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.

Halliburton’s Army – LONG BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Halliburton’s Army, How a Well-Connected Texas Oil Company Revolutionized the Way America Makes War” by Pratap Chatterjee, published in 2009.

This slightly sloppily proofread volume was also slightly redundant and very disorganized. Nevertheless, it was extremely well-documented and detailed. The author personally visited various sites and personally interviewed various people– in addition to sourcing information from documents– about which and whom he wrote.

In the late 1930’s, president Franklin Roosevelt, Congressman Lyndon Johnson and the company Brown & Root (BR) formed a public-private partnership to build the Marshall Ford Dam in Texas. In the early 1940’s, the company built the naval air station Corpus Christi. Taxpayers way overpaid for those projects. The reason was partly because the sweetheart terms of its contract guaranteed it a profit.

BR also built warships for World War II. It allegedly financed Lyndon Johnson’s run for the U.S. Senate in 1948. It built military bases during the Vietnam War. In August 1966, U.S. Congressman Donald Rumsfeld contended that, due to conflicts of interest, the federal government had signed contracts with BR that were “illegal by statute.” Of course, Rumsfeld hated President Johnson.

In October 1966, Rumsfeld and Bob Dole reported that BR had refused to let any government officials see documents associated with a BR construction site. The company and its subcontractors had lost track of $120 million and had thefts of millions of dollars of equipment by the end of its ($1.9-billion-in-costs) ten-year contract.

After the First Gulf War, a company named Halliburton pioneered the user-friendly assembly of cheap, prefab structures on military bases that were comfortable for soldiers in global hotspots. In early 1998, Dick Cheney assisted with the creation of Kellogg, Brown & Root when M.W. Kellogg was added to BR. Then Halliburton took over the whole kit and caboodle.

Through the 1990’s, Halliburton finagled $167.7 million worth of contracts from the U.S. government in Rwanda, Haiti, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Italy. “But it’s hard to convince people that the company had no influence when your entire upper management once worked for the very agencies that awarded the contracts.”

Halliburton’s tentacles also reached into Somalian and Nigerian territory through bribery. It had fun in the Balkans with “… double-billing, inflating prices and providing of unsuitable products.” By the late 1990’s, thanks to Halliburton and Chevron, the previously unspoiled, tourist-filled beaches in Angola’s Cabinda province had turned black.

Donald Rumsfeld was named Secretary of Defense in the United States beginning in 2001. Just prior to 9/11, “Rumsfeld said that the Pentagon was wasting at least $3 billion a year.” In the next eight years, he proceeded to eliminate most of the military’s in-house operations, including payroll, warehousing and sanitation.

Rumsfeld was adding one more area of American life– the military– to the privatization trend of recent decades. It has already gained traction in education, prisons, government entitlements, student loans, spying and courier services. Curiously, healthcare is going in the opposite direction. Why is that?

Well, medicine has undergone a major cultural change in the last fifty years. The family doctor who made house calls used to be a trusted family friend who charged a reasonable rate for his services. Now depersonalized medicine whose costs are sky-high due to technology and specialization is the norm. Healthcare is a mature industry.

Some aspects of healthcare have become capitalism gone hog-wild, especially those that are a matter of life and death. They have become as out of control as Halliburton.

That is why Americans are welcoming the intervention of government regulation to stem the incompetence, fraud, abuse and waste that have inevitably resulted from too much capitalism. Yes, capitalism is good– up to a point.

Anyway, the George H.W. Bush administration initially signed a military-services contract of a few million dollars with Halliburton. Dick Cheney served as CEO of Halliburton from late summer 1995 through 2000.

In those years and beyond, Cheney successfully spurred specific American foreign policy initiatives to win more lucrative contracts for Halliburton. By January 2002, in one of several nefarious policy changes, he got President George W. Bush to lift economic sanctions against the Muslim country of Azerbaijan, human rights and environmentalism be damned. On Halliburton’s behalf, Cheney engaged in friendly dealings with such oil producers as Iran, Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and prior to the war, Iraq.

Azerbaijan’s president, Azeri Aliyev came to the United States for prostate cancer surgery in February 2002. A year later, he ran for reelection and won. As a quid pro quo, in November 2003, President George W. Bush got him a World Bank loan for an oil pipeline.

Of course, in February 2003, the fix was in and Halliburton was automatically awarded the contract that spelled out the terms of the fait accompli restoration of Iraq’s oil fields after the fait accompli war, ethics be damned. To top it off, the contract guaranteed a hefty profit for Halliburton. The company argued that there was no time for a fair, sealed-bid process before the war.

The “… contract would effectively make Halliburton the biggest recipient of Iraq’s oil money, with no input from the Iraqi people.” More than half of the billings for Halliburton’s oil-related services that the U.S. government would presumably pay for, were actually paid with Iraq cash. In other words, the proceeds of Iraq oil sales were used to pay Halliburton.

An organization that studied the quality of Halliburton’s work in Iraq calculated that “… the potential revenue lost from reduced oil production and exports” was $14.8 billion. Gross incompetence, fraud, abuse and waste were not isolated incidents. The holding company’s entities had a few contracts whose epic failures were hushed up until their projects’ entire budgets were spent, at which time those contracts were cancelled.

For example, there were many inexcusable episodes of oil smuggling by corrupt Iraqi officials, right under the noses of U.S. contractors. Halliburton was supposed to be the party responsible for preventing those episodes until it was fired in mid-2005.

In early 2004, due to public outcry over the no-bid, rigged Halliburton contract, there was new bidding, which was still rigged. The military, politicians and top employees of Halliburton were all co-conspirators in the illegality.

Workers of Halliburton’s subsidiaries and its subcontractors have hailed from a range of nations, including but not limited to: Fiji, Uganda, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bosnia, India and America. Both non-American and American hirees are lured by the promise of high pay.

But often that promise comes with a price; the workers are subjected to mean living quarters, do hard manual labor for long hours, such as twelve hours a day, seven days a week in dangerous conditions, get no health insurance and no paid time off, and might go for months with no pay.

If they’re non-American, workers can’t complain because they’ll likely be threatened with dismissal. They likely borrowed money to travel to their expatriate work in the first place. If they quit their jobs, they would be greatly indebted, and their families back home would be made even more impoverished.

Just a few of the kinds of functions the worldwide network of cheap labor fulfills include: food delivery, preparation and catering, lodging, golf course maintenance, civil engineering, motor vehicle transport of the United States Air Force, United States customs inspection and security.

Read the book to learn the details of numerous Halliburton-related outrages in addition to the aforementioned, and how in 2003 and later, the voices of the handful of people who might have had the power to stop the corruption were eventually drowned out by political actions imposed by the powers that were.

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.

Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom

The Book of the Week is “Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom” by Ensaf Haidar and Andrea C. Hoffman, published in 2015. This ebook tells the story of the problems that can arise in a theocratic monarchy (Saudi Arabia) when people speak their minds and act of their own free will– considered serious crimes, according to certain powerful men who interpret the Quran in a fanatical way.

One indicator that the story revolves around the author, is that a photo of ONLY Haidar (more than a headshot) is on the front cover of this ebook– not a family portrait, or any other scenes.

Infuriating their families is just one of many consequences of the non-conformist behavior of Haidar and her husband; another– causing an international incident in an ongoing saga that has lasted more than a decade.

The story starts when Haidar is in her early 20’s. Her polygamous father runs a financially successful furniture business. He has fifteen children, including the author– one of his younger daughters. The culture precludes any kind of paid work for the females. However, the author is allowed to have a mobile phone, and is encouraged by her much older, widowed sister to try to get a job so she won’t be dependent on her father. He is the ruler of his wives and daughters. If the daughters get married, their own husbands become their rulers. Haidar’s older brothers also hold authority over her.

A certain man who knows her brothers, decides Haidar is the one he wants to marry. But it is against their religion for her to be with, let alone speak with, any male, even on the phone, without a chaperone. The father, or no one, will choose a mate for her. The author and her suitor risk shaming their families and public punishment, when they communicate via mobile phone. They rebel anyway.

The major human-rights cause for which the family is fighting, is freedom of speech. The author’s husband (Raif) starts an Internet forum in which he argues for women’s rights, among other irreverent activities. Yet, “… at home he’s behaving like every other Saudi macho man.” She outwits him– “I hadn’t told Raif anything about the Facebook and Twitter accounts that I ran under a pseudonym.”

Later on, another emotional wrench in the works, is that the author resists telling her three children about why their father is absent from their home. The father tells her not to tell them. Still a product of her culture, she feels the need to obey him. She keeps lying to the children, so when they finally hear the truth– how can they ever trust her?

At any rate, read the book to learn of the trials and tribulations suffered by people who buck their religion-bound culture and government.

The Battle for Home

The Book of the Week is “The Battle For Home” by Marwa Al-Sasouni, published in 2016.

In this short ebook, the author– a Syrian female with a doctorate in architecture– describes how the architecture of Syria relates to the recent history and nature of its people, makes various generalizations about architectural concepts, and provides a little autobiographical background.

The author was born and raised in Homs, the third largest city in Syria. She discusses how it evolved differently from other cities. According to the author of this book’s foreword, the current architecture of Dubai reflects “…a bombastic and profligate fun park of petrol-dollar materialism designed on computers in London for the global rich.” Sasouni writes that if a Syrian is Sunni, Homsi, middle class, prosperous and educated– he’s told what to think, and if he conforms, he’ll be set for life.

Read the book to learn more about the “…atmosphere of laziness, dishonest competition and rampant corruption” that has taken hold of the author’s homeland of late, and how she rebelled against it.

Fu-Go

The Book of the Week is “Fu-Go” by Ross Coen, published in 2014. This book describes the precursor to modern-day drones.

During WWII, extensive research in meteorology, materials science, engineering, physics and statistics was required to send the explosives-laden hot-air balloons about 6,000 miles from Japan to America. In 1942, the Japanese began the campaign with the goals of boosting its own national morale and taking a swipe at its enemy; more specifically, to start forest fires in the Western United States, and create terror among American civilians. This would prompt America to divert its war resources to the quell the distraction. Japan lacked the funds to continue this initiative until late 1944.

The parachutes portion was made of paper from blackberry trees, and pasted together by thousands of middle school and high school girls whose education had lapsed due to the war. They performed unhealthy manual labor at a school gym and a factory. Miraculously, with significant improvement in balloon design, a few hundred of the drones landed in Washington state, Idaho, California and Montana in rural areas. There was controversy over whether to warn civilians of the danger, as this might tell the Japanese how well its campaign was working, and reveal the flaws in its system. American authorities met with the Canadian government, and pressured the media into keeping silent for a long time.

Read the book to learn whether Japan achieved its goals with this seemingly minor yet creative plan of attack.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

The Book of the Week is “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” by Anya Von Bremzen, published in 2013. This volume recounts the food-related details of the lives of the author (born in 1963) and her mother, who, up until 1974, lived in the former Soviet Union before moving to the United States. As can be surmised, they suffered many hardships from successive oppressive regimes that gave rise to hunger.

Under Vladimir Lenin in 1918 Russia, “The very notion of pleasure from flavorful food was reviled as capitalist degeneracy.” Millions died of starvation under Stalin in 1927 when he took over the means of grain production. The author’s grandfather, possessor of exceptional survival skills, was an intelligence officer under Stalin, so Von Bremzen’s family had access to the food of the wealthy. The author’s mother raised her to be a food snob. Stalin’s personal culinary expert Anastas Mikoyan visited America in 1936. “Unlike evil, devious Britain, the US was considered a semi-friendly competitor – though having American relatives could still land you in the gulag.” That attitude had changed by 1952.

The author’s mother celebrated the anniversary of Stalin’s March 1953 death, with a dinner party. She wed in 1958 at a government office and “…moved into her mother-in-law’s communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen.”

The Soviets recycled mayonnaise jars all the time for many purposes, including medical samples; the jar itself was expected to be provided by the patient. When the author and her mother moved to the U.S., “Ahead of us was an era of blithely disposable objects.” Von Bremzen’s culture shock arose while food-shopping not from the dizzying array of products, but from the inability to show off those products to less fortunate people, such as Soviets. All Americans took such cornucopia for granted. She was disgusted that American food appeared to be phony and lowbrow, like Spam. At Christmas, Von Bremzen was grossed out by Oreos: “…charcoal-black cookies filled with something white and synthetic. A charcoal-black cookie! Would anyone eat such a thing?”

Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign ired many Soviets, as “Getting booze for the holidays ranked at the top of everyone’s concerns.” All the Soviet intelligentsia drank excessively. It was unpatriotic to not drink. Everyone had a drinking partner. Proposing toasts and making conversation with the partner was mandatory. Drinking alone was anathema, socially unacceptable.

Read the book to learn more about the Soviet culinary culture and history through the decades, and even see some authentic recipes.