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.

The Broader Way

The Book of the Week is “The Broader Way” by Sumie Seo Mishima, published in 1953. This is a depressing personal account of the Japanese author’s experiences during and after WWII.

The author studied in the United States at a university in the mid-1920’s. She returned to Japan before the war, married a divorced professor who already had four children. A feminist of sorts, she worked near Tokyo as a teacher and tutor, and could afford to hire a maid. Still, a major strike against her included her gender, especially in the workplace. Women had traditionally held the roles of wife, mother and household maintainer in Japan’s economically feudal system– of inheritance and property ownership by males only.

Toward late 1940, in preparing its people for war, the Japanese government politically divided the country into neighborhood associations on a very local level. This imposed egalitarianism on everyone, as all walks of life were lumped together. During the war, civilians were forced to cooperate in distributing rationed food, as, of course, there were severe shortages, reducing some to subsist on only a cornmeal-like substance for the war’s duration. Black markets sprung up everywhere. Teens were sent to work for the war effort– munitions factories and airfield construction sites for the boys, and quarries and opticals for the girls.

American warplanes flew over Tokyo starting in late 1944, and the destruction of the city reached its peak in March 1945. The homes of many people, including eventually, the author, were hit by bombs. The Japanese people had been miserably deceived by the military leaders. They had been told that the imperial armed forces were superior to the enemy. After the war, the Occupation authorities (i.e., the United States, in Japan’s case– for five years) allowed free discussion of different political views, even Communism. A new National Constitution was drafted, that supposedly was to afford equal rights for men and women. This was a radical change from Japan’s previous political system, whereby males had all the power.

Postwar Japan suffered not only starvation, but skyrocketing inflation. Luxuries included beef, chicken, eggs and apples. The Occupation forces supplied canned ham, bacon, sausage and butter in summer 1946. DDT was sprayed liberally on all buildings and gardens, in an attempt to head off pestilence and epidemics. The year 1947 saw entrepreneurial Japanese civilians become street vendors, which quickly fell victim to organized crime. Many women were forced into prostitution to survive, and they protected their territory through cooperating.

In the summer of 1946, the author worked as a translator at the International Military Tribunal, commuting by tramcar, which was stuffed to the gills all the time. After every ride, her clothes were “… ripped and stained with grimy handmarks… The Japanese people had lost all class distinctions and sunk into practically uniform poverty and sordidness.” Young boys sold newspapers and peanuts on the street and bartering for school supplies was not uncommon, for the lucky few who could afford a basic education. Young girls worked as seamstresses. The author’s family was comparatively wealthy, residing in a house, but even they became a multi-generational household when the kids married.

The concept of Communism was in the air, as its propagandists pointed to the Russians as an example of where the political system was working. Impressionable youths traumatized by the war and deprivation were easily persuaded of its benefits.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional details on the political, cultural and social changes wrought by WWII in Japan.

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.

Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed “A Balcony in Nepal” by Sally Wendkos Olds, art by Margaret Roche. This book is comprised of journal entries of a few trips to Nepal in the 1990’s and 2000 made by Olds and Roche. They met people in Kathmandu and the rural village of Badel, where they stayed.

At the airport, they were greeted by street urchins, eager to carry their luggage for tips. There were sacred cows lying in the middle of the road intersections, temples, motorcycles, taxis, rickshaws, young men offering hashish, Tibetan rugs, currency exchange and guide services. In Nepal, there is cronyism in employment, so the educated Nepalis with no connections are compelled to leave the country to seek a living elsewhere.

Teachers receive extremely low pay in Nepal because there is a casual attitude toward education. Families tend to be large, and older siblings must take care of the younger ones, and also work in the fields at the expense of school attendance. Thus, a low value is placed on literacy in the lower castes, such as Darje (untouchables), which includes blacksmiths, tailors, ferrymen, musicians and leatherworkers. The educated classes begin studying English in the fourth grade. They must buy their own books and writing instruments. The vast majority of teachers are men. They might skip school to work in the fields, too.

Medical care is handled in the rural villages by shamans (medicine men). A medical doctor is seven days’ walk and a two-day bike ride from Badel. When a villager’s ankle became swollen possibly from too much hiking, the village shaman told the patient his ankle hurt because he crossed the river without praying to the river god. So the shaman chanted over the ankle and told him to go pray by the river. The ankle got better in two days; perhaps via the placebo effect.

Wendkos and Olds engaged in some philanthropic activity by raising money to build a library in Badel. They attended the local political meeting at which a committee was formed for library-related planning. The attendees included all of Badel’s ethnic groups, Rai, Bhujil, Puri, Giri, Sherpa and Darje. Several years later, by 2000, the library had opened; however, it was being used to house a school rather than lend books.

Read this book to learn other aspects of Nepali culture, and the diarists’ thoughts and feelings on their experiences.

Tomorrow You Go Home

The Book of the Week is “Tomorrow You Go Home” by Tig Hague, published in 2008. This is the suspenseful story of how Russian authorities severely punished an Englishman for a minor indiscretion in the summer of 2003.

Hague had forgotten he had left a tiny amount of hashish in his jeans pocket before boarding a flight to Moscow. He was detained at the airport. His naivete led to his arrest and imprisonment. He was denied what is, in Western nations, due process. However, he was less deprived than other prisoners because he received care packages from the British Embassy and his family– consisting of noodles, biscuits, cigarettes, coffee, chocolate and warm clothing. The odds were stacked against him at his court hearings. The Russian prison authorities played a petty power game via bribery, to hang onto contraband and inside information from the hapless prisoners– some of whom were there because they had been framed– awaiting release.

Read the book to learn of Hague’s trials and tribulations, suffered at the hands of a corrupt, arbitrary system.

The Best of Times

The Book of the Week is “The Best of Times” by John Dos Passos, originally published in 1966. This ebook is “an informal memoir.”

Dos Passos was sent by his father, a bigwig attorney active in politics and in his community, to a “public school” (what Americans would call private school) in England, and later, boarding school in the United States. His father was of Portuguese extraction, with houses in Sandy Point, MD and Washington D.C. In his youth, Dos Passos communed with nature, capturing small rodents, bullfrogs and garter snakes.

The author became a Darwin Award candidate by choice during WWI– a volunteer ambulance driver in France and Italy, after which he bummed around Spain, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. At times, he lived in New York. “When I found I was late I jumped a bus. In the twenties you could still sit out in the air on top of the [double-decker] Fifth Avenue buses.”

In Dos Passos’ generation, it was easy to make a living as a novelist and playwright. He debated political philosophies with his friends. It is now known which systems of governments are superior to others. But in the hard sciences, “… you could perform your experiment, report the findings. Other men could repeat your experiment to check the results.” The author felt that “developing a humane civilization” involves half communism and half capitalism. This blogger thinks he was conflating politics with economics. He meant “socialism,” not “communism,” because socialism is an economic system, and communism is a political system. But to create a just society, respect for human rights in both governing and allocating resources, is required.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of the author’s adventures abroad and his experiences hanging around with Ernest Hemingway.