy pray for any hungry predator, he has to survive his encounters with other tribesman.

Needless to say the ordeal is not what he expects. How will he know when he has had the dreams that he's supposed to have. Even if he does, what is he supposed to do about them? Will they tell him things that he must do, or will they give him glimpses of events that will force him to make choices that will dictate what his future will be.

Devenne has done something truly remarkable with this book. Not only has he created a marvellous coming of age story and exploration of a person becoming aware of their own abilities and potential, he has done it in such a manner that we also learn a great deal about the people of that time.

His descriptions of the environments that Bayu has to pass through on his way to the Mountain and once there are breathtaking in their ability to not only capture the beauty and the harshness of the land, but to depict a country with a multitude of landscapes. Even the Savannah, which we've seen depicted as undulating, endless prairie lands, has a diversity that come as a shock.

But none of it prepares us, or Bayu for the Mountain. Devenne somehow manages to convey both its beauty and foreboding nature simultaneously, making them a target both desirable and intimidating. But Bayu is not deterred by any obstructions and it is his strength of character, determination, and willingness to risk that help him succeed. For it's not only a transition into manhood he must undergo, but a transformation into an artist and as his fiancée so rightly says to him before he sets out, creativity always has the risk of failure attached to it.

Francois Devenne has taken a risk with the telling of this story. It's very hard, if not impossible to venture into the territory of another person's culture and be able to tell their story. But Devenne's love and appreciation for his subject matter, his obvious understanding and love for the environment, and the depth of his historical knowledge mean that he is ideally suited to the task and is able to succeed where others might have failed.

Not once in the telling does it ever feel like he is doing more than telling a story. He makes no claims to be some gifted shaman or wise man that the people of Africa have imparted mystical secrets to. He is simply a man telling a coming of age story utilizing knowledge that he has learnt through his studies and his own experiences from residing in Africa. This is a book that is truly a story in that if you dropped the narrative voice of Bayu from the text it could be told aloud around the fire at night when the flames are kissing the sky and the stars have been caught in their conflagration.

In Three Dreams On Mount Meru Francois Devenne brings to life an Africa that few of us are ever privileged enough to see. Take advantage of this opportunity, who knows when it will come around again.


April 28, 2007

Whose Terrorising Who?

Almost everyday the newspapers are filled with accounts of violent activity in Iraq. A car bomb here, a suicide bomb there, gunfire at a checkpoint, even an outbreak of outright hostilities on occasion. We know that the victims of these attacks are usually either Iraqi or American personnel serving in either the armed forces or security services.

The newspapers say that it is the work of faceless creatures called insurgents or even worse radical fundamentalist Muslims. They never offer any explanation as to possible reasons for these people to be fighting against the American forces that occupy their country except to say that they are insurgents or fundamentalist Muslims, or even scarier both.

In other words the only reason that they pick up weapons against the Americans is because of who they are, not because of anything that's been done to them. It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that for the ten years prior to the invasion the country got steadily poorer as the embargo and the Oil for food programs steadily stripped the country of any means of generating income to pay for infrastructure, health care, education, and other things we take for granted.

It doesn't have anything to do with hospitals being bombed, museums being looted, Iraq's natural resources (mainly oil) being sold into private American hands and the money from the sales mysteriously disappearing. The theory had been sell off Iraq's assets at bargain prices to American interests and use that money to rebuild the country.

If there had been any sign of hope, or progress towards rebuilding things might be different. But what are people supposed to believe when they read reports of hundreds of millions of dollars just going missing that was earmarked for rebuilding? An initial audit from one city showed just that happening and who knows how wide spread it's become in the interim.

What would you think if the people who were behind the violence weren't doing it out of some fanatical Muslim belief? What would you think if they were people who were reacting to their treatment at the hands of people they believed didn't give a damn for them or their lives?

Put yourself in the shoes of the average twenty something Iraqi for a few moments in the above circumstances. Now add into the fact that you're treated with absolute disdain in your own country. People who can't speak your language, who don’t understand or respect your traditions, constantly yell at you in a language you don't speak; telling you what to do and how to behave.

In your eyes they desecrate your places of religion, they act like your culture that has existed for thousands of years is insignificant, and in their eyes you are less than a person. It seems to you that for no reason at all they invade your house and kill your friends, if not your family, whenever the mood strikes them.

Doesn't anybody find it odd that a person whose father was put to death by Saddam Hussein has become one of the biggest opponents of the American opposition? Wasn't the point to liberate people like him from the tyranny of Saddam? If that's the case why have they, over the course of the occupation, taken up arms against the Americans?

Could it be because they are tired of the way they are being ignored in their own country? Could it be that although they are grateful for the release from Saddam Hussein, they would like to have some say in how their country is put back together? Maybe they don’t want all their natural resources sold off to the highest bidder so that when they do have self-rule their economy is in foreign ownership?

We like to say that the reason behind all the violence is outside forces like Iran stirring up trouble, or people who've been promised paradise if they die on the battlefield. Our politicians and the "Muslim Experts" will recite this information by rote if you push the right button. They hate we say, in shocked disbelief, as we shake our heads at the wonder that anybody could hate the glorious West with our sacred cows of material wealth and self indulgence.

Sometimes I wonder how so many people can have their heads that far up their asses and still be breathing? What reason have we ever given the Arab world, especially Iraqis to like us? Try putting the situation on the ground for the people living in Iraq for the past sixteen years together with the insurgent activity? Can you see any connection between the two? If not I'd say that Western myopia has gone beyond pathetic to dangerous.

Look you kick someone in the ass long enough and make them feel like shit, they're bound to snap sooner or latter. They don't need to be fanatical this or that, they just need to be ordinary human beings who have been pushed too far and live with violence everyday. You grow up in a world where everything revolves around bombs and machine guns you might start thinking that is the only means of problem resolution.

I'm the last person in the world to condone violence. But there are times I can understand where it comes from. The mistake the West keeps on making is that we are constantly pouring gasoline on a fire. We have to stop responding to violence with increased violence and begin owning up to our share of the responsibility for creating the situation and circumstances that led to the violence.

We in the West have to stop thinking that our way is the only way and learning to meet people half way. We need to start making an effort to understand other peoples instead of lumping them all together as "different". We are the new kid on the block in terms of civilizations and yet we act as if any other ways of being are at best inferior to ours, if not wrong.

Where do we get off judging anybody else and their ways of being? Even amongst ourselves we can't reach any conclusions about how best to live our lives, so how dare we try to impose anything on others. What gives us the right to do that anyway?

I don't support the activities of terrorists of any stripe; whether they have homemade bombs they blow up in cars that wipe out anybody who happens to be in the vicinity or they drop bombs from airplanes thousands of feet above surface of the earth that wipe out whole city blocks indiscriminately. But we need to stop thinking of the people who are called terrorists by our press as faceless beings to be dismissed as "fundamentalists" or "insurgents".

There are humans behind those labels and the quicker we start putting faces to them, the quicker we will be able to bring the violence to a halt. I may not approve of either form of terrorism, but I can understand one better than the other. If my country were invaded by a foreign power I might fight back in anyway, or with any means at my disposal too.

April 22, 2007

Stephen Harper And Human Rights Just Don't Mix

When Steven Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, stood in front of a crowd in Winnipeg Manitoba to announce his government's commitment to pay the annual operating costs for a proposed Human Rights Museum it proved that a politician's hypocrisy really does know no bounds. It also proves that there's not much justice in the world, other wise he would have strangled on his tongue when he said it will honour Canadian values.

I have to wonder which side of his face he's talking out of when he says things like that. Is it the one that says it wants to prevent homosexuals from having the right to marry? Or how about the one that says it want to protect the people's freedom of religion by allowing them to refuse to serve homosexuals in the workplace, including government offices, forbid them employment in a place of business, or to teach in schools that homosexuality should be illegal?

Maybe it's the one who wants keep people in jail for as long as possible with no proof that they've done anything wrong, deny them access to the supposed evidence that had them imprisoned in the first place, and presumes they are guilty until proven innocent. How about the one who wanted desperately to keep anti-terrorist laws in place without holding the five-year review the bill called for?

Aside from our frontline troops in Afghanistan when was the last time a Canadian citizen was under direct threat from a terrorist? Well I guess you never know when you're going to have an Indian uprising do you? According to the Defence Ministry some native groups are as dangerous, if not more so, then groups like Hezbolah and the Tamil Tigers.

You never know when you're going to need extraordinary powers to round up all those pesky Natives wanting their land claims respected before somebody builds condominiums or a garbage dump on them. Of course this is same government that has reneged on almost every agreement signed by the previous one with the First Nations peoples that would have seen a redressing of past human rights infringements against them.

Of course Steven Harper's government describes stealing children from parents and shipping them off to boarding school to be trained as servants and janitors for white people as "education". I wonder what they call the practice of forbidding them to speak their language or practice their own religion when they were in these schools? How about the sexual, physical and emotional abuse so many of these children had inflicted on them – life experience.

Mr. Harper said that this new museum will have exhibits showing where Canada has failed the test on human rights. Is he referring to the head tax we imposed on Chinese immigrants? Will that include the Royal Canadian Legion forbidding to this day to allow orthodox Jewish people and Sikhs from wearing head covering inside a Legion hall? Or what about Canada refusing to allow Jewish refugees into our country who were fleeing Hitler in the thirties? Will the number of many people we sent back to Germany to the ovens be included in the Holocaust memorial part of the new Human Rights Museum?

How about our continued support of policies that encourage trade with countries like China where anybody who speaks out against the government is considered a traitor and thrown in jail? How about spending the lives of Canadian soldiers to prop up a regime in Afghanistan that denies civil rights to its people as much as the Taliban did? Are these going to be listed as mistakes we've made when it comes to defending Human Rights around the world and at home?

Then again maybe Steven Harper has a different concept of what Human Rights are defined as. He seems very intent on undermining the Supreme Court of Canada these days, saying things like courts shouldn't be making the laws or interfering in the running of the country.

When last I checked it was the still the House of Parliament that had the power to enact laws, the problem is that they have to abide by the Charter of Rights and Liberties. In other words a government can't pass a law discriminating against someone or denying them any of the rights that are set out in our constitution without having a very good reason. If they do the courts will strike it down.

Any American civics student could tell Steven Harper about the theory of checks and balances that was written into the American Constitution. Like in the States it’s the responsibility of the judiciary branch to ensure that the Constitution of the country is adhered to, even by the government.

Human Rights are not something that can be turned off and on as they are convenient or inconvenient, which is what makes them so important. The true test of a nation is not whether they are willing to give rights to the respectable majority, but how far they are willing to extend those same rights to every type of minority.

We cannot have one law for one people and another law for other people in the same country or we lose any semblance of moral authority. How can Steven Harper chide another country's Human Rights record when he is so willing to deny them to his own people?

As Steven Harper was making the announcement of funding for the Human Rights Museum, his government's lawyers were seeking to have a motion thrown out of court that would prohibit Canadian troops from handing detainees captured in Afghanistan over to the Afghan government who routinely torture and mistreat any prisoners of war. According to Canadian law we never turn over a prisoner who runs the risk of facing either the death penalty or cruel and unusual punishment.

In the past when this type of situation has arisen the Canadian courts have ruled that the Charter of Right and Freedoms applies and that actions have to be governed accordingly. So it makes me wonder why Steven Harper's government wants to change that and deny people held under Canadian law the rights that have been guaranteed them in the past?

Canada's record is no better or worse than most so called Western democracies when it comes to Human Rights, but when we instituted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms we went a long way in amending our past errors. Steven Harper, the first Prime Minister to actively work against the Charter, standing up and stating that this new Museum of Human Rights will be representative of Canadian values is even more hypocritical than normal for a politician.

I really wonder how he keeps track of which face he's talking out of, because calling him two faced is an understatement. Not since Ravana, the ten-headed demon lord of Indian history, has a person presented more faces to the public at one time.

Earth Day: A Poem

The flowers are wilting on the mantelpiece, collecting dust and displaying an occasional cobweb.
Gesture of a supposed affection, but more likely an affectation given who and what she has come to.
If faded were a design motif then the room is well decorated from top to bottom, including its inhabitant.
Unwisely the blinds have been allowed to stand open from the night just past, as morning sun does nothing any favours.
Left more naked then if x-rayed, pity would surely war with disgust if there were any around to observe the cruel play of warm light in a place it has no business.
A lamp, made superfluous, sits on a bedside table, dripping with shawls camouflaging light for a measure of deceitful concealment.
In the depression on the mattress, formed by repeated pounding and abuse, tired buttocks are cradled familiarly; this is their home and resting place, where they belong.
Elbows, hands, the flat of a heel, long ago staked out individual claims to space where they could shelter during and after.
Use and age have been as hard on the bed as they have on its occupant down the years, as appetites grew more rapacious, less of her was left behind at the end of the night.
Never satiated, demands compounding, night in and night out, in and out, on and on, here in this room, on this bed.
Mumbled phrases that pass for appreciations have changed on occasion, but remain nothing more than excuses and justifications and nothing of love.
How long will she be here at the top of the stairs, at the end of the path in the carpet at their beck and call?
Would they change if they saw her exposed in the light instead of being blind in the night?
But how can they not feel her wasting away under them each night? As they take what they want and leave nothing behind?
Soon their night will have to turn to day. They'll come to her door and she won't answer their knock.
They'll beg and they'll weep, moan and complain, but she can't fill their needs anymore, now that they've killed her.
You'll think it's their mother, the way they'll carry on, someone they cared for, they loved and admired.
Not just some tired out old whore at the top of the stairs.

April 20, 2007

Worlds Apart

It's always very humbling to find out how much you still lack in awareness when it comes to being respectful of others in the world around you. You think of yourself as being fairly aware and try to take into account various beliefs and ways of living yet you still take things for granted and make assumptions that are wrong.

A prime example of that happened to me just the other day. I've set up a writer's group for the people who are contributing to the Epic India web site. It's for the usual thing; a place where people can post announcements and where I can list any items that people want reviewed. I don't know if other groups have this option, but Google groups allow you to restrict access to those eighteen year of age or older.

In a semi-serious, semi joking manner I labelled the group adult only. I was trying to pass on the message to my people that I didn't want any childish behaviour on the board. But there was something I hadn't taken into consideration. Some countries block sites labelled adult only routinely in attempt to maintain their strict moral codes.

Which is exactly what happened too one of my writers. He's living in one of the Gulf of Arabia states that are particularly strict about enforcing a Muslim lifestyle and as long as the adult designation remained on the site he wasn't going to be able to take part in the group's discussions.

When he wrote to tell me about it he was very apologetic, which of course there was no need for him to be. In fact when I wrote him back to tell him that I was changing the designation, I apologized to him for not having realized that the possibility of that existed. Here I had been going on about a multicultural international magazine and I do something without considering the full implications of my actions in other cultures.

Well, you say, how were you to know that the country this guy lives in was going to do something like that? To me that is the wrong question, I should be asking why didn't I know or consider the possibility that someone in the group would find themselves in that situation?

No I don't think I'm being too hard on myself either. Think of what we expect people to know about us. The least I can do is remember that Muslim societies aren't as open in some ways as ours and act accordingly. It's called understanding and respect for the way others live, something noticeably thin on the ground in our age of intolerance and unreason.

It doesn't matter what it is, groups with an adult designation, a house rule that demands all heads be uncovered all the time, or making everybody recite the same prayer in school, it all comes down to the same thing. Make allowances for other people's differences and they will respond in kind. It's amazing how just a little respect goes a long way.

April 5, 2007

Real Life

Occasionally small miracles happen that helps to remind me of the trivialness of human existence and worries. We've built these cities made of concrete and steel that give us the impression of permanence and a place in the world, but sometimes something will occur that lets us know how impermanent we are.

This is especially true in North America where none of the major cities have been around long enough to even match the age of most European city's sewer systems. When you start taking into consideration the civilizations of the Middle East, India, China, and the Sub Sahara that flourished while Europeans were still squatting in the bushes you really begin to realize how young this continent is.

But even the oldest city on the banks of the Euphrates pales in contrast to the history of the world itself. Various creation myths would have us believe that the world was created for our pleasure, but only those whose brains are oxygen deprived from sniffing the glue that holds their holy books together are actually going to believe that anymore.

Human existence is but a mere blink of the eye in relationship to how long life has existed on the planet. We haven't even come close to matching the longevity of the dinosaurs yet. Human history is only considered in terms of ten of thousands of years, while judging by fossil records the big lizards could have been around for tens of millions before they died out.

None of this prevents us from thinking highly of ourselves though, and to give credit where credit is due we've certainly accomplished a lot in a short period of time. We've driven thousands of life forms to the edge of, if not to extinction, without even being aware of their existence in a lot of cases.

In only the relatively short period of time that we've existed we've managed to destroy or deplete the majority of fresh water in the world, turn fertile land into desert, rid the world of pesky forests that have stood long before human's existed thus making the world safe from the icky pollution of fallen leaves, and made it easier for everyone to get a tan by eliminating the pesky Ozone layer.

Oh of course there have been major advances in other areas too. We've been able to find cures for some of the diseases our behaviour has caused, we've perfected ways in which we can exterminate huge amounts of us at once, and created belief systems that guarantee we will want to use the means to do so. What do you think will happen when everyone believes a variation of I'm right and you're wrong? Peace and tranquility?

If that weren't bad enough, there is actually a good chunk of the human race who feel they are doing the rest of it a favour by imposing their way of thinking on them. You can't really be happy unless you think just like me, so I'll do you the favour of either forcing you to, or putting you out of your misery.

The worse thing that can happen is getting wrapped up in the events of the world to the point where they become all that matters. Where you lose track of the things beyond our own limited perspective and imagine it to be important in the scheme of things.

Yesterday I experienced something that took me beyond the concrete and metal, and the noise and bustle, and out of my own head. I was downtown with my wife and we ran into a couple that we don't see all that often. We were talking and I happened to look beyond the buildings and notice a couple of large birds almost directly overhead.

I recognised them almost immediately as Turkey Vultures by the way in which they were able to soar effortlessly on what seems like only minute traces of wind. As I was turning my head to tell my wife and our friends about them, I noticed out of the corner of my eye about six more of the huge birds flying behind them.

It was hard to tell how many of them there were because at any given moment one would soar out sight behind building and another would turn in a large lazy circle. They looked to be riding in invisible elevators, but one's that allowed for sudden veering at forty-five degrees or stalls that allowed for moments of suspension in midair. One was almost tempted to look for the strings that were holding them up.

The four of us stood on the sidewalk staring up in amazement as we watched the birds parade by. People hurrying by didn't even bother to see what it was we were staring at, all that mattered was we weren't in their way. The turkey vultures eventually drifted off and we resumed our conversation, but I kept my eye turned towards the sky to see if any of them would come back.

At first all I saw was some indistinct movement in the sky, and then as it came into focus I realized it was another flight of birds. This time there had to be about twenty of them stretched across the sky swooping and swirling. Following a path that they had followed long before the city below them had existed they travelled where thousands of their ancestors had plied the sky for their trip northward in the spring.

Again the four of us stood in slack jawed wonder. If we had thought watching the previous group had been impressive, to watch a flock of twenty Turkey Vultures was almost beyond description. There wasn't any of the military precision of the massive flocks of geese that had been overhead for the last few weeks where each animal had a specific place in a formation.

But there was something about this loose grouping of twenty birds that was every bit as stirring, if not more, as the sight of hundreds of geese stretched out across the sky. Maybe it was because of the fact that none of has had ever experienced seeing that many large birds of prey in the sky together before. The most you might see is a family group of four or five near the end of the summer when the youngsters are being trained for the flight to the wintering grounds in the South.

Perhaps it is the total indifference to us down on the ground that helps make these moments so spectacular. As long as they are alive it won't matter what we do or how we behave, they will continue to fly that route as they have for probably longer then humans have been in North America.

They were flying South to North and North to South with the changing of the seasons long before there were men living on this land mass. Some consider birds only a few jumps along the evolutionary ladder from dinosaurs, and if you've ever seen a Turkey Vulture up close with their naked face and plucked necks it's a hard argument to refute, and if that's the case who knows how many centuries, if not millennium they have been taking this route.

These minor miracles always remind me of how insignificant humans really are when it comes to the planet. We are but a brief wink of the eye in terms of life on this planet, and when you start to consider just our own solar system we become even more trivial. In context of the Universe itself we don't even register. I think the more often we are reminded of this point the better it is for us.

If there is any species on the face of the planet right now that needs a lesson in humility it would be humans. Although I'm very much afraid that it will take us coming close to destroying ourselves before we learn that lesson.

April 3, 2007

Not So Saintly John Paul The 2nd

So they want to speed up the process of canonization for John Paul the 2nd . They've already waived the rule of waiting until five years after someone's death before beginning the process, and now their pushing for skipping the proof of miracles stage. "His very presence among us was a miracle" is what his former principle secretary is saying.

What I want to know is why the rush? He's not going anywhere, he will still be as dead two years from now as he is today. Could it be because they want to capitalize on the emotion surrounding his death and not let the cold light of facts come into play?

Perhaps they don't want people thinking what the effect of his policies on the world have been like. The fact that he has been so outspoken against the use of condoms as birth control has probably resulted in the deaths of millions of Africans from AIDS is not something the church will want people thinking about just now.

Or maybe they don't want people considering the fact that he was one of the biggest misogynists the world has seen in a leadership position in modern times. He did more to set back women's struggle for control over their own bodies than any right wing fundamentalist in the United States could dream of doing. Not only was he stridently against birth control and abortion but his views on a women's place in the world were medieval.

Or maybe they don't want people questioning how that during his reign alter boys were being raped up and down the east coast of the United States with the full knowledge of the church. Not only did church not turn the priests over to the authorities for prosecution when they found out what was going on – they hid them in other parishes where they could have access to more children to abuse.

I don't about anywhere else but that's called aiding and abetting after the fact and complicity where I come from. He was head of the Catholic Church and so he was responsible for dictating policy on how to deal with sexual offenders within church. No Bishop or Cardinal is going to make those kinds of decisions without clearance from the top.

Of course there were also his attempts to deny people their civil rights by urging governments not to allow homosexuals to have all the same rights as heterosexuals. He would go so far as to interfere in the internal politics of a nation by writing threatening letters to the leaders of countries who were considering same sex marriages as law.

Of course there were also his refusal to admit that the Church has ever done anything wrong. Including the Spanish Inquisition, their support of Franco in Spain, and their propping up of various dictators through out the world who happen to be good Catholics.

During his tenure as pope he also came down heavily against the clergy in South America who worked tirelessly on the sides of the peasant farmers or helping refugees escape the oppressive regimes he was supporting. His only concern was the status of the Church in the world and to ensure that it held on to the position of power that he was managing to carve out for it.

Everybody loved his little Pope-Mobile and his huge open air masses. Nobody dared to mention their similarities to the Nuremberg Rallies of the 1930's even though the comparisons were there for everyone to see. How else would your refer to large numbers of people blindly accepting one person's word as law without question or thought? Under other circumstances it would have been called mass hypnosis, a cult of personality, or at the very least dangerous.

It's not an original thought, but he turned himself into the Catholic Church and in order to prove you were a true believer you had to believe in him. People were no longer worshipping their God; they worshipped John Paul the 2nd (the only John and Paul worth worshipping in the twentieth century were Lennon and McCartney as far as I'm concerned) and followed his dictates instead of the teachings of Christ.

Am I the only person who remembers him giving his blessing for building a convent on the site of Auschwitz, insulting the memory of those non-Catholics who lost their lives in that camp and whose ashes scarred the sky? Am I the only person who thinks about all the people he sent out into the world telling people not to practice family planning or use condoms in a time when overpopulation is one of the biggest crises the world faces?

In countries where the infant mortality rate is astronomical because of a lack of clean drinking water and food encouraging people to have children has to rank pretty high on the insensitive charts. But as long as the kid is baptized before he starves to death who cares about the trauma the mother had to go through giving birth, or the grief she has to deal with after it's death – it's one more soul for Jesus and that's all that matters.

Pope John Paul the 2nd was a manipulative and dangerous individual who made the world a lot worse off then it was before he took power. All the talk these days surrounds how a nun who suffered from Parkinson's disease miraculously recovered a couple of months after the Pope died. It's quite scary knowing there are people in the world who genuinely think that's sufficient grounds to make this guy a saint.

I'm sure the Catholic Church is going to go ahead and make him a saint within the nest five years or so if for no other reason than it will justify their continued swing towards the right and their reactionary attitudes towards women, homosexuals, birth control and the use of condoms to help stop the spread of disease. But it doesn't have to mean anything at all unless we let it.

Like aristocracy and petty dictators the world over the Vatican will do anything to justify it's existence and the need for draconian policies of control and hatred. The easiest way to do to that is make a hero out of a person who exemplified all those qualities. John Paul the 2nd was a xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic, dictator. If he were what they consider a saint, I'd hate to meet their idea of a sinner.

February 14, 2007

Book Review: Adjusting Sights Haim Sabato

In 1973 Israel faced the last real concentrated invasion by the armies of the Arab world. An attacking force spearheaded by Syrian and Egyptian tanks invaded on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. On "The Day of Atonement" the majority of Jewish people spend the day fasting and in Synagogue.

If there was one day of the year where the Arab armies had a chance of taking the Israeli forces by surprise and perhaps ending the war before it could even get started, this was it. What made it even more of a shock to the Israelis was that the Arabs chose to attack during Ramadan, the holiest days on the Muslim calendar. Devout Muslims will fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan then break their fast with a feast in honour of Allah.

In the first two days of the war it looked like the Arab armies might succeed, but after sustaining significant losses of tanks and men, the Israelis regrouped and by the end of the fifth day were able to start pushing the attacking forces back. In Adjusting Sights Haim Sabato plunges us directly into the middle of those opening days of confusion as seen through the eyes of a gunner and the gun sights of a tank.

Adjusting Sights is the author's recounting of his own experiences as a tank gunner in an Israeli armoured division during that period, so this is no fictional recreation of events. Instead the author writes with unflinching honesty about the confusion, chaos, fear, and fatigue he felt during the initial onslaught.
Haim Sabato.jpg
He and his closest friend, Dov, had been together since the early years of school, studied for their Bar Mitzvahs together, so it was only natural that when it came time to do their National Service in the army that they should serve and train together. On manoeuvres and throughout basic training they had been loader and gunner together in a tank.

Naturally, they assumed, when the call up came for the war they would be assigned to the same tank, but it was not to be. When they arrived at the depot it was total chaos. They were standing with the rest of their crew when an officer came up and asked "who's a loader"? When Dov steped forward – he said, "Come with me, so and so needs a loader now". And Dov was gone to another tank, to another gunner; Dov was gone period.

Shortly after leaving the camp and heading out towards where they have been told the enemy might be – but that's impossible how can they be so close already, was everybody's thought, including the author. The ambush that they drove into almost killed them all. Haim and the rest of his crew had to abandon their tank and try to walk back to camp through the middle of a pitched battle.

Between the four of them they had two Uzi submachine guns, and one grenade so when the helicopter full of Syrian commandos landed almost on top of them they were sure they were done for. Then out of nowhere an Israeli troop career pulls up and out pours a brigade of soldiers who open fire and take down the Syrians.

Things like that happen throughout the author's whole ordeal – the timing of events is such that the engine of his tank starts just in time to reverse before a shell hits. Or at one point walking back to the camp they hid in a culvert for a few moments and then continued on. Another tank squad did the same thing a little later and a Syrian troop passing by tossed some grenades in and killed all but one, the one who told that story to Haim.

Adjusting Sights is not about patriots; it's not about glory; it is about survival. Individual soldiers trying to survive each moment they are under fire when they don't know where the enemy tanks are. How do you fire back when you can't see who's firing at you?

Only occasionally do they say to each other anything that sounds remotely patriotic, and it is more desperation than anything else. "We can't lose, because if we lose Israel loses", is not a speech guaranteed to make the blood boil with patriotic fervour. But it's what they felt as they fought in order to live so that their country could live.

I've read a fair number of stories and a fair number of histories about various wars and battles, and this book has to have the most genuine feel to it of any when it comes to recounting the fighting. The confusion, the panic, the moments of frustration, and the relief when it's over are all communicated without any embellishment.

Nobody cheers when they blow up another tank, or when the enemy retreats. They just are grateful to survive. Another day that they survive is another day that their country survives. But something about Sabato's matter of fact approach manages to transmit the state of shock that most of the men are in. When he describes them watching two comrades rolling on the ground to put out the flames that are threatening to engulf them in same manner as he describes trudging through the sand it's not hard to understand their state of mind.

Haim Sabato is a man who takes his faith seriously, and therefore faith plays a large part in this book. But it's not the way that I'm accustomed to seeing religion or faith employed during a book about war. There is no group prayer where they gather to hear someone tell them that God is on their side and that should go out and kill in his name.

Instead for the men who serve in the tanks their faith and their rituals are their tie to normalcy. Getting up every morning to recite the morning prayer, wrapping the Tefillin (prayer boxes worn by orthodox Jewish men for the morning prayers signifying the covenant between them and God) on to their forehead, arms and fingers, and facing the east to greet the day are something you all the time, not just in during a war.

After the fighting has ended Haim and his troop are stationed on the Golan Heights and they keep the Sabbath ritual every week. It becomes almost even more important here than it would be at home. Their faith is as much a part of their lives as breathing for some of them, so maintaining the practices and rituals makes them feel alive.

After the author was finished running to escape the ambush where his tank had been immobilized he and his fellow crewmembers were finally able to rest for a moment. As he was sitting there he remembered that he had been taught that no man may make a vow in the hopes of expecting assistance from heaven – except in moments of extreme distress.

He sits and wonders what it is he would vow and the only thing he is sure of is that the world will never be the same again. At the end of the book on Golan Heights he remembers that vow, that the world will never be the same again. He thinks about how he lived and his friend Dov din't, or how that one crewmember lived while the rest of his crew died from the grenade blast in the culvert.

That is a debt that needs to be repaid, but how do you change the world? You aim higher then you've aimed before, just as a gunner in a tank adjusts his sights to allow for the change in trajectory, so must we all adjust our sights and set higher goals if we want to change the world.

It is often said that soldiers are the ones who most apposed to war. They know on occasion that it becomes necessary to defend your homeland from invasion, but there should be no other reason for it. Haim Sabato is that type of soldier. This is a book about war which tells us we need to adjust our sights away from fighting and lift them up to a more worthy goal.

Who holds in His hand the souls of all that live
And the spirit of each mortal man
The soul is Yours and the body is Your handiwork
Spare the work of Your hands

Lord of all souls, the soul is Yours
But the body is also Your handiwork
For this it was made, to sanctify Your name in this world
Master of all worlds, spare the work of Your hands.
Hebrew Prayer of penitence

February 13, 2007

Book Review: Aleppo Tales Haim Sabato

Stories in real life don't tend to follow a straight and true path like those that are written down in a book by an author for the entertainment of his contemporaries. Sometimes they wander off on digressions which have caught the attention of those involved in the story, other times it becomes necessary to backtrack a hundred years in search for a story's beginning.

Did it begin here when this happened or perhaps here when that happened, or did it like all stories begin with the beginning of all things and is just one more branch thrown out by the universe. It can be a delicate business extracting a story from all that surrounds it, like following on thin thread of one colour through a many hued woven shawl.

Here it snakes in front of the weft, here behind; see there how it quickly snakes around those five or six almost similar strands, maybe following on with them for a while but by looking closely you can see the point of divergence. No matter how unique or individual we believe it to be our own story or that of our family isn't usually that much different from other members of our community.

Of course with every rule there has to be an exception and in Aleppo Tales Haim Sabato relates, although one family's life is forever intertwined with the rest of the community, in this book detail three incidences of a family's thread glowing far brighter than their neighbours. Perhaps if he had the energy he could have detailed ways in which more than the just the people named in these stories had distinguished themselves.
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First you need to know about the "Aleppo" of the title; this is the name given to the territory in Syria where Jews had lived for close to two thousand years, ever since the destruction of the second temple during Roman times. Among their number were also Jews who had come when the Spanish expelled them in 1492, Sephardic Jews coming to join a community who practiced in the same manner that they did.

Sometimes an action, or a word that is spoken, doesn't see its final fruition until years later, and when they do it is with results that no one could have predicted. So it was when the sage Raphael Sapporta sold an old Hanukkah lamp that he had inherited from his great-great grandfather who had come to Syria as one of those Spanish exiles in 1492.

As you know the tradition of Hanukkah, where Jewish people celebrate the miracle of the oil lamps staying light for eight days when there was only enough oil for one, that on the first night it is normal to light two candles, one of which is used to light the other, or the others for the nights of the festival. But this menorah that Raphael Sapporta sold to the trader, who had been approached by a middleman who had been approached by a dealer in antiquities in France to buy old Hanukkah lamps, was one of the ways in which some Jews of Aleppo were different from their other kin in exile.

Instead of the normal nine lights there was room for a tenth. It is said that when the boat carrying the exiles fleeing Spain was approaching Aleppo it was caught up in a terrible storm and it was only by a miracle that it made it to port with all its crew and passengers alive. The day the ship made port was in fact the first night of Hanukkah, and to commemorate this second miracle of the season, those families who had arrived on that ship had special menorah made with the means to light an extra light.

The two scrap dealers who had arranged the deal for selling the Hanukkah lamp soon found that their business dealings began to prosper and with that prosperity they decided that they in turn should do their bit and supported the sages of Aleppo by creating a perpetual fund that would permit them to study and not work more than they wanted at material matters.

Thus it was that the one lamp sold to Senor Franco and Senor Piciotto began to have an effect immediately for the family Sapporta as Raphael was one of the sages who received direct benefit from this endowment, as did his son Hacham Hiyyah a sage of renown in his own right. It was because of this endowment that Hacham's son Jacob was able to study from an early age, but education began to lead him away from the words and deeds of his fathers.

As it is for the father so it is even more so for the son, and Jacob who is the son of Hacham who first is led away from the study of the Torah had a son who they named Raphael in honour of his great-grandfather. But he took for himself the name of Max and left behind the Torah altogether. He went to Paris to continue his studies and for a time was happy. But on occasion he was reminded of the teachings of his forefathers and experienced disquiet.

As was his habit when he was in need to settle his mind he went to the Louvre Museum. It just so happened that there was a display of Jewish antiquities on exhibit and Max let himself be pulled into it. In one glass case he saw to his wonder an old, cracked Menorah with places for ten lights. Even more surprising was the fact that engraved faintly in the side of brass was the name Sapporta. The last name he no longer used.

In writing this review I have tried to emulate the style that Haim Sabato created in his telling of the stories in Aleppo Tales. Part of the joy of reading any of his books is the way in which the stories take their time in unfolding. Sabato thinks nothing of following an interesting thread off the main strand of the story to its natural conclusion, waiting for it to finish talking as it were, before he picks up the tale again.

In this manner he manages to not only tell an interesting tale about how many and varied are the distractions of the world that keep you from remembering who you are, but to also bring to life the atmosphere of an era that has long passed. The community of Aleppo Jews no longer exists except in pockets where their descendants might still practice in New York or Israel, but it is not the same as a whole district dedicated to a way of life.

What I found especially interesting was that the main language that they used for communication outside the synagogue was Arabic. In those days remember Hebrew was primarily a religious tongue. It's only been since the formation of Israel that Hebrew has been given a secular form, and that was for convenience when the country was formed because nobody could speak the same language. It makes sense for Jewish people living in Syria to speak Arabic fluently, just as those living in England would speak English. But in this day and age it seems strange to see and is also a reminder of a time when the children of Abraham weren't as divided.

It should make no difference to you whether you are a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, or a Hindu when you read these stories because while they focus on a particular religion they are universal in their celebration of faith; the power it has to bring you joy, comfort, and peace. Faith does not have to be a burden, as so many people seem to belief it to be these days, it should be a blessing and something to bring you great joy.

Surrounding yourself with the sages and wise men and women of Aleppo reminds you of that, and if for no other reason makes it worth reading Aleppo Tales. That it is also beautifully written, with love and faith adorning every word like pearls is just an added bonus.

February 4, 2007

The Vanishing Rights Of Women

Is it just me or do we seem to be going backwards on the evolutionary ladder? Maybe not as a species but as a society; we sure seem to be sliding back to the primordial pool. If we use the way women are being treated today as opposed to about fifteen years ago as a bellwether you can see how what I'm talking about.

I'm sure you're wondering where I can possibly get off saying things like that. Especially living as I do in Canada where we have social programs that a lot people only dream about and a standard of living better then half the world. .

But it's all relative you know. Since the 1970's women had been gradually gaining rights that had been denied them by law since men started treating them like chattel and trade goods thousands of years ago. They managed to begin being treated like equal partners in a marriage instead of the property of the husband; they managed to gain legal control over what happened with their bodies; and they started to make advances in the work force through the availability of accessible daycare.

All this coincided with Western governments willingness to invest in the social safety net starting in the 1960's. In Canada we followed the Western European example of the Welfare State and sewed up a pretty tight safety net. It wasn't until 1980 that Brain Mulroney became Prime Minister that things began to unravel slightly but even he wasn't much for tampering with it. It was the Liberal government of Jean Chretian that began the dismantling of programming by cutting funding to all the social programs in search of the all mighty balanced budget.

The mantra of business, "balanced budget, balanced budget", was the death knell of social spending. Funding for dare care, hospitals, job training, life skills, and provincial disability and welfare programs was either frozen or cut. While this may seem not to directly affect women in all cases, single women with children are still the people most likely to draw upon the system for help.

If there is no day care, and a woman doesn't have parents she can leave her children with, how does she hold down a job? So she has to be on welfare, and try to raise her child with some dignity. Unfortunately just when the Liberals started to try and make up for their cruelty they lost the next election in Canada.

I've written extensively on how the Conservative Party of Canada under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has in a year turned back the clock on social programs in other places so I'll just cite and example.. A new day care program that works based on tax credits – so it's only helpful to those who have a taxable income and doesn't create any new spaces. In other words people who can afford to pay for day care out of their income are getting reimbursed , while those who can't afford it in the first place are out of luck..

But it's not just money that's the problem; it's the general increase in conservative attitudes towards women around the world that is the most frightening. From the Vatican to the Muslim world to the White House and back again steps are being take to revoke what few gains women have made in their struggle for recognition as equals in the eyes of society..

Women who are raped are still being threatened with death by their own families; women who refuse caesarean surgeries are being jailed in the United States; after a brief respite more and more men's magazines are appearing on the markets that treat women as objects not sexual beings; and even worse are the attitudes being expressed by even mainstream magazines.
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A recent cover of the Canadian news magazine Maclean's used the word "Skanks" to describe a mode of dress employed by young girls. On the cover you can see a young woman wearing a tank top and mini-skirt. Why does the way someone dresses imply anything about their character? How could any supposed responsible magazine even even imply that no matter what the context?

Than of course there is the great catch phrase "Traditional Family Values". This has to be the biggest obstacle facing women today. Anybody who says the words traditional family values has visions of wife staying at home barefoot and pregnant making supper for Dad and being totally dependant on the man for everything.

What do you think they see in their narrow little brains when they say that expression? Two people working together in an equal, loving and sharing, partnership, or a husband dominant with a meek little wife staying at home with the kids and slowly going crazy?

That a show about every ten-year-old boy's fantasy concerning suburban housewives was a top show on network television in North America tells you something about where people expect to find the woman of the house. At home; the show wasn't called desperate corporate executives was it? Or even desperate garage mechanics would have been fine.

Of course for a woman to want to have sex with anyone she has to be desperate unlike a man who is just enjoying himself. If a woman displays any sort of normal sexual urges she is considered some sort of deviant. She's only supposed to be willing and compliant no have desires of her own in order to be normal.

How often do we have to hear somebody say that a woman "asked for it" walking around dressed like that as a response to her being raped? No she didn't – nobody asks to be raped and people are free to dress however they like. There is no excuse for rape – it's a crime remember.

When are people going to remember that the woman is not the one on trial in those situations? The man either attacked and raped the woman or he didn't. It doesn't matter if she was wearing a bikini or traditional Muslim garb and saying any different is saying it's okay to rape women in certain circumstances.

Sometimes I feel some hope, when I look around and see some young women who have it together and haven't bought into some sort of stereotype about roles in society. But then I see all the others who are starving themselves to death because they don't like who they are. Isn't that the biggest indication that there is something wrong with the way we treat women in our society? So many of them don't like who they are. Where did they get the idea from that there was anything wrong with them?

Sure sometimes it can be blamed on the parents for being emotionally or physically abusive, but a lot of the time it comes from whatever impression the young person has formed about what a women should be based on what she hears and sees in the media and from her peers. Augmented models with perfect waists, breasts, and buttocks who have no relationship to reality or gravity are not role models guaranteed to help someone establish their own self esteem.

Did you know that 1976 had been the United Nations International Year of the Women? Do you know or remember what the motto for that year was? It was a simple question Why Not? I'm afraid it needs to be amended to When? the way things are going these days.

Instead of things getting better for women the world over, they are getting worse in country after country. It doesn't matter whether it's the so-called developed or undeveloped world women are still second or, lower, class citizens.

January 31, 2007

Reading About The Us In Them

I've been wandering in quite a few different worlds recently. I've been to Algeria through the pen of Yasmina Khadra, Jerusalem and other parts of Israel via a trio of different jewish viewpoints. On top of that I've been given a tour of ancient Byzantium and modern day Georgia, and not once did I have to leave the comfort of my home or even use a time machine.

Like a tourist I've come back from each trip and reported to everyone on how successful the tour was, or whether it was one you may want to avoid taking in the future. Obviously I would have preferred going to these various places on my own, wandering the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, hiking through caverns in the Caucasus or examining the casbah of Algiers. But since that's not possible I've been seeing them through the eyes of some great writers.

For the past two years I've been reviewing numerous books and have had the good fortune to interview some of the authors who have created them. But on reviewing the lists of books that I've written about I noticed that with very few exceptions I haven't looked beyond my own culture's writers.

Aside from the books of Ashok Banker and a couple of Native American authors, the biggest cultural gap I've crossed is on occasion trying to understand the Glasgow dialect of Christopher Brookmyre's characters. Even that hasn't been too much of a leap for me as I've some Scottish ancestry.

So when the opportunity presented itself, via a rather circuitous route (the woman who arranged my interview with Guy Kay, Deborah Meghnagi, is also a senior editor at Toby Press who have been generously supplying me with the majority of my review copies this month) to explore works by authors from other cultural backgrounds I hesitated only briefly. The only thing I don't understand is why hadn't I done this ages ago?

The opportunity has always been there from any one of the various publishers I have contacts with to request works by people from outside North America and England but I've never been willing to make the effort. There's all sort of excuses I can make, but even to my own ears they sound pretty lame. To be honest I'm still not even sure if I can articulate it beyond saying they made me nervous.

In particular I'm referring to books by authors from the Middle East, Jewish and Muslim alike. I didn't think I could be comfortable if either side's strident nationalism were a direct characteristic of the books. I'm so used to the rhetoric that's published in our press that it made me think literature from that part of the world couldn't help be a reflection of those headlines.

Now obviously I can't speak for the books that I've not read, and I'm only familiar with the work of five writers, one Muslim and four Jews, from that region, but none of them makes use of their stories to do anything but write about their own people. Any rhetoric was reserved for characters in specific instances where it made sense, and wasn't the purpose for the books.

Instead, I read books that were just like books I would read by any other author, but they dealt with the realities of different peoples in places I knew nothing about. I learned enough about Algeria and her people to make you wonder what the rest of the world has been doing while this country has been hanging on by its finger nails for decades.

I learned that there is no definitive version of the Torah and that not all Jewish people are happy living in Israel for reasons that would have never even occurred to me. I learned more about what it means to have been a survivor of the Holocaust and how deeply it affects the generations that live with that heritage.

I learned universal truths about faith and about human nature. I read about the depths of human depravity and the heights of kindness and respect. In short I read books that contained themes that could be read in any book by any author but told from the perspective of a different faith and a different culture.

Like those great lines in Shakespeare's play The Merchant Of Venice where Shylock says "If you cut him does not a Jew bleed" speaks to the fact that underneath everything we are all affected by the same things, so too have the books that I've been reading. We all mourn when a loved one dies; we all celebrate when something wonderful happens, and we are all made pensive by things beyond our comprehension.

There is no denying that the rhetoric we read in the newspapers exists, one only needs to read about the latest suicide bomb reports or the air strikes in retaliation to know that. But it is important to know that the other side exists, the human side. The side where people go about their live shopping for food, going to work and living their lives in much the same manner as people do the world over.

I'm not going to pretend that you will come away from reading any book by an author from another culture understanding that world completely – can you say that about reading any book set in our society? But what it will do is remind you that there are individuals there who are as different from each other as the individuals here in our world.

Books make it obvious that the world cannot be easily divided up into us and them, too many of them are like us and too many of us are like them. Reading won't bridge all the gaps between the cultures, but it will make it obvious the gap is lot less of a gulf than any of us or them thought.

January 29, 2007

Book Review: The Dawning Of The Day: A Jerusalem Tale Haim Sabato

In a world where it seems most of our most extreme violence is caused by the zealous of all faiths and religions; it's hard to remember that faith is supposed to have been something glorious. It's not supposed to be a cudgel you use on an opponent in a political struggle, or a flag to wave leading troops into battle.

We read so much about Muslim suicide terrorist bombs, anti-freedom moralizing Christians, and the self righteous of all faiths that we forget that for every one of those types there are an equal, if not greater, number of people for whom faith is one of life's pleasures. It's one of the great ironies of humanity that that which is supposed to be a solace in a time of need has become something we equate so readily in our troubled world with being a root cause of hatred and disharmony.

Even putting aside the connotations mentioned above, simple belief for the sake of belief is looked on with a type of cynical patronization. In our superiority and arrogance we have trouble believing that anything as intangible as faith can really have that much of an effect on us. We look on someone who is dependant on faith as someone, somehow backward and out of touch with reality.

On the other hand I believe that beneath that veneer of urbanity and sophistication, people are in love with the idea of worship and prayer, but have no desire to do the work required to believe. Perhaps that's why so many quick fix new age religions are springing up on a daily basis offering people a sure fired path to enlightenment; it's spirituality without the commitment.

Haim Sabato has written the perfect antidote for all of us who have become sick and tired of all of the above. Without once straying into sentimentality his beautiful novel The Dawning Of The Day: A Jerusalem Tale gives us a present in the person of Ezra Siman Tov. Ezra is an orthodox Sephardic Jewish man who works in a hand laundry pressing prayer shawls, and shirts during his working hours.
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But it's the depiction of his life outside of the store that is what we really are concerned with. At first glance you may find it off putting, it's so contrary to what anybody "really" does in the world anymore. Who actually gets up before sunrise every morning to go to the synagogue to participate in prayers? Who sits of their own volition to read from the "Book of Psalms"?

Nobody really can get such pleasure from reciting a prayer that they will weep tears of joy will they? So you'd might think, and so you might feel when you start reading the story of Ezra Siman Tov, but I very much doubt that you will feel that by the time you come to the end of this little book.

I'm not a religious person in the sense of adhering to the code or ritual of a faith, and I definitely don't agree with a lot of the ideas and philosophies put forward in the Torah or other versions of the Bible. But that doesn't stop me from recognising a true depiction of faith. What Haim Sabato has done is quite simply written a beautiful testimony of what it was like for some of the older inhabitants of Jerusalem's Sephardic community.

Each chapter is a lesson that either Ezra learns or teaches to someone about how to worship or about faith. As contrasts to Ezra we are shown his brother-in-law who is a famous scholar. He is never without a dissertation or the latest interpretation of the laws so that he can be ready to correct anyone who makes a mistake. Than there is Reb Moishe Dovid the Talmudic scholar (The Talmud are commentaries on The Torah) who knows that the study of the law and its worship are serious business and should not be taken lightly.

One day he complains to Ezra that his, Ezra's, singing of the Psalms is interfering with his serious work of dissecting a commentary on a commentary. If that's all Ezra is doing enjoying himself, while he, Reb Moishe Dovid, is trying to work, perhaps Ezra could keep his voice down a little?

Ezra prays from the heart and the spirit, not the mind. He barely reads Hebrew, and has to read the Aramaic versions of the texts. When he stumbles and his brother in law corrects him with a wince and a sneer, Ezra feels shamed. But we see that the brother in law feels shame too, over his behaviour, but he will never admit it to Ezra.

It would have been easy for Ezra's character to be a figure of sentiment and a cloying sweetness to the book. But Haim Sabato manages to tread the fine line that prevents it from falling into that trap. Ezra's not a perfect saint or an angel; he's just a simple man trying to live his life according to the precepts of his God.

This is a beautiful book about faith and belief. Yes it's about being Jewish, but it can apply to any religion. If you ever want your own faith restored, in whatever it is you have faith in, looking to Ezra as an example would do you no harm.

January 27, 2007

Book Review: The Wind Of The Khazars Marek Halter

Would it surprise you if I were to tell you that Israel was not the first Jewish state to exist since the time of Christ? That in the deepest, darkest days of the dark ages when European Jews were as welcome most places as the Plague that was blamed on them, for one brief moment a spark of hope was kindled that there was a haven for them in the area we would now know as Georgia by the Black Sea.

One of the tartar races, the Khazars, around 800 AD converted to Judaism and established a Jewish state on the borders of both the Eastern Christian empire of Byzantium and the new Islamic empire. While legends talk of visitations by angels convincing the King of the Khazars to convert, in all likelihood it was more real politic than religion that brought about the change.

With his kingdom pressured by both sides to convert, he shocked them both by choosing the third option, which appeased both sides temporarily. At least he hadn't become a Christian/Muslim the hated enemy of either one of his neighbours, and he could deal with them from a place of neutrality.

But according to the history provided in Marek Halter's novel The Wind Of The Khazars the conversion, at least among the rulers and the nobility was in the end sincere. They became strict adherents of the teachings of the Torah and received instruction from rabbinical scholars of the Eastern world.
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Monsieur Halter has used as the basis for his novel correspondence that has survived down the ages between a Rabbi from Cordoba, in Muslim occupied Spain, and Joseph King of the Khazars.

His main character is a contemporary novelist, Marc Sofer, who becomes captivated by a mysterious beauty at a discussion/lecture on his work. She throws down a gauntlet of challenge to him – find a cause worth writing about. She leaves before the end of the lecture so he is unable to pursue the matter further with her.

But it makes no difference, because she has ensured that he will be hooked like a fish and reeled in. All it takes is a mysterious stranger to accost him after the session and present him with a silver coin stamped with the symbols of the Khazar Empire for him to be snared. The same man also spins him a tale of mysterious caverns in the Caucasus Mountains on the border of Georgia and Chechnya containing a synagogue hundreds if not thousands of years old.

Sofer the novelist and the romantic is hooked. First he investigates and tracks down the copies of the correspondence between the Rabbi and Joseph of the Khazars. At that point both he and our author, Marek Halter, recreate the story of Isaac the young man entrusted to carry the original letter from Spain to the Khazars. As Isaac struggles to cross a hostile Europe, Marc Sofer is making his own parallel journey to the Khazars' legendary redoubt in the Caucasus.

While in the present are the familiar obstacles of multinational corporations and terrorist groups, the past is filled with deceptive Greeks and duplicitous Russians both looking to conquer and subdue the Khazars. When Isaac falls in love with Joseph's beautiful green eyed and red haired sister, Sofer finally catches up to his own mysterious green eyed and red haired beauty from the conference.

It turns out that the synagogue in the mountain caverns does exist and she is part of a group of scholars trying to preserve them from the oil companies looking to suck the oil out of the ground in the same area. But it's not just a synagogue that is preserved under the mountains, but absolute proof of the Khazars' existence and that the myth of their conversion was not just an idle tale.

A library with thousands of books, a mikvah (the traditional cleansing bath for Jewish women before marriage) with ancient statuary, and countless other relics including chest upon chest of the mysterious silver coin he had been given. But to the oil companies it is nothing, and they will destroy the final remnants of the Khazars Empire without a qualm.

It all sounds fascinating and to an extent it is. The history and Monsieur Halter's imagining of the events of the past are interesting enough, as is the modern part of the story. But for something that had the potential to be so stunning, a kingdom of Jews that existed in 900ad by the Caspian and Black Seas, the parts just didn't seem to be equal to the idea.

While everything is well written, the characters are interesting enough, if a little too stereotyped romantic figures and lacking slightly in depth, and the story is well paced and interesting. The problem for me is that it doesn't reflect any of the excitement I felt when I heard about the kingdom of the Khazars.

Perhaps that's unfair, but I expected more about the Khazars and less about a love story between a princess and a messenger in the 10th century and their equivalent in the 21st century. I wanted to walk the streets of the fortress towns and smell the markets and meet the people who had become Jews in the middle of a world that was still trying to rid itself of them. Who were these mysterious warriors that had fought supposedly with the Khans of the Mongol hoards, or might have been descended from the Sythians.

I would have liked the author to have stretched his imagination in that direction, instead of just giving us brief glimpses. I guess I was looking for a different wind to have blown through this book than the one chosen by Marek Halter and I was disappointed by his direction. It's a good book, just not the one I was hoping for.

January 21, 2007

Book Review: The Genizah At The House Of Shepher Tamar Yellin

Every family has its attic, its storehouse, or genizah as its named in Hebrew, where the past is documented through papers, artefacts, and memories. You don't even have to have physical space; a genizah can be the memories and the stories of the family that have been passed down. It's whatever form the repository of the family's history comes in.

In Tamar Yellin's first novel The Genizah At The House Of Shepher the genizah in question is both a musty, dust hole, in the rafters of the Shepher family's last home in Jerusalem. Miraculously in amongst old moulding newspapers and notebooks a treasure has been unearthed. A heretofore-unknown Codex of the Torah has come to light and with it the possibility to reverse the family's seemingly perpetual decline in fortunes.

The history of the Torah (Old Testament in the King James version of the Christian Bible) is like that of any ancient document that was copied by hand from the original over the early part of its life. Very few copies, or Codex, from those times are the same. Here a character changed for another, or a word order different there.

While in a language like English that may not seem to make much difference, with biblical Hebrew changing a few characters could change the meaning of a whole chapter. Or at the very least a verse which in itself can have serious implications to biblical scholars, especially when you consider that rabbinical scholars will spend their lives debating and dissecting the various meanings and connotations of words in a specific chapter of the text.

According to Jewish myth the Torah existed for nine hundred and forty-seven generations before the creation of the world, and when God created the world He used it as His blueprint and guide; for what better tool to use to create and imperfect and cryptic world, then an imperfect and cryptic Torah. According to Ms. Yellin's recounting, some scholars believe that at the end of time Elijah will return and sort out all the textual difficulties.

Of course until then that means there will be lots for religious scholars to debate to their hearts content. From what I understand this seems like an ideal circumstance, since it appears there is nothing more that endearing to the heart of a rabbinical scholar then arguing the minute points of textual interpretation of the Torah with their fellows.

Don't worry this is pertinent to the story, which as I mentioned earlier revolves around this previously unknown Codex. Shulamit Shepher's father had left Israel in the 1930's to live in England, where he proceeded to marry an English Jewish woman and raise two children. While her brother Reuben fled the family to escape the oppressive depression of his father and the suffocating love of his mother, Shulamit followed in the footsteps of her grandfather and great-grandfather in becoming a biblical scholar.

However unlike her fore fathers it's not her faith that motivates her study of the holy books, rather a sense of duty and the need for a vocation. Still this does nothing to lessen her love for her work, or the texts that she reads and recites to her students. For it also her means to connect to her family and its history, as the texts are filled with reminders for her of the stories about her great-grandfather, and her grandfather his only son.

But it wasn't even the Codex, which would have been a great temptation to a biblical scholar like herself, which brought her back to the house of Shepher in Jerusalem. It was a letter from her Uncle Cody telling her that the old house was to being given up now that the final resident, Aunt Batsheva, had died. So it was sentiment and nostalgia that brought her from England for one last visit to the house she had spent summers in until her father died.

It's not until she gets to the house that she even finds out about the Codex, as her Uncle Saul has taken up temporary residence and almost the first words out of his mouth are to accuse her of being one of the vultures after the Codex. When she finally convinces him she's not after the Codex, and to kindly explain what he's talking about she's thrilled. What biblical scholar wouldn't be to find out that her own family owned an unknown variation of the Torah?

But it's not that simple, or course. It seems that Uncle Cody has decided it should be given to the people, and has passed it on to an educational institute who are supposed to be checking it for authenticity. There are all the other members of the Shepher family who either claim ownership of the Codex or want it sold at current market value and the proceeds divided up amongst them all.

And who is the mysterious Gideon who also lays claim to the book, saying Shulamit's great-grandfather stole it from his people long ago and it needs to be returned. Since the provenance of the Codex claims that its origins lie with one of mythical lost tribes of Israel Shulamit has a hard time not only believing him, but can't believe her ears when he asks her to steal it for him.

Tamar Yellin's The Genizah At The House Of Shepher is a beautifully written book redolent of the spice of Hebrew legend. Interspersed with the story line of the Codex is the history of the family dating back to her great-grandfather Shalom Shepher and his strange quixotic obsession with the lost tribes of Israel. So obsessed with them in fact that he set out on a two year quest in search of them and returned claiming to have stayed with them for a good deal of the time.

It's a story about exile, from one's land and from one's dreams. Shulamit's parents are restless people whose lives are disturbed by reality not living up to their dreams. For her mother it was Israel not being the land of Milk and Honey but of intolerable heat, bad plumbing and a family who she couldn't speak to because she had no Hebrew.

Her father was discontented with life in prewar Israel and left to start a new life in England. But he became the ultimate exile there for his passport read he was the citizen of a country that no longer existed – Palestine- as of 1949. The irony is not lost on Shulamit that her father was a Jewish, stateless, Palestinian. It's not till their death that they both find peace in Israel, buried beside each other in the family plot.

Like the Codex each new generation of the family contains a variant that changes their meaning ever so slightly from the generation before them. Shulamit's brother Reuben completely rejects his past and claims to be the first generation. Reuben, now Mike, and his beautiful wife and angelic child will have nothing to do with the sadness and pain of being exiles.

But it also means they will know nothing of the wondrous myths and stories that have been the legacy of Shalom Shepher the scholar and his great quest for the lost tribes and his claims that through numerology and the proper Codex of the Torah one could figure out the exact date of the Messiah's arrival and the apocalypse. Somewhere among all his papers there might even exist the answer.

Even though Shulamit was born in and raised in England and finds the history and the weight of Jerusalem oppressive it's where her history is and it can't be forgotten. The introduction of the Codex and it's variants, a different blueprint to shape the world with no matter how slightly, has released her from the sadness and pain that dogged her parent's lives. She can travel between her two worlds easily; Jerusalem and England, and not feel like she doesn't belong.

The Genizah At The House Of Shepher is a story of wandering, exile and how difficult it is to find out where you belong. Moses never made it to the Promised Land, his God had ordained otherwise. He was allowed a glimpse into it, before being asked to give up his soul. She would not come willingly and it took all of God's love and strength to gather her to Him. Nobody likes not fulfilling their dreams.

Shulamit has seen the Promised Land and it is in herself and she can live there everyday. She only needs to have the strength to keep her promises to her self. The Genizah At The House Of Shepher is a story of choices and how, like the variations in the Codex, even the smallest can make a huge difference in the way our world turns out.

January 19, 2007

The Age Of The Individual: The Loss Of The Tribe

I've written quite a number of pieces that have been, to put it mildly, scathing when it comes to the so-called "New Age" movement. I think I've referred to it as everything from cultural appropriation to inane. But unlike other critics of the people who comment on the issue I've shied away from the whole question of spirituality.

Many people insist that the rise in interest in all things "New Age" is due to the failure of the conventional religions to fill the spiritual needs of their traditional congregations. According to proponents of that theory, mainly those involved in the selling of "New Age" products, the baggage that accompanies Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, is what pushes people away from them.

Whatever excuse they want to use doesn't really matter all that much, the implication is that people are turning to alternatives for their spiritual comfort, and that is what's offered by the "New Age" folk. The thing is though if you walk into a "New Age" emporium you won't find anything that is specifically a "New Age" bible. You'll find books on Celtic, Native American, Tibetan, Hindu, Jewish, Ancient Egyptian, and every other kind of spirituality you can think of with Guardian Angels and Faeries thrown in for good measure.

But are the people haunting those stores really looking for spiritual enlightenment or is it something else they're searching for; maybe even something they can't identify. They have the feeling that there is something missing in their lives but aren't quite sure what the void is. They label the emptiness spiritual because it feels like their spirit is being deprived of something, but I think it's something a little more concrete

In North America we celebrate the cult of the individual; we all strive to get ahead for our own purposes and create ourselves to fulfill the goals that we have established for ourselves. Even if we join with someone and bear children together you are only creating an extension of yourself.

Not to long ago, relatively speaking in terms of the planet's history, man existed in tribal groups. We lived to together in small communities in the Mohawk Valley in New York State, the convergence of Tigress and the Euphrates, the mountains of the Himalayas, and the steppes of Russia. As a member of a tribe you belonged somewhere, and played some vital role ensuring the continual existence of your people.

As today's world gets more and more impersonal; communication done through third party instruments like portable phones or email programs, perhaps we are increasingly made aware of our lack of real community? Even if we don't articulate it as such the need for a sense of identity and the feeling of belonging somewhere provided by community appears to be growing in the face of the world's uncertainty.

A church's congregation is supposed to be a meeting place of people of like minds; people who share the same sense of purpose and belief. While it could be easy to say they once were places that tied people together through those commonalities, I wonder if the unifying factor was more circumstances then anything else.

Church, or whatever you want to label it, used to be the only social activity for the vast majority of people. If you were no longer in school, the only time you ever met up with everybody in the neighbourhood was at the church, or at a church sponsored event. I know there are some small rural communities around where I live where that is still the case.

But as alternatives to the church became available as a social focus, these communities dissolved in the face of competition, weakening their claims at being a unifying force. Perhaps some people still belong to churches but their numbers are far less then they used to be.

In the mid to late seventies when Cults were in full swing, organizations like the Moonies would seek out people who looked like they were lost and would promise them a home and a sense of belonging. Much the same motivation is now used to recruit the young men and women into terrorist organizations around the world. They become members of a tribe that works together – they belong and have a real purpose in life that nothing else has been able to offer them.

I recently had a conversation with my mother about her relationship to Judaism. She was raised in a family that were the epitome of secular Jews, in that they never set foot in synagogue except for the usual triad of Weddings, Funerals, and Bar Mitzvahs. At one point in her life she became a member of a Reform synagogue, but that only lasted for a year.

But she said what Judaism does give her is a place in history, a sense of where she's come from as part of something greater than herself and her family. Even though she doesn't participate in the religious life, or even hang out with very many Jewish people, she can still say I'm a Jew and feel like she belongs somewhere.

This wasn't something she picked up in a book from a bookstore; this was something she inherited from her parents, who in turn, well you get the picture. For my mother it's an unbroken line stretching back through more then five thousand years of tribal history that she is a continuation of. It's the place in the world where she belongs that has nothing to do with geography, politics, or religion.

Human beings need to have the sense that they belong to something bigger then themselves. Some find a kind of comfort in patriotism, while others find it in fighting for a cause, and others in religion. Still others are left searching for something external in the hopes of finding their place in the world.

But in reality, with a few exceptions, the trade off for our civilization and our lifestyle has been the loss of our connections to others and the past. We truly live in the age of the individual and we all feel just a little bit lost and lonely because of it.

January 13, 2007

Music Review: Bishop Dready Manning Gospel Train

Over the years we've often heard of the African-American musician who got their start singing in the church choir. Aretha Franklin started off by singing in the church choir doing gospel music as did half or more of the recording stars who became big in the blues, funk and rhythm and blues genres in the sixties and seventies.

But how often have we heard it going the other way round? Okay sure there was Bob Dylan's much publicized stint as a Born Again Christian, and other musicians might have found God after they stopped shooting another version of enlightenment into their arms. But those who have had such a life change that they've opened their own church and become a full-fledged pastor? There can't be that many.

One man who has made that journey, and who is very sincere about it, is Bishop Dready Manning. For the past thirty-nine years he has been ministering to African American churchgoers in North Carolina's Halifax and Northhampton counties and playing the Bluest Gospel music you've ever heard.

Up until 1962 he had been a hard drinking, hard living,Blues musician playing joints all over the area. Then one day he started bleeding out of his nose and haemorrhaging. He says to this day he would have died if not for the intervention of prayer on his behalf by some neighbours. As he puts it "I had a converted mind right then"
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But being a preacher didn't mean he had to stop playing the blues, he's just taken his music and begun to use it in the service of the Lord. And serve the Lord is just what he does too. Not only does he play in his own church, but in churches across the region, at prayer meetings and at revivals. He's set up his own little studio where he produces any number of home made cassette tapes, forty-fives, LP albums, and his Sunday morning radio show over Weldon's WSMY –AM.

Until now those of us who have wanted to hear Bishop Dready Manning and haven't been up to making the trip down to the Carolina's have been out of luck. But now the good people over a the Music Makers Relief Foundation have put together an album of Bishop's music on CD so we can all hear it.
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Gospel Train is a collection of eighteen of the songs that he's been playing in the church houses and meeting places of the Carolinas. The band that plays with him is his wife Marie and their five children when they tour, but for the album its just his wife helping out on vocals, his son Zacchaeus on piano and what looks to be his grandson, Marquis, on drums.

Listening to them you realize you're not hearing what we'd call "professional musicians" because it's just not that fancy, more serviceable then anything else. The exception to that is Bishop Dready himself. He's as smooth as silk when it comes to his guitar and harmonica work. He could just be laying down a rhythm for his wife to sing to, or playing the lead to one of the songs he has written for himself. These songs have the simplicity and emotional wallop of Country Blues.

Although none of them sound anything like what we have come to expect of gospel music, there is something about the sound that makes you wonder why nobody has used this style for the church before. Listen to any of the tracks on Gospel Train and you'll see what I mean..

The first song on the disc, "What Was I Doing, When The Saints Of God Found Me?" is a Blues "testify" song where he tells of his great conversion moment. Using a talking/ singing style of vocals he recounts his former life and the moment he saw the light. It's this low-key personable style though that gets people to pay attention when they hear it.

Some of his songs are short little sermons about a specific issue dealing with what's wrong with the world; "Hard Headed Children" who won't listen to the good advice their momma's give them or "People Don't Pray', which aside from the title's regret lists a whole bunch of other problems facing the world; men with long hair, women with short skirts, and of course insincere preachers.

That's the benefit for the preacher when he uses the blues to sing to the faithful, the message comes through loud and clear. Unlike other types of gospel where it's easy not to listen to the lyrics and just enjoy the music, here you have no option but to listen to what you're being told.

Unlike so many other musicians who started their career in the church, Bishop Dready Manning was a rough and ready Blues musician of the old school right from the word go. It took a life threatening experience to change his life around and turn it in the direction of preaching. People say there's not much difference between being a good pastor and a good entertainer, in both cases you have to be able to hold the crowd's attention.

Judging by the quality and power of the music on Gospel Trains Bishop Dready Manning won't have any problem keeping his audience's attention. Getting them to stop cheering at the end of the sermon will be another problem all together.

Gospel Train is produced through the Music Maker Relief Foundation's label Music Maker. According to their mandate they are dedicated to helping the pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern Musical traditions gain recognition and meet their day-to-day needs. They affirm to these artists that the gifts of inspiration and music they brought to the world are valued still. Through the production of records like these and financial aid programs their mission is to give back to the roots of American music.

January 10, 2007

Book Review: Yasmina Khadra Wolf Dreams

How do you go from being a young man who dreams of being an actor to being a cold blooded fundamentalist terrorist who thinks nothing of killing women and children without a seconds thought. To our minds it must seem unconscionable, but in the world created by Yasmina Khadra and in the head of Nafa Walid his protagonist in Wolf Dreams it's simply the path of least resistance.

Since winning it's independence from France in 1962 Algeria has been a secular state, but in the mid to late eighties fundamentalists are beginning to take over mosques in areas where they know they will be able to recruit. Initially keeping a low profile in the community at large, they gradually began to expand out from their power base in the mosque.

In the Casbah of Algiers where Nafa Walid lives the changes are only gradually noticeable. But when he loses a job yet again, this time after refusing to be party to covering up the murder of a young woman by his employer, he turns to the mosque for comfort of the familiar and to try and deal with his shame for having been involved in he believes is his complicity in the girl's death.

In his disillusioned and despondent state he is ripe for the picking by the fundamentalists. Like any cult, they find those who have been alienated and then move in to fill the void. They offer a ready-made purpose, a sense of belonging, and best of all they've reduced everything to a black and white equation. Something is either right or wrong and there is no room for debate or you are wrong.

But it's not until after the food riots of 1988, (Algeria was short of everything demonstrations turned to riots so bad that the army was sent in. Not trained in crowd control somebody panicked and they began firing at a crowd and nearly five hundred people eventually were killed with thousands more arrested) that the fundamentalists hit their stride in Algeria. Contending that they were the supporters of the poor and downtrodden, they said follow us and we will change the way things are run.

In their brave new world it would be the righteous being taken care of, while those who had been sucking the country dry would be gotten rid of. They offered a banner that people could flock behind and feel like they were on the right side. Those who would openly speak against them became fewer and fewer as it became less and less healthy to do so.

But it wasn't until the election of 1991 when the fundamentalist party were leading after the first round of voting, looking set to form the next government and the army declared the elections null and void and took power for themselves that the terror campaign began. Car bombs, ambushes, and any other means at their disposal, and always the same targets; the police, the army, the intellectuals, the scientists, women who wouldn't wear the wear the hijah (veil), and the artists. If you were not one of them you were the enemy and didn't deserve to live.

Nafa stays on the fringes, telling himself that he doesn't want to kill anyone. So instead he works for them. He takes on the job of ferrying packages through roadblocks. He drives a taxi and doesn't look identifiably like a terrorist so, even though his cab might have its secret panels filled with weapons or money, he's not given much trouble at the roadblocks. He learns the trick of not letting himself be provoked by the police and lets them do as they will even to the point of taking a beating on occasion.

All around him is terror and mayhem but he continues on thinking that he is staying out of it; he has become used to the sight of corpses, just like the children of the Casbah who have gotten use to the rows of heads left each morning on the spikes of railings. Informants, police officers, anyone who is considered a non-believer or has been fingered for saying anything that sounds heretical are all equally guilty in the eyes of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS – Islamic Salvation Front).

Nafa is happy, for the first time in his life, he tells himself he is doing something useful for the community. The taxi he drives was once the property of an arrested freedom fighter, and the money he earns goes towards feeding the family of the jailed person. The salary he draws is sufficient that he is able to bring food into the house for his family, and finally prove to his father that he is not the wastrel he always took him for.

Of course it can't last forever and the police come for him one night when he's out. He comes home to find his family's apartment surrounded and only a hastily whispered warning tells him to leave. He is taken into hiding, until it can figured out what to do with him. On the second day he receives a visit from a comrade who tells him that the police killed his father when they came looking for him.

From then on he becomes a killer because he believes he must revenge the death of his father in any way that he can. The first time is hard, it's true, but it's not his fault. Why did the magistrate have to be the way he was so that he Nafa had to kill him? Why did the revolver keep shooting the man long after he was dead? There was no reason for it to do that.

The leader of his group says not to worry, after the third one it gets easier, and Nafa is relieved to find out that is true. Why he can even be present at the murder of someone he knows and watch him have his throat slit in front of his family calling out Nafa's name. Of course he did have a little problem sleeping that night, but it passed.

He is living the life he always wanted with his group. They are to pretend they are the children of upper class families and they live according to that lifestyle, with dispensation to frequent dens on iniquity in order to ferret out targets. Nafa even has his own room with a large screen television.

But even among the most paranoid of organizations betrayal can happen, and in one fell swoop the police manage to arrest the whole national leadership. After the dust has settled and all the infighting is done Nafa finds he has been transferred out of the city into the countryside. Someone who he had pissed off at some point in time is now in charge.

He has an hour to go and say goodbye to his mother and she barely lets him in the house. She accuses him of abandoning her and his sisters. He won't stand for that and gets indignant and exclaims I've been revenging the death of my father at the hands of the police.

She laughs in his face – "You killed your father. When he demanded of the police what they wanted of his good son who provided for his family they showed him proof you were one of the terrorists. He was so upset he dropped dead of a heart attack on the spot…"

In the countryside they are the kings. They are like armies of feudal lords who collect tithes from the surrounding villages through threats and intimidation instead of having to work. They hide out in their mountain redoubts kidnapping, murdering, and looting keeping the people in the surrounding villages "loyal" to the cause and safe from any retaliatory strike the local militias can mount.

Nafa works hard to prove himself, although his pride is injured that they won't let him kill people and only be a goat herder. It's not fair he says quietly to himself, knowing that any word of disquiet can have you killed as non-believer, hadn't he proven that he knew how to kill. He begins to sulk and feel hard done by again.

The inevitable happens and even though Nafa gets to prove himself time and time again when the army uses artillery and helicopter gun ships they haven't a chance. Hoping for something he and a couple other survivors head back to Algiers hoping to hide out in the Casbah; surely somebody will want to shelter heroes of the revolution? The answer is no and they are destroyed.

Terrorists aren't fanatical believers to start with, they are empty shells of people lying scattered on the ground waiting for something to come along and fill them with hope. If not hope than purpose will do, and if that fails anger. Nafa with his head full of unrealistic dreams which are constantly dashed, Nafa with no real hope of doing anything beyond menial work for people who despise him and don't even recognise him as being of the same species, is the perfect terrorist.

Like In The Name Of God before, what is so chilling about Wolf Dreams is how the author shows how easy it is to become something that has no sense of right or wrong anymore. No matter how much they bleat about God or the good of the people, for the average terrorist none of that really means anything.

If on the same day that they had taken the first steps towards becoming a terrorist somebody had been able to convince them of the virtues of male prostitution they would have done that instead. A terrorist is a person who takes the path of least resistance when it comes to living, whatever looks easiest and with the highest reward is for them.

Maybe that's why they call them resistance fighters?

January 8, 2007

Book Review: Yasmina Khadra In The Name Of God

Despite history's repeated evidence to the contrary it is never easy to believe the potential that human beings have to commit atrocities. When it is people that you've known your whole life, families that have shared villages for generations, belief is even slower to flower. Let it be anybody else, you whisper, as if that would lessen the horror of finding a mutilated body in the morning. Let it be a stranger.

It's not till your childhood friend turns up at your door carrying the rifle he plans on using to kill you that you truly believe that anybody can be capable of anything. Ask the Bosnian Muslim, Serb, or Croatian what they thought of their chances for survival? Or how about the Rwandan when their neighbours picked up machetes and old tires?

Algeria, like other Muslim countries, in the late 1980s saw an ever increasingly upsurge in activity on the part of fundamentalist Islamic groups. Primarily they were preparing themselves as a political force for the next round of elections so they could set about establishing an Islamic state like that in Iran.

In 1988 "spontaneous" demonstrations across the country on their behalf turned into rioting and violence. When it looked like the fundamentalists were about to win the general election, the army interfered and annulled the election and outlawed the fundamentalists and arrested all of their leaders.

All of this did was turn them into terrorist groups who began a campaign of wanton destruction across the country. In the cities this took the form of car bombs and random murders and kidnappings. Usually the targets of the attacks were those considered enemies of the movement – intellectuals, police officers, and artists.

In the countryside it was a similar story, except the extremists would target towns to terrorise. For those trying just to live out their lives in both the rural and urban sections of society it was a horrible period of trying to retain vestiges of normalcy amid a period of unremitting terror. You didn't know who to trust; whom you could confide in, as it seemed that anybody who spoke out against the terrorists, no matter how privately would, end up dead.

The terrorists acted with the impunity of those who know that they can't be touched. In the small towns, people often knew who the members of the groups were as they would be the same people who had been part of the groups when they were legal. But it was easier to find reasons to excuse the killings and violence than stand up to it.

After all, they said, hadn't they, the fundamentalist been treated badly, and weren't they doing the work of God anyway? This is the atmosphere that we are thrust into in Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra's novel In The Name Of God The small rural town of Ghachimat has existed without too many changes since the end of the colonial rule, and probably hadn't been changed much by the appearance of the French as their lords and masters.

The only people who have felt any differences in their lifestyles were those who had done work for the French during colonial times and the large landowners who had had their land "redistributed" through agrarian reforms. The former are now spat upon and reviled, even though it's been decades since the French left (it's become a habit – a way of feeling superior) and the latter have seen their once luxurious existences reduced to being the same as their neighbours.

The children of these people are a cauldron of resentments and anger from slights both real and imagined. It's of course in these people that the seeds of the fundamentalists take root. They are promised the power of the righteous and the weapons of God in the exercising of their vengeance against all who have slighted them in reality or otherwise.

Of course there are also those who find a way to profit from all of the activity. Working both sides against each other to whip up ferment against either their personal enemies or to steer events in such a way for them to have personal gain. They prey on the corpses and the misery of the village. It doesn't matter to them who "wins" in the end because no matter who is left standing, it's the vultures who are always the best fed after a battle.

The village of Ghachimat is Khadra's microcosm of all of Algeria to exemplify how little any of this movement has to do with religion. He shows how the leaders cynically exploit the feelings of alienation and resentment felt by those who feel they should have everything handed to them on a platter. Jealousy and personal glory have more to do with motivations than establishing a society based on the laws of God.

Speeches in the mosque take on all the subtlety of the Nuremberg rallies staged by Hitler, as they are designed to whip up hatred rather then belief in anything sacred. Society will be remade in an image that best suits those holding the reigns of power tightly in their hands, not necessarily one that the writers of the Koran would recognise.

Khadra does a brilliant job of not overstating anything. None of his characters foam at the mouth or are rabid, but it is that very calmness that makes this so horrifying to read. The physical violence is not the true horror of this book, although it is present and somewhat graphic. But it pales beside the depiction of how casually and easily people are able to become those who can mutilate women and children with no qualms or twinges of conscience.

Imagine waking up in the morning not knowing whether something you have said has marked you to be killed during t day. Imagine walking down the street of your hometown and wondering behind which smiling face lurks an informant ready to point the finger at anyone who displeases them. You are afraid of saying anything or getting angry with anyone because it could mean yours is the next head found in a burlap bag one morning.

You wonder who among your friends might be the one to show up at your door to kill you because you have not become one of them or because you have been fingered as saying the wrong thing or holding the wrong belief. You worry about it everyday as you make the walk to work.

Maybe it would be safer to be one of them, just for now. You wouldn't kill anyone of course, unless there was no way of avoiding it – a matter of them or me for instance, of having to prove my sincerity and commitment to the cause. Yes that would really be the safest thing to do – who could blame you?

You see it's not that hard to become a terrorist, in fact it might just be harder not to.

January 5, 2007

Book Review: Morituri by Yasmina Khadra

Sometimes you just have to take an author's word for something. Whether it's a subject you know nothing about or a setting you're completely unfamiliar with you put yourself at the mercy of the mind behind the pen and hope he or she is being as accurate as fiction allows.

It becomes especially tricky when you start dealing with a culture that you have no real personal knowledge of, but that everybody in the world seems to have an opinion on. You can't open a paper, a journal, or go online these days without someone, somewhere providing an analysis of the Muslim mind whether they are qualified to or not.

It's hard not to develop a certain amount of prejudice under those circumstances, or at least to develop a picture that is coloured by news reports of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. How then does one approach novels written about life set in the world which is known to us only through the eyes of reporters and politicians?

What type of glasses will we need to don that will allow us gaze past the web of our preconceived ideas. No matter what our personal sympathies maybe they aren't based on living the life the author has experienced, or the circumstances that characters in his or her book will endure.

Nothing we believe to be true will most likely have any bearing on reality, so the best that we can hope from ourselves is that we are brave enough to surrender to our guide, and to trust that our critical faculties that allow us to hear false notes can cross cultural borders. In other words try not to think of the Pink Elephant that is the cultural difference and read the book for what it is, not what it isn't.

In the case of expatriate Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra's police detective novel Morituri that is both easily accomplished and almost impossible at the same time. First of all Yasmina Khadra is a the pen name for an ex high ranking officer in the Algerian army named Mohammed Moulessehoul who was forced to assume an alias to prevent censorship while living in Algeria.
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The fact that in Morituri his chief character is Superintendent Llob of the Algiers's police force is also an author involved in the fight against terrorism does give one pause for thought at Khadra's bias. But that is soon forgotten amidst the depths of the story, and the way in which he is able to entangle you so quickly into Llob's life.

It's open season on Police officers in Algiers as the story begins; the fundamentalists have been picking them off in ones and twos with car bombs and shootings outside of houses. Occasionally there will even be a set up where a tip is called into a station and a group of officers will be ambushed as they arrive to pick up a suspect.

Llob and every other officer have becoming almost terrified of their own shadows. But they aren't the only targets of the latest mullah to command some troops. Somebody is also taking out intellectuals, writers and entertainers. But is it fundamentalists behind these latest attacks, or just someone hiding behind their reputation for attacking those who may be accused of diluting the holy faith.

Superintendent Llob finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue involving the power brokers behind the scenes of Algeria in chaos. Men who think nothing of buying and selling government officials as they need them, are not above using violence if they need it to get the results they want. What can a lowly police officer do in the face of such power?

What they do the world over; investigate and follow leads no matter where they lead. From the homes of nabobs to whorehouses and slums Superintendent Llob follows the trail to the answers. He doesn't care whose toes he steps on as long as he can look at himself in the mirror in the morning, as long as he's alive to look in the mirror of course.

Khandra draws a picture of a country where fundamentalist fanaticism doesn't just apply to the ultra religious, but to all those who strive for power and a larger piece of the action. A small percentage of the people live in high opulence; splendour on par with Kublah Khan, while the rest of the populace huddles at their feet hoping that the scraps left over will be sufficient to live off.

Is it any wonder that the residents of these streets and alleys are susceptible to the promise of something better then what they have, even if it's only in the afterlife? How much different are those promises of paradise from the lead a good life and you'll receive you're reward in heaven promise offered on the other side of the world? Manipulation through religion is the same the world over, we just have to be willing to see the similarities in order to recognise that fact.

Morituri is a detective story, with all the characteristics you'd expect in place. Prisoners are interrogated; witnesses are interviewed, and clues are traced to dead ends or unexpected results just like they are in mysteries the world over. But played out against the backdrop of continual violence there is an undercurrent of constant threat that doesn't

In Superindendent Llob, Khadra gives us a character who on one hand is the scared man who checks his car for booby traps and every day spends fifteen minutes looking out his apartment window before risking the walk to where he's parked his car. But once he is on the case he finds within himself the resources to walk into potential ambushes.

Middle aged, with almost adult children, he has seen too much of the world, and suffered along with the rest of Algeria the disappointments of postcolonial rule. But in spite of it all he continues, much as his country men and women do, in the face of adversity to do his job in the hopes it will make a difference, if to no one else at least to himself.

I'm in no position to judge the accuracy of Khadra's description of life in Algeria, but have no reason to doubt the veracity of his information. What I do know for a fact is that this is a well-written and exciting novel I can easily recommend to those who like a lot of grit in their mysteries. And in spite of any cultural differences that's all that really matters anyway.

January 1, 2007

Satire: The Neighbourhood

Once upon a time there were two guys living next door to each other. The first one thought that the sun shone out of his butt. He did whatever he wanted without considering the feelings of the other person. He had loud parties all night long even though he knew the noise would bother his neighbour.

When the neighbour dared to complain, he threatened to punch his lights out. He was very offended because the other person didn't think that he should be allowed to do what he wanted. Instead of trying to work out a way in which they can live beside each other in harmony, he thinks it has to be his way or no way.

When someone else tried to find a solution but didn't find in the jerk's favour he dismissed them as being biased against him. He doesn't see how another person's way of living can have any validity. He is so arrogant he believes anyone who doesn't agree with him has to have something wrong with them.

He's never in the wrong, because if it's something he wants to do it has to be right. When the other guy insists on continuing to make trouble for him by complaining all the time he eventually decides that something has to be done. He can't believe how ungrateful that asshole is. He lets live next door to him, doesn't he realize what a privilege that is?

What he decides to do is go around to all the other neighbours and tell them his neighbour is a threat to all their freedom to have friends over. If they let him, he'll soon make it impossible for anybody to do anything without them having to make sure they're not going to get into trouble for doing it. Why they may not be able to mow their lawns without his permission.

Soon the other neighbour finds that nobody is talking to him anymore and that people who used to be friendly to him are giving him dirty looks. One day somebody throws a rock through his window. He sees who did it and calls the police and has the person charged with vandalism.

"There, you see", says the asshole, " I told you he'd get you all in trouble". Everybody stands around and listens; nodding their heads in agreement. When one of them happens to point out that the person who had gotten in trouble had thrown a rock and caused property damage, everyone else asks him whose side is he on anyway?

The police soon get tired of coming to the neighbourhood in response to complaints about property damage. Finally they ask the neighbour what he did to make everyone so mad at him. When he says he didn't do anything except ask to be left alone and live quietly, they don't believe him and mark him down as a troublemaker. Soon they stop responding to his pleas for protection and help.

Finally he can't take it anymore and puts his house up for sale. But he has a hard time selling it because it has been so damaged. Finally his real estate agent tells him they have an offer for only about half the asking price. As it might be the only offer he is going to get he decides to accept it.

The offer is from his neighbour who started all the trouble in the first place. On the day he moves out, he hands the neighbour the keys to his new house and looks him in the eye and asks "Why"? The other man takes the keys, shrugs, and says, "Because I could"? He shrugged again, turned his back and walked away.

As he drove away everybody else came out on their front porches and breathed a sigh of relief. They were all safe again to do as they pleased with no one to threaten their freedom anymore. They all waved at the remaining neighbour and came out to help him move some of his possessions over to his new property.

From now on, he thought as he watched his neighbours troop over to help him, they know that I'll be here to keep them safe. It's a big responsibility protecting one's right to do as one pleases. He knew there would be others who would be a threat, heck they could be even be among those smiling at him now, to how he wanted to do things. But it didn't matter.

All that mattered was that he be prepared and vigilant enough that he's ready to tackle the next problem that came around. They were all counting on him and he wouldn't let them down.

December 27, 2006

Compassion: The Forgotten Word

Do you ever stop and wonder how our species has lasted this long? How is it that we've made it after who knows how many millennia of busting each others heads, stealing each others' food, and doing whatever we can to ensure our survival in the face of competition.

Don't let anybody fool you into believing that one race of man were better than another, no matter who we were we'd stomp your ass if we could get away with it and it served some advantage. Long before the Europeans even existed we were forcing each other to fight for our lives in Africa and North America.

The great peace tree Hiawatha planted was only among the five nations who made up the Iroquois Confederacy. They had no problems burying their hatchets in Huron heads or other non-Iroquois nations.

Of course the Europeans were the professionals, starting from before Christ's time with the Macedonians under first Philip then his son Alexander carving a swath through central Europe and Asia just for the sake of Empire building. The Romans were no slouches in that manner either stomping the barbarians from Turkey out to Hadrian's Wall on what's now the Scottish border

Since then we've been at it pretty much non-stop; country against country, religion against religion and faith against faith. For all that both Muslims and Christians lay claim to compassion and peace-loving being integral parts of their belief systems, neither one has had any difficulty in recognising the business end of a weapon.

So what is this compassion that the big two of religions hold fast to as a means of establishing their passive credentials, or at least a pretence of concern for their fellow species members. Well according to the Online Dictionary, compassion is a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.

Well that doesn't leave very much room to equivocate does it? I personally don't see anything in that definition stating that you need to be the one who has inflicted the suffering upon the other before you feel the desire to relieve it. But judging by the way most of the world seems to function these days that seems to be the modern definition.

First we're going to bomb the crap out of you, then we're going to shake our heads at your pitiful state and maybe decide to have a benefit concert for you. If we don't do that we'll at least send our troops in and impose our way of life upon you. Then you get to experience all the benefits of either being a devout Muslim living under a totalitarian religious government, or enjoy becoming a slave labour force for Nike and The Gap. Either way it will be such an improvement and it will make us feel better about ourselves.

All sarcasm aside where has our compassion gone? I'm not just talking about foreign aid either; I mean day in and day out we just don't seem to feel it any more. Sure if there is some major disaster like Katrina or the tsunami of a few years back we can open our hearts and check books readily enough.

But unless we're hit over the head with something we've become so self-absorbed our heads are so far up inside ourselves we're naval gazing from the inside out. How else could we let the two of the wealthiest countries, Canada and the United States, in the world degenerate to the state they are in now?

The means for a person to support their family in dignity have been stripped from countless people as their jobs have been shipped to other countries. What is a person whose spent the last twenty five years of their life building cars supposed to do when the plant closes due to management inefficiency and union greed? Retrain to be a call centre operator? That might work as long as those jobs haven't been shipped out overseas as well.

Over a million children in Canada live below the poverty level, meaning that they aren't getting adequate food, shelter, and more often or not want for parental affection and attention as well. Even if we just went by relative population size, with the United States have roughly ten times the population of Canada, it means around ten million children in the U.S. are affected similarly.

How can we call ourselves a caring people if just one of those scenarios exists? Why aren't we more appalled to know that as we sit in the comfort of our home, or are heading to a job that people in our countries are going to bed hungry at night, with little or no chance of a proper meal the next day as well?

What kind of caring society allows people who are our parent's age to live on subsistent pensions that barely gets them a room in a hovel or a welfare hotel? What kind of dignity is that for a person to live out their supposed golden years sitting and watching paint peel in a room with mouldy carpet and a broken spring bed.

Instead of feeling pity when we see homeless people we stand in judgement wondering how they could have let themselves get in such a position. Or if a person is dying of AIDS instead of sorrow and compassion we judge them on what might have been their lifestyle when what should matter is why there is no cure for it after all these years.

What has happened to turn our hearts into unfeeling slabs of stone? So many of us when we are out in the world just plough straight through people on the sidewalk, knocking over people in walkers and complaining about them being in the way.

I have a hard time dealing with going out anymore, because it either gets me so angry to be around people that I might start hitting them with my cane, or it makes me so sad at how far we've fallen that I could cry.

I guess it shouldn't surprise me that people on the street have so little compassion. They take their lead from the attitudes that are prevalent in society. Our leaders are more concerned with passing judgement then with caring, and that's what is reported in the papers every day as the state of the world.

Compassion has somehow become an antiquated ideal very few people feel or understand. Until we can remember what it was it like to care about another person, and how our actions might affect them, the world will continue along on its present path.

I don't know how much longer we can keep it up, we've been lucky so far, but luck can change for the worse at any time and anywhere.

December 21, 2006

The Magic Of Winter Light

Forty-five minutes ago the clock rolled over and it became officially December 21st, the winter solstice. Although my calendar says that December 20th was the first day of winter, I can't help but always think of the 21st as being the longest night of the year.

I realize given the inaccuracies inherent in our system of measuring the passage of time that dates jump around a bit. When your year is 365 days and a quarter long there are bound to be some variables that even a leap year can't correct. But since the difference in the length of the day on the 20th or 21st is so minimal I don't feel too badly for adhering to the date I've always associated with the event.

Now don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm about to go out and enact some archaic ritual to commemorate the event, I'll leave that to those who feel the need to do those things. It's just that I've always found this time of year to be extremely magical in a way that has nothing to do with the Christmas season.

One of the things I appreciate about living in a small city is the fact that there are very few small building to cut off my view of the sky and the ability to see large swaths of it at once. Because of this I get to experience one of the great pleasures of living in an area where there is a noticeable shift in the earth's position in terms of the sun and the quality of light.

Near the end of August is when I usually first begin to notice that the days have started to run out of steam, and the sun has started to set earlier. By the time the end of October roles around and we set the clocks back an hour, by six o'clock in the evening the sun has pretty much set.

But it's not until near the end of November that the real magic begins. As the earth has spun on it axis and taken the part of the world I live in further below the sun's line of sight the quality of our light has started to change. Not only do we receive less of it over the course of a twenty-four hour period, what we do receive comes to us on an angle such that it seems to cut across the path of the planet instead of shining right on to us.

I'm sure that people who are equal distance south of the equator to our position to the north will experience something similar. But I also think that there's something about the quality of the light in the Northern parts of the world that isn't replicated anywhere. Perhaps it's the cold air creating a thinning of the atmosphere, I don't know. All I do know is that it's one of the reason's I'd never move to a place where there's no winter.

It's the shadows that are the first indication of the change. With the sun tracking lower in the sky every day shadows are exaggerated in their elongation until they become as much part of the scenery as the object that cast them. Walk along beside a stand of trees and you are walking through them as well beside them. Or you are seeing their shadows prostrate, while your second self steps from one to the next, merging and separating, merging and separating, until you lose track of which is moving and which is stationary.

You often hear people complain about the brightness of the winter sun, what they are talking about is the sun shining off snow that has accumulated over a period of time, and been subjected to a deep freeze. These are the glass like conditions when combined with the angle of the sun that make the need for sunglasses or eye protection paramount. If you are around vast fields of snow then snow blindness can be a potential hazard. In fact winter is usually the only time that I find I'll need, or want to wear sunglasses for just that reason. Well maybe not snow blindness but the harshness of the glare at any rate.

But it's in the days leading up to the twenty first of December before too much snow has fallen and the temperature has had a chance to really dip below the freezing point too far that I'm talking about. It's those days when the sun has risen only so that he can begin to set, when it feels like it's permanent twilight, then the feeling you've entered into another world becomes really strong.

If somehow you are able to get away from the elements that distinguish the twenty-first century, traffic, buildings, and noise, to walk amidst the quiet of some trees or by the water, it feels like you've stepped out of anyone particular time. The light has been watered down enough on these days that shadows gather at the edges of everything, smoothing sharp edges into soft curves so that distinctiveness is blurred and objects seen at a distance become almost indistinguishable from their backgrounds.

I can see why earlier societies could believe this time was the end of the year as everything faded from view gradually each day earlier and earlier. The date that marked the reversal of that process, the longest night of the year when you could almost swear that the sun wasn't going to return, would be the day you celebrate the end of one year and the start of a new one.

To them it was if a new sun was being born on the midwinter day and the light would gradually start to return. It's an experience that we can still share today if we take the time to look around what is happening to the world beyond the rush of the artificial season we have created.

I personally find it much more satisfying to watch the year end in the physical world then on the calendar. In particular I enjoy the time leading up to the solstice because it's one of the moments of magic that bridge the span of years between us and those who lived on earth thousands of years earlier who watched the world do much the same things it does today

December 20, 2006

Book Review: Dream Angus Alexander McCall Smith

Myths are the tales that existed long before the stories of once upon a time took place. They are the stories that explained the unexplainable and gave us the means to comprehend the world around us in terms that we're relevant to our awareness. As Christianity, Islam, Judea, Hinduism, Shinto, and Buddhism all explain the world to us today, Zeus, Odin, Thor, Isis, Ra, The Dagda, Anansi, Sky Woman, Coyote, and Bran explained, and still do for some people, the world in eons gone by.

Now they only exist as pleasant stories; quaint reminders of ancient civilizations and a means of separating our modern monotheistic culture from the primitive times of the past. But there is something about them, their means of explaining things that our religions don't dwell on, or perhaps their magical quality, that can still inspire flights of fancy.

The Myths series of books was created to celebrate that fact with authors from all over the world writing about a mythological being of their choice. The stories created are either tales associated with the god/goddess or the influence of their attributes in contemporary life. In Dream Angus author Alexander McCall Smith has taken the Celtic god of dreams and love and interwoven his story with modern tales of dreams, love, and dreams touched by love.
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Dreams are the places where our hidden secrets come to life. They can be dark and fearful experiences that shake up our world leaving us agitated and afraid. The dreams that Angus leaves us with may not be the most frightening, but dealing with love as they do can make them as unsettling as any nightmare. But instead of turning this into an exercise in the macabre or some sort of psychological study, he creates a tone that carries the same bittersweet wonder and joy of the myth.

Angus is the illegitimate son of the head of the Celtic gods, The Dagda. (Referred to in this story as just plain Dagda) Like Zeus Dagda has a wandering eye for women and the river spirit Boann catches his eye one day and he proceeds to set up a successful seduction. From the moment Angus is born it is obvious that he is a gentle spirit and will be universally loved. Songbirds circle his head to serenade him to sleep as he rocks in his cradle, and the wildest hunting dog calms when in his presence.
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Dagda steals Angus away from his mother when he is still an infant. Shortly after Angus comes to live with him he dreams of a day when his son will supplant him on the throne and cast him away. The following day Angus is sent to live with one of his stepbrothers as Dagda hopes that this will prevent his dream from coming to pass (We all know what happens in those instances don't we, how the thing we do to prevent something actually causes our worst fears to be realized).

Such is the gentle nature of Angus that all who meet him find they are filled with dreams of love. A good deal of the time they are dreams of love for Angus because of his nature, but he never returns their affections. But one day when he is older Angus is ensnared by a dream he has of a beautiful woman. For the longest time he wastes away, uninterested in food or drink for love of this woman.

Finally she is found, but as fate would have it she must spend alternate years as a swan. So strong is Angus' love for Caer that he himself transforms into a swan so that they can be together.

While McCall Smith is telling us these details, he is interspersing them with short stories of humans set in modern times. One of the stories details a boy whose life has a parallel path to Angus' in childhood. When his father sent Angus away, he went to live with his stepbrother who had a son a few years older then him.

The two boys became inseparable and in less you knew different, you weren't able to tell they weren’t really brothers. One night Angus had a dream, and he dreamt that his brother wasn't there any more, and it was so real that when he woke up he was nigh on inconsolable.

The story "My Brother" in set in rural Scotland in the depression of the 1930's when people were barely able to survive. Jamie idealized his older brother Davie and went everywhere with him if possible. He believed in all his heart that they would be together for the rest of their lives; he even imagined a time after their parents had died and they would share the house they grew up in.

So he is devastated when his brother receives an invitation to go to Canada to live with a cousin in Nova Scotia. The night after he finds out that his brother will be leaving he tries to convince Davie to let him come too. Instead of agreeing Davie tells Jamie to ask "Dream Angus" to bring him dreams of him in Canada. That night Jamie dreams of dark trees and white snow and knows it's Canada.

Dream Angus can help Jamie because he knows about the love between brothers and how much it hurts to lose that bond. In that first night he sends him a promise in the shape of a dream that he will keep them connected, even if only through their dreams. In the dream world we can have just as powerful feelings as we have in the waking world and Jamie can love his brother with as much intensity as he wants asleep and never have to worry about losing him.

The stories that run in our world's time have both literal and fantastical connections to the life of Angus. McCall Smith has woven elements of the nature of the god into the stories in a way that they reflect the spirit of gentleness and love that are the embodiment of Angus. When the young lady in "Is There A Place For Pigs There?" dreams about loving the simple young man who tends the pigs in the science lab where she works she is at first surprised at herself. But she also knows for certain that he is the one for her.

The way in which the scene is depicted is simple enough to be honest and unsentimental, but it's that very simplicity that makes it so magical. She doesn't tear her hair in fits of passion or analysis her dream of love to pieces. It is just a fact, like the colour of her eyes is a fact, making it all the more wondrous.

Each of the stories in this book tells the myth of Angus whether it's set in ancient Ireland and Scotland or in contemporary times. By imbuing the stories of our time with the gentleness of tone that he uses for the telling of the myth, and by being as factual in the world of the myth as he is in our time Alexander McCall Smith bridges the two worlds beautifully.

A story like this could have easily crossed the line over into sentimentality, but instead Smith has managed to create a world where the bittersweet of dreams is what guides our reality. Dreams of love are both a comfort and a pain, but if they are listened to carefully and believed, the voice of Angus can be heard whispering in our ear.

Alexander McCall Smith's Dream Angus is published by Knoff Canada a division of Random House Canada and you can pick up a copy at their web site, other online retailers or your local bookstore. It's a lovely way to spend a dreamy evening or afternoon when reality is just a little too much to bear.

December 2, 2006

Humanity: Just Doing What Comes Unnaturally

I sometimes wonder where we humans ever come up with our ideas. How we can look at a set of circumstances, or a reality and then posit something completely opposite to what the facts suggest is one of our biggest deficiencies as a species. It's not even as if conclusions our reached out of ignorance, which could at least be an excuse, for all the evidence is usually right there for any and all to see.

In some ways it's a rather extreme form of denial; a wilful blindness that allows people to ignore reality in order that their vision of the world remains intact. One of the worst examples of this that I have come across is the manner so many new age folk have taken to viewing the natural world. In spite of all evidence to the contrary they have created some Pollyanna world where everything is bright and beautiful and all live in harmony in bucolic splendour.

They have their books to tell them how to go about finding their animal totem to act as their guide. They will learn how the animal's attributes and characteristic behaviour will be their clues to leading a better life. A person who has a beaver for a totem, for instance, is industrious but needs to watch that they don't create bottlenecks of their emotions by damming them up.

Since they are an aquatic mammal that can stay submerged for great lengths of time there is some sort of lesson to be learned from that, just like there is from the big flat tail and the ability to chew through wood. Of course the fact that they wouldn't recognize a beaver in the wild state if it walked up and shook their hand is far less relevant than the fact that going in and out of the beaver lodge is similar to travelling the birth canal repeatedly.

Of course they need to learn how to invoke the "teachings" of the beaver in order to fully integrate its important attributes. Don't worry if you are at a loss as to how to go about doing this, the book will explain all about creating a ritual to fully realize the potential of the beaver within you.

Now, aside from the cultural appropriation of vision questing from the Native Americans, without the bother of actually questing, it's all pretty much harmless. The real problems start to arise when they start thinking of nature as something beautiful and idyllic. Images of happy nature spirits frolicking in fields of wildflowers surrounded by happy birch maidens and gentle beech men.

The problem with that image is how far removed from even the reality of the old stories they think they are worshiping as to be ridiculous. The old nature gods were untamed and fierce as befits things that are far beyond our control. Ask anyone whose ever lived through a hurricane or even a tropical storm how sweet and gentle nature can be.

That is the tip of the iceberg as far as their misconceptions and silliness goes. They don't see why animals like the Coyote, lynx, and wolf have to hunt and kill that lovely wide-eyed faun or eat the bird that was just talking to them. They've sentimentalized nature to the point where it's nothing but a Walt Disney animation.

While that may not sound like such a bad thing, the problem is that they have developed expectations about how the natural world should be that are no different from the way those who believe that nature is man's to exploit. For all their supposed spiritual connection to the natural world they are no more connected to the way things really are then anyone else.

Of all the species in the world the only one whose extinction would have no affect on the natural order of things is man. We do not exist inside any of the food chains or do anything but take from the planet for our own personal gain without giving back. As it stands now if man were to cease to exist at this very moment it would take probably a few thousand years for the world to completely heal from our occupation.

Now while that may sound like quite a length of time, in relation to how the long the earth has existed it's a mere blink of the eye. In spite of everything we are still of really no importance in the bigger scheme of things. The only ways in which we make impressions on the planet is the extent of the damage we inflict, and thankfully as soon as we're gone it will begin to recover.

All through the history of man we have done nothing but try and bend nature to our will, with generally little or no success. Look down at the sidewalk you walk along in your city and you can usually see grasses or small plants growing up between the cracks. It would take very little time for nature to reclaim everything that we've built.

We do things like try and change the flow of the Mississippi river and build farmland in the areas that we've supposedly drained. But the river remembers where it ran for years and years before men showed up and periodically attempts to follow its old path. The ensuing flooding is called a tragedy and human's rail against nature and her cruelty.

But there's nothing cruel about her. She only does what she would do whether we were here or not. Any time that we have ever pitted ourselves against her or tried to coerce her into doing something that serves our purposes we end up suffering for it in the long run. The fault lies not with nature in those instances but with us for thinking that we are able to work against her or even control her.

Anybody who believes that nature is here to serve us in someway, or that the natural world gives us any consideration is at best misguided. You can have as many totem animals as you want but you are no more harnessing the power of the natural world for your benefit then anybody else.

We can only lose when we come into conflict with nature. If we do end up somehow subduing her the cost is so great that the area we have exerted our "dominion" over will become uninhabitable by any life form within a very short period of time. In all other cases the chances are what we have built will either be swallowed, washed away, or somehow or other destroyed.

November 27, 2006

A Government's Priority

It's all a question of priorities isn't it? I know that's stating the obvious, but sometimes it's the things staring us right in the face that we pay the least amount of attention to.

Everybody has their own list of things they consider important; it's simply a means of ordering our lives. When we give activities a value it enables us to decide how and when the duties and responsibilities in our lives will be met and fulfilled.

When someone uses the excuse of "It's a question of priorities" for either not doing something or doing something in an order that an other person doesn't understand they could just as easily be saying "It's a matter of what's important to me". As individuals we are going to differ in what's important in our daily routine. Mitigating factors could range from whether or not you have children, to what appointments you may or may not have scheduled for that day.

While the majority of us will set our priorities based on our individual needs and wants, there are certain areas where the needs of society at large set a value upon our actions. Municipal recycling programs dependant upon individual members of the community sorting through their refuse each week offers a perfect example.

Before programs such as the curb side pick up of recyclables or what ever system an area uses, would anyone have considered it a priority at all to sort through and separate their plastics, metals, and papers from each other? It was only when it became obvious that we were running out of space to our solid wastes that local governments made it a priority to put their energies into convincing us that it was the right thing to be doing.

For most of us it has now become second nature to sort out garbage in between collection dates and put out appropriately coloured receptacles when we are told. But in order for that to come about governments and environmental groups had had to mount an extensive educational campaign. It was made into a priority by appealing to people's sense of public duty; doing their bit for the environment and their neighbourhoods.

Recycling falls into a category of priorities that can be referred to as the societal instead of individual. True we as individuals make it a personal priority to do our recycling each week, but it's not something that would have happened if it had not become a government priority as well.

Of course government priorities are what make the world go round. From Communist to Capitalist it doesn't matter, they have their list of things they want to accomplish and they mean to do it. The difference between their list and yours is a question of who it effects and how, and the motivation behind it.

Of course, even when you know the priorities of your government that may not be of much use in helping you understand how they make their decisions or explain how they decide what's most important. Some government's claim they are guided by the hand of God, others claim that they stand for lofty ideals, another says they are guided by the traditions of their country, and yet another lays claim to a political philosophy.

Yet how is it, if there is so much diversity, that nothing seems to change anywhere in the world? How is it that so many of the world's leaders; so many different people of different backgrounds, beliefs, and philosophies; always end up with the same priorities?

At least if we are to judge by results and the continually screwed up state of the world what other conclusion can we draw. Millions of people, if not billions are starving to death on a daily basis. Millions of people are dying of one pandemic, AIDS, while other ailments that we once though extinct are coming back more virulent then ever.

The water we drink is becoming increasingly unpalatable and in some places undrinkable. The quality of our air has depreciated so badly that every summer sees an increase in respiratory ailments, and an increased number of people with those ailments dying.

While our world is burning our leaders seem to be more concerned with devising ways and the means for killing us through wars, insurgencies, rebellions, jihads, than doing anything about any of those problems. It doesn't matter if they are Muslim, Christian, White, Asian, Semitic, or African none of them seem to have the preservation or the improvement of quality of life as a priority.

It's funny you know, I always used to think that most of the world's faiths believed that life was sacred. There was the whole thou shalt not kill thing as one of the Ten Commandments, with variations through out the faiths. But what I didn't realize was that it meant Thou shalt not kill those who are like you, but go ahead and lop off the heads of anyone who is different.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if we ever decided to work as hard at preserving life throughout the world as we do now at destroying it? If we were to make it a priority that everyone in the world was fed, sheltered, clothed, and went to bed at night feeling secure they wouldn't be killed over night?

How do governments develop their priorities? Did we give them the idea that we want them to be more concerned with killing the people we share the planet with rather then helping them? Or are these just ideas they've come up with on their own?

When you develop the priorities for you family, don't you always do so with their comfort and well being in mind? How often does that include going downtown with a gun and shooting people who may be drug dealers on the off chance they could sell to your children? No usually you'll talk to your children and educate them about any potential dangers they could face.

Our governments have made it their priority to go downtown and not just shoot those they think maybe drug dealers, but blow up the downtown as well. They don't seem to give much thought to our comfort and well being. They all claim they are just trying to make the world better for their citizens, to keep them safe, but it seems like more and more of the world's population dies a violent death each and every day.

Killing another people is no way to guarantee you own people's safety. Perhaps if governments started making it a priority to keep everybody safe, not just the people who voted for them, we all might live and feel a little safer.

October 31, 2006

Which Witch Is Which?

Well darn it all, I went and missed it and I was so looking forward to it. Yesterday the Globe and Mail was featuring an online interview with someone claiming to be a Wicca priestess and I was dying to hear what kind of stuff they're saying this year about October 31st and how they explain what they believe in.

Judging by the fact that she's a self proclaimed priestess I'd have to believe that she is an adherent of one of the late 19th century early 20th century occultists who called themselves Wicca and laid claim to the usual run of mystical talents. You know communing with the dead via séances, foretelling the future via palm reading and other arcane methods, and of course the ability to cast spells.

In the 1950's Gerald Gardner published Witchcraft Today which was followed by his 1960 release The Meaning Of Witchcraft upon which most of modern Wicca practice and worship is based. He claimed that Wicca was an old religion that predated Christianity and had been eradicated over the years.

He claimed to have learned everything from one solitary source who had initiated him into a coven in the 1920's, but many people have pointed out the similarities between the rituals described by Gardner and those that followers of Victorian occultists like Alistair Crowley. In the late Victoria era as part of the Romantic movement there was a great upsurge in belief in all things occult including a neo-druidic movement, an interest in spiritualism, and an upsurge in sightings of fairies and other wee creatures of myth.

The majority of today's followers of Wicca proscribe to these teachings and adhere to a mixture of beliefs and rituals co-opted from a variety of pre-Christian sources, but especially from the British Isles. In the United States and Britain the Wiccan Church has achieved official recognition as a religion and all the rights and freedoms that this entails.

Now I suppose the newspaper felt that with Halloween upon us that they should make a genuine witch available to its readership so they could ask her about the relationship of witchcraft and the holiday. According to their system of holidays Wiccans have co-opted four of the old Celtic festivals of part of their eight major celebrations of the year. One of those is Samhain (sow-en or sow-ain) that coincided with about our October 31st.

The word Samhain is actually the old Celtic word for the month of November and in particular the first three days of the month. These three days were to mark the end of the summer days and the harvest and the beginning of the days of winter. In fact Oct. 31st is still considered the traditional first day of winter in Ireland.

In the old Celtic belief this three-day festival is also the time when the worlds of humans and the dead are closest, and the spirits of our ancestors move among us. With the rise of Christianity quite a few of the old holiday dates were utilized to maintain familiarity for the people so they could be easily swayed over to the new way of doing things.

Thus November 1st became All Hallows' Day, November 2nd All Saints Day, and eventually October 31st All Hallows' Eve. Many Catholic countries still celebrate all three days with the final being the Day of the Dead, a day in which to venerate those that came before.

In the past few years there has been an upsurge in popularity in things associated with witchcraft. Television shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and movies like Practical Magic and The Craft have served to sensationalize the arcane side of these practices without exploring any of the history behind the beliefs.

Most of the blame for that should be laid on the shoulders of these called witches and their mysteries. Somehow it was decided that the beliefs should be kept from the general public, and that there holly book, The Book Of Shadows be forbidden to all but those initiated in the craft. This has ensured that no one knows anything about them or their practices.

Oh sure it makes them all important and mysterious sounding: you have to be initiated into the belief if you want to learn their secrets because they're obviously too potent for just anybody to mess around with. I wonder if they have a secret handshake as well so they can differentiate between those who claim to be Wiccan and those who have had the mysteries revealed to them.

Almost everybody in the world knows something about one of the major religions in the world aside from the one they practice, and it doesn't seem to have harmed them terribly much. What is it they are so worried about? It wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that it's a bunch of made up rubbish that has nothing to do with the realities of the things they claim to believe in?

There are even people who call themselves Wiccans who have nothing to do with this larger body of people who follow these practices. They operate under the belief that anybody who wants to can worship the things they do without any special knowledge or approval. They don't have a hierarchy of priests and priestesses trying to impose their will on others or telling them the correct way in which to worship their deity.

The irony of all this is that the practice was intended for people in rural communities who were closely connected to the earth. These were people who didn't have calendars telling them when holidays were or anything like that. They lived according to the rhythms of the earth and the changing of the seasons. They knew when to plant and when to harvest – could they keep it in the ground a extra day or two to make it that much plumper or should they harvest it today because the first frost is fast approaching – and respect for the world they lived in.

If they ever thought to set themselves above that reality they knew that they would be tempting fate and risking disaster. Even when things didn't go that well, an early frost destroyed part of the crop, or there were drought conditions for part of the season, they would still be grateful for what they did receive, knowing full well it could have been worse.

Like other religions that worship the natural world and preach working with nature rather than against her, it was born out of perceived necessity and an attempt to understand and explain the capriciousness of the natural world. If I want to have success in hunting food for my family I will ask permission to kill something and will give an offering to the animals spirit in gratitude for providing its body to feed me.

That form of worship makes sense if you are dependant on those results for survival. But we live in a world where the majority of us depend on being able to make it the super market and having sufficient money to buy groceries for survival. Performing fertility rites in the spring and giving thanks for a good harvest in the fall makes little or no sense and at worst is woefully insincere and self-serving.

Instead of doing something in the hope of obtaining a desired result, the purpose of a ritual in the first place, you are going through empty motions that only serve to make you look important. If you truly desire to honour the natural world, than you need to create a means of doing so that doesn't involve putting yourself ahead of what you worship.

Humility and being humble are two very important parts of worship that Wicca and other New Age faiths seem to disregard. It's all about what I can get from doing this instead of being grateful for what I have received.

Seeing someone calling herself a high priestess of something called Wicca and realizing that she is going to be nattering on about how special they are and what Hallows' Eve means to them only serves to remind me how far humans have drifted from the real belief that we have things to be grateful for. When did we become so selfish?

October 25, 2006

Book Review: Neil Gaiman American Gods

It used to be this world was a great place to be a God in; why only a few thousand years ago the heavens and earth were filled to bursting with all sorts of deities, spirits, demons, and things that go bump in the night. Put together any group of humans larger then a family unit and they were bound to have found someone who they counted on for guidance and arbitrary justice.

Things have changed in the past millennia; with the rise of monotheism and larger concentrations of humanity in single places individual Gods have fallen out of favour. If you're no longer in need of someone to guarantee a bountiful crop, or to provide aid to hunting parties it's pretty hard justifying the worship of the one who provided you with that assistance.

It must be bad enough as a deity having your raison d'être pulled out from under your feet, but compared to what's happened to some of your fellow travellers, you should be counting yourself lucky. Think of all those Gods who were uprooted by their adherents and taken to a new world only to be gradually forgotten about or dismissed as inadequate for the demands of their new lives.

One day it's all sacrifices and offerings, the next it’s the cold shoulder and you're left dumpster diving in order to survive. Who'd have thought the name that once caused the heavens themselves to tremble with their passage are reduced to begging for crumbs of belief and a snatch or two of prayer.

What must be even worse is seeing what has relegated them to the back of the bus. Modern man has taken to worshiping "things" or the means that enable him to accumulate things. Televisions, personal computers, cell phones, all have their own personifications making an appearance in the pantheon now.
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Such is the situation in the world you enter when you wander the pages of Neil Gaiman's American Gods published by Harper Perennial. (Just a quick note of thanks to HarperCollins Canada for supplying me with the books to review for this spotlight feature on Neil Gaiman at Blogcritics and where ever else these reviews are appearing) Immigrants and travellers to North America hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years in the past brought their deities with them. By carrying out their rituals of worship and carrying the names in their hearts they gave life to their Gods on this foreign soil.

From the blood thirsty warrior Gods of the Norseman to the spirits of the jungle of Africa they have all been left stranded without believers waiting for the inevitable ending when the last heart ceases to believe. For now they exist in various states of decrepitude, some better off than others, but mainly old people well past retirement age awaiting the end.

Like the majority of people Shadow is completely unaware of any of this (there's a paradox here waiting to be posed: if mortal man was aware of the fact that his ancient Gods were fading into oblivion, wouldn't that awareness be sufficient belief to prevent their fading) and given his circumstances he could easily be forgiven for not having any faith at all. He's just about finished a three-year stretch in prison and is eagerly awaiting his reunion with his wife. A good friend has even held his job for him so that he won't even have to worry about the black mark of "convict" on his resume.

Two days before his release he's called down to see the Warden and although prison and paranoia are close companions the news he's given is even worse than he could have imagined. His wife and best friend were killed in a car accident the previous night. In one stroke the future he had planned upon release is torn away and he is left bereft of anything resembling plans. (That they were found in a compromising position is just a bonus- the cherry on top so to speak of you worst case scenario for getting out of prison)

The first time Shadow meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday is on his flight home from prison. Due to an overbooking he was seated in first class where the weird old man who somehow knew so much about him offered him a job. The man is so persistent that when the plane is forced to land due to inclement weather, instead of waiting for it to clear Shadow rents a vehicle to complete the trip by car.

But those whom the gods have selected, or however the saying goes, don't find it that easy to give them the slip. So it goes for Shadow, for who should be waiting for him at the diner he stops at for lunch but Mr. Wednesday (Woden's Day, Votan, Odin, all father of the Norse Gods) It's over lunch that Shadow first learns about the war that's in the offing between the Gods of the Old World and the Gods of New World. How even though the old ones are dying out the new ones are impatient and can't wait to shuffle them off this immortal coil.

As Mr. Wednesday explains it to Shadow the problem is that the New Gods feel threatened because they are afraid of being replaced and going out of fashion like the old ones are doing. They are the product of people's ever changing desires like the old Gods, but they like the things they represent come with built in obsoleteness. When anyone is scared, be they Gods or mortals, they look for a target they can lash out at, so they feel like they are accomplishing something.

In American Gods Mr. Gaiman show his deft touch of blending the fantastical and the mundane so that although a great number of the characters in the book are either Gods, spirits, or some other form of magical being the story always stays firmly rooted in the plausible. What else are the old Gods going to be like other than how they are depicted in this book?

Can you see any of them going quietly into a retirement home playing checkers and doing low impact aerobics until the end of time? No they are going to be out in the world making use of their understanding of human nature (running confidence games, doing a little fortune telling), or their natural abilities ( The Egyptian Gods of the underworld Thoth the Ibis, Anubus The Jackal, and Baast the Cat run a funeral parlour) to survive and blend into the world around them.

If you have any familiarity with ancient civilizations and their religions, it will be fun (at least it was for me) to try and figure out who everybody is. Mr. Gaiman has done his research and has included plenty of little clues as to who is who, and has developed their human selves from their Godly characteristics so as to accentuate who they are. What I found especially gratifying was the fact that he didn't attempt to make any concessions for their characters to make them more palatable for a modern audience.

It all of a sudden becomes harder to be sympathetic towards a character that demands human sacrifice as his or her due. Are you still ready to support the so called good guys in the war of the Gods, the one whose side Shadow is on, even when some of them have no problem devouring human beings and think nothing wrong with a throat being slit in their name?

But no matter what character flaws any of these deities might have, they are at least an extension of ourselves and seem far more real and earthy than the Goddess Media who talks like a Madison Avenue representative. Given the choice I know who I'd worship any day of the week.

As in most books by Neil Gaiman American Gods is wonderfully written with moments of transcendent splendour and glimpses into the darker side of human nature. But unlike so many writers today who seem to take great pleasure in only depicting the dark and slithery parts of our mind he maintains a balance that shows us although horror and violence exist so do hope and beauty.

One of things that I found interesting about this book is that he changed his style of writing with his change of locale. Other books I have read by him have all been set in England and there has been a certain tone to them, a way of putting words together on the page that was decidedly English. Here he has changed that so it feels like a book written by a North American.

This may not sound like much, but it is almost as hard for an author to write in another culture's voice as is it is for an actor to assume an accent and make it sound authentic, not an imitation. Mr. Gaiman manages the job so well that if you didn't know you'd think an American had written the book.

That may not sound like much of a big deal, but in order for this book to work it was essential for it to sound as authentic as possible because the location is such a key element in the book. God's are a reflection of the people they are worshipped by, and in the case of the aged and almost forgotten ones whose grip on survival is so tenuous, they no longer reflect the desires and manners of those who brought them here.

Gaiman's ability to accurately portray the people and expressions of America has to be spot on so that the differences are thrown into sharp relief. Anything less would have detracted from the story made it far more difficult for the reader to be drawn into the story.

Neil Gaiman is an author with a unique perception on the world that surrounds us, and even when he travels down paths that are familiar he is able to show us things in a manner we may not have thought of before. In American Gods he examines the way in which we believe and poses questions about belief that may cause some people disquiet. Belief is a very powerful weapon that can be exploited and used against those who are most devout, but it can also provide solace and comfort in times of need.

Perhaps it's not so important what you believe in, but more important that you believe at all. In American Gods we see how strong the power of belief can be. Without it Gods become just another collection of old immigrants bemoaning their lost opportunities but with it they are omnipotent. Kind of makes you wonder who needs who more doesn't it?

October 18, 2006

Canadian Politics: Defence Of Religion Bill Equals Hate Mongering

Steven Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada are hate mongers. Does that sound a little extreme to you sensitive ears? Well how else would describe a political party which is introducing legislation that would make it legal for anyone who felt like it to speak out against a group, refuse services to a group and in general treat them like second class citizens because of who they are.

They've given the bill a nice sounding name; it's called the Defence Of Religions Act". You see it's meant to defend the rights of poor Christians against the contamination of having to have homosexuals as equal members of society.

Now we all know that real Christians have no compassion and are filled with hatred against those who are different from them. So the government is moving in a timely fashion to ensure that they can tell anyone they want about the evils of homosexuality. Contravening the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the process, by denying them the services of a government office by a government official based on a reason of race, creed, colour, or sexuality, the government has spared no effort to ensure that real Christians everywhere will be able to discriminate to their hearts content.

I mean if you, as a good Christian, were a sworn officer of the court who had taken an oath to uphold and enact the laws and Constitution of Canada wouldn't you want to be able to refuse to do so whenever it was convenient for you as an individual? If you were a Justice of the Peace whose duties include performing civil, secular, marriages for those couples who don't want religion to play any role in their marriage, shouldn't you be able to refuse to marry them because you don't like them for who they are, because it offends your religion?

Well the Conservative Party of Canada thinks so. In fact they are going to let you if they have their way. In spite of the fact that the existing laws state that no religious organization has to perform any act that contravenes the tenets of their faith, our fearless government seems to think that is not sufficient protection for those people who wish to discriminate.

But they're not just going to defend your right to refuse to marry gay couples; they're going to do a whole lot more. You'll be able to refuse to do business with openly gay businesses. It says gay activist companies in the bill, but I doubt if anyone will argue with you too closely if you just refuse service to any business you know to be run by gays. (Aren't they all radicals anyway – buggers are lucky they're even legal, right?)

It gets even better though. Under the new act you're going to be able to get up in public, in front of school students, and in front of your congregation and tell everyone just how evil homosexuals are. In direct contravention of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms you'll be able to get up and disseminate hatred against a group based on their sexual preferences.

Now of course this isn't just limited to Christians, anybody who wants to can discriminate against homosexuals, but the government's main audience are their people. In fact I'm sure if they had their way they would try and figure out how they could use this bill so they could refuse service to anyone they wanted. The word precedent springs to mind when dealing with legal matters.

If somehow or other this bill makes it out of the House of Commons as law, and manages to stand up to the multitude of court challenges it will face, think of the possibilities. You could refuse service to anyone you wanted because they offended your religious beliefs.

Of course you may have to subject all potential clients, employees, customers, or tenants to questionnaires to make certain they didn't practice, believe, or hold to anything that might even possibly be considered offensive to you at some point in the future. You just can't tell by looking who or what somebody is these days can you?

What is especially wonderful about this bill is how it makes it sound like the government is doing something noble. Defence of Religion sure does have a nice ring to it doesn't it? Yet what it really is doing is allowing people to carry personal prejudices into public and making it legal for them to act on them. In other words reversing years of civil rights legislation and activity.

Canada has a very deliberate policy of separation between church and state in order to prevent the very activities this law would legalize. All people are equal under the eyes of the law supposedly and all of a sudden an exception is going to be made in the case of two groups on religious grounds. One group, homophobes, are going to be allowed to discriminate at will under the guise of religious freedom. The second group, homosexuals, will be subject to discrimination whenever somebody decides they offend their religious beliefs.

Religious beliefs are a highly personal matter and can change from individual congregation to congregation no matter what the faith. In many cases it can even change from person to person in the degree to which they adhere to the tenets of their religion; not everybody keeps as strict observance of rules as everybody else.

But personal beliefs are just that, personal, and have no place being imposed upon the public at large where they will come into conflict with another's personal beliefs. The law already protects the right of people to worship in any manner they choose and how they see fit. No faith, denomination, or congregation can be forced to do anything that goes against the beliefs of its community

Defence of Religion is the right to gather and worship your God, Goddess, or small fuzzy creatures from the planet Zarcon in the way that your community finds meaningful. It doesn't give you the right to refuse to treat anybody else the way you wish to be treated just because they aren't like you. That's discrimination.

Advocating, approving of, or anyway of saying that's all right go ahead and do it, discrimination is saying that those individuals are less worthy then others. To write a law which allows for one group to be discriminated against by anybody who feels like it is to give official sanction to the belief that they don't deserve to be respected or treated the same as the rest of us no matter how you word it.

No matter what else you say you are encouraging people to dislike those people because you have given the legal right to discriminate against them. The government says homosexuals can be treated like dirt; that means they are is going to be the next logical though in the minds of many people. What's next: gay bashing in self-defence because their presence infringed upon your religious rights?

Steven Harper and The Conservative Party of Canada are advocating one segment of our population deserves to be discriminated against because of who they are. That's hate mongering and it's illegal in Canada. Does anyone know how to make a citizen's arrest?

October 10, 2006

Friday The Thirteenth - Why So Unlucky?

There are many important issues facing the world today; North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the whole of the Middle East, and all the other hot spots where sparks are continually flying. But amidst all these stories really important issues are being overlooked, issues that if left unresolved have the potential to bring Western Civilization to a screeching halt.

Through one of those great mysteries that confound even the best of minds, somehow events have conspired to make three days from now Friday the thirteenth during the month of October. Just eighteen day before All Hallows Eve, the night of pagan ritual and sacrifice, the night the dead walk amongst the living, it will fall with the sound of a ladder falling on someone's head as they walk under it.

It's like a black cat has walked across the collective Path of all Western Civilization. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong because the worst thing possible has already happened. We have a Friday the Thirteenth in October. Do you think I'm over exaggerating the danger to our society? Have a little faith in the stupidity of your fellow human please.

Let me give you an example of something that happened to me just recently, and see if it doesn't send a chill down your spin as it did mine. I've been waiting to have a very minor surgical procedure done, repair of a hernia. It's so minor I won't even be knocked out they will just freeze the area, but I still need to be booked into a operating theatre and there has to be time on my surgeon's schedule to fit me in etc, etc.

Due to the fact that the hospitals in my city are also the ones for serious problems throughout South Eastern Ontario, I figured it might take a while before I could get an appointment. Last week the doctor's secretary phoned, and the first thing out of her month after identifying herself was to ask if I was superstitious. I thought this was a very odd thing for her to be asking me, and so I asked, justifiably I thought, why?

Well she hemmed and hawed for a second, and then said, "I've got a day this month which I'm having a horrible time getting filled for surgery". It only took me a couple of seconds before I asked if there happened to be a Friday the Thirteenth in October. She answered in the affirmative and continued by saying that people were turning down surgery dates because of it.

To say I was dumbfounded is an understatement. "Don't people realize how hard it is to get an surgical appointment in this city?" I blurted out. "Thank God, she replied, someone who doesn't live in a cave". Naturally I took the appointment and was exceedingly grateful for the rest of the city's stupidity.

Of course this led me to start wondering what the heck was so wrong with the number thirteen that high rises skip numbering a thirteenth floor, and I bet we don't use a twenty-four hour clock like nearly everyone else in the world because we don't want to have a thirteen o'clock.

It really puzzles me about what's wrong with thirteen, when did we learn to hate, and fear it so badly. It's a perfectly natural number – the moon goes through thirteen cycles every 365 days so it has a place in the natural order of things. (Of course we've also created strange tales about the moon and how it can change men into bestial things – but the moon is another topic of conversation all together)

Paraskavedekatriaphobia is the word for people who suffer from a pathological fear of Friday The Thirteenth. Significantly it is only in the English speaking and Portuguese speaking world that Friday is cursed. The Spanish and Greeks, think that Tuesdays are the day which thirteen turns into one of misfortune.

Even the normally reliable wikipedia doesn’t seem to be able to come up with anything that helps to explain the origins of a person suffering from triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number thirteen save for the thirteen lunar cycles of a women, and because Judas was supposedly the thirteenth apostle and he betrayed Jesus.

There are traditions where the number thirteen is considered blessed. In some Native American societies North America is considered to be resting on the back of a giant turtle – hence the name Turtle Island. According to certain teachings, the thirteen squares in the centre part of a turtle's shell represent the thirteen character traits a person needs to learn to be a good member of the community.

Something that thirteen and Friday The Thirteenth do confirm is the power of belief. Those who believe that they will suffer some sort of misfortune due to Friday The Thirteenth have a better then average chance of doing so because they have talked themselves into it. Of course Friday the thirteenth isn't the only superstition that people suffer from; there's black cats, walking under ladders, spilling salt, and goodness knows how many more
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Probably of any of them only walking under ladders may have some sort of practical reasoning behind it; someone must have noticed you're more likely to get hit by a dropped object when you walk under a ladder as opposed to when you bypass it. Or it might even refer to the times when people used to empty chamber pots out of their windows onto the street below and you didn't want to be to close to the wall.

I used to dismiss superstitions as silliness that people believed in as more of a joke than anything else. So I was quite shocked when I was told people were turning down dates for surgery because of what day of the week it was. That was carrying the joke just a little too far in my books. But it seems this is no joke for many people.

Don't people think there are enough real things to worry about without having to create ones out of thin air or based on information that's out dated by hundreds of years or more. Superstition is the stuff of ignorance and fear which gives rise to hatred and intolerance. Don't we have enough of that already without helping it along?

October 7, 2006

Music Review: The Blind Boys Of Alabama Walk With Me Dear Lord

I remember the first time I ever heard Black Gospel music live as if it were yesterday. It was a bright Sunday morning on the Toronto Islands, just off shore of downtown Toronto Ontario Canada but as far removed from the city as being 100 miles up country. It was 1978 and the Mariposa Folk Festival still made its home in this picturesque setting and the early morning show this Sunday was a group from New Orleans.

The Zion Harmonisers were five black men of varying ages dressed impeccably in identical suits. They stood on the lawn with the late morning sun shining down upon them singing about their love of Jesus and telling the stories of the bible in song. I'd never experienced anything quite like it in the world. It was like the passion that went into the best religious paintings of the Renaissance had been brought to life in front of my eyes.

The word Harmonisers in their name wasn't just idle talk; that was probably the day that I first understood what was meant by vocal harmonies. Listening to those five voices singing the same song, each one slightly different from the other, but all making up the whole. (I'm sure the soundman won't ever forget the bass singer – he hit a note so deep and resonant that even through the speakers you felt your sternum vibrate, and I saw the technician whipping headphones off his ears – it was a note too big too be held in by anything electronic)

That's the thing about great gospel music, it's such a big feeling inside of the singers that they can't hold it in. The emotion behind the belief has to be released somehow and song is the only force strong enough and pure enough expression of the raw human spirit to carry the sound up and away to the heavens. As the Jewish people would say, from your lips to God's ear, and if their God can't hear the voices of these singers than he needs to get Himself a hearing aid.

The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama (not to be confused with The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi) formed in 1937 at the Talladega Institute For The Deaf And Blind. They had been all taught to play piano via Braille, so they had a basic understanding of music. Not having much else to do they taught themselves how to sing and harmonize with their primary teacher being the radio and the gospel music shows.

They first started performing by sneaking out of school and singing at nearby military camps during World War Two. They didn't start out as the Blind Boys, but as the Happy Land Jubilee Singers and were fronted by Velma Bozman Traylor. When Velma was killed in 1947 they decided to change their name. As they never had any qualms about using their blindness as a selling point up to then they decided to imitate the Mississippi quintet in 1948 and took the name they carry to this day.

Clarence Fountain has led the group since then and continues to sing to this day. Unlike other groups the Blind Boys of Alabama haven't been afraid to experiment with their sound over the years and have toured and recorded with other performers like Ben Harper, George Clinton, Tom Waits, Chrissie Hynde and Aaron Neville.
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But through it all they have remained true to what they believe in and deliver Gospel music as passionate as any other group under the sun. Walk With Me Dear Lord released by the Music Avenue label is a fine example of the range of material and the breadth of arrangements that they incorporate into their performances.

"Walk With Me" leads off the disc with an almost pop feel which I found slightly disconcerting as it didn't jibe with my pre-existing definition of Black Gospel music, but it works as a lead in to the more demonstrative numbers. Taken in context with the rest of the disc it makes sense as well because it allows them to build to crescendos and then pull back down again into something more muted.

It would probably be just a little much to expect an audience to be able to sit through seventeen songs as stirring and passionate as "Old Time Religion", so the inclusion of songs like "Danny Boy" which might seem a little strange is understandable. Anyway it doesn't matter what songs they sing, these guys could make a vocalisation of the phone book sound amazing.

The depth of the passion, the harmonies, the intensity, and the sheer joy that they bring to each and every song can't fail to lift up your spirits. I don't care what or who you believe in, it's the belief that matters in cases like this not the specifics of who. Devotion like that expressed by the Five Blind Boys Of Alabama transcends our simplistic notions of religion and divisions of faiths.

It's a representation of the universal power of belief that all of us share for what it is we have faith in. and thus can't fail to move us one way or another. In much the same way that beautiful devotional art whether Muslim, Christian, Hindi, Jewish or any other belief can appeal to us on a primal level, this music taps into an old and sincere part of our being. It is truly ecstatic.

Walk With Me Dear Lord by The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama is a religious experience all on its own and is more then enough reason to believe in the existence of a higher power no matter what you want to call it. Inspiration for music like this can't be found just lying around on the ground, so something or someone somewhere has to be whispering in their ear and giving them direction and guidance.

What other explanation is there?

September 17, 2006

Know Thy Neighbour...Don't Kill Them

There was a scene in the Douglas Adam's book The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy where his character Arthur Dent says something that we would consider harmless, that turns out to be a deadly insult to another race of beings. The consequences of Arthur's unknowing insult were astonishing; a civilization was wiped out and an invasion of earth was only prevented when a Cocker Spaniel swallowed the invasion fleet (something to do with space, time, and relative sizes)

I might have got some to of the details wrong, it might have been a Labrador retriever that swallowed the invasion fleet, but I think you get the gist of the matter. How hard it is to translate ideas and concepts from culture to culture. It's not even always a matter of having to work translate from one language to another, although that complicates matters even more, because you can share a language but not an approach to conceptualizing with it.

Our way of thinking is shaped by the philosophies that we have been immersed in from the moment of our birth. I can reject them all I want intellectually and search for another means of defining how I live my life, but they are still the concepts my brain uses to bring definition to ideas and philosophies.

To give you an example I've been reading the books of Ashok Banker now for the past year and a half, specifically his retelling of the classic Indian epic The Ramayana. Through out the six books of the series the central figure, Rama, is continually described as an adherent of Dharma and its his absolute devotion to that concept in the face of all obstacles that lends him his greatness and earns him the admiration of even the Gods and Goddesses.

Each time I think that I've come up with a way of being able to put into words what I know emotionally Dharma to be, my intellect fails me. I can use words like fulfillment of duty to my heart's content and although it might tell you that there's a relationship between duty and dharma it still is off the mark.

It's not that the English language is unsuitable for explaining the concept, although it would be probably less awkward if I did speak Sanskrit, it's just that I keep wanting to impose our structure of thinking on it. It's extremely difficult to throw off thousands of years of genetically imprinted thinking, and forty-five years of implementing it in just over a year.

It's like peeling back multiple layers of skin from a fruit or a nut; each time that you think you have worked your way through to the kernel of truth there's another husk between you and the truth. Subtle nuance that aren't thick enough to prevent you from seeing the ultimate goal, but they are sufficient to keep you from touching it.

For instance, I recently ventured the opinion that one could choose to fulfill or not fulfill ones Dharma. But I was gently corrected and told that Dharma was either adhered to or not adhered to and choice had nothing to do with it. I think I understand the difference, but I don’t think I'm capable of putting it into words except to hazard that dharma simply exists and choice implies doing something. I can choose to do, or not do, that which helps me fulfill my Dharma but I can't choose Dharma.

I still don't know if even that's right, but that where my thought process has taken me to after a year and a half of reading, thinking, and talking about it with others. It's been a slow and steady progress towards understanding on something deeper then an intellectual and philosophical level and I'm still only getting occasional glimpses of the complete picture.

To me this diversity of thought is something that is to be celebrated and be in awe of. I find it amazing that the human race, with its one basic pattern, has developed such a diversity of means to express concepts and beliefs. But if we look back at the scenario put forward by Douglas Adams we can also see how this beauty can become dangerous if we allow ourselves to be wilfully ignorant of the rest of our planet's inhabitants.

Instead of having the decency to be grateful for the abundance we have been given, some of us, too many in fact for anybody's safety, believe that they represent the only right way of thinking and being. Not only do these people not make any attempt to see what beauty the person next to them has to offer, they work hard to extinguish it and replace it with there own beliefs.

You want to guarantee that someone is going to resent and hate you for generations to come? Simple, try and steal their language, culture, and belief system away from them and jam yours down their throats. One of the few occasions that I know of that this didn't happen was in Canada. No not with the native people who lived here when the Europeans showed up, but between the English and the French.

In the mid 1700's when the British finally defeated the French at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham outside of Quebec City they knew they would need to keep them as allies in the years to come. So they guaranteed them the right to speak their language, practice their religion, and control the education of their children.

Of course they more then compensated for that one moment of compassion with their actions throughout the remainder of their empire as they blithely banned the languages and beliefs of any and everybody else whose country they expanded into. The residue of that resentment is what feeds a good chunk of the terrorist actions around the world.

Haven't you ever wondered why the men who are the authority figures of these organizations speak like they have gone to Oxford or Cambridge University? It's because they either have, or have been taught English since they started schooling. India is not one of the largest English speaking countries in the world because they chose to be.

After so many years of getting away with our hubris of believing we could act like we want and treat people with disrespect and disdain things have started to come back and bite us in the ass. We shouldn't be so surprised, there is only so long that people can take being stepped on before thy chew the boot.

The only way we can even begin to stem the tide is to change the way we treat others and begin to make the effort to understand our differences and celebrate them. It doesn't mean your going to have to become a devotee of Dharma but it does mean stopping believing yours is the only way. Of course it's a two way street and both sides have to prove to each other that they are willing to take the leap of faith required for this to work.

Nobody says this is going to be easy, it is far easier to try and kill someone than to get to know them. Maybe it's time we started, we need the practice.

September 16, 2006

Wishing I Was Wrong

I spend a lot of time hoping I'm going to be wrong. Does that sound like a strange thing to say? Let me explain, I tend to think the worst of most people, but especially those who are our leaders. Be they political, religious or whatever I'm usually of the opinion that those who want to be leaders are the worst people for the job because they want it.

Most people who strive to be leaders of anything from a country to a clubhouse do so with the intent of imposing their will on who ever is subject to their leadership. How many leaders of anything do you know that have genuinely striven to reach a universal consensus of some sort among those who they lead? I don't care what the politics of the person are, whether I agree with them or not isn't even relevant, they don't give a rat's ass for those who have a different opinion.

Leadership these days is all about divisiveness and the obtaining of power, not about building a unified country or whatever. You can tell there is something wrong with the system when one of the most important polls for a politician is his disapproval rating. As long as I only alienate this many people I can still cling to power and impose my will on whomever I'm ruling. Now that's leadership.

I'm not naïve enough to believe that anybody is going to be able to have a 100% approval rating, there is always going to be extremist elements of a society who aren't going to be satisfied with anyone or anything. But shouldn't the object of a leader be to try and find common ground with as many people as possible while guiding his or her organization, country, or religion to achieve its goals.

That's right I said its goals not his or her goals. Most countries already have a series of goals laid out for them to try and achieve on a daily basis – it's a thing called a constitution. In Ontario Canada where I live when you incorporate a company as a not for profit organization you write out a constitution which contains the objects of the company and how you plan to go about achieving them. So if one of your objects is the eradication of child poverty you have to say how you're going to go about getting that done.

If you are going to be the leader of a country, your focus should be on how are you going to fulfill the objects of your country's constitution, not how you are going to impose your will upon the country. If your constitution says "All men are created equal", or guarantees freedom of speech, and the right to assemble shouldn't you be trying to convince people that you have the best plans to ensure those objects are fulfilled?

But what we mostly get for potential leaders are those who want to impose their will upon a country, or even worse leave their mark on history. Leadership is all about ego and the expression of personal power no matter if the person is on the left or the right. In fact far too many leaders tend to look on their constitutions as things they have to circumvent in order to do what they want to do, or that it should be changed to reflect their view of the world.

Secular leaders are bad enough, but when it comes down to it the worst ones for abusing their positions are religious leaders. Then again religion lends itself to having such a multiplicity of interpretations even among just one faith, it should be no surprise that each faction would have a leader trying to impose their vision of the faith on the flock.

Even within the individual sects (or denominations as Christians say when referring to themselves) there are divisions. Not all Catholics believe in the same ways of realizing the objects of their faith any more than all Suni Muslims agree with how Mohammad should be worshipped. Other religions, like Judaism with its reform, conservative, and orthodox divisions, have degrees of belief that signify the intensity of their adherence to the laws of the faith.

While Muslims may have individuals who speak for, or claim to speak for, an area's population of adherents, and there is a Chief Rabbi in Israel, and Tibetan Buddhists have the Dali Lama (I'm not familiar enough with other faiths to speak about their hierarchies) only the Catholics that I know of have a process akin to an election for their leader. Not that we're talking about broad based participatory democracy here, as the only folk voting are the Cardinals, who were all appointed by a pontiff in the first place.

Here too they are divided into the usual political factions, ranging from the very liberal to the very conservative. The person who is elected pope gets to set the tone for the church's response to issues, and dictate to Catholics and non-Catholics alike whether or not they are being good. While the adherents of that faith may have ceded him that power through their acceptance of the system that elected him, the rest of us are none of his business.

When Pope Benedict (literally translated from Latin as good word or good speech) was first elected slightly over a year ago I had the feeling he was going to be one of those who had to pass judgement on matters that are none of his business. Of course his argument is that everything is his business as he is the representative of Jesus Christ on earth it's his duty to see that we're all adhering to the laws of Christ as interpreted by Benedict.

Instead of simply being content to minister to the souls of the millions of Catholics around the world, which ought to be more then enough power for any one person, he wants to flex his muscles so that he is considered one of the major movers and shakers in the world. He already has the press eating out of his hand, in so far as they will record verbatim any comment he makes, giving him access to the world stage.

He's had the gall to tell Canadians that they are turning their backs on God because we believe in freedom of choice and equal rights for all people. Not being a Christian I always make the mistake of thinking that Christ was about compassion and understanding, but according to the gospel of Benedict there is either his (Benedict's) way, or a path to Hell.

If it's not bad enough that he deems himself fit to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries he also seems to think he has the right to make speeches where he quotes dialogue critical of the Muslim faith without saying whether he believes it or not. Not only is it offensive for the leader of one religion to be critical of another, taking shots at Muslims like that shows an amazing insensitivity to the world around him.

Preaching a sermon which contains "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman…" is about as stupid as throwing kerosene on a fire in an attempt to quench the flames. What could he have hopped to accomplish by saying that without any explanation as to his motivations. Vatican officials are saying that it was his attempt to open a dialogue between the faiths, but the majority of Muslims, from the most moderate to the extremist, are understandably taking it as an insult. Maybe he's looking to be martyred by a suicide bomber so he can have a fast track to saint hood,

Is he so proud that his thinks because of the position he serves that he is allowed to point out to other faiths the error of their ways? The second part of that quote says: "such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The head of the Catholic Church has a hell of a lot of nerve criticizing anyone for using force to spread the word of God in the name of their faith. They have to have one of the worst records in history for doing the exact same thing.

In fact up to slightly more then a hundred years ago, the Muslim empires were far more tolerant of diversity among their populations then their Christian counterparts. They may have charged Jews and Christians an extra tax for practicing their religion, but they never tortured them into converting, or forced them to flee for their lives.

What good is Benedict doing the world he so devoutly claims to serve by spewing forth hatred and hypocrisy? The only thing being served is his pride and his ego. It's like he is saying, I'm the pope, I can say what I want whenever I want and you have to believe me because I'm the only one who knows the difference between right and wrong.

I really wish that the people who become our leaders weren't so damn predictable. Instead of trying to fulfill the objectives of their country as set forth in their constitution, and working with others to do so, they impose their will and push their personal agenda no matter the relevance to the country's objectives. They became leaders so they could be powerful, and they are going to be powerful whatever the consequences.

I'd really like to be wrong more often.


September 8, 2006

Awe And Reason Don't Mix

The moon is full tonight, or early this morning, as I'm writing. I've been taking peaks at her out the window since she starting coming up over the horizon. At first she was hiding out in the branches of a trio of huge cotton woods we have in the neighbourhood, but now she's broken free of their clutches and is sitting pretty in the sky.

Looking at her, and thinking of all that has been associated with her throughout the ages by imagination, superstition, fear and religious belief I can't help thinking of how much magic has gone out of the world. Even in the relatively few years that have marked my stay on the planet to date its been slipping away from us like water through our fingers.

Reason and Science have been pecking away at the aura of mystery in the world surrounding us since we first learnt how to drive back the night with fire. There's no question that some of it has been for the best, sloughing off superstitious beliefs that used to result in the destruction of life. We will no longer hunt an animal to the verge of extinction on the theory that in doing so we are ridding the world of evil – wolves and their relationships blood sucking fiends – or burn women because they are witches.

But the down side of those positives is the residue of scepticism that now infuses all of our thoughts, opinions and reactions when it comes to things outside of our frame of reference. We are always going to look for or, say there is a logical, rational explanation for whatever it was that just happened even if we don't have to hand in it.
full-moon-oak
I belong to a Yahoo group where we discuss Ashok Banker's adaptation of the The Ramayana and ideas and information pertinent to Indian culture and history. I had brought the topic of Ganesha, the elephant headed god, up and another member of the group wrote in to relate an incident that happened in her family's village.

Her family have a temple in the village and one day the priest who works there was walking across the floor when he tripped over something. He looked down and there was a statue of Ganesha sticking out of the ground. He attempted to lift the statue, and even after excavating some of the earth around it, he couldn't budge it.

It came to them that it was necessary for the whole family to be gathered in the temple so that this statue could be released from the hold that the earth had on it. The family gathered from all over India and there were close to a hundred people if not more in this small temple. The priest again tried to lift the statue of Ganesha out from the hole and he rose easily to be place in the alcove prepared for him in the temple wall. One of the family members decided to have the statue dated and it was discovered to be over a thousand years old

Now I may not have got all the details of the story right, but you get the picture. I thought it was a beautiful little story about faith and community. But when I thought about it, I realized a lot of people would look for logical explanations. The priest came back and dug out more of the hole so that the statue would lift out easily. There's no way a statue could just have mysteriously appeared sticking up out of the ground, someone either planted it or there was an earthquake and it got pushed to the surface

Sure those are all possibilities but why can't people just sit back and enjoy a story like that without having to try and analyse it? Why do we have to have logical explanations for everything that happens? You do that and you suck the wonder and magic out of the world.

When there is no wonder and magic left, there is nothing left to feel awe about. Without awe how can you enjoy the beauty that is inherently part of life? The answer is you can't. How many people can honestly say they've had a moment of pure aw, akin almost to worship, in recent years? Whether a moment in nature like watching the full moon dancing in the sky, a piece of music that moves you to tears, or a work of art that leaves you breathless?

Man has always tried to come up with ways of explaining what they didn't understand. Whether it was the Native populations recognising the characteristics of individual animals and creating stories to explain how the beaver got it's flat tail, or at the other end of the spectrum Einstein exploring the theory behind relativity in an attempt to make head or tail of the universe.

I remember the first time I saw the northern lights, and the wonder as I saw the light pulsing in the sky over the stars. It was almost frightening in its sheer beauty and unfamiliarity. I could believe that magic existed in the world after seeing them. Even now, after hearing the different theories about what makes them and pretty much understand it, I still think of them as magical.

Humans have a history of being scared of things they don't understand, and perhaps that explains why we have gone to great lengths to eliminate the mystery and wonder from our lives. Give us a nice safe reason for those bright splashes of colour in the sky and we can all go bed at night feeling somewhat safe.

It would be nice if we could also go to bed feeling a little awe as well.

August 28, 2006

Book Review: Christopher Brookmyre: A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil

"Aw'right?"
"Aw'right"
"You ken that bloke over by yon hen?"
"Wa? Yin? Thon wee yin, that's im? Shite yin don't keek like much.
"Oh ay but tis im aw'right.
"Yin's ta wan thon write yon books?
"Oh ay. Keek yin stauning there as if shite never came out his erse"
"'ere, you think thems real?"
"What's real you eejit?"
"Thae diddies on yon lassie? Thon staud a wee straight oot daun you think?
"I think yous a wee sick body s'what I think. Why not guan and ask?"
"Ay and wouldn't thon go down a treat. Might as well try and cadge a haundfull. Either way she'd lamp me one in the gub: "Oi, pardon me a mo miss, could I clap your diddies, me mate and I were wanting to know if yins were real?" She'd no just lamp me in the gob, thon would be a boot in the chennies thon would"
"True n'euff. You reckon 'im's getting some of yon? 'Im being famous and all I'd recokon he was?
"Oh ay, humps a new yin every t'other night I'd wager"
"So?"
"What?"
"Ya reckon you'll buy yin?"
"Wot, yon hen?"
"Eejit, yon book, yon book"
"Ay I ken thon, just pulling yer leg"
"Aw'right"
"Aw'right"

Welcome to Christopher Brookmyre land where every other word of dialogue is either in some foreign dialect from the quaint city by the North Sea Glasgow, or what's affectionately known as profanity. My pale imitation and woeful attempt to recreate the sound of working class urban Scotland would have me lathered after two seconds in the playgrounds of the primary students who people the pages of A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil.

Nearly twenty years after the students, who attended St. Elizabeth's primary school and St. Grace's upper level have moved on to other things, one of their number is dead with a bullet in his skull and found next to the corpse of another class mate's father. Two other classmates, one the son of elder corpse, perpetual petty crooks and losers both, have been taken in to custody on suspicion of murder and or conspiracy to obstruct justice.

That one of them lies close to death in a hospital bed from multiple stab wounds either deepens the mystery or cements their guilt according to Detective Inspector Karen Gillespie as she starts putting the pieces together that brought three of her former class mates to this end. Judging by their past records neither of her accused have the "form" (police record) for this type of thing, having been in and out of trouble for a series of petty crimes since the days they were all wee lads and lassies together in primary school.

When the conscious one of the pair stretches his hand out to the past to request help from Martin Jackson, another old school mate, the past and the present end up on a collision course as the murder case weaves a trail that leads back to their days in primary school together. What secrets were hidden under the surface in those days that made any of them who and what they were today? Had they always been capable of murder, or were they innocent as they both claimed?

This isn't the first time that Brookmyre has used forays into school days as a means of character self-analysis. One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night is set at a high school reunion. In that instance the central characters reflected back on who they were, what they'd become, and regretting not what could have been, but the fact they were denied the opportunity to ever have a could have been.

Denied the opportunity to ever even having what if is Brookmyre's biggest condemnation of Scottish society, Scottish Catholic society in particular, but the whole mess in general. Specifically he takes to task the ways in which children are intimidated and bullied first by their authority figures like teachers, and headmasters, and than by their schoolmates whose job becomes the enforcement of conformity.

It doesn't matter what they conform to as long as they learn how to conform, have their individuality stamped out by the demands of being accepted and not becoming one of them on the outside looking in. For the weans who go to St. Elizabeth Primary and St Grace's Upper school, that means everything from having the right clothes, keeping abreast of the right slang, and obeying any one of the mysterious arcane rules of what is and isn't done and who you can and can not talk to.

So twenty later Noodsy is still the guilty one even when he's not had a hand in it, and nobody's going to believe otherwise because that's the way it's been since Primary One. On the first day of school he was blamed for something he didn't do and now he's sitting in a jail cell for a murder he's not committed with nobody he trusts but Martin who he hasn't seen in twenty years.

Martin and Karen are still the smart ones, the good yins as their head master from the old days would have said. They ever only had borderline conformity status because they had been too smart and had the misfortune of being singled out from day one by either teachers or misfortune. The last thing you want to do is stand out from the crowd for something that the crowd don't approve of – otherwise you're mince and everybody knows it and won't have anything to do with you again.

As Karen and Martin work their way through the stories that have led up to the double murder involving three of their former class mates, they begin to unravel more strands and find out explanations for the reasons behind the way people were in school. In recent years Martin has gained a certain level of notoriety as an "entertainment lawyer" and has been seen with starlets half his age and intellect on his arm on many occasions. He's showing them all, he is, those half-wits who treated him like he wasn't good enough to piss on if his liver was on fire.

But at what cost? Too many people have said to him that he used to be the nice one, one of the good guys, implying that it was no longer so. Or as one old friend put it succinctly when did the guy I know turn into such a prick? The truth is a nasty thing to be staring face to face in the wee hours of the morning, because it doesn't give you many options. Martin is still at heart one of the good yins, and he uses the opportunity offered by his old mate's plea for help to go back and correct some wrongs and find the good yin he used to be.

Brookmyre has attempted something extremely difficult with A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil by writing a story told from a variety of child's points of view as well as some of the adult versions of the same people. Believability would be an issue for a good many authors attempting what he has done with his re-creation of school life from the early primary grades through to the finishing of school and heading off into the wide world, but somehow he's managed it without once striking a wrong note.

From the failed hard case, to the ones who just want to be left alone to get on with it; from the observations on how the game is played and character's justifications for playing it and discarding friends who no longer suit their needs. He shows us where all the seeds were planted and how they were germinated and nurtured to form the adults who figure in the contemporary parts of the book.

This isn't a book of memories, but a book that takes place during various points in the character's lives. Nobody is looking back on fond memories of idyllic youth or even the opposite. They are just living their lives as they are now and they were then. As the author Brookmyre's task is to be our tour guide, showing us the highlights and steering us gently in the direction he wants us to travel.

The slang and vernacular which seem funny and causes us laughter (especially to a North American ear: he includes a glossary which is in of itself hysterical) only serves to underline the divisions and antagonism that exists between the classes and how individuals are marked by the way they speak by authorities the second they open their mouths. Brookmyre's Scotland isn't the pleasant pastoral retreat of lochs and heather the tourist brochures sell to tourists and the lives of his characters are a mirror in which we see that reflected.

The moments of comic relief that happen during their childhood, and the very few means of rebellion at their disposal that are exploited, are all the funnier for their contrast to the normal individual and spirit-crushing atmosphere of their school days. Brookmyre does a great job of interweaving into the mystery and character study that he has created his scorn for systems everywhere that punish those who are a wee bit different without once detracting the story.

Long-term fans of his irreverent style may find themselves slightly wrong footed by his newfound introspection, but it has elevated his work to a new level that speaks volumes for his ability as a writer and storyteller. A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil is another step forward in Brookmyre's evolution as a novelist. This has to be his most complete work of fiction to date.

It's a right gallus tale, and in places will fair deck ye, but people are going to start thinking of him as a brainbox and one of the good yins if he's not wary, thon where will 'e be?



August 19, 2006

Canadian Politics: Why An AIDS Conference?

Last Sunday, August 13th/06, 24,000 people descended upon Toronto, Ontario Canada from 130 countries worldwide. To gather that many people from that many places and from so many different strata's of the population usually requires something pretty important. This was no exception: the 16th International AIDS Conference was being held there until Friday the 18th of August.

These conferences are convened every other year by the International AIDS Society, an independent organization of HIV professionals with 7,000 members from countries all over the world. Aside from thousands of men and women who work with and suffer from the disease figures from politics, business and the entertainment worlds were on hand to give speeches and lend their support. Governor General Michaelle Jean of Canada (a Haitian by nationality, one of the countries hardest hit by the virus), U .N. special envoy for AIDS Steven Lewis, former Microsoft C. E. O. Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, former United States President Bill Clinton, and actors Richard Gere, Sandra Oh, and Olympia Dukasis.

Notably absent from the proceedings was anybody from the host country's Conservative Party of Canada's government. In a lot of cases the host's country's leader will make an appearance, at least to make it look like he or she cares, but Steven Harper couldn't even be bothered with sending a representative of his government. In fact his Minister of Health, Tony Clement, went out of his way to discredit the conference by referring to participants as activists and "so-called experts" who have skewed dialogue towards grandstanding political demands.

I wonder if Mr. Clement and his fellow Conservative Party members even noticed what the title of the conference's theme was this year; Time To Deliver. The whole purpose was to offer opinions on how well governments and non-governmental agencies were following through on promises and what if any progress was being made in the fight against the disease worldwide.

Politicians of all stripes, left, right, and moderate, have equally abysmal records when it comes to fighting the disease either in their home country or abroad. Whether it's because of political reasons like owing the pharmaceutical companies for their support in an election or so-called moral issues where talking about sex belongs in the home not in public for the right, or being too damn wishy-washy to do anything at all for the liberals, it hasn't mattered. Millions of people were allowed to, and are still being allowed to, die needlessly.

Before I get too hot under the collar. I should warn you now, if you haven't guessed already, I'm one of those Mr. Clement would accuse of skewing the dialogue towards political grandstanding. If by calling for governments to get off their fat asses and put their money on the table or be honest enough to say they don't care if people die or not is political grandstanding than I'm guilty as charged and proud of it.

The world has known about AIDS since the late 1970's and clued in to the fact that anybody could get it, not just a few blacks and gay men in the mid 1980's, but look at the statistics. Nearly 40 Million people are currently infected with the AIDS virus and 25 Million have died from it already. All this while the majority of politicians fund studies on how to best spend money on the disease or give money to research that will discover drugs that most patients won't be able to afford for twenty-five years when a generic drug comes on the market.

The thing is that no matter where a government claims it stands on fiscal responsibility, in all reality it is far easier to throw money at something than to actually commit to doing anything. But that's what makes a disease different from most other problems a government faces; people can't forget about it if it disappears for a few days from the front pages, because somebody is always going to be catching it and dying from it.

Throwing money at it in the hopes that will distract people will only work for so long before you actually have to do something practical. For AIDS, just like any other disease there are three avenues open for action: prevention, treatment, and cure. Not that difficult to figure out is it, but the real problem comes in the implementation, especially for number one on the list, prevention.

Everybody, repeat after me: "How is AIDS transmitted? Through the exchange of bodily fluids". Of course there are many different ways that humans can exchange bodily fluids but two of the more common ones are sex and the sharing of needles. Actually it's a little more complicated than just an exchange of bodily fluids, because the fluids have to enter into your blood stream. It can be the smallest of abrasions or scratches, but if those fluids don't meet up with a blood cell somewhere they won't be transmitting any disease.

As a quick addendum; in recent years we have started to see the horror of children being born HIV positive because their parent was infected during their pregnancy. But this is still an example of a means for bodily fluids to be exchanged as the foetus is nurtured inside the mother's womb via the body. I don't know if it's been figured out at what point the foetus becomes infected with the virus in terms of development and length of time in the womb, or if the egg itself is infected.

Would an in-vitro pregnancy (one where a fertile egg from another source is "planted" in the womb) become infected if the host parent were HIV positive? I would assume yes, because of the nature of how the foetus is fed, but I don't know.

In any event prevention in areas where human intervention can occur, is the big hot topic issue facing the world right now. One argument takes the view that since pre-marital sex is wrong and shouldn't occur and that birth control is a sin, the only way to prevent the transmission of the disease is through complete abstinence until you find the person you plan on spending the rest of your life and procreating with. While that's all well and good for those who believe that, and more power to them because we should respect everyone's belief systems, the problem is that these people seem insistent on making others follow their own rigid code of behaviour.

But since the vast majority of the world doesn't live that way it's highly unrealistic to demand that they do, and in fact to do so is the equivalent of saying we don't care about anyone who doesn't believe in what we believe. It wouldn't be so bad if it were only a few individuals who were like this, who didn't have any real power, but unfortunately it happens to be two of the wealthiest and most powerful forces on the face of the earth that are against advocating the use of condoms as a means of preventing the spread of AIDS.

Neither the current United States administration or the Catholic Church allow a cent of money to be given to any organization that admits people might actually be having sex outside of marriage. Okay that's not really fair I know their argument is that they believe having condoms available will increase the likelihood of both pre and extra-marital sex.

The Catholic Church even goes one better by saying that the only reason for you to have sex is to procreate so why would you need condoms anyway. Sex isn't for fun, or an expression of love towards another person, or just because you happen to be horny, it's part of your obligation to God to go forth and multiply.

There's no point in even trying to talk same–sex relationships with these folk, because the obvious procreation element is missing from the equation. Probably gays can go ahead and use condoms because their souls are going straight to hell anyway, so in for a nickel…

The same, if it's not available people won't do it logic, is applied by the majority of these same parties to the issues of needle exchanges and safe injection sites for intravenous (I. V.) drug users. These folk are probably the lowest on the sympathy totem pole for the public at large. "Gays can't help themselves, they're perverts, but these guys choose to become junkies – to hell with them". Now I admit I'm not the biggest fan of junkies myself, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve my compassion.

Safe injection sites will keep them off the streets, will cut down on the number of dirty needles left laying around for people, especially kids, to be hurt with, and give users access to help to get clean. Most addicts are addicts because they figure nobody cares about them, perhaps it’s a long shot, but if they're shown some compassion they may start to take an interest in surviving and kicking the habit.

I don't think knowing there is a ready supply of clean needles is going to convince someone that heroin is all of a sudden their drug of choice. True it is aiding and abetting an illegal activity, but I bet if you ask a street cop if he or she would prefer junkies off the streets in a place where they aren't causing a problem, or shooting up in a park and leaving their used needles laying around they would go with the former.

Aside from prevention the next big issue that needs addressing is treatment. There are two parts to this problem; the task of taking care of the patient and the availability of the drugs needed to treat the disease.

For most of us in North America or the rest of the "developed" world, patient care might seem sort of obvious so we take it for granted. But for the countries hardest hit, like Uganda, and other African nations, poverty and lack of education are two of the biggest stumbling blocks preventing individuals from getting proper home care, and can actually contribute to the spread of the disease.

What is needed, and what is being attempted by such organizations like the Steven Lewis Foundation is the setting up and funding of local neighbourhood facilities that provide basic materials like sterile disposable gloves and cleaning materials for tending to patients in the home and instruction on how to go about tending to the specific requirements of an AIDS patient. These types of front line programs aren't very sexy but they are what's most needed in the small rural communities of Africa that might not even have running water.

The next step in the equation of home care is ensuring a consistent supply of medication. There is no point in giving people only enough drugs for a while, they are going to need it for the rest of their lives or until a cure is discovered. This means governments the world over need to apply pressure to pharmaceutical companies to surrender their patents on AIDS medications or cut their prices down to level of the generic companies.

Finally public funded research needs to be ongoing until a cure is found, and a means of ensuring that everyone who is infected with the disease is given access to that cure. It can't be a patented medicine someone will make a fortune from that poorer countries can't afford. It has to be readily available to all who need it; otherwise the disease will continue to spread.

As we have learned from other viruses the longer a disease is given to spread, the more likely it is to mutate into new and more virulent forms. If that were to happen with the AIDS virus we would be right back where we started from thirty years ago when the first cases were being reported.

Are conferences like the International AIDS Conference of any use? Are they just opportunities for people to "political grandstand" as Mr. Clement put it? The answer to both questions is yes. They are of use because they are opportunities to political grandstand.

Due to the attitudes of people like Mr. Clement and others who seem to think that imposing their beliefs, or financial and political considerations are more important than the health of 40 million people infected with a virus, grandstanding may be the only way to save lives and prevent the spread of the infection. At least they care enough to not stand on the sidelines and watch like the Canadian government did this past week.

Have you noticed when governments disagree with what a non-government organization says or does, they use words akin to what Mr. Clement used in an attempt to diminish their credibility. I'm not sure which people he was referring to as "so-called" experts: the Governor General of Canada, The U. N. special envoy for AIDS, thousands of health care workers, or the people suffering from AIDS?

The Canadian government had a wonderful opportunity to unveil their new policy in regards to AIDS during this past week at this conference. Instead they chose not to send a representative at all, had the Minister Of Health publicly criticize the participants and the conference findings, and will announce their plans for AIDS funding next week.

I would say be afraid very afraid but it's too sad to be funny anymore. What will it take for these people to notice that millions of people have died and millions more are infected and could die? What will it take for them to be compassionate?

August 14, 2006

Cultural Imperialism: The Path To Extinction

My guess is that every time there has been a major world power they think of themselves as the epitome of what humans can strive to be. From the times of the Pharaohs through the Hellenistic era on up past the Romans and the Ottoman empires, the Austro-Hungarian, The British and now finally the American empire; they have all shared the same chauvinistic belief that they are the definition of civilization.

In the past for an empire to be effective they would have to physically expand, seizing territory from other nations to give them the benefits of their superior ways. Unsurprisingly the original inhabitants of the country would take umbrage and tended to discover that the way of living they had practised for generations prior to the newcomers showing up was pretty good.

Although there were many mitigating factors that affected the result, there was usually only two ways this type of conflict of interest could be resolved. Either the newcomers would be forced to give up their role as rulers of the land, or they would completely overwhelm the original inhabitants and reduce them to a shell of their former selves. While continental Asia and Europe fell into the former category, most of North, Central, and South America are the latter.

As the world has changed and technological advances closed the distances between countries until they have become virtually non-existent, it is seldom necessary for a country to actually use physical force to impose itself on another. Armies only come into play when physical assets like natural resources are part of the motivation to dominate.

While all civilizations have had the tendency to try and increase their power bases locally, the rationale for a great many expansions has been based on a need for survival. They have better hunting territory which we need access to for feeding our people, or their land is better for growing crops were the types of reasons that would see Native tribes in North America attempt to appropriate another's land.

Conquest for the sake of conquest in order to impose your worldview on other people seems to be reserved to those cultures whose focus has gone beyond basic survival. The need for expansion is therefore one based in pride and chauvinism. It seems impossible for them to understand that anybody could be happy living in a manner they consider primitive, or that the other culture could have anything of value to offer.

When a culture no longer has as its only focus survival, the belief systems that sustained them through that period will become out of synch with the needs of those who no longer depend on a direct relationship with the planet. A new type of system is needed that replicates the new social order of those with more power than others.

Monotheistic religions with their systems of punishments and rewards for good and bad behaviour and codes of conduct to control people are ideally suited to a society where a small number of people control most of the wealth and must ensure the obedience of countless others. Whether this is how the big three of Judaism, Christianity and Islam came about, or that they simply flourished because of that fact is now irrelevant

Especially in the case of the latter two, they have been the focal point and motivation for much of the empire building from around 900AD until today. From the Ottoman empire to the Crusades of antiquity they have each tried to dictate how others live or find new countries where they can establish themselves as the predominate belief system.

In North America we have had around four hundred years of this type of rule, more then long enough to develop the chauvinism required to believe that our way of life is not only the best, but to even consider another way preferable means you are potentially an enemy. But that type of cultural paranoia is not limited to the West. When you isolate any species from the rest of the world or outside influences for too long they tend to become insular and fearful of change.

They cling to their outmoded ways of thinking and attempt to force the world to accede to their wishes even if that threatens the well being of others. One need only look at the linkage between foreign aid and anti-family planning that the current administration in the Untied States has implemented for an example of that. Or check out the Iranian government's attitude towards the same issues and you'll see the same thing if not worse.

In fact the United States and Iran have a great deal in common with each other when it comes to foreign and domestic policy. Both governments are very afraid of anything they don't understand, insist upon turning back the clock to a time when women had less control over their bodies, have blurred the line separating church and state, and have elements who believe that they should be imposing their way of life upon the rest of the world.

Each country either fosters or has fostered insurrections in other parts of the world in order to counter countries they consider too different from what they think of as the right way of being. Neither thinks anything of proceeding unilaterally on issues of international consequence even when a large proportion of the world is lined up against them, and they both believe that they have been chosen to do God's work on this planet.

Aside from the obvious worry about what seems like an inevitable clash between these two polar opposites there are other things to regret about living in a world where societies are still dominated by cultural prejudices. There are of course those who suffer from the fall out of either country's influence when it comes to foreign aid.

In Africa where AIDS steals so many lives, health care services and preventative measures are hindered by both nations' refusal to accept that people are going to be sexually active and that steps are needed to ensure their safety. With aid money from America restricted to agencies that will only preach abstinence, and fundamentalist Muslims preaching that women have no rights and sex is not something to be talked about, a difficult task becomes next to impossible.

Than there are the battlefields around the globe where they both have interests in the outcomes. Somalia where a Muslim militia is trying to overthrow some sort of secular government; The Sudan where similar circumstances are underway, and immense oil reserves are also at state; and of course the Middle East. If the United States is funnelling money into Israel, somebody has to be providing Hezbolah with the wherewithal to be unleashing the firepower it has at its disposal. Caught in between, in all three parts of the world, are thousands upon thousands of innocents who just want to have lives like the rest of us; to believe what we want and live out our days in peace.

Aside from those obvious results of single-minded culture at work there are other less fatal, but equally regretful consequences. I can't speak for life under Muslim rule, but I can speak from my own experiences. I look around and see what people are missing by believing they are the centre of the universe.

Can they appreciate the subtlety of design in the Moorish architecture in Spain, the beauty in the drape of a Sari, or the simple awe that's inspired by a Shinto temple? Or does all that matter to them is what's on television? Our empire building has not created a cultural imperialism that destroys other people's modes of expression, it simply doesn't recognise its existence or cede it enough importance to make it worth bothering with.

I live across the street from a family that has rented out four apartments together in an apartment building. Almost everyday they sit out on the fire escape, drink beer and yell at each other starting at around four in the afternoon and sometimes going as late as after midnight. On occasion they've ended up having fights on their front lawn or screaming abuse at each other at the top of their lungs.

Our society has created the circumstances where these people think they are better than someone who lives in Pakistan because of the colour of their skin and because they aren't one of us. I'm sure they are not exceptional and there are millions of people the world over who think like that, no matter where they live or what they believe in.

Until as a species we can shake off the chains of cultural imperialism that we have tied our self up in we will not evolve. The species that doesn't evolve risks extinction.

July 29, 2006

The End Of Mom, Dad, Dick, and Jane

I grew up in a simpler time, not necessarily a better time, but a simpler time. In retrospect that simplicity is easy to see as ignorance and denial, but at the time it was the way things were. The three pillars of North American society were family, God, and country. All the way through primary school that ideology was everywhere, from the Lord's Prayer and the National Anthem in the morning to your reading primer that featured Dad going to work and Mom staying home to care for the kids, clean and cook.

The two kids, one boy and one girl played with their dog, played baseball, and they learned important life lessons like looking both ways before crossing the street. When we weren't in school television would perpetuate the examples of family, God, and patriotism for all to see.

Growing up and seeing and reading this around you all the time built expectations of how things were supposed to be. Dad is stern, but loves you, Mom takes care of you and makes you feel better when things go wrong, and God will be looking out for you over their shoulders. Anyway you live in the best country in the world so nothing can ever go wrong.

But what happens if just one of those three pillars that are the holy trinity of society should melt down for any reason? What happens when the expectations aren't met and things turn out differently than they were supposed to?

A few years back I was working on a novel that ran out of steam and is waiting patiently for me to get around to picking it up again. Like myself one of the characters was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse that occurred during those simple times of black and white. I used her to try and articulate the reactions a person might have to expectations not being met.

Everything was gone. All that conditioning and indoctrination shattered. No matter that it was outmoded and strange, it was still the framework that her life had been built around. It all began with nothing and then was created and evolved up to where it stands in present day, modern civilized times. But it was all a lie. That left a whole lot of nothing. (Richard Marcus, The Trees Were Singing 2003)

"It was all a lie. That left a whole lot of nothing." What can you believe in when a parent betrays your trust? The people who are the ones supposedly protecting you from the dangers of the world and ensuring you grow up in safety end up having been the ones who hurt you.

You're going to believe that there is something wrong with you. The reason they hurt you is that you don't do enough to make them happy. You try harder and harder to make them appreciate you or at least leave you alone. But nothing you do makes it better and you're left feeling worthless.

On top of that is the guilt for not loving them because of the way they treat you. You know that makes you a bad person because everybody is supposed to love their parents. It doesn't matter if they give you no reason to love them or not, because everybody but you love their parents.

Of course you don't stop to ask yourself why is it you have to love your parents. That’s just what you are supposed to do. But on the other hand would you love someone else who treated you like that? If it was somebody outside your family unit who ignored you and only had time for you when it suited them what would you do?

If another person molested you would you be in a quandary as to how you should be acting? But when it is your parent you feel an obligation towards maintaining the myth. Even thought there is nothing in Dick and Jane about daddy coping a feel that's the standard you have to live by and if you can't there is something wrong with you.

So what are you supposed to do if its years later and your parent still treats you like dirt, or your memories of the childhood abuse return and the abusive parent is still alive. There's really no right or easy answer to that question. But the most important thing is to rid yourself of the feeling that they are more important than you are.

You must take them off the pedestal that society puts the parent on and see them as just another human being. Then you have to decide upon whether you want that human being as part of your life, and how big a part, if any, you are going to want them to play in your life.

They surrendered the right to call you child when they first mistreated you. The old rules about roles no longer exist and you are under no obligation to love or have any feelings for them other than those that their behaviour evokes in you.

Once upon a time there were happy families dotted through out the land and the boys were all princes and the girls princesses. But that was as much an illusion as the fairy tales you were read as a children. Fathers are not Kings and Mothers are not Queens, they are just human beings who have no more right to mistreat someone then anyone else.

July 27, 2006

Oak Trees: Link To The Past

I have a couple of tattoos that circumvent my forearms. On each arm are two stylized dragonheads accompanied by leafs of a specific tree; the left arm has Holly leaves while the right acorns and a solitary Oak leaf. In the old beliefs of the British Isles, long before the Romans came, it is thought that the year was divided up amongst the reigns of two kings: The Oak King and The Holly King.

One king represented the period of growth and fertility and the other the period when the land was cold and sterile. Symbolically they can be interpreted, in probably a million ways, but I like to think of them as representing the two halves of the creative process: a period of dormancy for introspection and a period of fertile creativity.

While the Holy tree has been retained in our modern celebration of Christmas as a nod to the pagan past, the Oak was not granted the same leniency. Since so many of the pre-Christian rituals involved sacred groves of Oak trees, the church had many groves of Oak destroyed in an attempt to eradicate the practices of its predecessor.

While the Oak may not have the ritual significance it once did, its effect on people cannot be denied. Who can truthfully say that they have not been moved by the sight of an Oak standing solitary sentinel in some farmer's field? Why is it that even to this day we are moved by stories of Oak trees, and that some individuals have even grown to have mythic status beyond what would normally be associated with a tree.
0-Robin's Oak
In England, just outside the town of Nottingham lies arguably one of the most famous forests in the English-speaking world, Sherwood. Within Sherwood Forest is a venerable old tree that is referred to as "Robin's Oak", in reference to the forest's most infamous inhabitant.

That both Robin Hood and the tree existed is true enough, but the tree's reputation for being his hideout in the woods unfortunately does not stand up to close examination. Although the tree is currently hollow enough for people to move around inside and even take shelter, it is at most only a thousand years old.

So even if "Robin's Oak" was around at the same time as the outlaw, it would have been a mere hundred year old sapling, living and vibrant. Remember, hollowness is a sign of age and death in a tree, not a convenience for human's to take shelter. If the tree had been dying in the 1100's, it would long ago have turned to mulch on the floor of Sherwood Forest.
Windsor Oak
In the grounds surrounding Windsor Castle, Windsor Park, in the Thames Valley outside of London, stands a solitary Oak tree of equal if not more years than its counterpart in the North. It is known simply as Herne's Oak, although there is nothing simple about Herne The Hunter and the Wild Hunt that he leads across the skies on the eve of the Twelfth Night of midwinter. Herne has the body of a man, the beak, of an owl, the antlers of a stag and the ears of a wolf and he rides on the back of a white horse accompanied by his pack of white skinned, and red eyed Yell Hounds.

Twelfth night used to mark the turning of the year for the peoples of England. Twelve days prior had been Midwinter, marking the return of the Sun after the longest period of darkness in the running of the year, December 21st. On the eve of Twelfth Night The Wild Hunt was said to ride the skies looking for prey, which was anyone foolish enough to be out on that evening. Farmers would make sure that all livestock was safely in on that night or they could awake the next morning and find themselves short a few head of cattle or sheep.

Herne was a force of nature, answerable to no one save himself, and was said to reside in the Oak tree in Windsor park. He would serve as a reminder to the people that nature is impartial to them, their needs and desires, doing what it must when it must. Although the longest night of the year may have passed, the worst of winter could still be yet to come.

I was reminded of Oak trees again today when reading through the morning paper full of war and horror I came across this one article in The Globe and Mail about one an older Oak tree in Canada and what steps were being taken to preserve it.
.Papineau Oak tree
About one hundred kilometres (80 miles) outside of Montreal in Montebello Quebec is the former residence of Louis –Joseph Papineau. Papineau was the leader of an uprising in 1837 in Lower Canada (Quebec) that demanded representational government for the colonies. Upper (Ontario) and Lower Canada were ruled by an appointed Governor General and a few wealthy individuals. Due to their nepotistic nature they were known derisively as The Family Compact.

Papineau's attempt at change was a failure and he and other leaders were forced to flee to the Untied States where they spent ten or so year in exile. When he returned to Quebec in 1845 he set to establishing his home in Montebello and it was while having the lands cleared for it's building he preserved this solitary Oak to give his home a sense of history.

Today, 170 years later, the tree is beginning to suffer from symptoms of old age and is need of assistance. Parks Canada (The supervisors of all national parks and historical sites in Canada) sought out the help of an arborist to try and devise a means of preserving the three hundred plus year old tree.

Today, just like some of its older relatives in Europe the Papineau Oak is on crutches. Three props, one ten meters and two six meters, are now being used to help support the weight of the lower branches. Parks Canada is hopeful that this will be sufficient to ensure that the tree outlives the rest of us.

Near the beginning of this post I wondered what it is about Oak trees that makes them appeal to so many people. While some, like me have specific reasons for being attracted to Oak trees; I think the fact that they are so old gives them a certain romantic appeal. You can stand in Sherwood Forest and say Robin Hood walked by that tree. Or you can visit The Chapel Oak of Allouville-Bellefosse in Normandy, France that is two chapels built inside the hollow core of a nearly 800-year-old tree and think of the pilgrims over the years who have worshiped in the shrine.

In this highly impermanent world that we are living in now, the Oak tree is a sign of strength and endurance in the face of all that the world and nature has to throw against it. Perhaps we look to it as an example to help us carry on in the face of so much strife. Or maybe it's just because they make such nice places to have picnics under, with lots of shade.

Either way Oak trees have endured over the centuries, and continue to fascinate and amaze us. They may not be part of any organized religion, but that doesn't seem to have stopped us from doing them honour.


July 15, 2006

Natural Selection: Still Going Strong

For me there has always been a huge flaw in the arguments condemning Natural Selection, the fact that it works. You can talk all you want about Creationism, or Intelligent Design, but Natural Selection is based on plain and simple observation of nature at work.

So many times the argument you hear from people is that "I'm not descended from some monkey, God made me." which has little or nothing to do with Natural Selection. Even if it turns out that a Creator was involved with the design of the human species millions of years ago, it has nothing to do with whether Natural Selection as a process works or not.

For those of you who missed grade ten biology I'll give you a little summary of how evolution works, okay. The first thing you have to realize is that it's all about genetics and errors in genetic code called mutations. Now don't go confusing mutation with the Marval comic's title The X-Men version of mutants, because in nature a mutation can be something as subtle as a colour change in feathers or fur.

Mutations occur all the time in all species, usually they have little or no impact on that species and the strain dies out because the carrier of that new genetic code doesn't survive, doesn't mate, or its progeny don't make it. But once in a while a genetic variation comes along that is able to do better in the environment it finds itself in than other members of its species.

Whether collecting food or hiding from predators its deviation or mutation gives it a better shot at surviving and when it breeds that gene is passed along to some of its offspring who in turn… well you get the picture. As this happens the members of the species who lack the mutation that either keeps them safer or allows them to eat different foods, start to die out because they can't compete and gradually that gene pool is effectively eliminated as the dominate one; hence the saying Survival of the Fittest.

More or less that was the theory Darwin put forward after his infamous voyage on the HMS Beagle took him to the Galapagos Islands. Darwin's wasn't the only theory of evolution to come out of the 19th century. Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarc proposed that animals would evolve because of their surroundings and that genetic changes would occur as they attempted to adapt to what was around them.

Unfortunately this theory doesn't stand up to close examination; what it implies is that a species notes a more efficient way of surviving and is able to change its genetic code at will. If this were the case don't you think humans would have grown an extra set of hands by now? How many times have you needed that in a multitude of situations.

As anybody who has studied evolution knows Darwin came up with his ideas based upon his observations of the different species of Finch on the Galapagos Islands. As he travelled from island to island he made note of the different styles of beak that individual species had, and how they were particularly suited to the food source available to them. As the concept of evolution wasn't a new thing, ancient Greeks and Indian scholars had written on the subject, he had a body of knowledge upon which he could base his theroms.

It's interesting to note that the big dispute about evolution in the 19th and early 20th century did not revolve around whether it existed or not, but whether it was caused by, as Darwin postualted hereditary means, or as Lemark said, adaptive means. As research into genetics grow more sophisticated, including discovery of D.N.A. it's become more and more obvious that Darwin's theory of inheritated characteristics caused by mutations is the correct explanation for evolution.

In the last little while there have been renewed attacks on the theory of evolution by religious people who don't want to accept that anything but the hand of God could have gone into the making of the world. They call themselves Creationists for the obvious reason that they believe everything was created by God.

A third alternative, Intelligent Design has been offered up to explain evolution and other "unexplainalbe" natural occurances. Proponants of this theory claim that certain things are just to sophisticated to have occurred all on their lonsome and that there has have been some sort of intelligence behind those events.

Since they are deliberatly vague about the nature of the intelligence – mainly because they want to keep religion out of it so that it will be accepted as science – it could lead sceptics like myself to wonder what they mean by intelligence. To me these sound like people who aren't honest enough to admit they are Creationists, or embaressed by believing in God and are trying to make up science to justify their faith.

I have more respect for a Creationist because they are honest about who they are and what they believe in. Besides if you have to justify or prove faith, doesn't that contradict the whole idea of faith? Oh well I'll leave that for the theologists to fight over.

But just as all these theories are coming back into vogue at the expence of poor old Darwin, it looks like he's about to be rescued by his old buddies the finchs of the Galapagos Islands. It seems the little rascals went ahead and evolved again, while somebody was watching.

Peter Grant of Princeton Universtiy has been studying the Darwin Finches of the Galapagos Islands for decades and had recorded the effects on drought and other environmental changes on the populations.

From 1982 until the present he was able to watch a smaller species of ground finch evolve to cope with the intrustion of a larger species that was in direct competition for its food supply. The larger bird was able to consume the shared food supply at three times the speed of the original inhabitant of this particular island. When a drought hit in 2003 and 2004 further reducing food stocks and increasing competition, the only birds that survived form the island's original population were ones with a smaller beak that could eat a different seed.

They are now the dominant strain of that species because of the mutation that caused them to be born with a different beak. If that second, larger species of finch had never shown up on their island, that mutation would either have made no difference and died out because they could not eat the large seeds easily. Instead they were in a position to survive rather than die out because of their genetic difference.

Natural Selection at work, nature chose which was the version of the smaller bird that was more suitable for survival based on the circumstances at the time. A few years from now things may change again and a new mutation might be the one that becomes dominant. There is nothing evil or mysterious about evolution, Darwin, or Natural Selection. It's happening all the time all around you in many different species.

Most of the time it's far too subtle to make any difference, but sometimes, as in the case of the finchs of the Galapagos Islands, it ensures the survival of a species, in one form or another.

June 28, 2006

Nature And Humans: We're Not That Important

It strikes me as odd to hear people talk about how the increase of hurricanes or other natural disasters are Mother Nature's means of getting back at us for our evil ways. Sure we have screwed around with the natural order of things and turned swampland into deserts, deserts into swamp lands by not thinking of the long-term consequences of our actions.

Certainly this is representative of our careless attitude towards the natural world and reflects badly on how we view our relationship with the planet on which we live, but the sentimentalizing of nature into an entity that cares one whit about us either way is just as wrongheaded. It's not the facts that I have a problem with, I have no trouble believing that climate change caused by pollution increases the number and the potency of hurricanes in a season.

But the concept of nature making a conscious decision to create more natural disasters as a result is as equally inane an argument as those who said the devastation of New Orleans was God's punishment for their wicked ways. Both ways of thinking reflect a hubris that is the root of our misguided relationship with the natural world; that we are more important than anything else on the planet.

The Catholic Church used to burn people at the stake as heretics if they claimed that the earth was not the centre of the universe with the other planets and the Sun revolving around us. How could it be otherwise since we were the ultimate creation and everything was built for us? It was only when scientific proof grew too irrefutable did it become accepted wisdom that we, like all the other planets revolved around the Sun.

But even though we reluctantly gave up on the idea that we were the centre of the Universe, we were going to be the raison d'etre for the existence of this planet no matter what anybody else believed or said. What's funny is how many "primitive" and "uncivilized" people in the world at that time believed differently. They had the crazy idea that humans were not more important than anything else in the world.

Let us step even further back in time for a moment to when the majority of human life was taken up with survival. Whether in the agrarian societies of Europe and elsewhere or the hunter-gatherer societies of the woods of North and South America and the deserts of Africa and beyond everything from what we did during the day, to what we worshiped, was wrapped up in insuring survival. More specifically the collection of food that would see a village through times when hunting or growing wasn't possible.

Living on such intimate terms with nature makes you aware of how insignificant you and your concerns are in the natural course of events. Why else would agrarian societies develop rituals that were designed to attract the attention of whoever to ensure rain and sunlight in equal measure and give thanks at the end of the harvest season. If your source of food is wild game it only makes sense that you develop rituals that will ensure plentiful supplies of game. You probably will be careful not to over hunt, or do anything that could screw up your food supply.

We don't have a natural place in the food chain save for the top. There're not many species that make us a regular part of their diet, so anything we do makes an imbalance in the natural order of things by adding in a link that doesn't reciprocate in some manner. Unlike other large predators, like the wolf and mountain lion in North America, or the jaguar in South America, and the lions and tigers of Africa and Asia, our numbers have always been such that we can have a nasty effect on prey if we're not careful.

As our species moved away from this pattern of sustainable living that direct relationship with nature was lost. As food became a commodity from which wealth could be accumulated and the trading of goods replaced hunting as a means of obtaining it, the former harmonious relationship fell by the wayside.

Instead of living according to patterns set forth by the natural world, we looked for ways to dominate nature and make it behave in the way we wanted. The damming of rivers to create lakes, the draining of marshes to build on, and the clearing of forests to make farmer's fields were the earliest and most obvious ways in which we began to tamper.

But it wasn't until the coming of the industrial revolution that not only craved natural resources but generated harmful wastes, did our caviller attitudes start causing real damage and sever any ties that might have been left between the majority of people and the natural world.

The belief that we humans exist in a vacuum separate from the natural world is just as persistent today as it was during the industrial revolution. Each year the amount of habitable land for wild life of all kinds is reduced by larger and larger increments as our insatiable greed for natural resources continues unabated.

Instead of expressing concern over the fact that it's taken us little less than a hundred years of the automobile's existence to deplete a large amount of the world's easily accessible oil supply, we continue to intrude further into what's left of the wilderness in order to buy another generation fuel.

But it's not our exploitation of the environment alone that shows our continued belief that we matter more than other life forms. There's the way in which environmentalists appeal to others with the "aren't those animals too cute to kill" approach. The animal in question usually ends up being relegated to the sidelines and it becomes an opportunity for people to show "how much they care" without actually doing anything constructive.

This almost condescending attitude towards the natural world doesn't do anything to dispel the illusion that we are more important then it is. Like sentimental movies that give animals human characteristics because that way they become "real" to us, hardly anything is done to show the natural world being important on its own without any human involvement.

Some organizations, like the Nature Conservancy of Canada stress purchasing land to buffer habitats. That means that land is being saved from development and biodiversity is encouraged to reform as our interference is removed from the food chain. Programs like that are real attempts to redress the imbalance of years of neglect and recognise we are only a small cog in a very large and diverse wheel.

To say that Mother Earth is fighting back by sending up hurricanes, tidal waves, and volcanic eruptions is to imply that we actually matter. In so many ways we still believe the Universe revolves around us, and that thinking something like that only proves it. All those things were happening on the planet long before we came along, and will continue to happen long after we've died out.

The only thing we are doing with our self-importance is making the earth less and less habitable for us and some other creatures that live here. The Earth is just doing what comes natural to her when she creates huge winds and big waves. Don't take it personally or anything, but we're just not important enough for her to be doing it as revenge for our actions.

As far as the planet can tell we are just another life form. Isn't it about time we remembered that?



June 7, 2006

Traditional Families Under Attack Says The Vatican

(The Vatican issued a statement on Tuesday declaring that the Traditional family has never been so threatened. The document was issued by The Pontifical Council for the Family whose head, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, is one of the strongest opponents of the use of condoms)

Raise the drawbridges, lower the gates and deploy the anti personnel mines. This is an immediate call to arms for all men, women and children. You are in danger of attack by forces that are threatening your very existence. Mom and Dad, Dick and Jane, and even Spot, it’s time to stand up and be counted.

The traditional family is under siege. Everywhere you look the forces of evil are approaching. They'll threaten you with condoms; preach equal rights, and horrors of horrors family planning. If we are not careful they will continue the degradation of our society that began with the abolition of slavery and giving women the vote.

Look at all the problems that abolishing slavery caused. Civil rights marches, riots in the streets, desegregation, and the demand to paid a fair wage. Why it practically ruined the economy. Affirmative action drove the final nails into the coffin of huge profits and equal payment for equal work was the first shovel full of dirt on the lid.

If it wasn't for the developing world and the opportunities to exploit workers there, industry wouldn't be able to afford to pay their ten percent of all profits to us. Think of the horrible consequences if we hadn't been able to quash those radical priests in South America. Now at least the peasants know their lot is to suffer here on earth and receive pie in the sky when they die.

We'll probably never be able to recover from giving woman the right to vote. All of our problems can be traced back to that moment of infamy. If they had never been allowed to vote they would have never started to think for themselves, which means they would have never become desirous of an education.

Oh to live in the Muslim world where they know how to deal with their women. That little trollop in Iran who dared deny a man access to her is only getting what's coming to her, what so many of them deserve right here. Can you imagine that a woman can now charge her God appointed lord and master, her husband, with rape if he tries to do his duty and procreate and she does want to.

A woman's purpose is to breed new souls for God, nothing else. She puts herself above her station in life, the foul temptress, if she thinks she's good for anything else. Remember husbands the serpent is a wily and devious master, and the apple can come in many forms. Who knows what words are being whispered in her ear right now!

Oh the perfidy of a world that would deny a man his rightful place as king in his own castle. First it was allowing women to vote, then to enter the work place, only to see them demand to be educated en mass at the same schools as you. The end result has been to fill their heads with dangerous ideas about equality and freedom.

Didn't they know how good they had it, only having to be the loving wife, staying at home producing a child a year, keeping your clothes and house clean, and preparing all your meals. It was that forked tongue demon breathing foul words of temptation into her ear that's caused all this. How else can you explain the elimination of Obey from the marriage vows? What is the point of marrying them if they are not forced to obey our every whim and fancy?

We’ve all seen the result of this: birth control. Is there nothing more evil in the world than a woman deciding she does not want to do the only thing she is truly good for? Why would God have given us the means to have sexual intercourse if not to attempt to produce children at each congress? Do they think that sex is supposed to be for pleasure?

Utilizing birth control means you are debasing your body by allowing it to be used for purposes other than procreation. Whether a condom or a pill its all the same thing, stealing potential souls from God. Do you collude with your wife in being a soul thief? Because if you do, you are contributing to the undermining of traditional family values by ignoring the true reasons for family: Going forth and multiplying.

The Holy Father did not say go out and spread your seed in wombs made fallow by chemicals, catch it in a rubber sheath, or kill it with a foam. He has not sanctified your union so that you can enjoy each other's bodies. No, Holy Matrimony is so you can have children sanctified by Him so they may be baptized, allowing their souls to go to heaven and His blessed company.

But what about disease you ask, shouldn't people use condoms when they are having sex with someone they do not know well? The answer is they shouldn't be having sex with anyone but their marital partner so why should they have to worry about disease. Those who do, get what they deserve, it is their punishment for breaking the rules of God.

But, no matter how vile any of those transgressions may seem, there is worse yet. The final death knell of the traditional family has been rung by those misguided secular rulers who think that people of different sexual orientation have rights like the rest of us. To legalize homosexuality in all its perversion was bad enough. Granting them equality of status and protection under the law from discrimination was the next step on the road to Hell.

But now they openly mock our sacred institution by allowing these abominations to call themselves married. How can they marry when they can't breed? What purpose could be served by sanctifying a union of those whose sperm is as wasted as if it were spent through the sin of masturbation. There is no function to their sexual act; it does nothing to fulfill their obligation to provide God with souls.

What further abuse will they heap upon our beleaguered institutions and sanctity of Mom, Dad, Dick, Jane, Spot and two cars in the drive way in suburbia? Will they be allowing men and women to be wedding goats next? Isn't it bad enough that your neighbours could turn out to be a same sex couple without having to worry about whether the goat next door that's grazing is actually your new neighbour's spouse?

It is time for all families in the tradition of Ward and June Cleaver to stand up and be counted. Defend your sacred ground against those forces that are already set on destroying our sit-com reality and ensure that no new dilutions of your marriage vows can occur.

Can you picture a neighbourhood barbecue and having to try and make sure that no one wants to cook your neighbour's wife? If for no other reason, this madness must be stopped now. Let's turn back the clock as far as we can. If faux Islamic countries like Iran can pretend the freedoms of the twentieth century never happened, why can't we?


June 5, 2006

The Hippocratic Oath And Genital Mutilation

Hands up everyone who knows what the Hippocratic Oath is? My bet is that most of you have at least a vague idea that it has something to do with a code of conduct for doctors. That it implies they will put the good of the patient before all other considerations is probably the most widely understood meaning of the oath.

It was written down by Hippocrates, or maybe one of his students, in the 4th century B.C. and aside from the prayer to Apollo that opens the oath, and some modernizations to accommodate our changed world, its still a pretty darn good set of guidelines. I won't give my patients medicines that will harm them, I won't do any procedure that I'm not capable of, and I will never do harm to anyone are all things we'd like to think our own doctor would adhere to.

Of course you have to wonder these days the way some doctors run their practices if they ever heard of that Oath or any one of the modern variations that they now have doctors recite. Especially the part about medicines that will cause people harm; how many class action law suits are going on right now because of prescription drugs that caused sever contradictions among patients?

Sure some of them are the fault of the pharmaceutical companies and the regulating agencies rushing some wonder drug on to the market without giving it proper testing. But there are also the instances, far more common than you'd think, of Doctors not bothering to check a patients medical history to find out hey have high blood pressure and the medication they've just prescribed isn't supposed to be taken under those circumstances.

Then there are the doctors who look at their patients in terms of how much money are they worth and how much work do they involve. The ideal patient for this type of doctor is the one who won’t take up much of their time, but needs to see them on a regular basis so that billable hours can be increased.

There have been cases reported in Canada where doctors are refusing to take on clients who are elderly, or who will require extensive amounts of treatment, while not allowing the doctor to charge extra billable hours: so much for treating anyone in need.

But at least that's only a case of neglect and not a case of subjecting a patient to unnecessary and harmful treatments like what has been discovered happing in countries that still practice ritual female genital mutilation. The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) has released a report that reveals more and more doctors in developing countries are participating in these procedures.

While calling for the procedure to be stamped out as soon as possible, the W.H.O. reserved some of their harshest language for trained medical people participating in what they refer to as the torture of innocent victims. While conceding it may be helping to cut down on the risk of AIDS by the fact that clean instruments are being used, they liken it to using a clean knife to kill someone.

Three million girls under the age of ten are subjected to this procedure every year, which involves the cutting away of parts of the clitoris in an attempt to dampen their sexual appetites and increase their value as a wife. Lest we be in any rush to point the finger at any particular faith, it seems to be done equally amongst Muslims and Christians; yet another way in which the two faiths seem to agree on the place of women in society.

So what's the big deal about doctors taking part you may be asking? If it's going to happen shouldn't it at least be done safely? Putting aside the simple morality of condoning torture by being present, the long-term health issues of the procedure should be enough to prevent any doctor from participating in the operation.

Depending on the severity of the mutilation the risk of haemorrhaging during childbirth increases by 70%, the neo-natal death rate by as much as 55% over women who have not been tortured. In countries where the infant mortality rate is already high you would think doctors and other health care professionals would be mindful of such results wouldn't you?

If a doctor is making the spurious claim of participating because he has the patient's best interest at heart, then I would ask him wouldn't the patient's best interest be for the procedure not to take place at all? Wouldn't you as a respected medical professional better serve your patient by explaining to those, most likely the father of the child, that want the procedure performed they are actually decreasing the woman's chances of coming to term safely?

People who would do this procedure to their daughters, with the purpose of making them more attractive as wives, might think twice about it if they knew that daughters might not be able to fulfill their sacred duty of dropping babies that live after having their vagina mutilated. When dealing with stock, you always want to make sure it breads effectively, otherwise it might affect the sale price, or dowry as the case maybe.

Any doctor having anything else to do with these procedures aside from fighting against them as barbaric, and claiming to be doing it for the good of the patient, is in my mind akin to somebody saying they assisted at a death camp because they wanted to make sure that the Jews got the fairest treatment possible. There is no excuse that can validate the action.

I've not always agreed with W.H.O. and their classifications of disease and ideas on treatment. But on this issue they are right on the money. The practice of genital mutilation has no place in our world, and any doctor who takes part in that disgustingness deserves nothing but our condemnation.

By lending the authority of their profession to the practice they are giving an air of legitimacy to a barbarism that should have been outlawed years ago. Only by isolating and ostracizing this behaviour will it be ever stopped, seeking to make it more palatable only encourages its continuance.

Any doctor who willingly participates in one of these procedures needs to re read his Hippocrates: at least the bit about not doing harm.

June 3, 2006

Condoms, Needles, And AIDS

Question: How is the HIV virus that causes AIDS transmitted? It has to travel from an infected blood stream into another blood stream. What are the two most common ways that this occurs? Unprotected sexual intercourse and the sharing of needles between intravenous drug users are still the most common means of the disease being transmitted.

What, than, is the answer to the spread of HIV and AIDS? Well there are two, either abstinence, which given this world is an unrealistic expectation, or educating people on the use of condoms and not re-using or sharing needles when injecting drugs. Obviously in the case of the intravenous drug user you'd wish for abstinence, as there are so many other health risks involved with shooting up. But if we can't get them to stop, we can at least prevent them spreading disease and putting a strain on health care systems.

To some people what I've just said in the above paragraph is the proverbial red flag in front of a bull. Some people, from the depths of their Christian or Islamic compassionate hearts, will say things like their sinners and criminals so whatever happens to them is just a case of reaping what you sow. Well unfortunately the more people who have the disease the more likely the chances of it continuing to spread to the so-called innocent victims.

It just takes one pint of blood getting past a screening process and making it out into circulation for a person receiving a blood transfusion to contract the virus. It only takes one police officer or paramedic getting blood in an open cut accidentally for there to be a chance of the virus being spread. Then there are the babies of the infected mothers being born with the virus because their mother's hadn't know to use a condom or not to use the needle that six other people had already used.

By the way, there is no such thing as an innocent or guilty victim of a disease. A virus doesn't sit in judgement upon the people it infects, its just looking for a new place to live and grow like the rest of us. The only things that judge people are people. If anybody is guilty in this mess it's those who, for whatever reasons, would rather see people die then, heaven forbid, teach them how to use a condom or give them clean needles.

Aside from those folks who knowingly infect others, (including the ones who continued to sell blood products which they knew could be tainted), the only guilty parties involved in the spread of the HIV virus are those refusing to allow anything but abstinence be described as a preventative. Anyone who seriously believes that is an effective policy for the population at large is either woefully naïve or dangerously narrow minded.

I have nothing against abstinence, but that's a personal choice made by individuals. I'm probably more abstinent than most of you out there advocating it, as I haven't had a drink in twelve years, or anything else for that matter. But that was my decision, not something somebody forced on me, nor one where there was another alternative. If non-alcoholic beer really were alcohol free (its not) I would drink it because that would be a safe alternative to abstinence.

It's one thing to make a personal choice on how you want to live your life, and another thing altogether to try and impose that on other people. It's ironic that so many of the people who advocate imposing their point of view on others, are the same ones who scream bloody murder about governments interfering with their rights as individuals. They won't accept a government's legal authority to enforce laws, but have no problem interfering in the way others lead their lives by claiming moral authority.

The issue of what can or cannot be taught or offered as means of preventing the spread of HIV and the AIDS virus has been a thorn in the side of the international aid community for years now. On one hand there are the Muslim countries unwilling to cede rights to women to allow them access to information on prevention. On the other there is the current U.S. administration's policy of linking funding with stipulations against the advocacy of condom use.

While some European nations recognize the necessity of needle exchanges as a means of controlling the spread of disease among intravenous drug users, other countries are reluctant to endorse any plans that suggest those programmes. That these and other issues are still prevalent today is being made clear at the United Nations' High-Level Meeting on AIDS. The purpose of the meeting is to try and reach an agreement on a global strategy for fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS from now until 2010.

In light of the reports recently released by the United Nations (U.N.) AIDS office that 40 million people are living with the disease and 25 million have died from it; that only 9% of pregnant woman in poor countries are receiving care to help prevent mother to child transmission when the goal had been 80% by now you'd think there would be a more concentrated effort to find a solution.

The one simple goal of this meeting was to try and set 2010 as a deadline for ensuring that anybody anywhere who wanted treatment for AIDS would be able to obtain it. But civil groups fear that they'll be lucky to escape these meetings without losing any of the gains that were made in 2001 on prevention, let along treatment. All the old stumbling blocks have surfaced again; countries refusing to sign off on anything mentioning gays, prostitutes, intravenous drug use, and condoms.

In an effort to guide people away from old arguments UN General Assembly President Jan Eliasson put forward a proposal mentioning everything by specific name and also calls for money to ensure the availability of the treatment. It is estimated that nearly $25 billion will be needed in 2010 to fight the disease.

While there is of course a great hue and cry over amounts of money involved, it must be realized it's been the continual inaction on the part of too many countries that has ensured the crisis level we are now at. There has been far too much self-righteous condemnation and far too little compassion from far too many people. Every year that heads remain buried in the sand is another year the numbers increase among the dead and infected.

There may come a time when it's all a matter of too little too late, hopefully we haven't reached that stage yet. If the countries involved with this meeting can at least agree that any and all methods are important, and not to hinder ones they may not personally agree with, it will be a good start. Until that sort of agreement happens hope for a resolution to the disaster in Africa gets fainter and fainter.

The longer we wait the higher the costs rise, both in lives and money. Isn't it about time that we grew up enough to be able to realize that our way is not the only way? It's a matter of life and death.

May 31, 2006

Mailed Mary Full Of Grace

Deliverance comes in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes from the least expected places. Yesterday it snuck in my house via Canada Post. Concealed among the mundane missives motivated by material matters; credit card bills, a phone bill, and a utility bill; lurked my salvation.

The gold envelope was slippery between my fingers as I turned it over. Overwhelmed, stunned; disbelief warring with incredibility, my eyes traveled from the return address emblazoned in the top left hand corner to the luridly coloured picture on the right hand side.

Quickly I checked the address label, had I picked up someone else's mail? After ascertaining it was indeed addressed to my wife and I, I was still puzzled. Why were we receiving mail from Save Me O Holy Queen by The Grace Of Jesus p.o. box 698 Nobleton Ontario? I had a good idea who the garish picture on the envelope was supposed to be, but what did she want from me?

Bewilderment, revulsion, and hilarity were at war in my spirit as I laid aside the bills for the moment. At times like these earthly matters pale into insignificance; when a vision of Mary appears in your mail it's only courtesy to give it priority. Besides which, my curiosity was afire with questions that demanded answers.

Why does this woman look she's been sedated? What's with box of Valentine Chocolates around her neck surrounded by thorns? Was this some new weight loss program that worked through a combination of Christian guilt and prayer?

Trembling fingers ripped open the envelope at one end, as I did not want to imperil any of its precious contents. Nestled within, wrapped inside four double sided typed pages, awaited Mary2-72 the full size image of the face on the envelope.

Stunned, I could only stare in mingled horror and disbelief as I struggled to recover from the impact. It was if my aesthetic senses had been hit with a Mack truck. Slowly my eye traveled down from her Imperial margarine crown, past her mannequin realist face, to the candy box heart from which, what looks to be, golden flames are sprouting upward, and the circle of thorns that surround it.

One word, and one word only leapt to mind as a result of my initial contemplation: Kitsch. So rarely seen outside of its natural environment of die cast replicas and attractive dinner plate reproductions, and usually only obtainable through special offers in Reader's Digest and mass coupon mailings, I knew that I had chosen for a select honour. With that in mind I turned to the enclosed paper work in order to discover what had made me so deserving as to merit being on the receiving end of this assault.

Look closely at the picture and see how she seems to be alive. It is almost as if she is about to say something to you…She is waiting for you. it is as if she is saying: ask me for everything you need, because I am here, ready to answer you…Let yourself be drawn to her…Take the time to converse with her. Mary is your heavenly mother. Let her speak to the depths of your heart…My great desire is that this joy, this hope Mary gives to her children will reign in every Canadian home…this great distribution is only possible with the help of those who would like to be benefactors so that others can also share this great gift…

Well isn't that special. Not only can I rid myself of all my troubles simply by staring slack jawed at a painting of a mannequin but I can also inflict it upon others by sending money to the Virgin of Fatima Association. Can't you just picture the looks of surprise from all those people who receive this unsolicited picture in the mail: the Singh's, the Howorwitz's, and the Hussein's, all those households just waiting with baited breath for their picture of Mary, Mother of Jesus.

What does it matter that some of them may have had family killed in Her son's name only a few hundred years ago? I'm sure that's not going to stop them erecting a shrine right next to where they have one for Krishna, or next to where they keep their copy of the Koran or the Torah. They'll be so excited, just like kids on Christmas day.

Such a noble sentiment to want to inflict this image on everybody in Canada, no matter their faith or creed. What a typical gesture of Christian charity to want to impose themselves and their beliefs on those unfortunate enough to not have had their noses rubbed it in yet. You can even get a tax receipt from Revenue Canada so you can write your contribution off from your taxes next year.

Here I was thinking that charities licensed by the government were supposed to do meaningless things like raise money for research into disease, or help eradicate poverty, or enrich the culture of our land. How wonderful that charity also includes the opportunity to show others how misguided they are in their own devotions. I never knew that proselytising was considered charitable, that's such a relief.

I know for a fact that I was overwhelmed by the excitement of it all, so much so that I just had to tell everybody about it. But if you're counting on my shelling out any money so that you may have a chance on receiving your copy of the Virgin and the Heart of Thorns in the mail, don't hold your breath. You know how tight we Jews are with money.

.

May 28, 2006

Culture And The Arts

The word culture gets tossed around quite a lot and in all sorts of contexts. Sometimes it has to do with the arts; sometimes it's an expression of a way of life (ie. culture of violence or culture of poverty), sometimes it's in reference to ethnic effects on lifestyle in terms of rules of conduct, attitudes, and morals.

We can describe someone as being cultured, tell someone else they need to get some culture, and be talking about behaving in a manner that's intelligent and informed, telling someone to learn about the arts, or act with a little more grace and style. Being cultured appears similar to being marinated, in that you have been immersed in certain things to the point where you can't help but to have absorbed them.

A culture is usually composed of several items from each facet of the human experience. A core belief system or philosophy that offers an explanation for the people's existence, a language that articulates the thoughts and concepts that the above postulates, a specific code of conduct or morality that defines everything from interpersonal relationships to the societal contract called justice, and the variety of means in which a group has to express the creative impulse called "art".

The artist acts as a culture's spokes person, articulating thoughts and concepts in both the literal and abstract. Music, painting, sculpture, dance, writing, theatre, and all of their offshoots can be lumped together under the category of the interpretive arts. The obvious observation is that these artists serve as the translators, teachers, and explainers to the other people in their society and beyond.

Although on the surface it would appear that the artist plays a significant role in a culture, a great deal of artistic effort has existed at the fringes of society. The artist differs from his cousins the artisan and the craftsperson in that a good deal of the artist's output has no practical application in the day to day workings of a culture's society.

The more that a culture has turned towards the rewards of real return on efforts instead of the abstract, the less recognition and appreciation that are given to the arts. What "use" is something that has no practical application? It's only a frill, something to be enjoyed as an amusement and nothing more.

There are other cultures at the furthest opposite end og that particular barge pole, ones where the arts have been thoroughly integrated into their way of being. The native people of Haida Gwai (The Queen Charlotte Islands) have no word in their entire language for arts.

…we were able to see a different notion of culture, in which there is no word for “art,” so completely does the creative impulse permeate every aspect of lived experience. Miraculously, this is still true today…(The Globe And Mail Satuday May 27th 2006)

Everything that the Haida, and many other early cultures, made that was of practical application was also made with aesthetics. From the cedar longhouses which are the communal meeting places, the masks used in dances and worship, the cedar boxes used for storage, the cloaks and garments that are part of the old way of dressing, and the huge dug out canoes that are used for ocean travel, would all be considered works of art by our culture

Of course there are the symbolic works as well, but they too serve a practical purpose. The massive totem poles of the west coast are not just remarkable feats of sculpture and engineering, but serve to inform people of a clan's affiliation with the spirit world and it's animal totems.

In the hierarchy of our culture the arts are quite near the bottom as a way in which a person can occupy themselves. They are seen as a frivolity with no real application or use in a person's day-to-day life. They are a diversion, an entertainment, which while pleasing to the eye or the ear, aren't considered integral to our existence.

The arts in our daily life have been diluted down into function over form. Our places of business and houses of residence are made to serve more than they are to please the eye with the occasional exception.

With the Haida their creations are considered an extension of who they are as a people. Everything that they make represents an element of their lives and their cultural spirit. In our case what the artist fabricates has little to do with anything of who we are. Our artists create independently of society, at best offering commentary via their subject matter, on the world around them.

Have you ever been to a multi-cultural event where people of various backgrounds ret up and perform dances that are unique to their people in clothes that distinguish their heritage? What kind of dance, or clothing, or music would people from our culture do?

The closest we would have would be the music that was brought over by the British and Irish settlers and adapted over the years into what we now know as Old Time music or country. The square dances that have been played at the barn dance or the Legion hall across North America are offshoots of sailor's reels and jigs and step dancing run's a parallel course to Irish dancing.

But all those groups have been sucked into the overwhelming maw of our one world policy, where cultural distinction is looked upon as an aberration and it becomes important to blend in as quickly as possible. Even supposedly multicultural Canada offers only token recognition to minority cultures. Anyway, none of them represent who or what North American culture is, if such a beast even exists, and serve mainly to point to our lack of any sort of distinctiveness when it comes to cultural uniqueness.

When one considers the role that religion or spirituality has represented in the development of the arts; the first plays were the mystery cycles in the middle ages and the majority of scenes depicted in early art were of a religious nature; perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised about its current status. The majority of the people who first founded our countries were those who didn't believe in the depiction of religious scenes, considered the playhouse sinful, and that man was meant to work himself into an early grave so he could enjoy the fruits of his labour in heaven.

That isn't the healthiest of atmospheres for the arts to develop in. We still have groups who would try to prohibit art that does not fit into their notion of what the world should be like.

For the Haida the idea of distinguishing between something being art and not art is alien to their way of thinking. Creativity is integrated into their daily life as a means of expressing their connection with the world around them and their belief system. They don't call it art because they have no need to separate creativity from their daily existence.

We, on the other hand, can barely see how one relates to the other. Is it any wonder the arts and artists are looked on as some sort of freak show.

May 18, 2006

Book Review: Another Roadside Attraction Tom Robbins

I still haven't quite got what all the fuss is about over The De Vinci Code, it's only a work of fiction. Heck it's not even that original an idea; Jesus Christ was a human being who had a wife and kids and died and the Vatican has conspired for two thousand years to cover up this truth. Ho Hum. Been there, read it, and almost bought the T-shirt.

I'm not even talking about the guys who wrote The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail either. That wasn't the first book to come down the pipe about the mystery surrounding the life and times of the carpenter from Nazareth who was cast into the role of saviour. It wasn't even the first one to incur the wrath of the Vatican and find itself on the proscribed list.

Nikos Kazantzakis only had to have Jesus be tempted while on the cross with giving up Godhood in exchange for married life to get himself in trouble. The irony of course is that Nikos was a devout Christian who believed in the divinity of the Christ. But he had Him be sorely tempted at the last moment to give it all up for the love of a good woman. (Is it just me or does it sound like there's a country song lurking in there somewhere)

But the first book I read which dealt with the thorny subject of "The Cover Up" was by American author Tom Robbins. His first novel, published in 1971, Another Roadside Attraction meandered into the catacombs of the Vatican and found out the deepest, darkest secret.

Amanda is a fortuneteller in a travelling circus of hippies and other exotica, when she meets Jazz musician/Film Maker/Magician John Paul Ziller and his baboon Mon Cul (who happens to be the only creature in existence who knows a word that rhymes with orange). Before you can say, "love at first sight" they have announced their marriage, and abandoned their itinerant ways to open another roadside attraction.

In their case this amounts to a hot dog stand and flea circus. They've only just settled in to raising their first born, when Marx Marvellous wanders into their lives (surprisingly not his real name, he created it on the theory that those two words together would be enough to set any decent red blooded American male's teeth on edge.) Marx ingratiates himself into their lives under false pretences. While pretending to be a fellow traveller on the road less travelled, he is actually a plant sent out by a think tank in Washington to discover what the younger generation is in an uproar about (remember this was written in 1971 and while the sixties were dieing, revolutionary fervour was still somewhat in the air).

The hot dog stand, by the time of Mark's appearance, had become sort of a lode stone for those who were following the advice of Tim Leary on "Turning On, Tuning In, and Dropping Out", so it seemed like the ideal place for Mark to take as his base of operations. So he spends his days working at the zoo, lusting after Amanda, and being educated in the mysteries of the Universe as understood by Amanda, John Paul, and Mon Cul.

But all good things, such as they are, must come to an end, and in this case the end appears in the shape of an old friend of John Paul's: L. Westminster "Plucky" Pursell. Plucky is a former college football star turned drug dealer/fixer/ and general all around black market operative. Aside from his prodigious appetite for members of the opposite sex, which often lands him in a heap of trouble, he's also highly skilled in the art of unarmed combat.

One of the drawbacks with work in his field is that it will occasionally require you to seek shelter from individuals who have decided they don't like your business practices. On this occasion Plucky had sought refuge in the deep woods of Minnesota. Exchanging identities with a monk, he beats a hasty retreat to a highly isolated monastery.

Well, as you've probably guessed, it turns out that said monastery is home to one of those nefarious secret establishments run by the Vatican, and chock full to bursting with assassin monks, spy monks, and all sorts of other monks doing un-monk like things. It turns out that the monk (isn't fiction great) that Plucky is impersonating has been sent to help train Vatican staff in the art of unarmed combat. The Swiss Guard may look impressive, with their pikes and all, but they need to be able to handle crowd control without impaling people. It wouldn't look good on camera to see a pilgrim's entrails spilled on the cobbles of St. Peter's square.

So Plucky ends up in the Vatican, where due to who he supposedly works for, he's given the run of the place. When he's not teaching the Swiss guard how to manhandle people with style, he spends his time poking his nose into places not to often poked around in. Being who he is, he is attracted to some of the deeper catacombs where the lewd and obscene materials have been collected.

One lazy afternoon, while perusing an illuminating illuminated manuscript, Plucky's reverie is shattered by an earthquake. As he's hurrying towards an exit, he notices that a catacomb door has been jarred open. How the fates hinge on such little things as deciding to look through an open doorway. Laid out like anybody's Mummy, and wrapped in the usual Mummy swathes of cloth, is the body of a person around 5'4".

What compelled Plucky, and what inner sense told him who this was, only the cosmos can answer; but Plucky picked up body, knowing full well that he had the bones of Jesus Christ slung over his shoulder. Stopping to remove an unconscious nun's habit and cowl, which he proceeded to disguise his companion with, he raced from the scene yelling for help: to all the world looking like a distraught priest looking to bring succour to one of the sisters.

It was probably the confusion that allowed the fact that Plucky had the body flung over one shoulder escape notice, and let him run right by all the medical help streaming onto the scene. Only upon reaching his apartment and laying down his burden, did the full implications of what he had done sink in. Having no idea how long it would take them to discover who was missing from both the living and dead, he decided to move fast. A casket and a dead aunt got him a flight back to America and a trip to a roadside zoo.

So Jesus came to America for the first time, second if you believe the Mormons, in the cargo hold of an airplane. He crossed the country and eventually became the latest inhabitant of a hot dog stand and roadside zoo.

The unfortunate thing about having an attraction is that sometimes you attract the wrong sort of attention. It didn't take long for the powers that be to put two and two together, put out a missing person's report which featured Plucky and his unspecified cargo and begin to descend on the diner. So Plucky, John Paul, and Mon Cul decided it was best to disappear with their guest. So they boarded a hot air balloon and quite literally vanished

Although I tend to find Tom Robbin's more recent books, probably everything since Still Life With A Woodpecker, poor imitations of his previous works Another Roadside Attraction was a wonderful read at the time when I first read it. Robbins was one of the few writers who was openly expressing and utilizing the ideals of the counterculture in ways that were not either exploitive or judgemental. While he may not have spoken for anybody in particular, at least he spoke in a voice most of us could understand when we read it.

Like Richard Farina in Been Down So Long writing about the early 1960's and the beginnings of the counter culture, Tom Robbins captured the spirit and the mood of the times by simply respecting and caring for his characters. The confusion of people like Marx Marvellous who were caught between admiring the freedoms this new lifestyle offered, but who couldn't quite bring themselves to commit to it wholeheartedly, is treated with sympathy and respect.

Mark is all of us who've yearned to be free but have been too scared to let go of the fetters that bind us to security. Freedom comes with a price, and for some people that price is a little too steep to pay. It means giving up long held beliefs and cherished ideals, which for some is almost impossible.

In a book that has as its centrepiece the mummified remains of the person who supposedly ascended to heaven; proven out by the fact his tomb was empty, one could expect a certain amount of cynicism towards religion. But there is a lightness of touch, a gentleness of spirit if you would, that pervades the book that refuses to allow the reader to become jaded and angry.

Yes Tom Robbins is questioning the idea of Jesus Christ having literally ascended to heaven, but he does it in such a way that he does not condemn anybody. He's just asking people to consider the fact that other possibilities exist. That's pretty much what a lot of young people were doing at the time, considering what alternatives existed for them compared to how their parents had lived and the possibility for change.

Tom Robbins is by means the great writer some people have made him out to be, but all of his books have a gentleness of spirit and a genuine affection for their characters. One can't help liking the people who inhabit his pages no matter how strange they might be.

Another Roadside Attraction is a lot of fun and never takes itself or its plot all that seriously. The gentlemen who have come afterwards with their tales of the nefarious Catholic Church, secret societies, and conspiracy theories, would have done well to have emulated Mr. Robbins a little more and the X-Files and its ilk a little less. Paranoia and cynicism are a lot less palatable than gentleness and humour.

Another Roadside Attraction is almost an artefact of a more innocent time. When people considered change and alternative ideas out of a desire to expand their horizons. Our current fascination with sinister plots and conspiracy theories is as good an example as any of attitudes have changed. We'd rather find something out that confirms the corruption of things around us, then enjoying the enlightenment that can come with knowledge.

Call me naïve if you like, but I kind of miss that innocence.

May 8, 2006

Cultural Archaeololgy: Finding Your Past


I am beginning to have less and less patience with people who want to lay the troubles of the world at the feet of someone else. It's all George Bush's fault; it's all the fault of Muslims; it's all the rich people's fault; or those bums on welfare are to blame. Sure some of those individuals or groups who we point fingers of accusation at have things to answer for, but how long can we continue to use them as an excuse for our own inaction in the areas that we can control?

How many times have you heard people complain about the homogenization of the world? Everywhere you look there's a MacDonald's Restaurant or other such evil example of the spread of American culture. It's the end of the world as we know it, cry the defenders of civilization.

Or the ones who decry the lack of spiritual focus in the world today brought about by the crass consumerism of our society. The very same people also seem to have the money to afford to go on retreats costing thousands of dollars to pay someone to help them find their own personal guardian angel, or listen to some faux guru tell them how to achieve enlightenment through the lightening of their wallets.

Both groups point their fingers pretty much in the same direction, away from themselves. Now to be fair there is validity in their criticism, outposts of the North American consumer society are this generation's Hudson Bay trading centres. Although instead of selling the natives cheap whisky and pox infested blankets for furs, they are selling them cheap carbohydrates and the fast buck, high stress world of the quick profit.

For some countries, barely recovered from years of colonial oppression, it must feel like they've only just begun to reclaim some of the ground they'd lost, when a new threat to their identity has appeared. But others, whose hands are not clean when it comes to a colonial past, and are the most vociferous when it comes to complaints, have no such history to overcome.

What do nations who have been around for thousands of years as the dominant culture from the Atlantic Ocean to as far East as Hong Kong, and as far South to the atolls of the South Pacific have to fear from a few MacDonald's stands and movies? It's their own damn fault anyway, if they hadn't been so hell bent on destroying the existent cultures of the lands they travelled to, perhaps they never would have created the "monster" that plagues them today.

The colonies of North America were mainly established by men seeking to make fortunes, for themselves and for their country. They were also seeking to spread the word of civilization and God to all those who were so obviously lost. Sound familiar to anyone?

The so called American Dream of making good, is merely an extension of the old explorers motivation to find new worlds to plunder and secure one's fortune. In a continent where settlement and expansion were dictated by men's desire for money is it any wonder that North America's values are still dictated by consumerism?

Learn to read between the lines of your history textbooks and you'll see that economic forces drove expansion and exploration on the part of the European nations. From India to North America, it was all about taking what you wanted, and ensuring the least amount of interference from the locals.

The end result was the destruction of some cultures, sucking the core out of others, and a dominant culture that existed for the pursuit of individual fortunes. As the colonial powers withdrew, from the mid twentieth century mark onward, they left behind arbitrarily defined borders based on where their territories had existed, ignorant of past tribal and cultural differences.

The cost of this carelessness, and of their attempts to obliterate unique cultural identities, is still being paid today. Whether in the form of genocides like those of Biafra and Rwanda; the need for people to reclaim their identities out of the mists of time; or even the feelings of spiritual angst experienced by some people in the West; all are legacies of the old expansionist, colonial mindset.

There are no easy solutions to any of these problems. You can't solve generations of racial and ethnic hatreds, give people back their languages and observances that have been lost, or fill an emptiness in people's lives, overnight. There are no twelve-step programs towards this type of recovery.

The Indian author Ashok Banker uses the term cultural archaeologist to describe what he's attempting to do by retelling the old stories of India for a modern audience. Digging into the past and uncovering the living relics that were buried alive by an occupying culture that tried to superimpose themselves over what had existed for thousands of years.

Unfortunately it is far easier to destroy than rebuild, and it is made even more difficult because of all the false trails and misleading information that is now being generated by those wishing to cash in on people's quest for identities. Nobody seems to want to know about where they came from, it's nowhere near as exotic as learning the secrets of the ten shamanist chants to enlightenment, or how to invoke 25 angels and 15 ascendant masters through your navel.

The real answers to identity could probably be found in some old, dusty, boring, history book that deals with pre-Christian Europe. Or even better pick up a book on archaeology, a book of traditional stories, and an atlas. It's amazing what you can learn about your ancestors that way. It just takes a little effort on your part.

Don't cheapen somebody else's beliefs by thinking you are learning how to be like them by reading a teach yourself ritual book that you picked up in the New Age section of your bookstore. Most of those cultures are still desperately trying to rebuild on their own and don't need anybody taking a free ride on their beliefs. Unless you are willing to do the work involved in dedicating yourself to a belief system, don't pretend to be something your not.

Human culture does not grow like a bacterial culture for yoghurt. It takes more than a couple of weeks in a sealed container for it to mature. We in the west are spoiled in that we can pick and choose from a variety of cultures that we want to sample and decide whether we like it or not.

Do you ever stop to think how this type of grazing could be insulting to the people's beliefs you are toying with? Instead of looking away for your answers why not look inward and ask some questions. Why are you dissatisfied and what are you looking for would be good ones to start with.

Be your own personal cultural archaeologist; dig and sift through the past of your race and see what you can find there. Look for the answers to your questions within yourself. We of European descent have no reason to blame anyone but ourselves for cultural and spiritual woes. It a simple matter of doing something about it yourself for a change instead of looking for an easy answer elsewhere.

April 28, 2006

Labyrinths: A Symbol To Share


I've never had much fondness for symbols, political, religious or otherwise. They usually end up being more trouble than they are worth. Just looking at how many people have died for the sake of a symbol over the course of human history is enough to convince me of their malignance.

They seem to be a hangover from the days before we had a written language with which we could express ideas and thoughts. Symbols are designed to appeal to the emotional aspect of our makeup, not the rational, and in the hands of a skilled orator they can be used to sway opinion to reach decisions that fly in the face of reason and logic.

Some may argue, and with a measure of validity, that during times of strife a symbol is useful for rallying people to a cause. But usually, someone else and their symbol have caused that period of strife. Perhaps if our symbols weren't the embodiment of abstract ideals they wouldn't be so problematic, although given human nature I have to wonder even if we used items as prosaic as vegetables whether or not we'd run into the same situations.

There is the argument that all language is really just a series of symbols; letters represent sounds that when combined together become words that take on a meaning in order to represent an object, action, or idea. While that is true, it is also true that this form of symbolism more often results in the pursuit of rational discourse than the brandishing of a device such as a flag or a holy relic.

The basic problem with so many symbols is that they seem to divide, or compartmentalize, which allows one group to formulate an opinion about another. If they follow that flag they are this, and therefore they are either good or bad depending on whether their flag is in accordance with ours.

Instead of being celebrations of distinctiveness, symbols have become a means of comparing, contrasting, and judging. Pride has been replaced by chauvinism and nobody seems to really care. It's easier to believe in one's superiority than to try and understand someone else's ways.

Given that this pattern of behaviour dates back into ancient times, long before Christianity, the fact that there appears to be one symbol that has even been ever remotely universal is amazing. But the labyrinth has appeared in media of one form or another, at one time or another, on every continent. Cave paintings, petroglyphs, carvings, chalk outlines, and countless bad movies about aliens, have all featured this ubiquitous, ever inwardly, descending spiral.

Before anyone washes their hands of me too much and thinks I'm about to embark on some wild theory about aliens, sorry to disappoint. I don't think it's that much of a mystery of why labyrinths are everywhere people have been. No matter what your creation story is, we all came from the same place originally. I don't see why people are surprised that in the earlier parts of history our ancestors still had enough similarities to come up with the same images for similar ideas.

The idea of universal symbols, or archetypes, was the focus of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung and his theories of the collective unconscious. In a nutshell Jung said there were certain symbols, he called them archetypes, that all of us understand and we are born carrying that knowledge.
Labyrinth
Now we can all look at that picture of the labyrinth and recognize it for what it is because we have probably seen pictures of one at some point in our lifetime. There are probably quite a few of us who even have heard one or more of the stories associated with labyrinths, the most famous being the Theseus and the Minotaur on the Island of Crete.

What I have found most fascinating about the labyrinth symbol is the fact that so many cultures not only depicted it, but the similarities that abound in its usage. At its most basic of course it depicts a journey, who makes that journey and their ultimate destination provide some diversion in the similarities, but the basic concept is the same.

In the American South West the Hopi use two variations of the labyrinth that they call the Mother and the Child. Mother, being Mother Earth is a square and represents spiritual rebirth from one world to the succeeding one (they believe that they are currently in the fourth world) In the square the straight line entering the labyrinth is not connected to the rest of the construct. The two ends symbolize the two stages of life –the unborn child within the womb of Mother earth and the child after it is born. The line is both the umbilical chord that serves as connection and the path of emergence into the next world.

The circular pattern follows the shape we are more familiar with, of the straight line connecting to the paths of the labyrinth. This represents the path planned out for each person by the Creator. It's not just the Hopi among the indigenous nations of North and South America who use this symbol. Across both continents it has been used to either describe the journey of creation, or the path of life (The Book Of The Hopi, Frank Waters, Penguin Books 1963 pp. 23-24)

Leaving North America to return to Europe we can find labyrinths scattered across all the countries and in a wide variety of places. Ancient standing stones, similar to those of Stonehenge but not as formally constructed, that stand sentinel over various tombs and other, formally, sacred grounds are emblazoned with labyrinths.

Tales that talk about Bards having to travel inside the earth and successfully find their way out again are merely a dramatic means of depicting the journey of self awareness and growth that all artists experience in some manner.

Given the ritual nature of the Druidic culture it's possible that the image of the labyrinth and perception altering herbs were used in tandem to facilitate that journey of self-awareness. This process is similar to that utilized by the shaman of some South American peoples for the same purpose lending credence to tales of these events taking place.

Even if we dismiss some of the more fanciful associations given to labyrinths that come down to us from the pre-Christian era the concept of "the journey" came down through the years. Many of the most famous labyrinths in existence today can be found in churches and cathedrals built in the medieval period.

Like the Hopi interpretation these early Christian designs signified the path one would take from ones birth (entrance) to finding God (the centre). Adhering to the path ordained by the church would ensure your salvation just as certainly as following the lines laid out in the floor would take you to the centre of the pattern. There is also a case to be made that the Church co-opted this concept from its predecessors in order to ease worshipers of the old ways into the fold.

Whether they were walking the path of the labyrinth to come closer to their God, or were utilizing to gain a better understanding of themselves and their place in creation, everybody understood this symbol to have a similar meaning and function. It is unfortunate that it did not retain its position of importance in Europe.

Perhaps it was due to its very universal nature, and because it was a reminder of pre-Christian times, the church felt threatened by its continued use. Or as people began to turn their faces outwards from their personal domains and look to expand their holdings they became less concerned about, or even more to the point, desired it less, looking inwards.

The last thing one wants to be reminded of is those tenets of your faith that prohibit the course of action you are embarking on. Spending time contemplating thou shalt not kill, and thou shalt not covet your neighbour's possessions aren't of paramount importance to somebody about to embark on looting and pillaging spree.

As both individuals and the church moved to consolidate their power it became easier to focus on the simple symbols of the faith, like the cross, which were easier to inflame people's passions over than the ones that favoured contemplation and thought. Besides if you want to create an enemy it's easier if you are seen as being different, not having anything at all in common.

As Islam started to rise in prominence, the Protestant reformation occurred, and new worlds were opened up, differences became the justifications for actions on all sides of the coin. Instead of being the path to enlightenment, labyrinths became symbolic of confusion, a place to become lost in not find yourself. Now we use it adjectively to mean something unreasonably complex and difficult to comprehend.

Today we use the symbols of our countries and our religion to ferment support for everything from war to political parties. We judge everybody and everything by how they measure up to what we are told these items represent even though in of themselves they have no meaning only that which we give them.

At one point in our history we had a symbol we could all agree on, and to some extent still do. It just seems that not very many people are interested in what it stands for anymore. It's far easier to think you know your enemy than to try and know yourself.

April 27, 2006

Illogical Logic

"It's the only logical solution"

How often have you heard that out of the mouths of someone trying to justify their position on anything? It's as if simply utilizing one word will offer reassurance that what is being done is the most reasonable, if not he only means available to solve a problem. Once the word logic has been brought into play you can pretty much be guaranteed that whoever said it considers the topic closed.

Before I go any further with this, let's pause to introduce a working definition of logic. This one is brought to you by the good folk over at the Wiktionary: "A method of human thought that involves thinking in a linear, step-by-step manner about how a problem can be solved".

Obviously that's very simplistic and comes nowhere near to representing the the numberous variations of logic, but I think it's what the majority of us would thing of off the top of our heads when the word logic is mentioned. At the least, it gives us the manner in which the word is used, and what it is understood to imply, in everyday conversation.

The problem with such an openended definition is that it leaves the word open to being used in any and all circumstances when someone wants to prove their point . Instead of starting at zero and using logical thinking to build an answer based on the needs of the circumstances, they will start at their answer then work backwards to create the situation needed to give it validity.

Politicians, of course, are most liable when it comes to the inversion of logic, espeically those who are concerned with making any sort of change in policy. They no longer seem to think that it is necessary to look at the problems of society and create solutions based on the needs of people, instead they have an agenda of things they want to accomplish and they work backwards to show that the problems exist that validates their solution.

Perhaps it's our addictions to ideology based politics and religion that makes this possible. Socialism, Conservatism, Marxism, and Facists alike have painted a picture of society that suits the needs of their solutions. Adherants of a religion will tell you that their way is the right way because God has told them and their God is the only God.

But now instead of this illogical logic being applied in sweeping generalizations, almost every issue, every problem to be solved, is being dealth with in this manner. Answers for everything are provided by how they best fit into the narrow world view of those responding. This of course results in fewer and fewer originial ideas, and policies that make less and less sense.

As an example of a policy that has this appearance I'll site the example of the Canadian Government's much ballyhooed concept for funding Day Care. Now whether you agree with the concept of Day Care or not, I think you would agree that the people who would need subsidizing. Either low income families where both parents are working, or single parent famlies where the sole parent works would be the most logical beneficiares of any sort of subsidy program as they are the ones most likely to make use of those facilities.

Well according to a report in today's Globe And Mail the new policy will allow a family with one parent working that earns more than $200,000 annually to claim almost all of the $1,200. dollar yearly subsidy, $1,076. While on the other hand a family with both parents working and making $30,000 per year will only be able to claim $199 per year towards offsetting the cost of their Day Care.

The government prior to this one had been in the process of completing negotiations with the provinces to implement a universal Day Care program which while flawed at least was attempting to ensure that the people in most need were being given the opportunity to afford places for their children. This program, even if everybody was given the hundred dollars a month promised by it, doesn't even begin to cover the costs of private day care that are incurred by anybody.

The only explanation that I have heard offered for this program, was during the last election campaign, where the Conservatives said they wanted to give people the option of whether to either uitlize Day Care facilities or not. So they wouldn't underwrite individual day care spaces but put the money into the hands of the people. But since the money seems to have ended up in the hands of the people who wouldn't be using Day Care in the first place where's the logic in this program.

The logic that appears to have been applied in this case has less to do with subject under discussion, Day Care, and more to do with two political realities. The Conserative Party of Canada has a sizible followoing among the traditional family values set who find the idea of Day Care abhorant, so a plan that accutaly favours people who don't use the facilities would go over extremely well.

Secondaly, poor people don't usually vote for the Conservative Party of Canada, but those with higher incomes do. Thus this plan meets the needs of this party's constinuents far better than anything its predecessor was advocating which in the end is really what matters to all political parties, keeping their followers happy ( I could have used any party, but unfortunately for the Conservative Party of Canada this was in the news today)

Ensuring that solutions only fit into the neat little box of logic that forms the walls of ideology, no matter what that ideology may be, severly limits perceptions but also solutions. While it's true that logic does play a role in their reasoning, its not used as the means for finding a solution.

Instead of considering all possibilities "in a step by step linear manner", to formulate a solution that is best for all concerned, we are now presented with a fait acompli whose rationale makes no sense unless considered within the context of an ideology. Logic has become merely the latest casulty in our world of political expiedency. I wonder what will be next?

April 26, 2006

Words Of Fear

Words are like terrorist weapons these days, bombs thrown at various topics by those who don't care what damage they inflict upon anyone reading or within listening range. Instead of being utilized as the building blocks to form ideas or the brushes to paint mental images they are exploded to exploit emotions and capitalize on fears.

Listen to anyone wanting to influence people now, and I don't care what moral or political stance they take, or what they call themselves, and they are all doing the same thing. They all play up the chances of their audience losing something precious to them. From the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) to the Pro Choice lobby everybody has taken to practicing the fine art of fear mongering as their primary means of rhetoric.

Fear based rhetoric has a fine history in politics and certain fire and brimstone branches of religion. What politician running for office hasn't painted pictures of doom and gloom if their opponent should be elected? The late President Johnson of the United States was able to defeat his Republican competitor, Barry Goldwater, in 1964 by depicting him as being more than willing to plummet the world into a nuclear holocaust. With the Cuban Missile crisis fresh in people's minds it was enough to secure him his victory.

(A little piece of political folklore that I read in a book by the late Hunter S. Thompson has Johnson telling a campaign manager for some office or other in Texas to accuse their opponent of having sexual congress with pigs. When told that it wasn't true Johnson said he knew that, but they should make the guy deny it anyway. Making your opponent have to reassure the public of their integrity always makes them look weak and on the defensive)

The image of the fiery preacher standing up in front of his congregation warning them of the perils of sin and threatening them with hellfire is one we are all familiar with from either literature, movies or late night evangelical shows on television. Two o'clock in the morning usually was the haven for either "B" movies or hell fire preachers on independent television stations back in the 1970's and early 80's.

This was long before the days that mainstream acceptance of people like Oral Roberts and the invention of the infomercial, made the offerings of the bad hair set and scream queen redundant and replaceable. But in their prime these preachers ensured that people learned to fear their God, pray for forgiveness, and dread certain days of the week.

But compared to what we experience on a daily basis now, those days seem positively tame in comparison. It's not just politicians and preachers anymore who plant the seeds of fear in our hearts and minds. From every newspaper, radio, and television come the voices of "experts" and "pundits" with an axe to grind.

Many of these people have no claim to expertise in the fields they pontificate on, just an ability to manipulate and increase circulation or the Nielson ratings. They seem to have an inherent talent for finding the buttons to push that will create a panic reaction in their audience. A scared person can quickly become an angry person, and an angry scared person needs someone to blame.

You could be a poor white person without a job and blaming the immigrants for stealing work, a poor black in the inner city blaming the whites for your predicament, middle class watching your savings disappear as the cost of living goes through the roof blaming the poor for stealing tax dollars and being a drain on the economy, a woman blaming men for not being allowed to choose what happens to your body, a Christian blaming gays for the decline of morality and it's all the same thing.

The great American novelist, William Faulkner, in his acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in the 1950's said that the current generation of people would grow up haunted by the threat of nuclear destruction. He made the point that this atmosphere of fear would affect everything; from the arts to lifestyle and down to basic human inter reactions.

The ensuing years have more than borne out his prediction and we can see the results of such prolonged exposure to fear in almost all aspects of our society. Personal relationships fail due to the fear of trusting another individual, intolerance of differences in culture, religion, race, and sexuality has increased with our fear of anything unknown, the exchange of ideas has disintegrated as our need to protect ourselves has grown, and differences of opinion are less likely to be tolerated.

Who is going to be willing to listen to the ideas of those we are told to fear, especially if the fear is irrational and based on emotional responses? Not very many of us I would think. Dependant on how the fear manifests itself in the world plays a significant roll in our abilities to resolve the circumstances of its creation and continuation.

If our days are filled with constant reminders of the evil nature of this group or that, and that we are under continual threat because of their existence, how likely is it that we will be able to summon the courage to think differently about them, let alone reach out the hand of friendship?

The words good and evil have been devalued by both their constant usage, and their employ by people whose authority is suspect. The only reason for calling a person like George Bush or a country like Iran evil is to make them feared and to let others know that they shouldn't like them. Just because someone or some country does something we don't agree with does not make them evil, yet that is exactly how the word is utilized today.

Good and evil are highly subjective terms anyway; there are very few things that people are in universal agreement on that constitute what is and isn't evil. Even within their own moral codes societies can have double standards on what constitutes evil dependant on who performs the act.

It's all right for the state to order the death of an individual, but not an individual to assist another take their own life, or even to let that person expire in peace. In some people's minds it's acceptable to possibly condemn a birthing mother to death, but not abort a foetus. Other people will abort a foetus for no other reason than it's potential gender. All sides of the issues think they are morally right and the other morally wrong.

Needless to say everybody thinks they are right and the other person is wrong. When everything becomes black and white and greys have ceased to exist the chances of any compromise being reached between two parties is minimal. Very few of us are willing to "walk a mile in another's shoes" anymore to try and understand another person's viewpoint.

I fear that until we are able to do that again nothing is going to change, and this war utilizing words of fear will continue.

April 16, 2006

The Honesty Of Art


"Rid yourself of the feeling that Art has nothing to do with reality and is not sturdy enough to face it on it's own" Erwin Piscator

One of the things that has always made the arts so dangerous to people who would control the way populations think is it's inherent capability of promoting independent thought. The good piece of art, be it novel, music, painting, theatre, or any of the other varied means of expression at the disposal of human beings, will promote a highly individual reaction from each of its observers.

Not everybody is going to be touched in the same manner upon listening to a piece of music as powerful as Beethoven's Ninth symphony, or by looking at Andy Warhol's "Campbell Soup Cans". The mirror that art holds up to society will offer a reflection unique as the vision that our personal mirrors offer us when we look into them.

Our perceptions and personal experiences are the filter through which we see everything, including our interpretations and reactions to a piece of art. Those seeking to control artistic expression do so with the hopes of controlling the way in which the world is seen. For what other reason would the Vatican have a list of proscribed books? Or would religious and political zealots throughout history have for their tendency to burn books?

The last thing that people of a very narrow perspective want is those under their sway to be given the means to form thoughts that are in opposition to their orthodoxy. This autocratic curtailing of thought can occur under many guises, but the most insidious form is the utilization of moral outrage. Under this blanket objection, proponents of censorship are able to cloak themselves in the costume of protectors of the innocent, guardians of virtue, and upholders of societal values.

It used to be that these folk were satisfied with working at a local level by attacking the choices made by school boards of what to include in their curriculum. They reserved their attacks for what was being taught in t the English and Health departments.

Their objections have always mystified me; for example I've never been able to understand what's so insidious about a Health teacher instructing his or her students in the names and functions of bodily parts. Its stuff most kids see on themselves every day isn't it? It's not like their giving them instructions on how to use sex toys, or telling them to go forth and procreate.

In fact the way sex education is usually taught in schools, half the time I bet the students have no idea that what the teacher is talking about has anything to do with having sex. Most of the time it's such a clinical thing that chances are it's more liable to turn them off having sex than anything else.

Then there are some of the books they want banned, the old favourite of course is J.D. Salinger's Catcher In The Rye. Holden is a foul-mouthed cynic and failure who is the epitome of the angst filled teenager. Lost and confused he lashes out at everybody and blames everybone else for his failures. It's still considered to this day one of the finest books written that has dealt with the difficulties some people have in adolescence.

But all some people can see is the language, and they refuse to get past it. They say they don't want their children exposed to it. Which pretty much means they are going to have to lock them in the house, seal all the windows so that sound doesn't come in from the streets, and throw out any televisions, radios, or other means of broadcasting the outside world into their house.

Perhaps back in the days when Catcher In The Rye was written people would have more of an excuse for being shocked at the language, it wasn't as prevalent in society then as it's now. But I have to wonder what world people live in where they think that banning one book will prevent their children from hearing that type of language.

Maybe they think that by teaching it in school the language is being legitimatised, but I would think it's prevalence in everyday life would take care of that. If language is such a concern for parents, than they need to make it clear what they consider acceptable behaviour in their house, and offer their children explanations for their reasoning.

Unfortunately it's not only the legions of decency that are a threat to literature, there's also the misguided politically correct. These are the folk who try to pull works such as Mark Twain's Huckelberry Finn and William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice from curriculum.

Their grounds for wanting these books removed are just as spurious as those who would have other "offensive" material removed. They want to re-write history and pretend that certain attitudes and beliefs never existed. In point of fact probably the best place for young people to read these books is in a school setting where the subject matter can be placed in its proper historical context and the behaviour of the characters can be seen in that light.

In their own ways each of these books are historically accurate in their depiction of the times they represent, and in the attitudes of the characters and society. We can't change what has happened in our past no matter how much it embarrasses us, but people will not learn from it if we pretend it never existed.

Now of course the reach of these groups has grown longer. Pop music has always been a target for the forces of decency, and they got their fifteen minutes of fame in the 1980's with hearings somehow made official even though a non-politician headed them. Who can forget that paragon of taste, Tipper Gore, justifying the suspension of the amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech in the name of moral decency?

All those hearings did was provide labels to tell kids which discs they should buy if they really wanted to piss off their parents. Putting a label on an album saying this contains mention of drug use and offensive language is like waving a red flag in front of a bull when it comes to adolescent males. No wonder the record companies had no objections to the hearings; they knew the notoriety could only increase sales.

Instead of viewing this as a set back the forces of moral decency have been on the upswing in recent years. The whole incident with Janet Jackson's nipple (can I even say that word) appearing for a micro second during the Supper Bowl halftime show a couple of years ago has resulted in the television networks in the United States being cowed into surrendering autonomy at the threat of depletion of their cash cow advertising contracts.

Arts Councils and federal funding agencies are being told what they can and can't fund based on moral standards that have nothing to do with artistic merit or talent. This type of control on creativity strikes to the very heart of artistic expression. Someone other than the individual artist making decisions on what is considered art.

Art is not supposed to be safe and docile at the command of one portion of the population. People misuse the term artistic temperament and believe it to be a mode of behaviour that can be turned on and off. In reality it means certain people are born with both sensitivity to the inner workings of the human psyche and the abilities to depict it.

Despite what the paragons of virtue would like us to believe there is a lot of darkness in this world and that will show up in any mirror that is pointing in the right direction. The prevalence and acceptance of violence in the mainstream, the continual objectification of humans, the xenophobia of mainstream society, and the very hypocrisy that drives the forces of decency are sufficient fodder for most artists to depict our world in less than glowing terms.

Art has everything to do with what is going on around us. If we lived in a world where tolerance and tranquility abounded you would see that looking back at you from the pages of a book, or the canvas on the wall. You would hear it in the music being composed and the songs being sung.

I don't know if the people who seek to control artistic expression are doing so because they understand that or not. It is more likely that they are doing it because they don't see the world they want to exist depicted. With their efforts to control expression they are trying to form a false picture of the world for their own peace of mind.

Unfortunately neither the world nor the artists are co-operating, and they never will. Perhaps there will come a time when people realize they can't enforce their vision of existence on either the world or the artist. Instead of trying to control art, they need to accept the fact that it tells them with, far more honesty than any newspaper, what is going on in the world.


April 15, 2006

Passover And Easter: Uneasy Neighbours

A friend of mine sent me an email the other day containing a series of letters to the editor that one of the English newspapers hadn't published. While some were sort of stupid, and others mildly amusing, one had me almost in tears. Like all good letters it was simple, direct, and to the point:

"Did anyone else feel that Mel Gibson's remake of the classic Life of Brian wasn't anywhere near as funny as the original?"

I'm at a loss as to understand why the newspaper in question refused to publish the letter. But than again I agree with the writer of the letter so maybe I'm not the perfect judge of community standards in these circumstances. There are others who would probably take offence to the tone of the letter.

Most likely they would be the same crowd who had taken offence to the original movie in the first place. When it was released, Monty Python's Life Of Brian was considered sacrilegious or blasphemous and any of the other nasty words that people like to throw at works that make fun of their belief systems. Of course Mel's film, The Passion, had its own detractors, and they called it things like anti-Semitic, and pornographic in it's display of violence, so maybe it had more in common with the original than we thought.

I never had any desire to go see Mel's film, not being a Christian the subject matter wasn't exactly appealing to me, and I figured I knew the story well enough already. Heck the whole world knows the story whether we want to or not so I couldn't see much point in retelling it. But, like I said I'm not a Christian so it's not for me to judge whether or not they want to make movies about their religion. (Please do me a favour and don't write in telling me all the reasons for the need to constantly tell this story over and over again or how well it did at the box office, E.T. did well at the box office and I couldn't see the point in it either.)

Every year some church group or another does a Passion play in the community where I live, or a stations of the cross retelling, or something along those lines. We get a live television feed of the Pope addressing the faithful in St. Peter's square for his Easter sermon, and we get images of pilgrims making their way through Jerusalem being shepherded by Israeli soldiers.

The irony of those visuals, Christian pilgrims being protected by the soldiers of the only Jewish state as they go to worship the person in whose name so many Jews have died seems to escape most people. Adding even more irony to the mix is the fact that at the same time Easter is being celebrated by Christians, Jewish people are celebrating Passover.

Passover of course is the celebration of Moses leading the Jewish people out of Egypt and bondage and into the promised land of Israel. That they had to smote a few thousand Canaanites who happened to be living there already seems to have been lost in the shuffle, but the Bible just sort of glosses over that little fact. That annoying little bit of history probably only merits a couple of versus in "Exodus".

Passover is a holiday that commemorates freedom, the birth of the laws of Judaism (the Ten Commandments) and the trials that had to be overcome to achieve that freedom. The first two nights of (Jewish holidays start at sundown of the day prior to what would be called the first day) of the holiday are marked with a serving of a meal, the Seder, in which the stages of the journey are ritually enacted through the foods eaten and the prayers and songs recited.

Now, according to what we are told, it was during Passover that Jesus was arrested, crucified, and resurrected. One could say the celebration of these events is the celebration of the birth of Christianity. As the corner stone of this religion is a belief in those events, and they are celebrated every year it only makes sense that it be considered the beginning of the belief system.

Unfortunately instead of thinking of Passover with respect and fondness, at many periods through out history Christians have sized on it to search for excuses to attack or abuse Jews. The whole Christ killer accusation has been so pervasive that in the 1960's Lenny Bruce, the American comic and satirist, was still utilizing it for material.

First of all he confesses that yes he and his uncles took Christ down to the basement and worked him over a little too much. Than he tells his audience they should be grateful that they (Jews) killed Christ when they did. How would they have felt if it happened in recent history, and they all had to walk around wearing electric chairs around their necks?

Having not seen Mr. Gibson's movie, I can't comment on the anti-Semitic nature, but I'm sure that accusation is based on the fact that Jewish people have a very real reason to be afraid of the Christ killer accusation. If, in any way, the movie depicted events that could leave that accusation as a conclusion, is it any wonder there would have been an outcry against it?

In the days of the Protestant Reformation, when the Catholic Church was lashing out at any "enemy" of Christianity, it was common for the ghettos that the Jews were confined in, to be invaded during Passover/Easter. Some bright spin doctor of his day seized upon the story of marking the door jams with the blood of a lamb so the Angel of death would know not to take Jewish first born children during the plagues, and turned it into Matzah (unleavened bread eaten during Passover) being made with the blood of gentile children.

With the Jews mysteriously escaping the worst of the effects of the plague (having personal hygiene as part of your religion staves off a lot of waste born diseases) and the unrest of the times due to the reformation, it was easy to take such lies and make Jews scapegoats for the ails of society.

Although this was common practice during the year, Easter and Passover provided a means for whipping up mob violence, making Jewish life even more precarious. During the centuries of the Diaspora and even today for Jews who do not live in Israel, the end of the Seder is marked with the toast of "Next year in Jerusalem". During dark times it was a ray of hope symbolizing freedom and a return tothe heart of their religion. As Moses led them out of slavery into the freedom of Israel, so they would hope to return to the city that was their icon of release from persecution.

The treatment of Jews over the years by followers of Christianity has not spoken well for the younger belief system's tolerance of others. When I hear the bells pealing for Easter mass I can't help but think of other springs in different lands where those bells would call the faithful to acts of violence and hatred against people who's only crime was to worship a different God.

We need far more movies like Life of Brian which laugh at the world, and far fewer movies like The Passion which remind us of the hatreds in the world. It doesn't matter what it's intent was, sometimes simply depicting the events is all that takes to fan the flames of old fears and old hatreds. I don't see the necessity of that in any circumstances.

March 28, 2006

What's In A Name

Names. We're all given them when we are born, tags that are stuck on us before we have developed any of our own characteristics or personality. Most of us were given at least two at birth, maybe even more. One of them identifies who we belong too, which clan or family group we are associated with, and the other is what's known as our given name, or names as the case may be.

Sometimes we're named for a forbearer, sometimes for a family friend, and other times just a random name chosen by your parents from a book. However the name is chosen it's the one that we end up hearing almost everyday of our lives. If you are a Christian, one of the first ceremonies you will undergo is initiation into the church via baptism where your soul and name are tied together and introduced to God.

I've always found it a little odd that so much importance is given to an appellant that was chosen for you by people who hadn't met you yet. Some people at least wait until after the baby is born to name it, but you can't wait too long because you've got to have a name ready to give to the church as soon as the mother and child are able to get out of bed.

Even if you're not being baptized there is pressure on the parents to name the child right away. I've never understood why. The kid isn't going to be responding to it for a couple of years yet anyway. At most they will give it the same amount of attention a dog will give when you call its name, a conditioned recognition and nothing more.

In other words a name is nothing more than a convenience in the first years of a child's life. A way for the parents to have a means of addressing them in a manner more personal then pronouns and differentiating their brood from someone else's in crowded situations like playgrounds.

But, aside from teachers calling roll in class, the only other service that a name provides is ammunition for being teased mercilessly if your name is at all odd, or if you have become a target for bullying.

Supposedly we live in a world where we are free to make choices about who and what we are. Any child can grow up to be anything, but not with a name of their own choosing. If we really wanted a name to have something to do with the person who is being named, we would wait for them to reach a certain age and allow them to have a hand in naming themselves.

Family members use names as a means of laying claim to an individual. Parents stake out their claim to their children by giving them a name that will have expectations attached to it. Either the weight of living up to an ancestor's accomplishments, or matching the deeds of renown attached to a name, are loaded on your shoulders almost before you can walk.

What would be so bad in having children and young adults choosing their own names? Oh I'm sure there would be some kids who would change their name every hour on the hour for the first little while, but the novelty would wear thin after a while. By the time they would reach an age where having a name would begin to matter they would have learned to settle on one name for a while. Even the flightiest person in the world will eventually have to find a roost, and will realize the necessity of settling on one name for an extended stretch of time.

There are plenty of cultures through out the world where people search out there own names as part of their ritual for entering adulthood. Whether it's the vision quest of Native Americans, or some other ritual, the "finding" of your name is a means of establishing your connection to creation and taking your rightful place in society.

A few years ago I changed some of the names I was given at birth because they did not feel appropriate to the person who I had become, or wanted to be. For me what was most important was riding myself of the last name that I had been saddled with by my father.

My wife and I had just decided that we were going to get married, and I did not want to carry the name of my abuser over into this new life. I had never felt like part of that family to begin with, and always associated more with my mother's family, so I switched to my mother's family name of Marcus.

Everybody I knew understood completely. My mother of course thought it was great, as she had done the same thing almost thirty years ago when my parents had separated. My brother couldn't have cared less; he's always had his own unique names for me whose creativity was only matched by their disgustingness.

Changing ones name just doesn't seem like such a big deal to me, so I find it appalling that six years after my wife changed her first name, that some of her family are unwilling to call her by her legal name of choice. In Canada when you change your name it is changed on everything from your birth certificate on up. Your old identity has ceased to exist.

Like me, my wife had been through some hard time as a younger person, including watching the woman she was named after slitting her wrists in front of her when she was a child. She no longer wanted to carry that name with her anymore. Long ago she had dreamt a name that was more appropriate and fitting for her, but she had never felt right with making the change until six years ago.

I find it incomprehensible why people think they have any say in the matter of what a person should want to call him or herself. Maybe if they are the parent who chose the name to honour an ancestor they have some right to ask why. But the first thing they need to realize is that when a person chooses a new name it has nothing to do with anybody but themselves and what is right for them.

Does that sound selfish? How is it more selfish than imposing a name on someone who doesn't want it because it means something to you? Quite frankly I don't see the difference. In fact I think it's less selfish for a person to choose their own name than to force someone to live with a name they don't like because it makes you happy.

Every name has meaning; a name should express something of the person's nature and character. Does it make sense that the name someone is given when they are born is going to be able to predict the person they will become? What someone is known as when they are five or eleven has as much chance of being appropriate when they are twenty-one as a fortune cookie prediction.

It's not a crime to want to change your name. You have to wonder at people who are so attached to a person's old name that they can't let it go without a fight. If they genuinely loved that person wouldn't they wish them well in their continued growth as an individual instead of being so concerned with what they are leaving behind?

For some of us the past is a place we no longer wish to have anything to do with, and the names that we carried through those days are an anchor that drags us down into its depths. Cutting that chain is akin to being set free to discover a new world that belongs to us, and us alone.

If you can only criticize then be prepared to be left behind, there will be no room on board for you.

March 24, 2006

New Age: Cultural Colonialism

There are few things that are liable to rile me up more than the exploitation of one people's culture by another group. The only thing that can usually anger me more is the instances that group doing the exploiting were also responsible for attempting to obliterate those cultures.

New Age religion is just another attack on a former subject race by its masters. Look over the history of the last two centuries and you will find it rife with examples of Colonial masters working to suppress people. The easiest way was to destroy their language, which in turn would lead to the suppression of their culture.

In a move typical of empire building the world over, closely following the armies, would come the missionaries, to bring the natives news of their salvation. Surely, they could not want to live without the benefit of Christ and suffer the eternal fires of damnation.

While the missionaries taught English and spread the gospel according to King James or the Pope from Shanghai to Bombay, to the deep woods of Northern Ontario, and the Amazon basin, governors passed laws to assist them in their holy duties. The laws would create schools for children to be shorn of their culture, ban the use of religious languages in sacred texts, and encourage the development of the narcotic trade.

Through the obliteration of languages and religion, it became easier to assimilate and convert an indigenous population. The Victorian English gave this process the quaint name of "The White Man's Burden", where in they saw that it as their responsibility to take the coloured people of the world and lead them into civilization whether they wanted to or not.

Once they had settled the issue of culture the creation of the period's history had to be taken care of. Historians and anthropologists would look for proof that supported theories that pointed out the primitive nature of the indigenous people's lives and how much better off they were under their new rulers.

But of primary importance, before anything else was to turn them into good Christians whether they wanted to be or not. It was just another part of the White Man's Burden to ensure that the poor, ignorant, people weren’t allowed to miss out on having their souls saved from eternal damnation.

So what's changed? Why are the grandchildren and children of the oppressors now seeking answers to their questions about God, religion, and spiritual enlightenment from the same cultures that their ancestors tried to obliterate? Or has anything changed at all in the way cultures of other nations are treated by the people who call themselves New Age.

On the surface, it looks as if there is a movement towards treating the teachings and religions of other cultures with respect. People certainly seem interested enough in learning about them. But is that the reality?

Look closely at some of the books that are for sale in either the new age section of your bookstore, or even scarier, a new age bookstore, and check out the titles. Predominate will be stuff like Ten Easy Steps To Empowerment, Hidden Secrets Of Mystical Buddhism Revealed, Shamanism, Dreams, And Power, or Bang The Drum Slowly: Power Dances of the Native Americans.

If the titles of the books didn't make you gag wait until you see the authors of the books and their biographies. There's never been a collection of blonder, blue-eyed Indians, Hindi, or Amazon basin Shaman in history. Well maybe they've studied, or done research, and in spite of their cheesy titles, the books are legitimate works of scholarship?

Well if you call channelling the spirit of a ten thousand year old shaman, or being the reincarnation of a Cree medicine woman, or making it up off the top of your head research, then yes they have. But even if they had some sort of access to knowledge, and even if what they were saying had any basis in reality, what right do they have to set themselves up as teachers and purveyors of another's culture.

Less then two hundred years ago, European and North American governments were doing whatever was in their power to obliterate these cultures. By some miracle, these people managed to survive our best attempts to destroy their traditions, and in some cases are only now managing to begin their recovery.

How do you think it feels for them to see the faces of their former oppressors looking back at them from the dust jackets of books claiming to sell their practices? Wouldn't it make them just a little pissed off?

I don't know if any of the titles I listed above exist or not, I wouldn't be surprised if they did, but there are many of similar type written by people claiming some sort of knowledge or other. What it boils down to in the end is just another form of imperialism. These people have decided that they, and they alone, are the ones qualified to teach people about cultural concepts belonging to other peoples.

That no one seems to question the right of buxom, buckskin clad, blonds, or red headed, sari draped seers, or golf slacks wearing gurus, to sell and teach paths to enlightenment based on cultures that are not their own only serves to show how little respect our society has for other people's faiths.

What does it matter that there are millions of people alive today who are legitimate followers of those faiths, who were born into a society governed by those philosophies. The implication is that they don't know as much about their own faith as these members of the elite.

Is it any wonder that in more and more cultures, especially those of former colonial countries, the populations are turning against North America and Europe? Our general attitude towards them is still condescending and arrogant, from our theft of their culture to our unwillingness to recognise their rights to have control over their own natural resources. In spite of their having gained independence they must still feel like they are treated as a lesser among equals.

In colonial India The British East India Tea Company forbid the printing of Hindu religious texts and histories in Sanskrit, and would only allow them to be printed in approved English translations. Not only did that destroy Sanskrit as a language but it ensured that everything that everybody read about their religion and history was from a British point of view.

Walking into a New Age bookstore today is like seeing that policy put in effect for the whole world. Not only is it rare to find a book instructing you in the practices of a culture written by a person of that culture, scarcer still are ones that have anything to do with the original intentions of that culture.

For people who claim to have found the path to enlightenment, the authors of these books are at best ignorant and at worst exploitive thieves. Cultural colonialism hasn't ended; it's just wearing a new disguise, and it's called New Age.


March 22, 2006

The Language Of War

War. For a word with only three letters, it sure packs a wallop. War. There is nothing even remotely pleasing to the ear in the sound it makes when you say it. War. Supposedly the state or condition that humans work hardest to avoid, but seem to be most comfortable using as a means of conflict resolution.

We are at war. Four one syllable words that change everything. With those four words thousands of years of intellectual evolution can be erased and humans immediately revert to primal beings that react to me good, you bad stimuli.

There's the internal debate within the country that goes to war that brooks no compromise or middle ground. You're either for us or you are the enemy. Those against the war are just as astringent in their opposition as their opponents are in their support. Listen to the voices of those for and against a conflict, not the words the voices, and most of the time, you can't tell them apart.

For something that most of the world's religions and philosophies preach against, war is awfully popular among us. We create myths around our warriors and our generals, we invoke the attributes of the warrior when we want to praise someone, and the word itself is one we can all instantly identify with.

Why else would our governments continually utilize it when they want to give the impression of action? We have wars on everything now; poverty, child hunger, famine, debt, drugs, and even war. The only times we don't seem to have war anymore is when we are actually involved in armed conflict.

We have police actions, military interventions, occupation forces, peacekeepers, and peacemakers. They all involve the movement of troops, the firing of weapons, the destruction of property and the loss of life, the same as war does, but technically speaking none of them are a state of war.

As much as I hate doing this, I do have to cede Mr. Bush the point, that technically speaking, his announcement that day on the aircraft carrier that the war was over was correct. If you adhere to the definition that war is the existence of a state of conflict between two sovereign nations, then the war in Iraq has been over since that day.

Once the Americans became the official occupiers, they granted themselves the legitimacy that goes along with being the government of a country. This gives them leave to call anyone who continues to fight against them insurgents and terrorists, instead of enemy soldiers. (Which also means none of them need to be treated according to the terms of the Geneva Convention governing the fair treatment of enemies captured during conflict, but that's another story)

One can question the legitimacy of the American backed government until you're blue in the face, but it doesn't prevent it from existing. Much like the American backed government in South Vietnam in the sixties and seventies, the only reason the one in Iraq is able to exist is because of the presence of American military power.

Once again, although I don't agree with his rosy assessment of the situations timeline, I have to give Mr. Bush credit for admitting this truth. He makes no bones about it in fact, that American troops are there to stay until Democracy is established, or the Iraqi troops can handle the dissidents on their own.

(That this scenario could lead very easily to the return of a Saddam Hussein type strong man in power either hasn't crossed his mind or it's not something he likes to mention in public)

Aside from the idolatry we have granted military figures throughout human history, our connection to war comes through in the way our language is replete with its idioms and parlance. Why do we call a successful sexual encounter a conquest? If we weren’t so fascinated with military life would we refer to everyday activities as camouflage or a woman's make up as "war paint"

We have advertising campaigns, and political minefields. Every cooperate executive sees him or herself as a general sending troops into battle against the bottom line and exhorts them to take no prisoners in their war for profits. Even as children we are told to keep in step and not march to the beat of a different drummer.

For all anybody talks of peace, there are very few examples of language that would serve as a reminder of tranquility used in today's vocabulary. We are even told to avoid using the passive voice as it weakens our writing.

That is the heart of the matter right there: war is strong peace is weak. When Mr. Bush, or any politician, wants to lessen the impact of an armed struggle he won't refer to it as war, but something less aggressive. Peacemaking or peacekeeping sounds so much gentler than war.

Even a police action conjures up visions of a state trooper walking down the main streets of Baghdad, not a Marine. Nobody believes for a second that that is the reality, but it's a comforting image to hold onto.

Gentleness is considered weak. Being kind and considerate doesn't get you the recognition that fighting off a burglar does. I don't care how anti-war you claim to be, until we learn to change the manner in which we think, war will still be the primary emotional force of our society.

Conflict, and confrontations are everyday occurrences in most of our lives. Have you ever considered what it would be like to have one day when you didn't confront one person or react in anger to something you heard? Can you even picture a day like it?

Anger at actions done to you on a personal level is a healthy. But we live in a society that is constantly angry, that's constantly utilizing the language of conflict and war to define itself. That's not healthy. Not for us, not for our children, and not for the world. Perhaps it's time we did something about it.

March 21, 2006

Self-Esteem

Inside each of us, either deeply buried or near the surface, lays our own opinion of ourselves. Dependent on our level of anxiety, insecurity, or confidence for it's definition, this highly changeable belief can wreck utter destruction on each and every one of us.

What we think of ourselves, self-esteem if you want to be fancy, can easily supplant any outside opinion of our strengths and weaknesses, because we claim to know ourselves better than others. What we fail to take into consideration is the myriad of events and circumstances that have gone into forming our definitions of self.

Our feelings of self-esteem are based on how we rate ourselves in a variety of categories. These range from our beliefs in our physical appearance, our intelligence, the status of our current relationships with others, our ability to conduct the tasks of a normal life, personality traits, and the way in which we feel about ourselves as a sexual person.

Now obviously we don't carry these opinions around with us consciously all the time. Usually they are deep-seated beliefs that only rise to the surface when circumstances dictate. For example if we have a low opinion of our physical appearance it will affect us most when we are placed in a position where comparisons are unavoidable.

In our society, which places such an emphasis on surface attributes, physical appearance has become of paramount importance. It has long been known that the way we feel about how we look can affect our behaviour in various degrees. The problem is, given our predilection for judging by physical appearance, we tend to place less credence on the other aspects of low self-esteem.

Probably intelligence would rank second after physical attributes, as a means of comparing ourselves unfavourably to others, followed by the other categories in order of personal applicability. But what is of more importance than their place in line, is how do we form these negative feelings of ourselves in the first place?

I'm not of the belief that we are all born worthless sinners who are meant to suffer a life of pain until we find salvation after death, so as far as I'm concerned we're not born feeling inadequate. Any and all feelings of insecurity and low self-worth are learned at the hands of others.

For a lot of people the root lies in that charming concept of Original Sin, we're all born guilty thanks to Adam and Eve and have to be redeemed by a Saviour, whether they know it or not. You can't help but be affected by the fact that it is considered a given that your species is philosophically and metaphysically worthless sinners.

The level of guilt created about feeling good will vary dependant on the level of your belief, but in one way or another it will touch all of us who live in a Judeo/Christian society. Far too many things, like sex and intoxicants, which are done for pleasure have guilt attached to them through their association with sin for people not to believe there is something inherently bad about feeling good.

If that weren’t enough of an obstacle to have to overcome, there is also the manner in which people treat you as your growing up. In a previous post I talked about Schemas and how those coping mechanisms and behavioural tendencies were formed by beliefs developed through your treatment at the hands of others.

If you were sexually, emotionally, or physically abused as a child by any authority figure you will develop behaviours that are suited to surviving your situation. As this was learned as a child at home, to you it will be normal and how the world works. Until you are given reason to believe otherwise, you will just assume that everybody will treat you in an identical manner.

I would think that it's pretty obvious where I'm going with this don’t you? The same treatment that formed your behaviour is bound to affect your self-image. Daddy saying you're bad, then raping you, and then telling you how much he loves might just affect how you view yourself.

Obviously, that's an extreme example, but it doesn't have to be that extreme. Going through public school as the one everyone picks on, having a mother who doesn't show any affection or interest in your life, being too poor to afford the same clothes the other kids in the class are wearing; any or all of those things are going to have an effect on how you view yourself further on down the road.

If you are susceptible to low self-esteem you will also end up in a vicious circle of comparing yourself unfavourably to others, thus further depreciating your value as a person. Of course it doesn't help that as you've grown into adulthood there is a constant bombardment of advertising reminding you of how inferior you are; that you should really consider losing those extra pounds, unsightly lines and contemplate vaginal reconstruction or penis enhancements.

In fact, a good chunk of our economy is dependant on people's insecurities, and most of our advertising is focused on taking advantage of, and even encouraging those feelings. If everyone felt good about themselves, who would buy ninety percent of the crap sold in the stores today?

It's a pretty sick little world we live in when we're pretty much encouraged to belittle ourselves from the moment we're born to the day we die. You want an easy test for yourself to gauge the level of your self-esteem? See how well you accept a compliment about anything. Do you dismiss it as flattery? Do you look for an ulterior motive? Do you have any trouble at all accepting it?

If you could answer yes to any of the above, you might want to ask yourself why.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to improve yourself; to increase your education, to change your hairstyle so that you feel more attractive, or to improve your skills in the workplace. But if you feel like you are less deserving of compliments, or less deserving of love, or just less deserving period, because you lack education, or an appropriate hairstyle than there is something wrong.

It has taken me years to learn how to accept a compliment, and it's still a new sensation to feel deserving of the sentiments expressed by people when they say something nice about me, or my work. I figure it will probably take a while to get used to it, after years of hearing the reverse or worse.

I'll let you in on a secret though, nothing does more for your self-esteem than enjoying being praised, so once you've managed that step, the battle's half over. The next time someone says something nice to you, instead of brushing it off, or denying it, or what your habit has been until now, try saying thank you and see what happens.

First of all, it's only polite; think of the other person's feelings. Secondly, the less often you deny that you deserve a compliment the easier it will be for you to accept that you deserve it. Think of it this way if you like, it was the opinions of other people who made you think you were of little worth in the first place, right?

Well it’s the same thing now but only in reverse. If other people were right in the first instance, they must still be right now that they are complimenting you. I know it's not a good thing to put your happiness in the hands of others, but I think in this instance you're all right.

At the very least, think of it as recompense for anybody that used to put you down, and your proof that they were wrong. Once you begin accepting that, it won't matter so much what other people think of how you look, or think.

It's not an easy thing to overcome years of conditioning and memories, but once you start accepting the fact that you deserve praise, you'll find it getting easier. Good luck, you deserve it.

March 20, 2006

In Defence of Idleness

I'm sure most people have heard that wonderful Chinese curse, may you live in interesting times, or something along those lines, at once in their lives. Perhaps the first time you heard it you didn't quite understand it, thinking what's wrong with interesting or something similar. It's only after you've lived through a couple of interesting events that you begin to understand that there is a difference between interesting and interesting.

I'm sure that anyone living in Iraq, be they Sunni, Shite, man on the street, or American soldier, has a finer understanding of that statement right now than most of us. The same probably could be said for anybody living in Afghanistan, the Sudan, Malaysia, or any one of the other places in the world where the times could be said to be interesting. Hell there are days I find it too interesting to walk downtown in my little city, to be able to even imagine what it would be like to live under the continual threat of death like they do.

Boredom just doesn't get the recognition it deserves sometimes. Over the years it has received a lot of bad press with our emphasis on productivity and making oneself useful. Sayings like: "idle hands are the devil's playground" have gone a long way to in contributing to its bad name. That damn Protestant work ethic will get you every time.

Not only does that infamous ethic demand time's constant utilization, it also defines time's meaningful use as that which produces results of intrinsic value through sayings like "Time is money". A second that's used on something that doesn't have a financial return is a second wasted.

Capitalism, the pursuit of capital, that's what we call the way we live. Taken in that context, time is money, is as accurate a statement as any to describe how are lives are defined from the moment we are born to the moment we die. But the same can be said about any of the so-called isms that have been postulated as means for organizing our social structure.

Communism, socialism, fascism, Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism, anarchism, any ism you want to mention is all about the division of time and how it is used for the ordering of the masses and being productive. It really doesn't make much of a difference if you’re a minimum wage slave for Wal-Mart or working in a collective farm in Minsk (I know they probably don't exist anymore, but let's just call it poetic licence and move on) you can bet the attitude towards time is the same.

Not only is it important that you don't waste time, but that you use it in as productive a manner as possible. Whether it's to earn those big bucks that Sam's kids are paying you or to help meet your quota for the month is immaterial, the social pressure is the same. Be that good little cog in the wheel that keeps the bigger cogs moving around, which keeps the, ah screw it, you get the picture.

So it doesn't matter what kind of government you grow up under, in the European/Slavic Christian world, boredom is frowned upon. (I offer that qualification based on ignorance not on any access to knowledge, I'd hazard a guess and say Japan and South Korea pretty much fall into those categories too, but I don't know enough about other societies and cultures to comment on their attitudes towards "spare time") We fill spare time with either hobbies or passive entertainments like television, movies, or video games. (By passive, I mean you don't need to initiate anything on your own, you simply react to a given situation)

Now I can hear an argument forming on the horizon, running along the lines of; if there is so much regulation and order in people's life, how do you explain all the violence among young people and gangs? The first thing I'll do is ask, what's the root cause of so much public violent crime today? (The majority of violent crime is domestic, which is a whole other valley of fear to walk through at another time) Monetary gain. It may be to get money for a fix, or just to get money, but it's still monetary gain.

If time is money, there's no quicker way to get it than a quick snatch at the local store, especially if your junk habit makes you next to unemployable. A bank robbery is probably the most efficient use of time going. The most gain for the least investment. Of course as with any high yield investment, the risks are higher, but that just makes it more interesting doesn't it?

What's a gang if not a type of corporate model? They have a hierarchy, from the underage "tinnies" who can't do time because of their age, to those running the show back in the shadows where they won't be touched. In a world where you are measured by your monetary worth, and expediency is condoned as a virtue, what easier way is there for a kid from the projects to get ahead than a local gang?

Money, power, and the respect we are taught that goes with them are there for the taking. To our eyes it looks like a perversion of the Protestant work ethic, but when you live in a third floor, cold water, walk up, it could look like the most productive use of your time.

I often wonder where this obsession with time and productivity came from. Was it a reaction to the cultures that preceded Christianity where individuals were encouraged to dream and spend time in contemplation? It's not like Christianity is against that sort of behaviour as its history is filled with Monastic orders that have offered refuges from the world to those wishing to meditate on the higher mysteries of life according to the faith.

But even in those situations look at the word used to describe that activity: retreat. That's a word loaded with negative connotations. Retreat is used to describe a failure to advance in military parlance or even worse to cede territory to an opponent. In most cases, a retreat is considered a defeat.

So what does that imply about people who "retreat" to a monastery. That they have been defeated by society, that they can't cope with the hustle and bustle of day to day living and have been forced to back away, give ground as it were, in order to survive.

That doesn't say much for our attitude towards a life of quite contemplation does it? Most of us would consider it a cop out in fact. You only need to look at the negative implications we have attached to the word dreamer or daydream and you'll begin to understand how deep rooted the antipathy is buried.

This probably goes a long way towards explaining the outsider status of artists. Although it is of vital importance for an artist to be doing his or her painting, writing, singing or whatever as much as possible, it is equally important that they spend time with their minds at rest in quiet contemplation.

I don't mean meditating or anything even that formal, just sitting and letting thoughts chase each other around your brain without any purpose. Sitting and staring out a window at nothing in particular and drifting, without the aid of any stimulant or intoxicant, without any intent or objective, is probably considered the epitome of unproductive behaviour, but I find it essential to my ability to create.

From such idle sitting sprang my novel's entire plot and outline. It didn't appear fully formed or anything, but I watched it take shape before my eyes and figured out how it could be written. The practical writing of it still had to take place, but that was easy considering I had already seen the whole story and only needed to fill in the blanks.

I can't imagine some of the great ideas of the world coming into being without their conceivers having had idle moments. Moments of artistic and creative inspiration are not usually born from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. They need to be accessed via our subconscious, and that's not possible if we never let our mind have a moment's rest while awake.

We suffer from constant information overload, continually bombarded with colour, sound, and scents. How can anybody think clearly while continually trying to process all that information? Think of yourself as a computer with an old Pentium 1 200 processor and 32 mb of ram trying to run one of today's complex games, and you'll have a good idea of what I'm talking about.

Is it any wonder so many people are taking anti depressants and anti anxiety medication? Our cerebral cortexes are being fried and we don't even know it, and not only are we encouraged to maintain this behaviour, but told to do otherwise is wrong. At the same time we have pundits wondering why productivity is down, and quality of service is decreasing.

The solution is having the freedom to do nothing. To have time on your hands to sit and stare out the window with no responsibilities weighing you down, or outside information intruding on your thinking. At first you might be bored, not know what to "do" with yourself, but that's the conditioning you need to be able to overcome; the feeling that you always have to be doing something.

Try an experiment, set aside a half hour each week where you will sit and just do nothing in as quiet an environment as you can create. Try not to look at anything specific, that's why staring out a window is so good, and see what happens. If you feel like it, record what the experience was like the first time so you have something against which to judge how things change if you continue the experiment.

Remember though, you have absolutely no purpose for doing this. Don't expect anything, don't anticipate anything, and see what happens. I think you'll be surprised at how much hard work it takes to just sit and do nothing.

I think it is about time that our society got it through its thick skull that there is nothing wrong with doing nothing. So give it a try, after all you've nothing to lose.

March 13, 2006

DVD Review: The Port Of Last Resort

Whenever I hear people talking about new immigration policies, or imposing quota's on the numbers of refugees we allow into the country at one time, I wonder at our ability to forget the mistakes of our past. I realize the 1930s were a while ago, but the events of that time are written down in enough places that I find it hard to believe anyone could profess ignorance of their occurrence.

Canada, the United States, and Great Britain all closed their borders to people clamouring to flee the rising horror of Nazi Germany. Jews and others considered inferior were condemned to death in the camps because of these policies. Canada and the U.S. literally had quotas in place stating how many Jews were allowed to immigrate in a given year.

In 1938, as the noose began to tighten around them, German Jews began casting about for anyplace where they could find refuge. For about 20,000 of them that place turned out to be the city of Shanghai. Up until 1941, prior to Japan's entry into World War Two, Shanghai remained a free city, which meant there was no need of passports, visas, or entry stamps, to gain admittance. All you had to do was be able to get there.

Shanghai's unique situation came about as a hold over of colonial times. Much like other cities scattered throughout the world it was divided up into segments representing the rule of each colonial power. In the case of Shanghai, that was France, Great Britain, and a so-called international zone. By 1937, the Japanese had also carved out a stake for themselves in the city, which was their springboard for continued assaults upon China.

When the Jews started to arrive in 1938 Japan actually controlled the port of entry to the harbour, but even though they were already allied with the Germans, their racial policy at the time was quite different. They also made no bones about their need for Western currency, so raised no objections to the influx of refugees during this period before their direct involvement in the war.

All this information, and more, has been gathered together and presented in a fascinating documentary that's just been released on DVD called The Port Of Last Resort. Co-directors Joan Grossman and Paul Rosdy spent four years researching and filming this project. To tell the story they've utilized letters written during the period, still photographs taken by the refugees, interviews with some of the survivors, and most fascinating of all, film footage shot during the time by some of the families who lived in Shanghai during the period

Unlike so many documentaries of this type, ones dealing with the plight of persecuted people, the filmmakers don't just dump images and figures into the audience's laps, in an attempt to impress the situation upon them. Instead, they have personalized the experience by focusing on the specific stories of a few of the survivors.

The script will pull back to offer a broad vision of events, then it will focus in on the specific experiences of each of the interviewees, giving a personal face to the different realities faced by the displaced people. Starting in Germany we hear about the circumstances that finally persuaded them it was time to leave, and we continue to follow them right through to the end of the war.

Once the war in Europe began it became harder for people to travel to Shanghai, as the ports were closed to them. But some still managed to travel the overland route through Russia by train until they finally arrived. When the Germans invaded Russia that route was closed and the Jewish community in Shanghai was cut off from the rest of the world until the arrival of Allied troops in 1945.

Listening to the people interviewed talk about their lives during this period is fascinating. First of all, there is the obvious affection some of them have for their time in that city. There was no denying that Shanghai was unlike anything, any of them had experienced before.

Shanghai was a fake, a phoney, neither occidental nor oriental. And yet – God forgive me – she was the most exciting and unique city in the world. She was poison, and the old-time Shanghailanders were addicts who never could free themselves of being in love with her.- Max Berges, refugee

The filmmakers, whether it was deliberate or not, I don't know, have interviewed people who all had different perspectives of the experience. One man lived a life of deprivation in shelters; a woman, whose family had access to money in Switzerland, lived in a modern apartment; and a man who worked in the nightclubs of the city.

It's the matter of fact emotional candour of these interviewees that gives this movie its true impact. Hearing one woman calmly recounting how her mother died three days after contracting dysentery, or one of the men telling of how his plans for vengeance against a Japanese tormentor came to naught because he could not kill him with a knife, are more poignant than any film footage or photos could ever be.

What's truly amazing is how little anger or bitterness any of these people express when talking about their experience. No one points the finger of blame at the countries that could have offered them shelter. The most anyone says is that their quota numbers for entry into the United States was to high to allow them to wait for their turn to come.

As they acknowledge, part of that comes with the awareness that they were some of the lucky ones. Even when the Japanese passed a proclamation stating that all Europeans who had arrived after 1937 without documentation, i.e. Jews, were required to live within the boundaries of a certain district, life might have become harder, and existence more precarious, but it was still bearable.

It wasn't until the end of the war that they discovered the reality of the situation they had left behind. Even then, it was months before they found out the true enormity of the horror they had only just escaped. Everyone had known the camps existed, but no one could have believed when they left Germany that they would never see the ones they left behind again.

The Port Of Last Resort provides a peek back in time at a piece of history that was largely unknown. It is also a timely reminder for us who have lives of safety and comfort, to both not take it for granted, and not be so quick to deny others access to what we cherish.

There are times when people are left with no choice but to pack up and leave behind all that is precious and dear to them. Let's hope if those times come again we can prove that we have learnt the lessons of the past, put aside our petty fears and concerns, and welcome them with open arms instead of slamming the door in their faces.

The Port Of Last Resort is an ideal documentary in that it makes no judgements and lays no blame, instead it paints a picture that's vivid and real. By letting the people and the pictures speak for themselves, the filmmakers have given this movie an intimacy that is too often absent from movies dealing with the subject. It's that human element that makes this such a successful film.


February 28, 2006

Tradition: The Good And The Bad

"A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask 'Why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous?' Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!" Tevye: Opening lines of Fiddler on the Roof. Directed by Norman Jewison. Script: Sholom Aleichem. Music: Joseph Stein.

Tradition. I can't hear that word without superimposing a Russian/Jewish accent on to it. Indelibly carved into my brain is the image of the actor Topol standing, legs apart, arms spread, extending that word in song for what seems like an eternity.

Tradition. The movie, and I assume the play as well, Fiddler On The Roofhas as one of its themes, the intrusion of modern life into a small Jewish farming village, or shetle as they were known in Yiddish, in pre communist Russia. With these intrusions come conflicts between what has always been done, tradition, and increasingly liberal attitudes.

Tradition we are told from the beginning, via the song of the same name, is the glue that keeps the fabric of the community together. It is our instruction manual and blueprint for leading the good life. The song asks without traditions where would we be?

Tradition tells us who we can marry, what we can eat, how to treat our neighbours, and how to pray. From the moment we are born, our feet follow in the steps of our fore parents, without deviation. With tradition as our guide, we can't go wrong.

What happens when tradition and want come into conflict? When is the time for tradition to bend and be flexible? When does tradition stop being the beautiful tapestry of our past, illustrating life, and become the shackles that tieus into backwardness and bigotry?

Tevye is faced with increasing demands upon his willingness to bend with the times, until he is no longer able to and snaps. His tests come in the form of his daughters and their choices of husbands. In the case of his eldest, it is simply her desire to marry for love instead of following the dictates of the matchmaker. Although it means surrendering his dreams of wealth, he is able to bend with grace and allow her to follow her heart.

It's the youngest two daughters that bring things to a head. The middle child falls for a secular Jewish communist. He cannot abide the thought of his daughter marrying a non-believer. He only reconciles with her when, after her husband is arrested, she must move away to be close to where he is imprisoned.

The third daughter does the unforgivable and marries a Russian soldier. She is disowned and never spoken of again. Not until the whole village is forced to pack up and leave for the New World, and she and her husband join them, is there any sign of reconciliation. Tevye sees that his beloved traditions have not held back the other great tradition that buffets Jews. Their welcome wears out, and they have to move on.

Traditions are handed down from generation to generation. They are transmitted in forms ranging from the oral stories told by tribal people that import survival and moral lessons; to texts like the Old and New Testaments, and The Qur'an, (Koran); and epic poetry like Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aenied, and Valmiki's Ramayana.

The problem with writing things down is that it gives them the power beyond their words. Once something is on paper, it is equivalent to being carved into stone for all its flexibility. Relevancy becomes an issue. In the thousands of years since some of these stories have been written the world has changed.

We have learned more about the nature of why and how things happen and came into being then were known by our fore bearers. An occurrence that was once explained away as magical or an act of God is now known to have logical explanations. Ideas that were once universally accepted, like the earth being flat and the sun and planets revolving around the earth, have been refuted.

Does it not follow logically than that the stories we used as guidance for living should not also be adapted to our current world. Don't they need to change with our understanding of the world in the same way we no longer believe we will sail off the edge of the world?

Stories that are teachings need to be relevant to the people reading them. Native American writers like Thomas King continues to use traditional characters like Coyote from their past, but incorporates them into present day native realities. This type of integration keeps a culture from stagnating.

If we continue to be hind bound by the past, we end up retaining elements that may have been appropriate to another age, or may never have been appropriate at all. Attitudes towards women have changed in society, yet certain traditions continue to oppress them and treat them like less than chattel. That's not something we should encourage, so we need to adapt our stories to reflect changing attitudes.

It seems like segments of Christianity and Islam (Not meaning to pick on those two, but they are the obvious example) are very resistant to this concept. Adherence to traditions that are out of step with the realities of today's world is the cause of some of our worse conflicts.

Without archaic beliefs to fortify them, do you think we would have the proliferation of suicide bombers that we see today? How much better off would the world be if proper birth control and protection against Sexually Transmitted Diseases were available in the developing world. With both Muslim and Christian backed governments imposing their beliefs through aid packages conditional upon non-involvement in anything resembling family planning, the likely hood of that happening soon is slim.

Tevye discovers that tradition can be a comfort, but it also can be a curse. We need to learn that lesson. We need to stop letting traditions pull is into the past, but start bringing them forward with us, into the future.


February 6, 2006

That's it. I've fuckin' had

That's it. I've fuckin' had it; enough's enough. I suppose everybody has a saturation point and I think I've just about reached mine. What am I on about now you ask? Well just about everything if you really want to know.

It can be pretty much whittled down to what's been in the papers lately. War, war, and just for an alternative how about some talk about a new war. Of course if you want a change in diet from war there's always religion, which usually leads to war so you might as well just see above.

There are the daily reports from Iraq, or if you're really unlucky, about Iraq from the folk safely back home not getting shot at behind their podiums. We can win the war in Viet Nam; oh I'm sorry that would be Iraq. We will only bring the troops home when the job is done not a moment earlier.

How do you know when that happens? Anyone figured that out yet? Does the body count have to fall below a certain level first, or is it when the number of troops that you've got left on the ground has dropped too far. How many lives were budgeted to be lost in advance? " Well if we want to take on Iran afterwards we can only lose so many"?

Iran is the new war by the way. "Can't rule out the military option" is every one's favourite phrase this weekend. It will be easy; just change all those q's to n's and were set.

Nobody pays attention to the names, as long as they sound Arabic nobody will notice that it's the same speech you gave about Iraq two and half years ago. Nuclear weapons ? weapons of mass destruction; what's the difference? Not much really, or at least, not so anybody's going to notice.

Anyway think of how easy it will be. Right next door to Iraq, all we have to do is just cross over the border and we're there. The navy and the air force are getting bored; they haven't had the chance to blow anything up from the sky in a while. The sailor types are just itching to launch more of those tomahawk cruise missiles and I'm sure the air force is looking at having to spend some of its budget if it wants to buy more toys next year.

Give them some new targets for goodness sakes!

Oh and hey, remember Afghanistan? Yeah that was the place the war on terror started, our first victory. Except we still haven't won that one because people are still getting killed over there pretty frequently by those guys we defeated.

The Taliban are still out there in the mountains. They come out of their caves periodically to kill a bunch of people and remind them that if the NATO troops ever leave they'll be running the country again in less than two months. But we won that war didn't we? Didn't we?

If that's not bad enough reading about all of that every single day, there's the ongoing war on terror in North America to curl your toes. The President of the United States has no problem authorizing illegal wiretaps on anyone who might be a security threat. I want to know who makes the list and what constitutes a security threat?

Twenty years ago I was considered too much of a security risk to work at the G-8 conference in Toronto Ontario. There was a pretty picture taken of me in front of the American consulate in the early 1980's protesting the testing of cruise missiles in Canada. I guess that made me too dangerous to hand out press releases to journalists.

I'd guess you wouldn't want to phone Cindy Sheehan up right about now and make any jokes about where she wants the dynamite delivered. Is their list of "Dangerous Subversives" going to be along the lines of Nixon's "Enemy List"? (If so, there's going to be a lot of competition to get on it. What kind of leftist are you if you couldn't get on Bush's "Subversive List). You know the one that had people like Bill Cosby and Warren Beatty on it; threats to America each and everyone of them. (Well maybe they are, but for different reasons than Nixon's people thought)

Of course nobody's going to have to worry about an invasion from Canada now. The border is going to be patrolled by Blackhawk Helicopters and fighter jets. That's good, so now when they see a possible terrorist crossing the Peace Bridge they can just blow him and any fellow travelers away with a rocket attack.

That there's the whole anti-Muslim thing going on that's starting to stick in my craw. Okay some of them are damned scary, and nobody, and I mean nobody, has the right to randomly blow up innocent civilians no matter how justified they think they are. Just because it's being done by bombs from the sky doesn't legitimize it any more then if it's dynamite strapped to some yahoo's body.

The thing is though that the rest of the world has pissed on the Muslims since their inception. It started with the Crusaders and has been going on ever since. "Death To the Infidels" was something that was shouted from as many Christian mouths as Saracen.

They tried to be nice, they let Christians and Jews live under their rule and practice their beliefs. They used to be a damn site more tolerant of Jews than the Christians were, just check out Muslim Spain if you want verification of that little fact.

But you keep pushing people too far and you're going to create the situation we find ourselves in today. It's sort of been lost in the shuffle that the Scandinavian countries have been recently contemplating passing laws prohibiting parts of the Muslim dress code, or enacting legislation limiting Islamic immigration.

Muslim people have been treated like something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe by our erstwhile allies in Europe since the end of World War Two. For some reason there was a serious shortage of able bodied man power at the end of that little set too, so most of Western Europe was more than willing to open their borders to "guest workers".

Some of these guests have been there for two generations but will never be allowed to become citizens or allowed to vote in the country where they born. If it hadn't been for these folk I'd like to see how well off the European Union would be now. In Germany they have an affectionate name for Turkish guests: cockroaches.

Like I said I'm not excusing the behaviour of any of the bomb-toting cowards who won't at least stand up and fight for what they believe in. I've more respect for a soldier who fights his enemy face to face, even if I don't believe in what they are fighting for, than any of these "martyrs". (Although martyrs have always pissed me off: "Oh it's okay I can do it myself, I'm used to it" becomes "Oh look at me I've just blown myself up to kill some women and kids, aren't I special?" real fast in my opinion. And vice versa.)

But, I hate to say it, what really has made me so tired of it all, to the point of having to write this post or cry for a week, is the predictability of it all. Something happens in the world and you know before anyone says anything what everybody is going to say.

Right, left, centre, whatever or whoever can always be counted on to say the same things over and over again. So very few people sound like they thing anymore. My opinion is decided by my politics not what I feel personally.

I can never agree with George Bush even if he's correct because he's a Republican and a Christian. Or I can never agree with Al Gore because he's a godless Democrat. I know those are pretty simplistic examples but you know what I mean.

Hell I'm supposed to be left of centre I suppose, but that's only because I believe if we're going to have governments the least they could do is look after the people who elected them. I don't mean their corporate sponsors either, I mean the people who live in their country and are just trying to make do the best they can.

I've never understood what's so wrong with making sure everybody has a decent education, a place to live, and enough food to eat. Governments don't seem to be good for anything else, so the least they could do are those few things. If that makes me a socialist or worse in some people's eyes, so be it.

But good lord the crap that comes out of people's mouths who I'm supposed to be politically allied with is just as much a conditioned reflex as the stuff that comes out of a conservative Christian's mouth. It's like everybody has a switch they flip which shuts off their brain and ears so they can talk without being interrupted.

Okay, I'm done. I think the pressure gauges have stopped red lining now, and I can go back to being sort of calm and rational for a while. This world is a pretty spectacular place and part of its charm is the diversity of thought, opinion, and belief. We all need to take more time to appreciate it, including me.


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August 17, 2005

Religion And Dissent: Water And Wine

It's actually quite amazing how much religions have in common in spite of their avowed claims to being the one true faith and all others non-believers. While they may have differences of opinion when it comes to the articles of their faith, they sure seem to keep similar practices.

This seems especially true of those who claim to be most orthodox. Perhaps the more devout you are, the less room you have in your mind for dissenting opinions. Could it be that devotion and tolerance are mutually self-exclusive?

From Vatican City to the mosques of Teheran and the television studios of Pat Robertson type Protestantism, the reaction to the issues of choice, equality for homosexuals, and dissenting opinions are pretty much the same. Thanks to their work, efforts to implement any degree of safe sex and family planning in the countries hardest hit by AIDs are routinely thwarted. On the issue of same sex marriage, they have been united in their condemnation and attempts to interfere in the governance of countries.

However, that's just small potatoes when it comes to the matter of dissenting opinions. You'd think that Protestants would be more tolerant, as they were born out of dissent, and to be fair the more moderate denominations usually are, but perhaps that's why they fear it so much. What happened once could happen again and they are worried about losing their power.

They each use whatever tools they have at their disposal to ensure that the minds of true believers are kept pure and untainted by thoughts that challenge the status quo. Muslims have the Fatwah, which, although not universally binding, imposes the will of a particular cleric upon his followers. The Christian Right of the United States have the organization and skills necessary to manipulate public opinion through pressure campaigns to have books removed from libraries and television shows cancelled.

The Catholic Church are old hands at this having had close to two thousand years to refine their skills. As it is no longer acceptable to burn people at the stake, and torture, although making a comeback in some circles, is still mainly frowned upon, they've had to discard some of the tried and true methods of the Inquisition.

This still leaves them with three fairly effective weapons: The persona of the pope as the voice of Christ on earth, the list of proscribed books, and excommunication. The Catholic Church has long justified the power of the pope by claiming that Jesus said to Peter: "You and all those who follow shall be like my voice on earth". Something along those lines anyway. Whatever the exact words are, it comes down to that when the pope says jump Catholics are supposed to say how high.

So when the current pope said that Harry Potter was not a good book for children to be reading, a lot of us may dismiss a statement like that as hooey, but for millions of people around the world that carries a great deal of weight and is pretty much an order not to read those books. Fortunately for Ms. Rowling, or perhaps unfortunately because sometimes proscriptions like these have the opposite effect, her work was not considered blasphemous enough to join Joyce's Ulysses, Kazantzakis' Last Temptation of Christ and others on the Proscribed list of books.

These are the books that the Vatican has considered over the centuries to be ones subversive enough that the faithful should never be allowed to read them. It is interesting to note that the two books mentioned above are both considered masterpieces of modern literature. I probably never would not have heard of or read The Last Temptation of Christ as early as I did, if not for the fact of its being proscribed. As they say, any publicity is good publicity.

The option of excommunication is reserved for those people who have so far transgressed the laws of the church that they need to be removed from the community. Theoretically, it is an option of last resort to hold over those who transgress the word of Christ. Considering the number of priests who have been found guilty of sexually abusing children and never been excommunicated it's hard to believe other factors don't play an important role in the decision making process.

What brought all this to mind today has been the furor over Dan Brown's De Vinci Code. First it was the novel itself that raised hackles throughout the Catholic hierarchy, accusing them of covering up the truth surrounding a theoretical marriage of Christ to Mary Magdalene. Now the whole mess is starting up again, thanks to filming having begun on the screen adaptation of the novel.

Today's "Globe and Mail" features an article detailing how various churches across Britain are reacting to requests for permission to film scenes on their premises. Reactions to requests have ranged from outright refusal, guarded acceptance, and welcomes with open arms.

" Although it is a fine page-turner, we cannot commend or endorse the contentious and wayward religious and historic suggestions made in the book nor its views of Christianity and the New Testament." statement released by Westminster Abbey.

"It has clearly touched the public imagination, and the church needs to open up a debate about it rather than throw one's hands up and walk away from it." Very Rev. Alec Knight, Dean of Lincoln Cathedral on why he agreed to let his church stand in for Westminster in today's Globe and Mail
"There's nothing Rosslyn is concerned about," he added. "Perhaps the church needs to grow a thicker skin." Director Stuart Beattie of Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland from the same article.


How much economics has played in any of these decisions is hard to say, but the $180,000 US that Lincoln Cathedral is being paid for providing the location, must have helped alleviate any misgivings about heresy the trustees could have had. The producers seem to have enough wisdom to not try and approach any Catholic churches, which is just as well, because their position on the book does not seem to have changed an iota.

On that note, it's interesting to see the complete lack of comment from either Buckingham Palace or Canterbury Cathedral concerning this matter. With the Queen being the head of the Church of England (Anglican) and the archbishop of Canterbury holding similar status as the pope, silence speaks volumes.

Where the Catholic Church goes wrong is that the best thing to do in situations like these is to ignore them. First of all, telling people what they can and cannot read, watch or think is sure fire way of getting their backs up. Have a little faith in your congregation's ability to think for themselves.

Secondly, it makes people wonder about where your priorities lie when you obsess about a piece of fiction and there are so many other problems facing the world. The Church is facing one of its biggest crises in years with the whole child abuse scandal in America yet it saves its public outrage for novels. How do you think that makes parishioners who are having doubts feel?

I have always found it amazing that the leaders of organizations that proclaim the benefits of faith have so little of it themselves when it comes to their followers. If they believe that what they are preaching is so susceptible to being undermined by works of fiction, what does that say about their faith?

I have never read The De Vinci Code and I probably never will. From what I have gathered from reviews and other people's comments is that it is a good read, but woefully inaccurate. It doesn't preach hatred against anyone, or make claims about the Catholic Church that haven't been made before. Maybe they should do the Christian thing and turn the other cheek. Surely their faith is strong enough for that.

August 16, 2005

Passover & Easter: Reluctent Neighbours

For over a thousand years Jewish people throughout the world have commemorated their escape from Egypt and the pharaohs with the observation of the Passover holiday. The name's origins lie in God's orders to the Jews when he sent down the angel of death to smite all the first sons in Egypt. If they put lambs blood on their doorframes, the angel would pass over their houses.

The first two nights of the seven-day festival are highlighted by the ritual meal, The Seder. (I have always contended there are two Seders to ensure family peace; couples go to one set of parents one night, the other the second) Throughout the evening the story of the exile is read and foods symbolizing aspects of the journey are eaten: unleavened bread called Matzoth represents they were in such a hurry there was no time to wait for the bread to rise, salt water for the tears shed on leaving their homes, and bitter herbs for the bitterness of the journey.

After these and other foods are eaten and the story is told, there comes the final ritual event of the evening. All those assembled stand, facing east, raise a glass of wine, and proclaim "Next Year in Jerusalem". For Jewish people scattered across the continents of the world this statement epitomized their longing to return home out of exile. Like Moses and the Israelites, they saw themselves as wandering the desert searching for their promised land.

One can only imagine the poignancy of these words for people walled up in the ghettos of Europe in the middle ages and the renaissance; or even worse those people trapped in the camps of Nazi Germany or the soulnessness of Stalinist Russia. How empty they must have sounded echoing off the walls of Auschwitz and Belsen.

The creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 was supposedly the answer to the years of exile. When the creation of the Israel was first being discussed the first geographical location that was considered was actually where modern day Uganda is located. However, it was obvious that any Jewish homeland would have to include Jerusalem, as it is the heart and soul of their faith.

There was a slight problem. There happened to be people living there already. Some of them were Jews who had continued to live there through the years of conquerors dating back to the Romans, and others were Arab who had lived there since the time of Mohammad and before.

Both groups of people, along with Christians, consider Jerusalem their holiest cities. For the Jews the Wailing Wall is the last remaining piece of the great Temple. For the Muslims, The Dome of the Rock is the holiest Mosque in the world, because it's here that Mohammad is said to have ascended into heaven.

The months leading up to the declaration of state hood were marked by acts of terror aimed against both Arabs and Jews. The Stern and Irgun gangs of Zionist terrorists blew up a major hotel in Jerusalem and wiped out a whole village of Arabs, which would have been within the boundaries of the new state of Israel. Whether it was true or not, Arabs, justifiably, inferred from these attacks that they would not be welcomed in Israel.

When the first war of survival was won by Israel, the Muslim population became the displaced. When they left Israel looking for succour in the arms of their fellow Arabs they were turned away by all except Jordan. They were allowed to set up camps in the territory bordering the new state.

It was not until 1967 and the six-day war that the present day boundaries of Israel were created. In what was called a pre-emptive strike to prevent war, the Israeli armies occupied the territories now known as the West Bank and The Gaza Strip, including East Jerusalem. These incursions created the massive amounts of refugees that flooded the camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

The Gaza Strip, which is the territory being ceded to the Palestinian Authority, was part of the original cease fire agreement between Israel and the Arab nations in 1950. Home to the Palestinians who fled Israel after its creation in 1949 it remained under Egyptian rule until 1967.

Since the war of 1967, Israeli settlers have been forming armed enclaves in the Gaza Strip. Sometimes in opposition to government policy, other times with their tacit support. The current prime minister of Israel, Arial Sharron, was a proponent of the settlements, but has since changed his tune.

Although it is not often reported in our press the majority of Israelis support the withdrawal of the settlers from the Gaza Strip They have long been seen as provocateurs that make life more difficult for those living in the rest of the country. Arial Sharron has finally bowed to the demands of the majority of his people and world pressure to finalize complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, settlers and military, paving the way for Palestinians autonomy.

Israeli soldier and police have spent the last few days delivering eviction notices to all of the settlements in Gaza. Thousands of settlers and their supporters have tried to thwart them through a variety of means such as tire fires and physically obstructing them with human blockades.

Like many other person of Jewish descent, I have often struggled with the costs involved with the creation and maintenance of Israel. How can our people justify treating any other people in a manner similar to that, which motivated the creation of Israel? Our continued ghettoing of Palestinians is reprehensible and irresponsible.

Just over sixty years ago, the majority of the world turned a deaf ear to the cries for help issuing from Europe as millions of our family members were exterminated in the camps. How can we turn a deaf ear to the cries for assistances from our neighbours, especially when we were responsible for their plight.

The suicide bombers and the Hamas rocket attacks are not going to stop no matter how security conscience Israel gets. Instead of continually meting out retribution against innocents why not isolate the terrorists from the rest of society by acting in a manner which in no way can be construed as coercive.

Ridding the Gaza Strip of all illegal squatters is a first step. Pressure must be kept up on Israeli governments to continue to treat its new neighbours with respect. We need to take the words "Never Forget" and start applying them to others as well as ourselves. We insult the dream of "Next Year In Jerusalem" if can't carry out that simple task.

July 3, 2005

Traditional Family Values

There's a phrase that gets tossed around a lot these days. "Traditional Family Values". It's guaranteed that you will here it said at least once in any speech by someone whose fighting against changes in the social order. Whether issues about sexuality, schooling, or even health and welfare are even relevant doesn't seem to matter. It's an emotional catch all that can be used to pinpoint a speakers place on the political map.

Three words that actually mean very little at all but that say a lot. Through inference they imply that what is being spoken against will somehow harm you and your children. Without even having to define how or what the damage will be an emotional trigger is pulled to make people rally round the flag of and pull up the drawbridge.

"Traditional Family Values" translates into, The Barbarians are at the gate. Hide the women and children because they're coming to rape pillage and burn. Visions of your teenage daughter being sold into white slavery, your son being ganged raped by rampaging homosexuals and your wife and you being forced into acts of depravity dance through your head. You thank God for the N.R.A. and head for the bomb shelter out back with the Uzi and AK47.

What are traditional family values anyway? Just whose tradition are we talking about? Well a safe assumption, given the gender, race, and class of most people who use the phrase, that we're talking about white male protestant family values. Sure there are the occasional women who have been heard saying those words, but they're usually the ones who mistook feminism for the right to act like a man instead of the freedom to be a woman.

I'm sure for most of those who hear those words and are philosophically allied with the speaker, they bring visions of Mom, Dad, two kids, a mini-van, and a house in the suburbs to their head. Dad goes to work five days a week and on Saturday works around the house mowing the lawn and other Dad stuff. Son is older and plays football, has a steady girl who he holds hands with and take out for a burger and coke on Friday nights, while younger sister has giggly friends she talks too much with on the phone. Mom stays at home cooking and cleaning and whipping up meals from Campbell Soup labels.

Every Sunday they all climb into the mini-van and go to church where they are filled with words of praise for their way of life. They hear warnings about the depredations of the world and count their blessings for the wholesomeness of brownies and milk. Depending on the time of year Dad may try and get in golf after church, or he and son will toss around the football, while Mom and sister do whatever it is they do.

The only minorities they know are the jovial fat black women who comes and cleans house once a week, and the Mexican who does the yard work. You have to keep your eye on them because they may steal, but as Mom tells daughter

"It's because they haven't had the same advantages as you and they don't know any better."

Dad and Mom will have Martinis after work and maybe cocktails on Saturdays if the neighbours come over. Sometimes there's even beer at the neighbourhood barbecue. The Dads gather in a group around a side of cow charring in various chunks over kerosene induced flames. Moms stand around a pristine kitchen making salads and dissecting those not there with knives of Christian spite. Teenage sons and daughters stand around in groups talking about each other and school, maybe the boys will throw the football around at the foot of the garden.

A life right out of a Norman Rockwell painting from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, or a 1960's sit com come alive. In this ideal world of theirs there are no drugs, no unemployment. Illnesses are never serious and the friendly family doctor is always there to make house calls in case of flu or a cold. Everything is in it's place and all is right in the world.

The post World War Two economic boom that hit North America gave rise to the first real middle class. Prices were low, jobs were plentiful, and housing was cheap as the suburbs around major cities were developed. It was the beginning of the end of life in the city for all but the poor and the very rich.

As the fifties and sixties progressed more and more money and people moved out of the cities leaving services to degrade from lack of a strong tax base. Disparities in education and health care began to develop, and as new housing starts slowed in the inner core the cost of rents began to soar. Tho