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.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Reviewing ‘Gardening in the Middle East’, by Eric Moore

Gardens in the Middle East sound like an oxymoron, when one thinks of the searing heat, dehydrating winds and arid desert sands. But, such is the demand for this book that Gardening in the Middle East has gone into a new and revised edition.

Author Eric Moore, reminds his readers of the central place that gardens have historically occupied in Middle Eastern life and his mention of the Garden of Eden and the way that the three Abrahamic religions have all adopted the fertile garden as an image of prosperity, peace and paradise, augurs well for someone desiring green fingers on the Arabian Peninsula.

Eric Moore is a horticulturalist with extensive experience in gardening and landscaping in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and Jordan. His style is simple, clear, practical and thorough, without getting his readers lost in the undergrowth. He presumes no existing garden knowledge on behalf of his readers and he has a gift of instilling confidence as well as imparting useful information.

While written as a guide to gardening in the entire Middle Eastern region, Moore is swift to recognize the different climatic sub-regions and he differentiates these seven areas according to temperature, humidity, wind and rainfall. He keeps all these factors in mind when dealing with these four sections of the book:
1. What sort of garden do I want?
2. What plants are best suited to such a garden?
3. What climatic and soil conditions do I have to contend with?
4. How do I grow such plants in such conditions?

In the first part that describes the various garden types, there is an interesting feature on the designs of Islamic gardens and the different purposes for which Muslims develop and use their gardens.

This section also covers basic gardens, including the herb garden, even if this consists of a few pots on the patio. Moore lists the herbs that can best be grown in the Middle East and in what landscape situation.

Moore says, “Another book could be written describing how to grow vegetables in the Middle East—but that is another book.” It is hoped that Moore might fulfill this task. However, in the meantime, he lists an extensive range of vegetables that can be grown in this region, distinguishing between cool season and warm weather varieties. Food-producing trees are also described.

With clear, vivid pictures and easy to read tables Moore helps gardeners to choose the right plant, shrub or tree according to climatic zone, height, spread, flowering and ‘cleanliness’ (the amount of rubbish it drops). Names are given in English, Arabic where possible and the Latin botanical name. Realizing that much of the hands-on gardening is done by Pakistanis in the Middle East, a future edition might supply names also in Urdu.

The author challenges readers to think carefully about the selection of plants e.g. Is this tree to provide shade or to stand as a windbreak? Is my need in this place for ground cover, a creeper for a trellis, am I wanting a splash of colour for this corner, a fragrance that will please my nostrils when I am sitting on the patio at dusk or am I simply wanting something that will be low-maintenance and high endurance?

In the section devoted to explaining how to grow plants, special attention is given to distinctive Middle Eastern features that include the challenge of using indigenous soil, ascertaining the frequency of irrigation without over watering and the type of fertilizers needed by plants to provide extra nutrients. Without condescension, Moore provides reminders about the basics of propagating, planting, pruning and garden maintenance.

The book concludes with a plant encyclopedia that is primarily devoted to describing the plants commonly in use in Middle Eastern gardens and in landscaping. The pictures and information on the expected growth of these plants make this book a valuable resource for the seasoned gardener as well as for the novice. It is heartening to learn that there are nearly 350 plants of every type that can be successfully grown in the Middle East.

Eric Moore, Gardening in the Middle East (London: Stacey International, 2nd edit. 2005, first published 1986). This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 175.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front Cover of Gardening in the Middle East.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Reviewing ‘The Pilgrimage’ by Paulo Coelho

With the increasing interest in walking the Road to Santiago, stimulated by articles, associations and advertisements for joining a tour, it is valuable to read Paulo Coelho’s international bestseller, The Pilgrimage, and discover what this walk meant to the popular Brazilian novelist.

Coelho commences by putting the recent popularity of the Road to Santiago into its historical and religious context, setting it alongside the other major Christian pilgrimages (to Jerusalem and Rome) and comparing it to the Muslim tradition that requires members of Islam to make the Hajj to Mecca. There is something that bolsters one’s faith and offers an experience of ‘the communion of the saints’ when people walk the same road. In his confessional style Coelho admits, “The pilgrimage along the Road to Santiago was going to help me find myself.” (p15) The book offers a journal of the soul, recording with honesty the author’s anxiety about leaving his business concerns, his apprehension when commencing the journey from France, the unforgettable sensations of his first night and many other occasions when he wept for joy and wonder.

For most of the way Coelho is accompanied by a guide who often utters words that are simple yet profound. Early after their initial meeting Petrus describes why travel can be so transformational:

“When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favor from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life. At the same time, since all things are new, you see only the beauty in them, and you feel happy to be alive. That’s why a religious pilgrimage has always been one of the most objective ways of achieving insight.” (p38)

Along the way the guide teaches Coelho the RAM exercises to do with promoting Rigor, Adoration and Mercy. The Seed Exercise, The Speed Exercise, The Water Exercise and the Blue Sphere Exercise are some of a large number of exercises that are described by the guide and the author gives a separate page insert on which is written the instructions for the reader. Implicit in this is the conviction that a pilgrimage is for ordinary people and the lessons one can learn on El Camino de Santiago are to be practiced anywhere and at any time in the pilgrimage of life. As Petrus says: “Everything that you have learned up to now makes sense only if is applied in real life. Don’t forget that I described the Road to Santiago to you as the road of the common person.” (p172)

While different religious groups practice and teach different things on the Road to Santiago, the order into which Coelho is ‘ordained’ into (the Order of RAM) and its spirituality is mysteriously esoteric and eclectic, as it includes secret meetings, saying passwords, discovering a monk who is a sorcerer and fighting a dog that personifies the devil. There are some deep insights and important lessons that Coelho conveys but they are distorted somewhat by the unusual brand of religiosity in which they are packaged.

The Pilgrimage includes a map of the major routes from France, across the Pyrenees and the towns on the way to Santiago de Compostela. There are many descriptions of a day’s journey and the sights that Coelho sees but one does not always get an idea of what it was like to walk, the heat, the cultural difficulties and the Spanish atmosphere. Perhaps this is intentional as the journey of the soul with his traveling companion is the most important journey that Coelho is making.

Coelho underscores the benefits of such a journey including the chance to forget about work, the lesson about how to face one’s fears, the importance of dreaming and the gaining of new perspectives. At the end of the book Coelho says, “I had changed a lot since I had begun to walk the strange Road to Santiago.” (p249)

Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage (London: HarperCollins Publishing, 2005, first published 1987). This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 35.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front Cover of The Pilgrimage.