A Fort of Nine Towers

The Book of the Week is “A Fort of Nine Towers, An Afghan Family Story” by Qais Akbar Omar, published in 2013.

As is well known, the Russians marched into Afghanistan in 1979. The resistance fighters were called the Mujahedin, the Holy Warriors. The Russians had advanced aerial bombs, while the Warriors had old hunting-guns. The Russians left in 1989, but continued to financially support the government until spring 1992; galloping inflation ensued.

The author and his growing family lived in Kabul, of which the Mujahedin then took control. Omar’s father and grandfather ran a lucrative Oriental carpet business. They lived in a multi-generational household, with large families of uncles, aunts and cousins.

At the time Omar began to experience the hardships of war, he was about eight years old. His elementary school stopped teaching the basics of evolution, and began to teach creationism instead. There was no more fear of stray bullets in the streets, but there was a food shortage. The following year, tribal infighting plagued the Mujahedin; rockets fired from above by the different tribes– all Muslim– started to kill people.

Omar’s grandfather’s resistance to change, anger at having his livelihood, property and material possessions stolen, and love of his homeland were largely responsible for his family’s precarious situation, and their traumatic experiences in the coming decades. He insisted the family stay in Afghanistan– to try to protect what they had. He was stripped of the fruits of his life’s work, anyway. Most of their community fled. Omar’s family obeyed the law of Islam by which the females and children obeyed the oldest male relatives.

As the year 1993 progressed and the violence worsened, schools closed and no one went outside for fear of getting hit by sniper bullets, or a rocket-propelled grenade or other weaponry.

In late spring, the declaration of a cease-fire prompted Omar’s father to temporarily evacuate the family from their home in a northwesterly direction over a mountainside to a more peaceful village. They were the only people in their area who had a car.

About four miles away, the closest family members who could fit in the car, were driven to and stayed at the quiet estate of the author’s father’s fabulously wealthy business partner. Until the war came to that neighborhood.

The author, as the oldest son in his immediate family, on a few occasions in the next few years, was invited to accompany his grandfather or his father in a return to their old property to see how it was doing, and perhaps to dig up the gold they had buried in the garden there before they left. Those were harrowing, emotionally and physically hurtful episodes with gruesome scenes and near-death experiences.

For, the war had turned illiterate young Muslim men into sociopathic sadists with weaponry. The hatred among different tribes knew no bounds. On the streets, ragged, begging children were used as decoys for hidden robbers who might also commit rape if passersby stopped to help.

“Panjshiris and Hazaras were supposed to stop launching the rockets at each other that had come from the Americans to be used by the Mujahedin against the Russians. But the Russians were defeated and long gone.”

In September 1996, a new tribe, the Taliban– supplied with weapons by Pakistan– was wreaking havoc in Kabul. Omar’s grandfather described them thusly: “They capture a village and torture people and club them to death, then afterwards ask the young boys to do the same to their parents. They tell the young boys that this will make a man of them.”

The Taliban held public executions of thieves, prostitutes, murderers and gays. They enforced their own draconian version of observance of Islam. After a while, though, people at least knew what to expect. The trains ran on time.

Read the book to learn how the author and his family survived in this extremely suspenseful, emotionally-charged cautionary tale whose moral is this: early evacuation of a region with a history of civil war, whose violence is flaring up again, is advisable.

Where the Wind Leads/The Fox Hunt

The Books of the Week are “Where the Wind Leads, A Memoir” by Vinh Chung With Tim Downs, published in 2014; “The Fox Hunt, A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America” by Mohammed Al Samawi, published in 2018.

Both authors told suspenseful, extremely extreme, long, complicated refugee horror stories, in which they had great good luck on several occasions, and in which certain people took tremendous risks by providing the authors with invaluable assistance that saved their lives.

Born in South Vietnam in December 1975, the author of the former book helpfully, briefly described his homeland’s history three decades before his birth.

The author’s family was Chinese– neither enemies nor friends of the French, Viet Minh, or Khmer Rouge. However, in the 1940’s, the author’s father’s family’s house in the Mekong Delta had been burned to the ground twice, anyway. There was a higher risk of a Viet Minh invasion in the French territory farther north, where the family moved.

As is well known, in the mid-1950’s the French were militarily defeated by the Viet Minh– Communists– and kicked out of their colony Indochina in Southeast Asia. Thereafter, Vietnam was split into north and south. Different ethnic groups migrated toward the side where they numbered in the majority: Communists, north; Catholics and Buddhists, south.

The Khmer Rouge, comprised of Cambodians, continued to ally with the French for decades. By the late 1950’s, the author’s father had become a draft dodger, fleeing to Cambodia to avoid having to fight against the Viet Minh. In 1960, Ho Chi Minh’s militia, the National Liberation Front, was attempting to reunite North and South Vietnam. The Viet Minh was renamed Viet Cong by the United States.

Over decades, the author’s maternal grandmother began a rice-processing business that flourished. By the mid-1970’s, it had a couple of mills, a fleet of trucks, warehouses, etc. It actually benefited from America’s Vietnam War.

The family matriarch hired a matchmaker to marry off her son (the author’s father), born in 1937. He was still sowing his wild oats in his late twenties. Traditionally, both prospects’ families went on a date with the prospects. Then they saw a fortune teller.

The author’s mother was the daughter of a Chinese servant girl of a wealthy household. When she moved to her husband’s house, she had to shop daily for the fast-growing multi-generational household, because they didn’t have a refrigerator. But, since she was expected to become a baby-maker in addition to all of her other responsibilities– she was permitted to hire a teenage nanny with every additional child.

The author’s birth made five. Three more were quickly added, while the author’s father’s mistress had four. The two major philosophies of the family’s culture were filial piety and ancestor worship. Living in the South, their religion combined aspects of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. That changed when the Viet Cong attacked the Mekong Delta. The author’s family’s life was disrupted forever, as their business and real and personal property were stolen.

Due to the Vietnam government’s war against the Chinese that started in February 1979, the ever-growing Chung family became “boat people” in June. Read the book to learn of the family’s ordeal, adjustment to a brand new life, and the author’s explanation for what gave rise to his own extraordinary achievements.

Born in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen in 1986, the author of the latter book helpfully, briefly described the recent history of his homeland.

In 1987, a Sunni-Muslim group named the Muslim Brotherhood formed another group, Hamas. They were supported by Saudi Arabia, southern Yemen, Iraq and another group that formed later, Al Qaeda. Their enemies were Shia Muslims, who are the majority in Iran and northern Yemen.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the author’s Shia-Muslim family lived in a peaceful neighborhood in Sana’a in northern Yemen, where everyone got along fine. He had two older and two younger siblings. His parents were trained as medical doctors; his prominent father worked for a military hospital.

Al Samawi’s parents believed in education, but were extremely devout Muslims. So his parents were thrilled when, as an adolescent, he donated all his lunch money to the Muslim Brotherhood when the group (who were pushing pan-Arabism at the time) visited his private, well-funded grammar school.

However, the teachers preached nonstop hatred against Jews and Christians. The Quran was their authority on that. Besides, they said Hitler was a hero for killing Jews, and the Jews’ books were “dirty, amoral, sinful, impure, demonic.”

In 2000, TV propaganda in Yemen claimed that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Israel was ordering the killing of innocent Palestinians, such as a young boy (who became a poster boy to incite Yemen), for no reason. The haters ignited in most Yemenis additional hatred against the Jews and Israel’s backers, such as the United States.

Eight years later, the author thought he was falling in love at university. But his filial piety put the kibosh on that. His mother did a background check on his prospective girlfriend, and found she wasn’t good enough for her son, and given their situations, she was probably a gold digger. His father also pressured him to end the budding relationship, by offering him a car and a job if his parents could fulfill the traditional Muslim route of choosing a bride for him. He caved in to their browbeating.

However, the next chapter in the author’s life proved to be most educational. He met an inspirational British instructor at his English-language school. Surprisingly, the author’s parents were allowing their son to study English. Al Samawi and his teacher exchanged gifts (the Quran and the Bible, respectively) to try to proselytize the other one. Each dogmatically believed that his own religion was the only right one to practice, else they would go to hell upon their deaths. Then a funny thing happened.

The teacher horrified Al Samawi by telling him he’d been hoodwinked– Al Samawi had unknowingly been reading the (Jewish!) Old Testament, having started at the beginning of the book. The stories’ morals and precepts were largely similar to those in the Quran(!)

In the next several years, Al Samawi became sufficiently open-minded to try to clear up his own confusion between what he’d been taught by his parents and Yemen’s culture, and what he was learning on Facebook and from his jobs at cross-cultural peacemaking organizations and international aid organizations.

From the start of Yemen’s religious civil war in 2015, Al Samawi found himself in a life-threatening, harrowing situation for several months. In one particular instance, he wrote, “Thirty minutes later, I jumped in the back of the black sedan. I didn’t call my mom. I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t pay the hotel.”

Read the book to learn the details of how Al Samawi’s friends in high places went to extraordinary lengths to change his fate, through thrilling plot twists and turns.

Stars Between the Sun and the Moon – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Stars Between the Sun and the Moon, One Woman’s Life in North Korea and Escape to Freedom” by Lucia Jang and Susan McClelland, published in 2014.

After the Korean War, the Communist Party of North Korea oppressed business owners– who were considered evil capitalists, but praised farmers and peasants– who were considered virtuous; they served the Party.

Adults were forced to attend self-criticism meetings every Saturday morning. The meeting leaders punished them by making them stand up against the wall while others stared at them.

North Korean leader Kim Il-sung dictated that the traditional food eaten on August 15– his birthday– was rice cakes. However, the author’s family couldn’t afford to buy rice cakes. But– he also generously provided a pork ration for one person, to all households.

Jang was born in the early 1970’s. Her family was so poverty-stricken that she had no toys, no books, nothing. Finally, at seven years old when she began to attend school, she was thrilled to have a few possessions of her own: garments, pencils and a backpack. At school, the author and her classmates praised the “great father and eternal president” every morning. Every one of them had his photo of him on their wall at home.

Around the time she started school, Jang and her mother went to a theater for the first time. They saw a movie written by their fearless leader, Kim il-sung. Of course, it ended happily because the peasants conquered the landlords.

During the months of May, September and October, teenagers were sent to the countryside to help with planting and harvesting. The author was literally starving because she lived with a host family or in a dorm where she got even less food than she did at home. But Jang accepted the fact that the nation’s leader and his son were fat because they needed the most energy to take care of the North Korean people.

Traditionally, Jang’s parents were to choose her spouse. Her marital value was greatly diminished because both of her parents had had (political) Party trouble. Nevertheless, having gotten pregnant, she broke tradition.

In July 1994 when Kim il-sung died, the nation got a ten-day mourning period. Jang grieved as though her own father had died.

Read the book to learn of the horrible experiences (which became cyclical after a while) of the author due to various factors, including the environment into which she was born, her culture, gender, lack of education and the circumstances of her generation; and what led to the radical change in her situation.

Madame President

The Book of the Week is “Madame President, The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf” by Helene Cooper, published in 2017.

In post-Civil War America, (White) slave owners who had secretly fathered offspring were afraid of further racial strife, so they sent manumitted slaves to Liberia. By the late 1860’s, there were 28 different ethnic groups living there.

Ellen Johnson was born in October 1938 in the country’s capital, Monrovia– ironically, a place that discriminates against dark-skinned people. Her mother was unusually lucky. Her mother’s poverty-stricken parents handed her off to foster care, where her fair skin was received favorably throughout her childhood. Johnson got her mother’s color. Her family predicted she would have a lucky life– a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even so, Johnson had to endure the difficulties females faced in her culture. These included: an arranged marriage (that allowed polygamy for the husband), the expectation that she would bear children; physical abuse, and sex imposed by males against the wills of females of all ages.

Fortunately, Johnson bore four sons and her husband was an attorney. He and she had valuable social connections that allowed them the chance to study in the United States. Childcare was handled by extended relatives.

When Johnson-Sirleaf was thirty years old, she had had enough of the barbaric practices heaped upon Liberian people of her gender. She obtained a divorce. Right up until the courtroom hearing finalizing the split, she was phobic that her ex would retaliate yet again with even worse domestic violence than before. Divorcing was a radical step for a Liberian female. But she was exceptional; in her life, every special advantage she got led to another. Yet, most of her later achievements were done on her own merits– not as a result of marriage to a powerful man.

The Liberian government had one political party, the True Whig Party, whose members used the government as their personal piggy bank. By the early 1970’s, there was a very wide income/asset gap between the government officials and military thugs, and the unfortunate Liberian citizens; there was no middle class. The nation had been drained of its major resources, rubber and iron, which had been exported to foreign countries by profiteers.

Johnson was academically skilled and played well with others politically. She got a job with the Liberian Debt Service Department at Treasury, and then the Ministry of Finance while radical changes were afoot. She studied accounting, and later, public administration at Harvard. However, her public speech could be inflammatory, because she told the truth. She called the system a “kleptocracy– corrupt to the core.” At a later time, she warned that a peasant revolt was in the offing.

In 1971, the new nepotistic “president” of the country was switching benefactors, from the United States to the U.S.S.R. Allegedly, he was going to help the downtrodden and eliminate corruption. Yet he practiced cronyism on a royal scale and angered the civilian Liberian people in numerous other ways.

Read the book to learn how the tide turned eventually through the ugly events that transpired; how, more than once, Johnson was very nearly killed but instead encountered a checkered fate; and how the United States played a major part in her and Liberia’s survival, despite having blood on its hands.

The Boys in the Boat

The Book of the Week is “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown, published in 2013. This is the incredible, suspenseful story of how the crew team of the University of Washington, and one team member especially, overcame tremendous odds to transcend themselves in the most important competition of their lives.

Various traumatic situations in Joseph Rantz’s young life ironically made him an ideal candidate for the sport of rowing. He and eight others out of a total of 175 hopefuls, made the cut for the freshman team in the autumn of 1933. Sportswriters had popularized rowing teams of Northeastern elitist colleges, but the less well-heeled athletes at the Universities of Washington and California– on the west coast– had muscled their way into the sport. In fact, these two were fierce rivals. After five and a half months of training, they competed every April in one race each consisting of a freshman, sophomore and senior crew, before heading to Poughkeepsie, for another competition against the east coast teams, too.

The Washington team trained in the absolute worst winter weather of freezing rain and icy-cold wind storms, never mind snow. Another way the team gained an advantage in competitions is that it had one of the best, if not the best, boat builders of its generation. With decades of rowing experience, he, in addition to hand-crafting their boats, got to know the athletes intimately and served as their mentor.

The tough-as-nails coach chose each and every member of the crew for a specific position in the boat, given each one’s body build, and physical and psychological strengths. Winning races called for perfect positioning of the oars and rowing rhythm, maximum power at the right times, and singularity of mind of the entire team. Such abilities allowed Washington’s team to compete in the Olympics.

“In the United States, talk of boycotting the 1936 Olympics had been simmering since the Nazis had come to power in 1933.” Countries with sports teams decided to compete anyway.

The reason they did was that Adolf Hitler largely brainwashed countries participating in the Games– convincing them that Germany was a gorgeous, peaceful nation where everyone was treated fairly and well. He built the most advanced, immaculate, highest quality athletic facilities for his show.  He had someone produce a propaganda film of the proceedings. He put his fellow Nazis on notice to display their best behavior toward the world.

Within days of the closing ceremonies, however, the Fuehrer resumed building a power base. This, through continuing to gather a significant number of sociopathic and sadistic followers with weaponry, persuading the weak unarmed to blame their troubles on people with certain last names, and was starting to build torture chambers in neighboring countries to systematically kill certain other defenseless groups and the aforementioned scapegoated group.

Read the book to learn the details of why Joseph Rantz and the other University of Washington’s crew team members were ideally suited to be the best team in decades, how they did in their matches, and what happened at the Olympics.

Gudao, Lone Islet

The Book of the Week is ” Gudao, Lone Islet– The War Years in Shanghai” by Margaret Blair, published in 2008.

This slim volume tells of the WWII traumas suffered by a little girl in a British/Scottish/Chinese household in the International Settlement section of Shanghai, occupied by the Japanese in 1943.

Born in 1936, the author lived in a neighborhood of expatriates originally from the United Kingdom. Her Scottish father was a detective in the British police. The political entity was not a British colony, but was a protectorate subject to British law.

In 1943, the assets and liabilities of the British sector of the International Settlement was sold via a treaty between Great Britain and China, to the Shanghai Municipal Council (i.e., Chiang Kai Shek’s political party, the Nationalists– (non-Communists, but no less corrupt and power hungry). In this way, the British government knowingly allowed its citizens to stay in harm’s way. The Japanese occupied the area that year, and the author and her family became prisoners of war.

Before and during the war, the Japanese took various martial actions that resulted in atrocities and deaths far greater than would the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the war’s end. The Axis power militarily occupied Korea, Manchuria, and committed the worst brutalities in Nanking, China. There occurred millions of deaths there (according to this book), while Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw only about 120,000 deaths. Additionally, Japanese prisoner of war camps had higher death rates than camps of other nations in the war. The Japanese never did pay reparations for its war crimes.

Prior to the war, Blair lived an idyllic life of social events and familial closeness in the cosmopolitan Shanghai of the 1930’s. All of that was changed radically by the war. Read the book to learn of the traumas caused by the war at large, and the hardships the author faced on a day-to-day basis.

The Lightless Sky

The Book of the Week is “The Lightless Sky” by Gulwali Passarlay and Nadene Ghouri, published in 2015. This is the suspenseful, extreme story of an Afghan boy who embarks on a life-threatening journey in order to flee his violent homeland.

Born in 1994, Passarlay was a year old when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. He lived in a multi-generational household where the main source of income was herding. In 2002, the United States occupied the country. The author and his brother were sent to live briefly with his aunt in Waziristan, near the Pakistan border where there was fighting between the Pakistani military and the Taliban. In autumn 2006, the family paid a network of people-smugglers to try to save the life of the author and his brother, by spiriting them out of the country.

The boys faced a series of traumatic, life-threatening hardships on their long, multi-lingual, multi-national sojourn. Passarlay began it as a Pashtu-speaking Sunni adolescent– a product of his insular culture. Read the book to find out the radical psychological changes wrought by his environments and experiences as a victim of the profit motive in the potentially life-saving operations involving the transport and accommodation of illegal refugees.

A Backpack, A Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka

The Book of the Week is “A Backpack, A Bear, Eight Crates of Vodka” by Lev Golinkin, published in 2014. This is the autobiography of a Soviet immigrant from a Jewish family fleeing oppression in Kharkov, in the U.S.S.R. in late 1989, when he was eight. They ultimately ended up in the United States, thanks to the assistance of the nonfprofit organization HIAS and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Two atypical aspects of his family’s situation, were that they were kept at the refugee-hotel near Vienna, Austria for six months rather than a few weeks, and were placed in American Midwestern suburbia, in a college town, instead of in an urban area with other Jewish families who spoke Russian.

There were stark cultural differences between what they left behind, and their new world. You can take the people out of Russia, but you can’t take the Russia out of the people. A simple fund-raising call from the local Police Benefit Fund in America evoked panic in Golinkin’s father, because in Russia, all government authorities were to be feared as those who could ruin one’s life arbitrarily. The Soviets so persecuted Jewish families by singling them out for their religion that when the immigrants settled in the United States, they opted to exercise their freedom NOT to practice their religion. The author’s much older sister was warned she was going to be rejected from medical school for no other reason than that her family was Jewish. So she, like her father, was forced to study engineering instead. In sum, their outlook on life was extremely pessimistic, having been beaten down in their native country from the cradle.

In the United States, the quality of life of Golinkin’s family significantly improved. But they had to learn English and how to navigate American financial matters. And his parents had to take low-level jobs, when previously, they had been an engineer and a doctor. They were adamant that their son would be a failure in life if he did not become a doctor.

Read the book to learn how the author’s family adjusted to their new identity as Americans.

The Queen of Katwe

The Book of the Week is “The Queen of Katwe” by Tim Crothers, published in 2015. This story focuses on Phiona Mutesi, a young female chess player in Katwe– a poor area outside of Kampala, Uganda.

Prior to her playing chess, Mutesi was destined for an empty life in which she was likely to die young from a fire, flood, disease, violence or famine, or bear many children starting in her teens, due to dependency on unreliable, polygamous men as providers of the basic necessities of survival. Education in Katwe was sporadic, as children attended only when they could afford the tuition. Not only priced out of schooling, but living a hand-to-mouth existence, Phiona (and her siblings) were compelled to “…walk around the slum, selling maize from a saucepan on her head.” She had to scrounge around for even one meal a day. Additionally, it was a three-hour round trip on foot between her home and the public well. Her family was evicted from numerous hovels due to nonpayment of rent.

Mutesi’s older brother happened to frequent a kids’ soccer program whose director started to also provide a bowl of porridge, and chess instruction. The soccer was introduced by a non-profit initiative called Sports Outreach Institute, started by Russ Carr. His goal was to teach kids “how to fish” and convert them to Christianity.

Around 2009, when she was approximately nine years old, Mutesi tagged along after her brother, walking the five kilometers to the eyesore of a venue, and became obsessed with chess. The food was a major draw for hungry kids. Their mothers, although grateful, were apprehensive that their kids might be kidnapped by the recreation coach who was a white man, according to local gossip.

Read the book to learn the details of Mutesi’s rise in Africa’s competitive chess culture, and the reasons for her uncertain future.

Meskel

The Book of the Week is “Meskel” by Mellina and Lukas Fanouris, originally published in 1995.

This is the story of two families, two of whose members– the authors– married and lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (formerly Abyssinia) through the 1970’s. Their forebears had originally come from Greece to live in Abyssinia in 1926. Upon settling in their new country, wife and husband of one family– Evangelia and Manoli Fanouris, started a Greek restaurant, and newspaper and magazine distribution business/bookstore. Then they began having children; Lukas was one of the younger ones.

In late 1934, there was border fighting between Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland. The Italians used poison gas against the Somalis. Although Evangelia’s brother Logotheti had designed the Royal Palace and had friends in high places, Emperor Haile Selassie still threatened Manoli with death because he sold foreign publications that were critical of the regime. Other untoward events occurred through the years, due to the Italian invasion and later, WWII. Nevertheless, the Fanouris did not leave the country, as their business provided them with a good life.

Mellina married Lukas Fanouris when he aggressively courted her. The families had known each other for years from the Greek community in Addis Ababa. She worked for the United Nations. In late 1973, Ethiopia was facing “… union unrest, drought in the north, and rumors of famine, allegations of corruption in the government and rising food prices.” Army soldiers were fed up with their living conditions and turned against the Emperor. Lukas’ parents lived richly, what with a five-bedroom, five-bath mansion, flower garden, balcony and verandas. But there came a time when they finally needed to flee anti-government strikes, protests and violence.

In September 1974, a documentary on Ethiopians’ starvation due to drought was finally released, after the military had taken control of the media. In December, the nation changed from a kingdom to a socialist state, limiting the imported reading material of the populace to Marx, Lenin and Engels. Businesses were nationalized and martial law was imposed. The new leader, Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, copied other dictators in recent memory– Stalin (U.S.S.R.), Mao Tse Tung (China), Peron (Argentina), Pinochet (Chile) and Pol Pot (Cambodia), by ordering citizens to do hard manual labor on farms, telling them to take pride in feeding the country; and by imposing the usual witchhunts, torture, arrests, show-trials and imprisonment for political dissidents and members of the old regime. Not to mention the trampling on what industrialized, democtratic nations would consider due process.

Read the book to learn the details of how the authors survived the attack on their freedoms through the 1970’s, and the suspenseful survival saga of Lukas and his brother Pavlos.