Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Setting Up in Dubai by Essam Al Tamimi

For people pondering a move to the UAE, this book by Essam Al Tamimi gives plenty of helpful information but to people thinking of establishing a business in the Emirates, Setting Up in Dubai is compulsory reading, especially if one is eager to avoid the pitfalls and expedite the process smoothly.

General Information
Admittedly this book has a Dubai focus but the general information and many of the issues addressed have application to the entire UAE and much of the Middle East. Setting Up in Sharjah is also becoming available and other books in this series are anticipated.

Subjects in the introductory survey examine the history of Dubai, the statistical growth of non-oil commodities, the UAE and Dubai political systems (with names of the major current office holders) and information about climate, population, postal services, telecommunications, the media, currency, major holidays, trade fairs, exhibitions and conferences and religion.

Author Essam Al Tamimi is well equipped to write such a book having practiced in commercial law and litigation in the UAE and the GCC countries since 1985, he has gone on to accumulate a wide range of local and international legal expertise and is the Founder and Senior Partner of the Al Tamimi legal firm (reputed to be ‘the largest law firm in the Middle East’).

While having a broad focus, this handbook concentrates on the legal issues of establishing a business. General information is given on the legal profession in the UAE and Dubai, charts are supplied to explain how federal laws are formulated and transacted, insights are conveyed as to how federal law, local law and Sharia (Islamic) law relate and what courts deal with which legal problem or procedure. The author gives practical details on how one files court action, the current cost of court fees and the different processes one pursues for disputes to do with labor, tenancy and civil matters.

Immigration and Customs
This major section describes in detail the matters to do with immigration, employment and visa issues for workers, partners and children.

The different processes from initial application to changing visa status while within the country are clearly illustrated in charts that show the sequence of steps. Helpful information is provided on registering a new born baby, securing domestic help and transferring employment sponsorship from one person to another.

Customs regulations and procedures are covered in depth as they relate to people, goods, business equipment and vehicles.

Business in Dubai
This chapter acquaints readers with procedures and requirements for establishing a business in Dubai.

The function and responsibilities of organizations that oversee businesses are outlined with information on the Chamber of Commerce, the Dubai Department of Economic Development, the Dubai Municipality, the UAE Ministries of Economy & Planning and Finance & Industry, the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, the UAE Central Bank, the Dubai Lands Department and the Dubai international Financial Centre.

The legal structures, laws and business entities are explained and those deemed to be of special value to foreign investors are highlighted. These address the full spectrum of issues from establishment, to continuing a business, through to terminating an operation. Different types of company procedures are described and how things differ in various parts of Dubai including the Free Zones and Business Parks.

The procedures for obtaining business licenses are given with the costs of setting up a business in the different zones plus specific guidelines for industrial projects, insurance companies, engineering consultancies, auditing firms, hotels and other accommodation, medical establishments and investment companies.

This book is interested in readers getting the detail, assisting them to see clearly each step in a process and notifying them as to which activities require special approval or authorization.

Employment Issues
Essam Al Tamimi gives an overview of the UAE Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs before highlighting the distinctive features of employment in Dubai to do with such vital matters as working hours, salaries and packaging, common salary scales (according to business and ethic origins of employees), taxation issues and labor cards.

Unique aspects of Emirati labor laws are described including the practical matters of termination, repatriation responsibilities, end of service benefits and accident compensation.

Housing and Accommodation
A narrative furnished with colorful illustrations gives readers an idea of the different types of accommodation that exist in Dubai. This chapter covers procedures to do with property ownership and offers a selection of housing estates that can be purchased in this emirate. The FAQ about renting are explained.

Health and Education
The well-advanced health care in Dubai and the UAE is described with practical information on such things as how one obtains a medical card.

Education options for one’s family and workers are summarized from nursery through to tertiary education plus specialized courses in such things as Arabic language.

Information is provided on how one obtains a driving license and another useful chart outlines 100 different driving offences and the anticipated monetary fine and ‘black’ or demerit point likely to be incurred. As this regularly changes, readers are pointed to the appropriate web site for up-to-date information and the method for discovering whether or not drivers have been booked.

Information is given on purchasing, registering and insuring a vehicle with tips provided on renting transport and using the different forms of public transport.

Following the dictum, “All work and no play…”, this book contains information on leisure and cultural pursuits, commencing with shopping(!), and including water sports and land sports such as golf and the distinctive Emirati pursuits of wadi bashing and camel riding. There is information on the nightlife of Dubai, eating out and a thumbnail sketch of places to see.

Local Customs and Traditions
A chapter presents an overview of religious customs and dos and don’ts, issues related to Ramadan, meeting and greeting, tea and coffee, alcohol purchase and consumption, what to wear when, important tips about what not to photograph, business etiquette and conversation subjects to avoid.

Some basic Arabic words are given to help readers say ‘Hullo’, to count to ten or to instruct the taxi driver to slow down.

The various sections of this book indicate the complexity of life and doing business in another country. Setting Up in Dubai is comprehensive and the inclusion of a CD containing all the application forms one will need for setting up in Dubai is an indication of the book’s very practical use.

Essam Al Tamimi, Setting Up in Dubai Edition 4: Business Investor’s Guide (Dubai: Cross Border Legal Publishing, 2006).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 79.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Images: Front cover of Setting Up in Dubai; author, Essam Al Tamimi.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Middle East and North Africa Media Guide 2008 ed. Ben Smalley

Why this Book?
The number of media outlets in the Middle East and North Africa is growing in leaps and bounds. Governments are gradually deregulating the media market and allowing independent and privately operated television and radio stations to operate.

Bad News
The introduction notes the rapid expansion but it realistically presents the dark side of the media in this region when editor Ben Smalley writes: “More than 200 journalists and media assistants have been killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003….2006 is the worst year yet for the freedom of the press in the Arab world.”

One glimmer of hope that is recognized is the September 2007 announcement by the UAE Vice President and PM and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum in which he said that journalists in the UAE would not be imprisoned for their work.

Middle East and North Africa Media Guide
This volume is comprehensive with nearly 500 pages of detailed information. It is a reference and guide book to be dipped into rather than read from cover to cover.

When so many newspapers are going bust around the world it is intriguing to see the large list (with statistics) of papers and magazines that have been launched in 2007.

Newspapers from the region are listed from Algeria to the UAE and in addition are listed according to frequency of publication, language and publisher with all the vital details about websites, contact addresses and circulation figures.

There are now well over 1,000 magazines published in the Middle East and North Africa including more than 60 new titles which were launched in 2007.

The various categories indicate something of the strength of current interest and the expansion of these sectors.

The consumer section includes magazines on news and politics, lifestyle and language, entertainment, celebrity and society, men’s topics, finance, teenage and children, students, literature, art and culture, religion, sports, motoring, boats and yachting, homes and properties, computers and electronics, jobs, careers and education, travel, airport magazines, in-flight magazines and business and trade. Each of these magazines comes with details and a thumbnail description.

The business and trade category has received a boost of 23 new launches in 2007 which reflects the booming construction industry in the region and the thriving exhibition industry. These magazines are grouped according to business and trade and Chamber of Commerce and include magazines on banking and finance, insurance, industry, oil and gas, electricity and water, advertising and marketing, print media and broadcasting, meetings and exhibitions, retailing, telecommunications, IT, architecture and interior design, property and real estate, building and construction, transport, aviation and logistics, military security and defence, medical and health, science, tourism, catering and hospitality, agriculture and farming, the environment and law.

If you flip through the channels on your television you will discover that there is a bewildering array of channels, in fact, over 370 free-to-air satellite channels in the Arab world.

Of this number the privately owned news stations currently represent the biggest sector with 56 channels, followed by 54 music channels (music is a big part of Arab culture) and 38 government owned channels.

The UAE has the highest number of channels in the region.

This Media Guide lists the television channels according to country, language and then their focus—business, property, entertainment, music, sports and motoring, maritime, interactive games and chat, children’s channel, religion, education, shopping and pay-TV networks.

Radio is listed in a similar way to television, however, the introduction highlights the trends in radio stations, technology and audience.

News and Photo Agencies
Contact details for news services (government and independent, international and regional) are given along with television news agencies, photo agencies and stock photo libraries.

Production Companies
The guide has a national listing of companies which create multimedia, television and radio commercials, films, documentaries, music videos, special effects as well as companies that hire related equipment when you are producing your own movie.

New Media
This new chapter addresses the new and fast growing media mainly broadcasting via the Internet and including online advertising.

Internet usage figures are listed and these show that the UAE has the highest rank for the region. The UAE experienced Internet usage growth of 79.7% from 2000-2007 and it currently has a population penetration of 33%.

This section lists IT agencies and websites relating to news, business, consumer, trade and the media.

World Media
While the title of the book has a regional focus, this guide contains useful information that relates to a sampling of major international media outlets across the main categories.

And there is More
A further section of this book lists agencies to do with advertising, public relations, direct marketing, advertising representatives, exhibition organizers and media resources.

If you have missed a category or a listing there is a substantial index and people discovering omissions or creating something new are encouraged to write and ask for a listing in the next edition.

Media Encyclopedia
This book is the regional compendium on all aspects to do with the media and marketing. It is comprehensive with 400 new media listings from across the eighteen countries of the region. It is detailed information rather than a book of essays and articles that present views, opinions and forecasts.

Ben Smalley (ed), Middle East and North Africa Media Guide 2008 (Dubai: MediaSource, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 125.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Middle East and North Africa Media Guide 2008.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Agamemnon’s Daughter by Ismail Kadare

It is not everyday that one reads a book whose theme is so politically sensitive that it had to be smuggled out of the country in batches but Agamemnon’s Daughter: A Novella and Stories has endured this fate. Penned in Albania in the 1980s by Ismail Kadare, names and locations were dressed in German camouflage and after being couriered to France were then changed back to the original before being translated.

The volume contains three stories by Kadare each set in different periods and times yet linked by many of the same characters and themes.

The novella, Agamemnon’s Daughter, commences with a scene of energetic sensuality. The narrator is practically engaged to somebody else but he is having an affair with Suzanna, the daughter of a man who is a high ranking official in the Albanian political leadership. Surprisingly, the narrator, who is an outspoken journalist, has received an invitation to attend a state rally and as he waits for his lover to meet him it seems that their relationship is in jeopardy.

Although this book has been translated and retranslated it has a poetic flow and is laced with images that are wonderfully descriptive. In illustrating the playfulness of his lover but the potential danger of their relationship the writer says, “She ruffled the hair on the nape of my neck with cold fingers that felt as jagged as broken test tubes.” (p7)

Suzanna had talked to her partner, about ‘sacrificing’ their relationship so as not to do anything that would torpedo her father’s ascendancy. Kadare provides resonance by referring to Robert Grave’s book, The Greek Myths, which includes the tragic story of Agamemnon, the Greek leader, who was prepared to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, to model to the army his submission and loyalty to the state. This deeper layer and interpretive key gives Kadare the substance on which to plumb the mysterious motives of political leadership that would lead to the sacrifice of one’s nearest and dearest, yet there are further questions about who is actually making the sacrifice.

Akin to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach or Graham Swift’s Tomorrow, the scope of this novella deals with less than one day or one march to the parade. Told in the first person this helps the author to share his innermost thoughts and describe in detail the fears, the suspicion, the threats, the glances, the betrayals and the constantly shifting craziness of living within the suffocating stranglehold of the single party, communist regime. As the author walks to the parade with questions, doubts and total confusion, the reader is thrust into the frustrating fog, the sense of the void and the exhausting questions that are central to Kafka’s novels and to most totalitarian regimes. One does not know what is happening and why it is happening and this lack of logic and clarity is the ploy of powerful leadership and part of the punishment that is dealt out to dissidents.

On the walk through endless checkpoints to the parade the writer meets people who had an “inextinguishable hankering for the higher slopes” but whose lack of loyalty or the indiscretion of a relative led them overnight to “fall all the way down to the netherworld.” (p37) This ‘snakes and ladders syndrome’ reveals that ascendancy is only achieved by the sacrifice of others. Like a raptor’s need for raw meat to fuel its flight, power is achieved but only tenuously maintained when flesh is given.

The description of the leaders seated in Grandstand A, viewed so close to the power from Grandstand C gives Kadare the chance to contemplate the big question: “By what means did they get that far up?” He inspects them all, one of whom “was smiling at someone else, with a face as worn and as lined as an old fig.” (p64). He analyses their furtive glances and notes their smug veneer—“Everything was smothered in collective joviality as if a generous helping of sauce had been poured over it all so as to even out the taste.” (p61). Why had he been given a seat in Grandstand C and had this access and ascendancy, even if so temporary, been achieved at the sacrifice of Suzanna?

Seated in the grandstand the writer unsuccessfully ponders the reasons for Suzanna’s change of heart and such reflection moves to the Greek Myth, the sacrifice that Stalin made of his son and to the questions pertaining to all leaders who dehumanize and whose decisions lead to the shriveling of life and love.

Agamemnon’s Daughter was a costly book to write and it is an emotionally demanding volume to read. It is a deserving winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2005.

Ismail Kadare, Agamemnon’s Daughter: A Novella and Stories (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 56.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Agamemnon’s Daughter; Ismail Kadare.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Unpublished Spike Milligan edited by Norma Farnes

Remember how at this time of the year people often say to you, “What do you really want for Christmas? You never give us any hints!” This new book containing the unpublished stories and clippings of Spike Milligan might just well be your answer. Give them a wink and send them this link. (That’s starting to rhyme like the poems you will find in this Milligan cornucopia).

The Unpublished Spike Milligan is hardly a conventional book, which is one of the reasons why it is subtitled, ‘Box 18’—the box for Spike’s scribbles and seeds, many of which, in the fullness of time became the stuff of vintage Spike.

Norma Farnes, Spike’s manager, biographer, life long friend and the one who he said had “the Power of Attorney over everything in my life except the Execution Squad”, is well placed to offer this smorgasbord of things Spike and provide illustrations of the off stage habits of the great man. For instance, Farnes explains that while Milligan’s public persona was that of the manic, disorganized bloke, in his office (what he called his ‘womb’), he was focused, methodical and a meticulous filer of clippings and stories—hence the subtitle, ‘Box 18’.

Many of the draft stories and soliloquies are provided in Spike’s handwriting with a typewritten translation to offer sense out of the squiggles and doodling. Copies of Spike’s handwritten diary give some interesting insights into the moods of the man. Journal entries such as ‘I’m so lonely’ or ‘F*ck the system’ reveal Spike’s innermost feelings. Spike had written on the page for the 28 September 1980 that one of his tasks was to ‘Die’. The editor adds the caption below, ‘He didn’t’.

The unpublished scripts are about sperm donors, religion, elephant substitutes, ‘Ostralians’, cat coffins and Egyptian mummies.

‘Box 18’ contains some unpublished poems, photographs (from the Goons or Spike blowing his bugle), children’s stories (including some about Bad Jelly the Witch), letters which illustrate his environmental concerns and simply some scattered statements. In one fragment, penned in 1980, Spike says, “My mind is overflowing but it’s nowhere to go.” (p140) At another time he writes, “Waiting—we are all waiting, waiting, for the waiting to stop.” (p143)

While you go adding this book to your ‘All I Want for Christmas’ list, don’t expect that you will find in ‘Box 18’ a laugh a minute. Sensational speeches heard live so often appear dead when they are laid out in type on papyrus. Spike’s speeches and sayings are no exception. But if you can hear the lilt in his voice, if you know the deft timing, if you can see the smile creep over his face, then this Milligan Miscellany will rekindle your memories and transport you back to the stage and the wireless.

Spike concluded most of his jottings, whether to Prince Charles, George Harrison or Michael Parkinson, with this hopeful benediction, ‘Love, Light and Peace’.

The Unpublished Spike Milligan: Box 18 ed. Norma Farnes (London: Fourth Estate, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 91.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Unpublished Spike Milligan.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Colours of Fujairah by Christopher Hurndall and Blanka Rössler (photographs)

At first glance this book appears as just another coffee table edition but a sustained reading reveals that this volume has substance as well as colour.

When information in English on Fujairah is scarce and largely promotional, this book offers a good survey of the history of the region as it was visited by Mesopotamian seafarers, Babylonian armies (modern day Iraq), the messengers of Islam, the Portuguese invaders in the sixteenth century and the British occupants of these ‘Trucial States’. Furthermore the author tells of the discovery of Greek and Roman coins, the importance of the trade route that intersects the Wadi Dam (controlled by the fort at Bithna) and connects Dubai and Sharjah with Fujairah and the East Coast.

Residents will find new details about familiar city locations and monuments and they will learn information about archaeological sites and the fauna and flora of Fujairah that visitors rarely see. The cultural attractions of the area are recorded (racing dhow, bull butting and football) and the book focuses pleasingly on the smaller villages and suburbs of the emirate including Dibba, Al Aqqah, Masafi, Ghurfah, Sharm, Bidiya and Bithna.

This comprehensive, yet uncluttered book is largely attributed to the knowledge of the author, Christopher Hurndall, who visited the UAE first as an airline pilot (he has seen the colours of Fujairah from the best vantage points) and then as a resident where he has lived in Fujairah during his retirement and witnessed the east coast and its sensational waters from his classic schooner, the ‘Charlotte Anne’.

This book is one of a series (The Colours of Dubai etc.) so the title alerts readers to beauty and colour as its governing themes. To the casual visitor, Fujairah sometimes appears as a dusty little city and colour is not always the most lasting memory that people take with them. Like the contributor to the UAE chapters of the popular Lonely Planet Guide to the Arabian Peninsula, who while noting the beauty of the eastern region, said: “Fujairah itself is a rather characterless small city without much tourism infrastructure…. Our recommendation is to bypass Fujairah, as its beaches are polluted and unattractive and the Port of Fujairah just north of the city is a major blot on the landscape. You’re much better off going north.” (p348)

In contrast, the resident author of The Colours of Fujairah finds beauty in the streets, the markets, the beaches, the wadis, the ‘picturesque villages’, the streams, the colourful flora and even in the port! This book has a lot of information on the distinctive and rare animals of the region, including Blandford’s fox, the Bonelli’s eagle, the Arabian gazelles, the Arabian leopard, donkeys, goats, dolphins and the Caracal lynx. The colour of the region is also apparent in the sky (over 300 different species have been recorded in this key bird watching area) and in the colourful shells on the beaches.

Blanka Rössler, who hails from Prague and more recently has been living and exhibiting in Germany, has conveyed the beauty and the colour of the region through her photographs in this book. With her artist’s eye, Rössler has captured the glow of dawn over the Arabian Sea, the colours of the Hajars from the air, the reflections of the sea waters, the bright night lights of the roundabouts and even in the multi-coloured containers at the port.

The Colours of Fujairah was published in 2002 and while it contains some wonderful photographs of Fujairah from out of the archive, some of the pictures depicting modern day Fujairah looked dated. This is only natural when one considers the rate of change that this emirate and country has experienced even since this book was launched. Rössler supplies some technical information about the pictures (especially satellite photographs) to do with exposure and resolution but many of the colours are so vivid and scenes are presented with such clarity and definition, they look too good to be true! Have camera filters enhanced the Fujairah scenes beyond recognition, or is there more dust and sea fog in the air today that makes Fujairah appear pale and veiled?

Readers will stumble across some purple patches in this book whose production has been financed by many sponsors (see the last page) but The Colours of Fujairah rightly possess a positive feel and sound a note of hope about the future of this eastern region. This book is an important acquisition for anyone interested in Fujairah, past, present and future.

Christopher Hurndall with photographs by Blanka Rössler, The Colours of Fujairah (Lake City, Florida: Zodiac Publishing, 2002).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 135.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Colours of Fujairah.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

My Forbidden Face by Latifa

My Forbidden Face Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman’s Story is the eye witness account of a young woman who was born and raised under the Soviet occupation but who, as a teenager, witnesses the takeover by terror of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

‘Latifa’ is not the author’s birth name but her assumed name now that she and her family live as exiles in France as a result of having a fatwa slapped upon them and receiving death threats.

This book is a revealing account of the political overthrow by the Taliban, the rapid revolution of terror and chaos and its endless creativity for inventing illogical laws to maintain control and suffocate its citizens.

As a Muslim, the author argues how the Taliban, though operating within the veil of rigorous religion, has departed from the essence of Islam. Like all fundamentalist groups, the Taliban is described more by what it is against than for what it stands for: No videos (tapes are stripped from cassettes and draped around trees), no TV, no photographs (no memories), no alcohol, no dancing (even at weddings), no whistling kettles, no dogs, no birds, no nail polish, no cultural treasures (the Taliban vandals destroy the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan) and no more kites in Kabul (‘the Taliban have outlawed the skies’).

Latifa tells of the marginalization of women under the Taliban, since it has decreed that women will no longer work, no longer be able to go to school and no longer have any health treatment. The account depicts the confinement of women, their thirst in an intellectual desert, their punishment by rape and the cruel tradition in which Afghani women who are violated are obliged to marry their rapist or be condemned to exile or death.

The author relays the psychological and physical impact due to the restrictions on her as a budding journalist, the profound depression ‘that is swallowing up’ her medico mother, the heavy weight that presses down on her father and brothers whose business and livelihoods suffer.

Despite the bleak mood of the book, there are touches of humor as Latifa tells of how she and her friends grew up nicknaming women who wore burqas as ‘bottles’, ‘upside-down cauliflowers, ‘storage sacks’ and collectively as ‘a regiment of parachutists’!

Any mirth quickly evaporates as Latifa and her fashionable friends are forced to wear the heavy burqas with the distinctive latticework, whose mesh is reduced even further by the short-sighted, stick-wielding Taliban police.

For a young journo and writer (the book was published when the author was only 22), whose first language is translated into French and then into English, this book is superbly written and contains a wealth of colorful images. Latifa describes her cloistered experience as feeling like ‘a canary in a cage’. She likens her wearing of the burqa to existing in ‘a moving prison’.

Latifa tells of the shutting down of the media in Afghanistan and its replacement with a diet of mindless propaganda. She rages against the international amnesia that has afflicted world governments and foreign journalists. This feeling of being forgotten by the BBC and the Voice of America is summed up by Latifa’s brother who says of Afghanis, “We’re like rats in some dark hole that is inaccessible to the rest of the world.” (p153)

Although set in the minor key, this book presents promising glimpses of the courage of its author and her family, who represent the many unnamed heroes whose stories are never told, in the running of a clandestine health clinic out of their home, the establishment of a secret school for children and the operation of an underground newspaper to satisfy the appetite for local and international news.

Written in exile, this book is a promise of hope, a literary treat to a nation starved of storytelling, a tribute to women who have kept their dignity and, as the author hopes, a key to other women, “whose speech has been padlocked and who have buried their testimony in their hearts and in their memories.” (pv)

Latifa with Chékéha Hacheim, trans. Lisa Appignanesi, My Forbidden Face Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman’s Story (London: Virago, 2002).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 49.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of My Forbidden Face.

Other books that are reviewed on Afghanistan that convey similar themes but offer their unique perspective are the following, with their links:

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen (Pakistan and Afghanistan)

Other books reviewed that highlight the oppression of women include:

Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi

My Name is Salma by Fadia Faqir

State of Terror by Karen women

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Spoken Arabic Step-By-Step by John Kirkbright

Spoken Arabic is not one book but two books—Books 1 and 2 (82 and 100 pages respectively) and three CDs that accompany the twenty lessons.

These resources were first published in 1993 but such has been their popularity that the books have gone through ten printings and the 2006 and 2007 model is the edition that comes with the DVDs.

The author, John Kirkbright has lived in the Arab world for more than forty years of which the last thirty have been in the Arabian Gulf. These resources come out of Kirkbright’s experience in creating self-study books for companies and banks and then they have been honed through his leadership of many staff courses in Gulf Arabic for companies such as the Al Futtaim Group, Shell and Emirates Bank.

The distinctive things that distinguish this resource include the following:
* It is for beginners but getting to grips with the twenty lessons will enable students to hold basic conversations with Gulf State Arabic speakers.
* It is about spoken Arabic. Students don’t through these resources get to grips with learning the alphabet and writing the script.
* The vocabulary is intentionally limited as are many of the grammatical intricacies. This is designed so as not to complicate and bog down the beginner. Lists of words do come in the Appendix and they are grouped according to themes.
* It is ‘step-by-step’ and the guide chooses the first few steps carefully and slowly, so as to encourage learners and not to leave them daunted and giving up.
* The course is written for people with no formal language training in language and grammatical terms. As Kirkbright says in the preface, this resource is for “The man [and woman] in the street.”
* Alternatives are given to show how words in Gulf Arabic differ from standard Arabic and to highlight variants throughout the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.
* There is a goodly amount of revision and summaries so as to consolidate and avoid overload
* The CDs are a valuable addition. Each lesson starts with some rousing Arabic music to get you in the mood and on task. There is a predictable four step rhythm in the approach to learning. Kirkbright gives the cue in English. The student is then given time and space to say the word or phrase in Arabic. The model answer is given by a person from the Arabian Peninsula and then it is your turn to say it again after the speaker.
* There are different speakers on the audio—men and women and speakers from different parts of the Gulf. This is a great advantage.

Kirkbright says, “It may seem strange that a non-Arab should write a course in spoken Arabic. On reflection, however, the pitfalls and difficulties of a language are not always apparent to native speakers of that language.” (Bk I p4-5)

This is a popular and useful resource because it is written by an effective Arabic speaker who knows how to assist beginners in taking those first, tentative steps. The sub-title, ‘step-by-step’ is the essential key to this book. But this is also the Arab approach to good education and to all of life. As they say in these parts, "Grapes are eaten one by one", which is a colourful way of saying ‘step-by-step’, ‘one step at a time’ or in the original:

أَكْل العِنَب حَبَّة حَبَّة Transliterated: Akl il-3inab Habba Habba

(Proverb taken from, Primrose Arander & Ashkhain Skipwith, Apricots Tomorrow , London: Stacey International, 1997.

John Kirkbright, Spoken Arabic Step-by-Step (Dubai: Motivate Publishing, 1993, 2007).

This resource book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 185.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Spoken Arabic Step-by-Step.

A related article entitled ‘Learning Arabic in the UAE and the Gulf’ has been posted on Experiencing the Emirates.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi

With Iran at the focus of much international attention, this memoir by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, gives a fascinating background to the country that has gone through a series of revolutions, awakenings and regressions in only a few decades.

Iran Awakening is a frightening account of the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of a fundamentalist religious regime in which critics of the government are imprisoned and murdered.

Ebadi highlights how certain events, such as the burning of a crowded cinema in 1978 and the death of 400 people, prompted people to protest and overthrow the Shah. The author also exposes the negative aspects of crowd movements for their hailing of Ayatollah Khomeini quickly turned to howls. Her analysis of these national movements points up the importance of the media and the legal profession when their representatives are doing their job well. For anyone thinking through the issue of the separation of religion and the state, this book gives ample comment and illustration.

Shirin Ebadi recounts her early life experiences, her training and service as a judge, and how she reacted when her influential job was taken from her and she became sidelined. Some instances of injustice and cruelty towards members of her extended family galvanized her commitment to work for battered children, women who were hostage in abusive marriages and political prisoners. Taking up the legal cases that others wouldn’t touch, Ebadi puts her own life at risk and for her courage in staying in Iran and being a champion of the rights of the vulnerable she is harassed, threatened and imprisoned.

It is illuminating to read the thoughts of a Muslim woman who has a deep faith, asks the hard questions and is eager to encourage the fulfillment of women. Ebadi baulks at the way under the strict Islamic code a man’s life is worth twice that of a woman and how this understanding translates in such things as a limited access to education by women, fewer professional opportunities and a much higher unemployment rate.

Iran Awakening is an important book for Muslims to read as Ebadi, a devout Muslim, is able to spell out the forbidding side of the theocracy that sparked the Islamic Revolution in Iran. She describes how the government espoused an ideology that made the family the centerpiece of its action but in reality, it used theology to introduce news laws that were oppressive toward women and children. These memoirs assist readers in reflecting upon the levels of flexibility one has in applying seventh century texts and conventions to contemporary situations.

In her epilogue Ebadi says, “I wanted to write a book that would help correct Western stereotypes of Islam, especially the image of Muslim women as docile, forlorn creatures.” (p210) This book reveals one striking representative of those Iranian women who have stood up for the rights of women but the book reinforces the stereotypes that the author wanted to shatter. Ebadi’s candid remarks about her husband’s expectations that she does the cooking, the housework and the bulk of the caring for the children (even though he supported her activism), illustrate graphically the practical limits of gender equality.

Despite her frankness about many aspects of Iranian life, the author indicates that her voice has been muted: “The censorship that prevails in the Islamic Republic has made it impossible to publish an honest account of my life here.” Perhaps Ebadi’s book has escaped the full impact of the censor’s pen only because of her international standing as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

Shirin Ebadi with Azadeh Moaveni, Iran Awakening (London: Rider, 2006). This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 56.00.

A picture of Shirin Ebadi and one of her stories is posted at:
Stories for Speakers and Writers.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Iran Awakening.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Birds of the Middle East by David Cottridge et al

The writer, P D James, describes in her autobiographical fragment, Time to Be in Earnest, a day with her friends exploring the natural world:

“One of the delights of being with [friends] Tom and Mary [Norman] is their knowledge of natural history. There isn’t a bird, butterfly, flower or tree which they can’t name.”

If you’ve also admired in others and longed for that skill of being able to name birds that you see in the Middle East, the revised and republished, Birds of the Middle East, may assist you to be well on your way with this aspiration.

Trivial Pursuit players confronted by questions about birds in the Middle East will be well prepared by a study of this volume. For example, Can you name five birds that are mentioned in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures? Or what about this trivial pursuit question: Birds are mentioned five times in the Koran. What specific bird is mentioned in the Islamic scriptures? [Answers below]

This reference book has a focus on birds in the United Arab Emirates with Simon Aspinall giving an introduction to birds and bird watchers in this country. This small book will be useful for keeping in your pocket or the glove box of the car if you are a resident in the UAE or one of the increasing number of tourists to this burgeoning country, many of whom come primarily for bird watching.

More information about birds and bird watchers in the UAE is posted on the Experiencing the Emirates site.

The book has a series of color tabs according to the bird group (larks, swallows etc) so you can find the page and photograph quickly when you are out and about with your binoculars and camera.

Each of the 252 species described has a colour photograph (supplied by David Cottridge), the taxonomical name and commonly used names (I hope the next edition supplies the Arabic and Hebrew names). Readers aren’t deluged with too much information. This small book comes with a glossary, an index, suggestions for further reading and addresses and web links for those wanting to take their study further.

They say that when we reach forty years of age we should be learning one new skill or taking up one new hobby each year to prepare for a full and rich retirement. Perhaps bird watching or birding (note the difference between these two pursuits and how they also differ from ornithology) might be one of those interests. Reading Birds of the Middle East might give you the impetus to get this feathery hobby up in flight. Don’t wait until you are forty to buy this book. It is a gift that a young girl or boy might easily read and treasure.

David Cottridge (not listed as author but photographer), A Photographic Guide to Birds of the Middle East (London: New Holland Publishers, 2001 & 2006).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 56.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Birds of the Middle East; David Cottridge.

Answers: The birds that are mentioned in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures include the eagle, sparrow, dove (turtle dove), raven, stork, ostrich and hen.

The Koran mentions the hoopoe (related to the hornbill). Birds of the Middle East has photos and information on all of these birds but the references in the ancient texts illustrate how birds have for centuries been a big part of the Middle Eastern environment.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

The Chilean writer, Isabel Allende is so right. A Thousand Splendid Suns is ‘unforgettable’.

This book is unforgettable because it draws back the veil on the changing face of Afghanistan, through war, drought, hunger, anarchy and oppression from numerous external and internal regimes. It views the country through the burqas and grilled veils (chadri) of Afghani women—the experience of polygamy, the centrality of Islam, the role of warlords and the Mujahideen.

The writing is sprinkled with Arabic, Pashtun, Farsi and Russian phrases, uttered in a variety of accents, which symbolize the influence of numerous cultures and conquest. Conditions are tough for so long and the enemies are relentless. Although, as Babi said to Laila, “Laila, my love, the only enemy an Afghan cannot defeat is himself.” (p122) One gets many glimpses of everyday life in Afghanistan, through the seasonal and religious cycles of the year and over the long time span that this story covers. There are fascinating cameos of weddings and funerals with insights into arranged and coerced marriages and the burials of the outcast.

This number one bestseller is unforgettable because it is about displacement and the plight of fleeing one’s country as a refugee. This crisis is personalized in the character of Tariq who, like eight million Afghanis, abandons his family to settle in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. The theme is extended in the attempt of Mariam and Laila to escape but they are apprehended at the railway station (like hundreds of women) and are taken to prison cells where they are violently punished.

The author, Khaled Hosseini, is now a US envoy for the UNHCR and is deeply involved in the plight of refugees throughout the world. This book may well be his greatest contribution, as he tells the story of exile and the pull of home. It is helpful that this book has a free reading guide (downloadable) to assist people in discussing and understanding the refugee situation more fully.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is unforgettable because it tells the harrowing story of childlessness and stillbirth in a culture where bearing children is a religious and cultural duty and failure to produce is a social death sentence. The book movingly tracks the rollercoaster ride of expecting children and dashed hopes and the powerful emotions that this condition evokes.

The childlessness experienced by Mariam represents only the tip of the problem of how many Afghani women have been treated. The book tells of violence done by men to their wives and the unwillingness of others to intervene because this is ‘the business of the husband’. Repeatedly the longing for male babies is sounded and the disappointment expressed when a pregnancy produces a girl (usually called ‘the baby’ or ‘that thing’). One learns how women are forced into marriage from as early as fifteen years of age, sometimes with old men who desire another younger wife when they are bored with their older model. Very discretely, Hosseini writes about the dynamics of sex and he delicately exposes the violence, the functionality and the one-sidedness of the act. Afghanistan appears as a country where women have little chance to decide the course of their lives.

The book is unforgettable because it centers on the shame of illegitimacy—Mariam being born a harami and becoming to her father, his legitimate wives and the community a mugwort or a weed. This condition, added to her other handicaps, means that Mariam becomes a refugee in her own clan and community. When she is turned away from her father’s home she ponders the issues of home and family and expresses her aloneness: “She did not belong here. But where do I belong? What am I going to do now?” (p38)

This volume is unforgettable because it is beautifully written. The episodes are relayed in a gripping fashion. The author is the master of suspense. Chapters often end with a dilemma or an unanswered question that urges the reader to turn the page. One senses that something momentous has or is happening but Hosseini holds back information and skillfully delays disclosure so one is searching for the resolution or the confirmation to one’s hunches.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is unforgettable because it is magnificently poetic. The poetry commences with the title of the book, which is a phrase taken from a poem composed in the seventeenth century by the Persian poet Saib-e-Tabrizi:

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” (p172)

The poetic descriptions continue through the book and are best illustrated by the description of Ramadan and the way it transforms Kabul or the final thoughts in the life of one of the main characters in the story. (pp 71, 329)

This book is unforgettable because it focuses on the dark side of religion. When Afghanistan comes under the control of the fundamentalist Taliban, the fun goes out of life, cultural icons (such as the pre-Islamic Buddhas of Bamyan statues) are destroyed and religion is transmitted by rocket mortars and upheld by irrational and brutal acts of violence. A comprehensive example of the way religion can sap the life out of a culture is expressed in the rules issued in a Taliban flyer and tossed onto the Kabul streets.

This book is unforgettable because it concerns the human condition—the events and stages of birth, marriage, childlessness, suicide, death and remarriage. The hurdles are relentless but the indomitable quality of the human spirit is expressed well by Laila when she responds to the painful story of a taxi driver:

“I’m sorry,” Laila says, marveling at how every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet, she sees, people find a way to survive, to go on. Laila thinks of her own life and all that has happened to her, and she is astonished that she too has survived, that she is alive and sitting in this taxi listening to this man’s story.” (p350)

Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Great Britain: Bloomsbury, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 66.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of A Thousand Splendid Suns; Khaled Hosseini.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

This book represents the best from Barbara Kingsolver’s scribblings about the woes and wonders of her ‘year of seasonal eating’ in the southern Appalachians. It records her sense of being ‘called home’ from Arizona to fulfill her desire “to live in a place that would feed us.”

This book is a family affair with Barbara supplying the main text, her husband Steven Hopp providing tips within the sidebars and Barbara’s daughter Camille sharing reflections on her childhood and this experiment, plus lots of yummy recipes.

The ground rules for developing this ‘leaves of grass’ culture were simple to state but onerous to practice:

* Make every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we knew
* Try and wring petrol out of the food chain, even if that meant giving up things
* Shop for food so close to home that we’d know the person who grew the produce (often that was us!)

The book does not feel like Cistercian austerity and self-denial as they decided to treat themselves to one luxury item (in limited quantities) each time they went shopping e.g. coffee, dried fruit, hot chocolate). The mood of the book is serious but light, spiced with literary references, dashes of humor, snatches of conversations from the Kingsolver farmhouse and garnished with drawings that rightly ‘make the book smile’.

It is not intended as a ‘how-to’ tome but it is has the feel of a text book with the sidebars crammed with resources and web links, the pages of recipes pointing to the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle web site and the extensive bibliography and lists of organizations at the end. The book is instructive, ranging from the history of asparagus, the lost art of turkey sex, the tending of fruit trees, the finding of economic substitutes for tobacco growing in the south through to the issues of vegetarianism.

The style is inspirational with Kingsolver becoming the new Billy Graham of growing tasty vegetables, sharing the gastronomical gospel of home style cooking and declaring to her readers “what it is that makes for the hallelujah of a July garden.”

The book bursts with passion. One conviction shared with strength is the ignorance that most people have about vegetable life and the origins and processes by which food arrives on supermarket shelves and in food packets. This book makes a case for children to learn agriculture at school. Kingsolver recognizes the weak food culture of America that consists of not much more than burgers on 4 July, turkeys at Thanksgiving and smashing pumpkins at Halloween. This is slight when compared with the strong food cultures of Italy and France. She asks her American readers, “Will we ever develop a food culture of our own?” In addition to advocating ‘la vida loca’, the authors promote the reading of food labels, the slow food movement, restoring the kitchen to the center of the home and the spin offs such as the experience of neighborliness.

Writing about local food during this ‘Home on the Prairie’ experiment does suggest rightly that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle must have a local focus. This is one of the challenges for readers living in a New York apartment or international readers living in the dry conditions surrounding Dubai. The book has the flavor of the American south and this agricultural log cycles through the months and the seasons of the northern hemisphere. However, the message and implications are evident for all and the chapters on the customs of growing and cooking in European countries do add some international substance.

Will readers experience conviction of agricultural ignorance and epicurean transgressions and respond to the Kingsolver appeal? It might be a cop out for the hardened city slicker to protest, saying this experiment might be attractive and practical if they had a 200 acre farm and a healthy bank balance. The authors seek to distill the implications of their year for people living in suburbia and they head off such excuses by contending that “the main barrier standing between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint—virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy.” (p30)

Related to patience is the important commodity of time. Kingsolver reveals that an enormous amount of time went into the planning of this experiment as well as the daily chores. Former pastimes were left behind and the nature of entertainment changed. Now that the book is written and the one year, farm sabbatical is over, will this lifestyle continue in the form that the book has described? Is this to be the permanent lifestyle and if not what adjustments might be made? It will be intriguing to see how far into senior adulthood such a demanding lifestyle can be endured or is this physical lifestyle the secret of longevity, health and fulfillment?

It is tantalizing to ask, “How would the Kingsolvers grow, cook and eat differently now, if they were to return to suburban life in the desert of Arizona?

How has and how will this agricultural experiment affect the literary career of Barbara Kingsolver? It has obviously produced this journal but will it enrich her novel writing? Or will the investment of time in planting zucchini, peeling spuds, making cheese and knitting jumpers mean that the much desired Kingsolver novels wither on the vine?

Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L Hopp & Camille Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating (London: Faber & Faber, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 91.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Barbara, Steven, Camille and Lily.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Jon Stewart & Clinton Talk about Bill’s New Book, ‘Giving’

Jon Stewart of ‘The Daily Show’ (30 September, 2007), in introducing Bill Clinton’s new book, ‘Giving’, quipped that the question that plagued him as he read it was, “What’s in this for me?” Stewart got serious for a second saying ‘Giving’ was not cautious (in contrast to the style of many politicians), the book “feels completely free” and “it seemed as if you, as writer and giver, are allowing yourself to pursue [the work of giving] completely unfettered.”

The former President agreed and stated the point of his new book:
“I have included so many examples in this book because no matter whether you are old, young or in-between, rich, poor or in-between, possessing lots of time, time poor or in-between, there is something that we all can give.” In this statement, that echoes Martin Luther King Jnr—“Everybody can be great… because every body can serve”, Bill Clinton identified his boundless audience. He is happy about politicians, business tycoons and celebrities giving big bucks (and he includes many examples) but Clinton is more concerned to motivate ordinary readers (especially young people) to give what they can and cultivate a joyous habit of giving.

The scores of examples straddle the classes, the continents, the colours and the creeds (even the creedless). The all-inclusive nature of this book is one of its distinctive features. The mood and vision is captured in his peroration when he declares that “so much of modern culture is characterized by stories of self-indulgence and self-destruction. The media is dominated by reports about demeaning others, defining others by their worst moments and exploiting their agonies.” Clinton then asks, “Who’s the happier? The uniters or the dividers? The builders or the breakers? The givers or the takers? I think you know the answer. There’s a whole world out there that needs you, down the street or across the ocean. Give.” (p211)

‘Giving’ is an inspirational book because Clinton wants his audience to act upon his message by considering the innovative ways that they can give, searching the lists of resources and joining groups that are making a difference.

The book explicitly and implicitly identifies some important motivators including:
* The justice issue in redistributing the wealth in opportunities, investments and effective organization
* The humanity issue is which our commonality is more important than our interesting differences
* The action issue in which every person can make a difference
* The quality of life issue which leads to giving people a better chance

In addition to examples and motivators Clinton writes of the remarkable features of this current age that have sparked “an explosion of citizen service giving.” Furthermore, in opening up his subject he addresses not only the giving of money but the giving of time (full time to one hour a week), the giving of things (medical supplies for Indonesia and bicycles for Sri Lanka), the giving of skills (“education is the ultimate skills gift”), the gift of reconciliation and new beginnings, the gifts that keep on giving (like Heifer International which gives cows and goats that breed new ‘gifts’), the gift of a model of giving that others can copy or adapt (“Why reinvent the wheel?”), the organization of markets for the common good (e.g. Starbucks not only makes coffee but makes a difference in Aceh and Rwanda) and the gift of a good idea.

‘Giving’ in many ways is a human book about Bill and Hillary, their projects and contributions as well as some of the mistakes they have made along the way.

This readable book is a ‘must read’, especially by members of religions, community groups, schools, aid organizations and governments. In businesses and profit organizations this book should be required reading for professional development and team building and board room planning.

‘Giving’ will stimulate creativity and focus attention without inducing guilt, on the further contribution that individuals, groups and nations might make. This book will have served its purpose well if readers ask, “How best can we give and do our part for the good of others and for all life on this planet?”

Bill Clinton, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World (London: Hutchinson, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 98.00.

Reference is made in this book review to ‘The Daily Show’, Comedy Central, CNN International, 30 September 2007.

Geoff Pound

Image: Jon Stewart and Bill Clinton; front cover of Giving.

Friday, September 21, 2007

‘Three Cups of Tea’ by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin.

Mountaineer, Greg Mortensen, entered a poor, remote Pakistani village in 1993 after a failed attempt to climb K2. In his weakened state he was overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people and as a parting shot he promised to return and build them a school.

Three Cups of Tea is written by David Oliver Relin and it is the account of Mortensen’s work, not only in fulfilling this promise but in growing an organization that is committed to building schools as a way of promoting peace.

By the end of the book many schools have been built but this is not the end of the story. The vision that Mortensen shares with his readers is “that we all will dedicate the next decade to achieve universal literacy and education for all children, especially for girls.” (p333) This is a mammoth task realizing that more than 145 million of the world’s children are deprived of education due to poverty, exploitation, slavery, gender discrimination, religious extremism, and corrupt governments.

Mortensen discovers that building schools among the Pakistani and Afghani people is a higher mountain that he has ever tackled and a project that demands the same courage, teamwork and endurance that are needed in scaling the world's higest mountains. At certain low points Mortensen wants to quit but the book provides the secret as to how Mortensen stayed motivated.

Greg Mortensen is portrayed as having a ‘remarkable lack of ego’ and, as an introvert, he has to push himself to front up to meetings and the media. Author, David Oliver Relin is admiring but he paints a picture of his subject ‘warts and all’. Oliver says that after agreeing to write the book Mortensen handed him a paper with a list of names and contact details of Mortensen’s ‘enemies' with the encouragement to talk to them all. Mortensen is a mountaineer and a nurse but his pathway is steep as he is challenged by lessons in culture, building schools, learning languages, navigating his way through Islamic law, getting kidnapped and dealing with fatwas that are placed upon him because he is providing education for girls.

As Mortensen’s vision becomes a reality and the work of one man grows into a movement, there are areas where he either does not have the gifts to be Director of the Central Asia Institute or he is reluctant to appoint staff and delegate responsibilities to other people. In the process Mortensen does not care adequately for himself or his family, and the people in his organization are often left stranded and longing for better communication from their leader. Three Cups of Tea is therefore a good case study for those involved in commencing and growing a development project. It focuses, through the telling of the story, on issues of contextualization, empowerment, fund raising, the relationship between the visionary and the organization and the challenge of a passionate person seeking to live a balanced life with care for himself, his family and his team.

The book oozes passion for the project and love for the people who are the recipients of the schools. It includes the story of relationships that Mortensen struck up with women and the exciting romance of how he met his wife, Tara.

Mortensen’s immersion in the culture of the people is revealed on every page. He wears a shalwar kamiz and learns words from several of the languages used in this area of Pakistan. The pages of the book exude the smells of yak dung, smoke, butter tea, chewing tobacco and chapattis. He appears to read the culture well and observe the customs but at one point a wise man from Baltistan invites Mortensen to his place for a deep conversation:

“‘Sit down. And shut your mouth,’ Haji Ali said, ‘You’re making everyone crazy…’

“When the porcelain bowls of scalding butter tea steamed in their hands, Haji Ali spoke. ‘If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways,’ Haji Ali said, blowing in his bowl.

‘The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die,’ he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortensen’s arm. 'Doctor Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.’

‘That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life,’ Mortensen says …. ‘Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.’” (p150)

This story is inspirational and the book is generally well written. However, it suffers from being too long and in need of editing. Reading the book is like listening to a riveting speaker who goes on too long and doesn’t know when and how to stop.

Three Cups of Tea comes with delightful photos, a helpful index and pointers to where more information can be obtained.

Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time (New York: Penguin Books, 2006).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 60.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Three Cups of Tea; Greg Mortensen with Pakistani students.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Reviewing ‘Encore Provence’ by Peter Mayle

How’s this for an introduction?

“I think it was the sight of a man power-washing his underpants that really brought home the differences, cultural and otherwise, between the old world and the new.” (p1)

This is the captivating style of self-confessed ‘permanent tourist’, Peter Mayle, who has made Provence, the focus of much of his writing. Encore Provence is the third in the trilogy, following the popular A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence.

Encore Provence marks Mayle’s return to the south of France after some years in America which was in large part a place to get away from the fans that had streamed to his house in Ménerbes.

Mayle has an uncanny knack of finding humour and meaning in such ordinary things as corkscrews, extra virgin olive oil or a summer afternoon. It is this combination of subject and style that is quintessentially French. As Mayle says:

“To hear a good Provençal storyteller is to hear a performance given by a master of the art of verbal embroidery, a prince of the pregnant pause, the shocked expression and the belly laugh. Drama is extracted from the most mundane occasions—a trip to the garage, the gutting of a chicken, the discovery of a wasps’ nest under the roof. Coming from the right person, these small moments can take a dramatic significance more suited to the Comédie Française than a village bar, and I always find them fascinating.” (p21)

There is a grand convivialité about Peter Mayle. His writing has a joie de vivre and the merriment of a five course meal (with a triple-strength chocolat in a puddle of crème anglais), washed down with several glasses of French wine and the scent of a cigar.

Encore Provence is never a ramble as it bears unostentatiously thorough research and the fruit of Mayle’s conversations with the citizens of Provence. This life experience is what makes Mayle’s books quite different from tourist guide books put together by writers who have breezed in and noted the ‘must sees’. For Mayle and for the French, “the tourist is just a dollop of jam. Welcome but not essential.” (p11)

This book of fourteen, stand-alone essays is entertaining but educational as Mayle writes about fois gras, boules, the ‘orchestra of speech’, the speed of drivers, open-air pissing, the flirtatious habits of French butchers and the ‘recipe’ for a perfect French village. Mayle says, “If I had to choose a single example of what I missed most while in America, it would be a country market.” (p11) Of special interest are the chapters on ‘How to be a nose’ among the perfumes of Provence, a ‘Beginner’s Guide to Marseilles’, the idiosyncrasies of French real estate agents and the do’s and don’ts when you are looking to buy property in Provence.


Peter Mayle, Encore Provence (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1999)

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Encore Provence; Peter Mayle.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Reviewing ‘A Certain Age’ by Lynne Truss

This book is a collection of twelve monologues that were presented by actors in two series on BBC Radio Four in 2002 (female voices) and 2005 (male voices). They are written by Lynne Truss, former British journalist and currently a fiction and non-fiction author. She is best known internationally for her best seller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

These monologues (‘what a turn-off word it is,’ says Truss) come with brief introductory comments and notes to help the readers visualize the setting and sense the mood. They are stand alone pieces but the title, A Certain Age, provides an overarching theme within which the speakers address a range of life situations, encompassing such things as love, romance, friendship and family.

The monological style (does that word turn you on?) is superb for revealing deep secrets, as it stimulates the streams of consciousness in thoughts that are confessional and sometimes naïve.

Truss is witty, clever, earthy and humorous with her stage directions as well as her scripts. In a hilarious monologue by a newspaper photographer who has to take pictures of two mediums for articles on their craft, the women are bombarded with other-worldly revelations for this man that come to them “like psychic spam!” (p40) Another character is addicted to massage and skin treatments and is said to be “dabbling in colonic irrigation.” (p54)

The author’s passion for vivid words and proper punctuation is written into several of the scripts. One speaker is brought to a standstill by a split infinitive while another savors the sounds of the word ‘embezzlement’. In the monologue entitled, The Wife, the author captures the character’s self-doubts and anxieties with Henny prattling on in long, tension-filled sentences without taking time for a breath.

A Certain Age is a barrel of laughs but it also presents many perceptive insights. In the monologue entitled, The Father, Truss introduces John as a widower who ‘thinks he is dynamic but he is not’. As he thumbs through his vinyl records with all their memories, he ponders the way young people have all their music on memory sticks (‘like chewing gum’) or on iPods the size of cigarette packets. John expresses his disgust with these new-fangled devices in which so much music is squashed together “like musical spermatozoa.” (p63) The widower also expresses his views on the inappropriateness of people’s support when he says, “Everyone’s an expert on me and David, see; everyone’s our unofficial counselor; that’s what happens when you’re bereaved.” (p70)

Lynne Truss, A Certain Age (London: Profile Books, 2007). This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 91.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of A Certain Age; Lynne Truss.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Reviewing ‘Understanding Islamic Banking’ by Joseph A. DiVanna

The popular book, 1000 Numbers & Reasons Why Dubai, prophesied regarding the UAE, “that in the next 3-5 years there is an expected establishment of new fully-fledged Islamic banks and companies, a whole scale conversion of some conventional banks into Islamic ones as well as Islamic product offerings by many conventional banks.” (p97) The book forecasted that the growth rate of Islamic banks in the United Arab Emirates is estimated at 11%.

Because 1000 Numbers and a myriad of articles have not explained what Islamic banks and products are, the recently published, Understanding Islamic Banking, by Joseph A. DiVanna, is most welcome. This may well be the definitive guide to the subject. DiVanna is a banking strategist, a business author, a global speaker and a management consultant. He is not a Muslim but he is respectful of the Muslim faith. His stance as an interested outsider may be an advantage as he seeks to clarify a complicated issue and address the questions that Muslims and non-Muslim customers are asking about Islamic finance.

The author has undertaken an extensive amount of reading as he writes about the history of Islamic banking and sets forth his explanations from religious books and legal interpretations. When asked, “What is the best way to understand Islamic society and specifically, Islamic banking?” DiVanna replies, “read the Holy Qur’an.” (pxiii) He is probably too humble to add, “And read my book!”

DiVanna shows how Islamic banking is shaped by the ethos and values of Islam in such ways as these:
* It is interest free (he also shows how Christianity promoted this policy in medieval times)
* It is multipurpose and not purely commercial
* It is strongly equity-related
* Banking transactions and investments must comply with Sharai law
* It is risk sharing
* It must have a sense of service to the greater community.

One of the complexities relating to Sharia law is that this is interpreted in different ways, by different scholars in different countries, thus creating different rulings about what banking activities and products are halal and what are haram. DiVanna asserts that an Islamic bank or financial institution may be defined as one that is supervised by a Sharia board. (p5)

In addition to his clear explanations, the author provides helpful diagrams and charts that illustrate the different flow of finance and the stages it traverses between conventional banking and Islamic banking.

The book indicates that Islamic banking is functioning in some capacity in over 75 countries and one of the sections deals with global banking and how Muslims are working together. This chapter surveys the diversity across the global spectrum, presents some innovative Islamic banking systems and offers some growth in international benchmarking, to do with such things as mortgages and credit cards. DiVanna points to a myriad of books and Internet resources such as Islam’s online fatwa rulings of what is acceptable Islamic banking practice.

In one of the final chapters that looks to the future of this growth industry, DiVanna states that “Islamic banking is at a crossroad: banks must provide services to Muslims globally while simultaneously interfacing the conventional economics activity between nations.” (p123) More than simply making this assertion, DiVanna draws up an agenda which identifies the major tasks that banks and financial institutions must address.

This book is thorough without assuming a high knowledge about banking practices or terminology. It has a host of footnotes, a glossary and a bulging bibliography.

Understanding Islamic Banking should be required reading for those considering establishing a business in Islamic countries, for anyone who has put money into an Islamic bank and anyone who wants to get that money out and seek the bank’s help in undertaking a major purchase.

Joseph A. DiVanna, Understanding Islamic Banking: The Value Proposition that Transcends Cultures (Cambridge, U.K.: Leonardo and Francis Press, 2006) This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 140.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Understanding Islamic Banking; author Joseph A DiVanna.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Reviewing ‘A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks’ by Rory Spowers

Why would you give up your job as a BBC journalist and go with your wife and young kids to Sri Lanka to establish a tea garden? The answer forms the focus of this book. English born ecological writer and researcher, Rory Spowers had an itch to live a more ecologically sustainable lifestyle and he explains how this aspiration was nurtured and how his green gifts were honed to the point that he could oversee a building development, set out gardens and orchards, implement appropriate irrigation systems and install solar energy panels.

The book begins grippingly with celebrations on Christmas Day 2004 when Rory says to Yvette, “moving to Sri Lanka has been the best decision that we have ever made.” Only a few hours later the Asian Tsunami surges like a vast wall, devastating the country, killing 217,000 people and leaving five million people homeless. A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks is an interesting read because it lifts the veil on life in Sri Lanka and it offers an eye-witness account of the massive work of reconstruction.

This book is the diary of a risk-taking family and, like good journals it gives an honest account not only of things done but of reactions, deep feelings and the rollercoaster of emotions.

The volume throbs with ecological and almost evangelical fervor as Spowers spreads a message that is as green as its cover. Instead of pontificating about what is wrong with the high human use and wastage of earth’s resources, Rory and his family roll up their sleeves, inspired by the words of Buckminister Fuller who said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” (p31)

The mood of the book is a hopeful one, not only hope for the local project but hope for the planet. Rory is down-to-earth, realistic and confessional—someone who tells it warts and all. It is too early to say whether the Spower’s project, ‘Samakanda’ (meaning ‘Peaceful Hill’), is a success story, as the Sri Lankan environment is vulnerable as well as beautiful and buying property, establishing buildings and doing business in this country is as tricky and as demoralizing as facing the spin bowling of Muttiah Muralitharan.

Like making tea, this book needed to have more time to draw. The diary approach helps the author to be frank but it makes the book overly detailed, thus clouding the bigger issues. Sometimes the chronological entry style does not work as the writer flits back in time or wants to say things that relate to another period.

Structurally, the book is a hotchpotch. At the three quarter mark the diary ends with an afterword and then the book putters along like a Tuk-Tuk as the author gives twelve essays on basic environmentalism or what Spowers calls ‘bio-versity’. These essays are succinct and thus the book acquires potential as an environmental primer.

With the glossary, index and pointers to web site resources, all that is needed is for the author to give his pages a serious pruning, add some group discussion questions and A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks could become a valuable book for people wanting to make a difference in their small corner.

Rory Spowers, A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks, (St. Ives, Great Britain: HarperElement, 2007). This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 56.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front Cover of A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Reviewing ‘The Blessings of Ramadan’ by Javed Ali

This beautifully presented book is written primarily for children and young people of the Islamic faith but it serves as a simple and clear resource book for anyone wanting to learn about Ramadan.

English-based author, Javed Ali, has developed this short book (56 pages) from a series of talks he has given to Muslim young people during the holy month. It is written in English but Arabic expressions are aplenty as well as the inclusion of a comprehensive glossary and references.

It would be easy for the uninitiated to think that Ramadan is a hard deal having to go without food, drink and sex for the daylight hours over an entire month but the book’s title indicates the positive blessings that come from Ramadan. These blessings for one who follows the Ramadan traditions include the development and purification of character, ‘getting into training’ for the new year, growing in God-consciousness, coming to a better appreciation and involvement with the needs of the poor, developing a shield of protection against evil, developing one’s self-control and the communal blessings of community building, reconciliation and peace.

In a nutshell Ali says, “The essence of the month is to become a better person, who remains conscious of God throughout his or her life.” (p4)

Ali offers this book as a primer as he explains such things as the timing of Ramadan according to the lunar ‘clock of nature’, the reasons for fasting, the exceptional cases (elderly, manual laborers, the sick, children, travelers and expectant mothers), the pre-dawn meals, the breaking of the fast at Iftar, special night prayers, the ‘Night of Power’, the giving of alms (zakat) and the final festival (Id-Ul-Fitr). The author is swift to recognize that Ramadan inculcates a sense of solidarity with all Muslims but it has flexibility and diversity as it is practiced in different ways in different countries around the world.

The style of the book is straightforward, thoughtful and prophetic. He probes beyond the customs to reflect on their intended meanings. Ali recognizes that many Muslims seem to gain weight through this month of fasting and he challenges the extravagant overeating of special foods and the endless partying which flies in the face of the whole principle of fasting.

Ramadan celebrates the special month in which the prophet is said to have received his revelation so there is in this month a focus on Quranic readings. Instead of having a month where one can ‘pay your religious dues’ the author emphasizes how this month is a springboard that sets you up for the practice of these disciplines, including voluntary fasts right throughout the year. In no way does the author encourage or endorse a ‘Frequent Flyer’ approach to Ramadan, in which a diligent practice for one month can build up points and credit to let you off the religious hook for eleven months of riotous living.

A distinction is made between practices that are mandatory and those that are voluntary. One of the areas that some will find difficulty in accepting is the concept of doing religious duties or works to atone for one’s sins. For instance, the Prophet Mohammed said, “One who spends the Night of Power [the night when the revelation of the Quran is said to have come] in worship with faith and hoping for its rewards, will have all of one’s previous wrong actions forgiven.” (quoted on p45) The book and the volume that it quotes raise tantalizing questions about the nature of God. To what extent does one need to show works of goodness and generosity to be ‘saved’? How much does one have to do for the forgiveness of sins? Can one be sure he or she has won the favour and acceptance of God? How much does the prophet reveal at the first Ramadan a God of grace?

The blessing of giving zakah (alms) finds its echo in other religions, as does the right of God to a person’s wealth. What is distinctive, as hinted by Ali, is that “once the Zakah is given, the remaining wealth of the person becomes pure and legitimate.” (p47)

Javed Ali describes the celebratory culmination of Ramadan at Id, in which the coming together over meals is a time for forgiveness, reconciliation and building community. The invitation to those who are not Muslims to join in the festivities is a beautiful symbol of reaching out in peace, a commitment to unity and tolerance to those who hold differing views.

Javed Ali, The Blessings of Ramadan (New Delhi: Goodword, 2002; reprinted 2005) is available in the United Arab Emirates from Magrudy’s bookshops at a cost of Dh14.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Blessings of Ramadan.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Reviewing 'Everyman' by Philip Roth

This book is as dark as its cover. Philip Roth, the Pulitzer Prize winning author commences the story with family members and friends grieving around the coffin of the central character, before reverting to an account of the man’s reflections on his life leading up to that grave moment.

The former advertising executive and skilful painter is also a well known philanderer, who turned from a picture of health to someone who was inexplicably losing his health and his joie de vivre. ‘Everyman’ is a bleak account of this man’s retirement in which “eluding death seemed to have been the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.” (p71) The book is about the battle of old age but, as this character reflects on the suffering of the people he had known, their painful regrets, their loss, fear, pain, isolation and dread, he thinks that “old age is a massacre.” (p156)

It may seem that Philip Roth, this experienced American writer, is painting an overly dark picture of old age, however, the older brother is depicted as a senior adult who is healthy, profitably engaged in business and regularly traveling the world with wife. While Howie represents those who are enjoying old age, his very healthiness and purposefulness, instills within his weaker brother an envy which “robs the envier of his serenity and, worse, his realism.” (p101)

This books confronts readers with questions about their future, about death, about what lies beyond, while Roth presents his picture of ‘nothingness’, ‘not being’ or ‘endless nothing’. (p164) In a frank, simple and natural style Roth discusses the injustice of death, its unnaturalness but also the positive way it contributes to life a great intensity. The themes of life and death, losing and leaving possess a force of their own and Roth’s straightforward narration, brings readers into the inner sanctum of the man’s thoughts and feelings. The title of the book underscores the truth that while Roth is telling one man’s story, he is also presenting the universal story of our lives.

Philip Roth, Everyman (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006). This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 35.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Everyman.