Monday, July 20, 2009

And now for something completely different

I had to go to the Cambridgeside Galleria Mall this evening. Since I was in the neighborhood, I treated myself to dinner at Helmand; a wonderful Afghan restaurant located in the culinary wasteland of East Cambridge by the Mall.

I hesitated about eating there though because the big thick book I'm reading at the moment is The Great War for Civilization, by Robert Fisk. The subtitle is The Conquest of the Middle East and I couldn't help but wonder if some of the staff (or the owner) might be offended.

Upon reflection this seems weird. I've had no problems eating in Indian restaurants while reading Salman Rushdie or Shashi Tharoor and I wouldn't think twice about reading about China while sitting in a Chinese restaurant. I've probably brought some biography of Stalin into a Russian restaurant at some point in time. I guess I'm a bit more concerned about offending the Afghan staff since the US is currently invading their country. Regardless of whether or not you think that invasion is a good idea, you can see that some of them might be a bit sensitive about it, and here I am sitting eating their delicious bread and aush and reading about it. Or at any rate reading about the prior invasion of Afghanistan--the one that the Russians threw.

I picked this book up at the recommendation of Ted Rall. He recommended it on his blog as a good history of the wars (many of them caused by western meddling) in the middle east over the past 20 years or so. The author is a foreign correspondent who's been based in the Middle East for several decades. There's lots of primary sources--including *jibblie jibblie* Osama bin Laden. Apparently, Fisk was the first western journalist to interview the man.

Horrible things are described--a torture chamber that the Shah's secret police had set up, the "trial" and execution of the secret police after the Iranian revolution, the sound of bullets coming at you and I'm sure much more. And he tries to be fair (at least about admitting the rights and wrongs of both sides.) The Shah's torture chambers were horrible, but although they were understandable so were the executions that followed the revolution. But he describes some humorous scenes too, one of which I'm about to quote at great length.

This takes place in Afghanistan during the Russian Invasion. The author had bought a carpet and he had just spent time in the bazaar buying a satin bag in which to carry the carpet home. Before going out to the bazaar, he had memorized the phrase for "satin bag" as it was not part of his vocabulary. When he arrived back at his hotel, the front desk clerk told him there was fighting just out of town, so he hired a rickshaw to take him to the fight. At first he sees nothing, but when he hears gunfire he flings himself into the first house he sees.

This is from the third chapter of the book-the one entitled The Choirs of Kandahar.

He has just thrown himself into a house and is attempting to identify himself to the occupants.

"I had just enough wits to remember the Pushtu for journalist and to try to tell these poor people who I was. "Za di inglisi atlasi kahzora yem!" I triumphantly announced. But the family stared at me with even greater concern. The man held his children closer to him and his wife made a whimpering sound. I smiled. They did not. Fear crackled over the family. Only slowly did I realise that I had not told them I was a journalist. Perhaps it was the carpet upon which I had landed in their home. Certainly it must have been my visit to the bazaar a few hours earlier. But with increasing horror, I realised that the dishevelled correspondent who had burst in upon their sacred home had introduced himself in Pushtu not as a reporter but with the imperishable statement: "I am an English satin bag."

"Correspondent, journalist," I now repeated in English and Pushtu. But the damage had been done. Not only was this Englishman dangerous, alien, an infidel intruder into the sanctity of the Afghan home. He was also insane. Of this I had no doubt myself. Whenever we journalists find ourselves in great danger, there is always a voice that asks "Why?" How on earth did we ever come to risk our life in this way? For the editor?"

In 900 pages or so I'll be able to say if the rest was just as good.

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