Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Story of Barack Obama in Audio

Dale Dougherty reports:

I've been listening to the audiobook, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama, which has the additional benefit of being read by the author. Obama's baritone has become a familiar voice in my head. What might surprise some people, beyond Obama's ability as a writer and storyteller, is that each of his characters becomes a distinct voice that he brings alive, not just in his writing but even more so in this audiobook. They come alive for us because they are so alive to him.

Read Dale’s entire review about the extra audio dimension to Obama’s book at:
Obama’s Voices, Boing Boing, 28 November 2008.

A review of Dreams from My Father is at this link.

A review of The Audacity of Hope is at this link.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Dreams from My Father.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

To Be Continued
This book follows on where Dreams from My Father left off and is concerned with why Barack Obama got into politics, how he got into the Illinois legislature and what makes him a Democrat.

Different Strokes
While this book still has an autobiographical flavor, The Audacity of Hope offers pointers for ‘a new kind of politics’ and how a process might commence for change. It does not claim to be a detailed manifesto but rather an outline of the broad strokes on pressing policies.

For anyone wondering how Obama operates and the style of politics to which he aims, this book provides the parameters, the principles, the values and his passions. It expresses his concern to leave behind the ‘either/or’ thinking, the partisan bickering, the politics of confrontation and to press towards the politics of bridge-building, the balance between idealism and realism and the clear identification of what government can do and what should be left to others.

One discovers in these pages many of the Obama lines like “spreading the wealth around” that were beamed around the world on the air waves during the Presidential campaign. What is illuminating is to read these statements in context and to realize that they are neither shibboleths nor mere sound bytes but ideas that stem from a well thought out philosophy of beliefs and affirmations about politics.

The chief areas upon which Obama reflects are captured by the chapter headings:

1. Republicans and Democrats
2. Values
3. Constitution
4. Politics
5. Opportunity
6. Faith
7. Race
8. The World Beyond our Borders
9. Family

What is revealed in The Audacity of Hope is a sense of what is important to the author, how he weighs up competing interests and what he considers to be priorities for investment in areas such as education, science and technology, energy and health.

Literary Skill
Legendary novelist, Toni Morrison, has affirmed Barack Obama’s writing skill and praised his ‘creative imagination’. Reflecting on Dreams from My Father Morrison says (7 November 2008), “I was astonished by his ability to write, to think, to reflect, to learn and turn a good phrase. I was very impressed. This was not a normal political biography.” These qualities are also evident in The Audacity of Hope. Look at Obama’s poetic style and imagery in these lines:

“We need a new kind of politics, one that can excavate and build upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans.” (p9)

“The country’s tectonic plates have shifted.” (p28)

“Democracy is not a house to be built but a conversation to be had.” (p92)

“My time with them [people attending his town hall meetings] is like a dip in a cold stream. I feel cleansed afterwards, glad for the work I have chosen.” (p102)

In describing his wife, he writes about her “lived-in beauty of the mother and busy professional.” (p327)

The picture that emerges of the author is of a person who listens to his people, an empathetic leader, one who recognizes how his biography shapes his convictions, a thinker whose politics are informed by the rich perspectives of history and are broadened by his international experience and an innovator who seeks to discover new ways to rally people at the grassroots and keep engaging them in conversation.

The tone of this book is characterized by appreciation to people who have influenced and encouraged him, notably “the women who raised me”—his maternal grandmother and his mother, to whom this book is dedicated. The chapter on ‘Family’ is the most personal of all the chapters as Barack Obama reveals many glimpses into the personality of Michelle, how they met, what they argue about and how they weather the challenge of being a ‘juggler family’. (p336) We also get windows into the ways that Barack is learning from his daughters, Malia and Sasha, the way they put their Daddy into place and their early calls for a puppy!

The book is marked by humility as the author is quick to identify his flaws, admit his mistakes, speak about his envy and voice his doubts. He understands the nature of ambition, the fears of the politician and the lure of status and power.

Obama’s words are measured and while confessing that he is angry about the “politics that favors the wealthy and powerful over average Americans” he never rants but one wonders whether he is too restrained. Sometimes one longs for more righteous indignation to burn and for the pages to catch fire.

As the title indicates, The Audacity of Hope is realistic about the challenges of change but overwhelmingly this book strike the notes of courage and hope.

For any American thinking of a career in politics The Audacity of Hope gives a wonderful orientation. It spells out many cardinal rules of politics, it is an eye opener to the challenges and costs of politics to the politician and the politician’s family and it outlines the chief skills that are required for effective public service.

For anyone intrigued with the American political process and matters to do with electoral campaigns, constitutions, political parties, the Congress, Senate and filibusters, this book is a political primer.

It is remarkable how the author (and former law professor) can write so interestingly and so respectfully about dry and technical matters such as a constitution, about which one person said they are ‘rules by which the dead control the living’.

Who is Barack Obama?
Admirers and opponents who ask the question, ‘Who is Barack Obama?’ will find their question well answered by reading Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope.

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Edinburgh, London, New York, Melbourne: Canongate, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 45.00.

Barack Obama’s first book, Dreams of My Father, is reviewed at this link.

A note on the popularity of Obama’s books.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Audacity of Hope.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Teach Yourself Gulf Arabic

Great Interest
A frequently Googled question in the UAE and Gulf region seeks information about resources and courses to help people learn Arabic. Such interest highlights the relevance of this resource, ‘Teach Yourself Gulf Arabic’.

Gulf Arabic
This book teaches ‘Gulf Arabic’, the spoken Arabic dialect of Gulf countries—Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman. It is also close to the dialect of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and southern Iraq.

This is not a book that teaches standard or literary Arabic which is covered in the same series of books in the companion volume entitled, ‘Teach Yourself Arabic’.

The recognition that there is a Gulf Arabic can dampen the enthusiasm of newcomers to the Gulf especially when they are told that the Arabic they learn in these parts will not be well understood in other parts of the Arabic-speaking world. However, the difference may well compare to the various strains and idioms that one hears when travelling through the diverse English-speaking world.

The authors of this resource, Jack Smart and Frances Altorfer, point out that there is also present in Gulf countries a ‘pidgin’ Arabic which is used mainly in conversation between Arabs and expatriate workers.

This book is divided into 14 chapters or units bearing these everyday titles:

1. How to say Hello!
2. Where is…?
3. The telephone number is…
4. What time is it?
5. How much is this?
6. Are you hungry?
7. The family.
8. In the hotel.
9. Interests and holidays.
10. The history of the Arabs
11. Health.
12. Official procedures e.g. changing money, sending mail etc.
13 Where to?
14. In the house.

Each unit contains dialogues, some questions to check comprehension, a repetition of key words and phrases, notes which explain how the language works in a conversation and some useful cultural tips about the life of Arabs in the Gulf.

The book comes with audio assistance, grammar exercises and a key to confirm whether the exercises have been answered correctly.

The chief words are presented in each chapter in both Arabic script and transliteration. A simple account of the Arabic alphabet is given to help readers read road signs and shop names.

This 220-page course book comes with a useful section to aid in pronunciation especially in making the sounds that don’t appear in English but in some other languages and those difficult sounds that are unique to Arabic.

The vocabulary, like the chapter headings, helpfully relates to the basic necessities and actions of everyday life.

I have observed in another review that many Arabic dictionaries do not include a section from English words to Arabic. This book, however, contains 23 pages of words from English to Arabic as well as a similar number in the other direction.

In a strict sense this resource is not a ‘Teach Yourself’ book, for the audio on CD records the voices of men and women who pronounce the words and phrases and soon seem to be like personal tutors.

The instructions say that “listening is the first step to learning a language; [so] don’t be disheartened if you don’t always understand every word—picking out the gist of what is said is the key.”

If anything the audio moves too fast and without sufficient repetition but thankfully the CD players or iTunes you will use have a backwards button and going over the lessons again is essential for mastery.

The audio component is particularly useful for demonstrating the regional differences in pronunciation from countries such as Oman or Iraq.

The two CDs in this resource illustrate the substantial nature of this course.

At first glance one might think the book is too detailed and dense but further delving indicates that it is most user-friendly. This is illustrated by such things as a sprinkling of Arabic proverbs throughout the book e.g. “The daughter of a duck is a good swimmer (which is a variation of the English proverb, ‘Like father, like son’). The book contains many pictures that break up the text e.g. a sign of a McDonald’s restaurant is included as an exercise with students being asked to pick out the long vowels. A third example of creativity is the number of short statements about Arabic culture e.g. One article deals with perfumes in the Gulf Arabic home, some common resins and woods that are burned and the various uses of the incense burner which is common in Gulf homes and shops.

Aim of ‘Teach Yourself Gulf Arabic’
This resource covers the basics for anyone who wants to learn greetings and the numbers which one hears in any Gulf airport when airline flights are announced. But ‘Teach Yourself Gulf Arabic’ might lure people into going deeper and if so, it provides the tools for those who wish to advance to a higher standard of knowledge and competence in communication in a range of situations.

Jack Smart and Frances Altorfer, Teach Yourself Gulf Arabic (London: Hodder Education, 1999, 2003)

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 225.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Teach Yourself Gulf Arabic which contains a 220-page course book and 2 audio CDs.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nourishing the Mind through Reading Books

Lubna Qassim writes (18 November 2008) in The National about building a world, through the reading of books.

Here are some excerpts:

“The best way to feed and exercise the mind is to give it a concentrated dose of stimulus. Nothing, in my opinion, does that better than a good book. We must discipline ourselves to nourish this practice among ourselves – but more importantly nourish and encourage the habit among our youth.”

“Reading is not only about academic success, it is also one of the most pleasant and relaxing ways of passing the time that I know. Reading allows me to escape to another zone, and on many occasions has inspired me with ideas. Although I have learnt a lot about life through travelling and meeting people of different cultures, nothing can equate with the knowledge I have acquired about the world through books without travelling an inch from my room.”

“I was recently amazed by the exciting initiative launched by Dubai Cares to ask students to read one million books in two weeks. Dubai Cares beautifully translates Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid’s vision to transform underprivileged societies of other parts of the world, but this reading scheme has the additional benefit of introducing children here to the joys and rewards of reading.”

To read the entire article:

Lubna Qassim, To build a world, begin with a book at bedtime, The National, 17 November 2008.

Dr Geoff Pound

Monday, November 17, 2008

Reporting America by Alistair Cooke

Celebratory Volume
This beautifully presented book that is published on the centenary of the birth of Alistair Cooke will please the thousands around the world who have delighted in his weekly Letter from America. In addition to a superb selection of scripts the elegance of this book is enhanced by the photographs (black and white, and colored), the cartoons, the different fonts and the attractive layout.

Reporting America contains approximately ninety of Alistair Cooke’s dispatches to the Guardian and the BBC from 1946 to 2004. The articles and talks are grouped chronologically with Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, providing a general introduction and commentaries for each decade. In these introductions Kittredge offers an interesting perspective on the stages of her father’s literary career (e.g. the ‘crunch years’ of the 1960s or his ‘blossoming’ in the 1970s).

Describing Alistair Cooke
Kittredge describes her father as a man of focus, ambition, intelligence and discipline who exuded a sense of vitality wherever he went. His daughter reveals many personal details about her ‘Daddy’—Alistair Cooke the father, the husband, what he did for recreation, his daily rhythm, his temperament, his fears, his medical problems and how the great events of America and the dramas in his family affected him.

Her observations of America’s most loved observer make for a rich treasury, not only of the nation’s significant events and trends in the second half of the twentieth century but of the Writer and the Voice. This massive volume reinforces the magnitude of Cooke’s contribution—reporting on 58 years of US life, totaling 2,869 broadcasts in the longest running radio series in broadcast history. Susan Cooke Kittredge reveals the secret of her father’s wisdom and the inspiration for his work.

I am a Reporter
A big part of Cooke’s skill and popularity was due to his clear idea of who he was and what was his job. When he was asked about his task he would give a variation of this reply:

“I am a reporter of the facts and the feelings that go into the American life I happen to observe. I mention ‘the feelings’ if only to stress a belief that there is no such thing as an objective reporter. But the way to be as fair as possible is to notice that no fact of human life comes to you uncoloured by what people feel it means.” (pi)

Acknowledging the limits of objectivity, committing himself to put aside preconceived notions and his aversion to rush to a premature judgment were important convictions that shaped Cooke’s practice and literary style.

Believing that he was ‘a reporter’ gave to Cooke a certain freedom from the expectations of people as evidenced in this statement:

“I was urged to deliver some missionary message. But missions are for bishops. I am a reporter. And I can’t say where America is going. I am a hopeless prophet. One book I will never write is: Whither America?” (p317)

Grasping the Nettle
One might think that a commitment to objectivity and fairness could result in writing that was bland and lacking in teeth. But Cooke could open his broadcast with a broadside about “the heartless contradiction between American ideals and the general willingness to accept them in action.” (p39). He used appropriate sarcasm to describe the long prayers at President Kennedy’s Inauguration by the clerics “who always prolong their finest hour by turning these supplications into their own variation of the inaugural address.” (p89-90) Alistair Cooke was not averse to pricking the bubble of American jingoism when on the eve of the first moon launch he wrote, “For days and nights, we have been reading the most inflated prose that even Americans can write.” (p177)

Alistair Cooke was courageous and he tackled controversial issues when they were in the news and when they concerned the American people. He was able to ‘grasp the nettle’, present both sides of the issue, distill the essence with an amazing economy of words and leave his listeners to make their judgment. Broadcasts entitled ‘A Catholic as Candidate?’ and ‘Was Saddam a Threat or Not?’ illustrate Cooke’s willingness to address the issues that were gnawing away in the public mind.

The Personal Touch
Reporting with objectivity did not mean an omission of the personal because Cooke sparingly dropped in details of what he was doing. Expressing his exhilaration on a crystalline New York day in January would have helped his listeners to visualize the scene as they huddled around the wireless in their living rooms in England.

Reporting America contains numerous articles that illustrate Cooke’s mastery of description, his use of the pithy introduction and the telling conclusion. His enjoyment of words and skill as a wordsmith is evident on every page. During the Cuban missile crisis he wrote about “calculating the arithmetic of tyranny” (p76), upon the death of Marilyn Munroe he described her as “a straw on the ocean of her compulsions,” (p106) and, in speaking about the recovery mission that greeted John Glenn’s space capsule as it splashed into the ocean Cooke writes: “The helicopters went off like flying lobsters.” (p101)

Working the Angles
Many of the titles of Cooke’s letters reveal the person-centeredness of his writing as he addressed the subject of ‘Harry S Truman’, ‘Joe Louis’, ‘Humphrey Bogart’, ‘Walt Disney’ or ‘Rosa Parks’. The epistolary genre contributed a personal dimension to his writing and Cooke often sounded like a preacher opening his heart to an adoring congregation that waited each week for his words as they gathered by the miracle of the air waves. Cooke had the ability to see a fascinating angle as evident in the titles, ‘A Mule Cortège’ (Martin Luther King’s funeral), ‘Ronald Reagan vs. Darth Vader and ‘Gorbachev and Reagan Playing Chess’.

Interpreter of His Times
Reporting America reveals the author as a supreme interpreter of the times in which he was living and one who could tell the secrets in the minds of his people. Cooke was a glassblower who knew the molten moment and a doctor with his hand on the American pulse. His longevity and weekly discipline sharpened his ability to understand the ‘cultural tides’ but his encyclopedic knowledge of history (his daughter called him the ‘original Google’) and his training in literature helped him to bring perspective and convey the essence of his times. Like Martial, the Roman poet that he quotes, Alistair Cooke exhibited a determination about his craft: “These are my times and I must know them.” (p358)

Attentive to His Weaknesses
While increasingly becoming an assured interpreter Cooke never comes across as a know-it-all. He is swift to admit his ignorance about nuclear reactors, the process of lawmaking in the American Congress or the issues to do with hand-gun laws.

Cooke fits his own definition of a professional as “someone who can do his best work when he doesn’t feel like it.” (p15) He sometimes alludes to his state of bewilderment, his grief or his shock at a national calamity. Alistair Cooke is at his best when he is describing the pain of the American people from his own stance of weakness and vulnerability. See how this quality is evident in the conclusion to his letter describing the horrific explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and the sight of the parents of astronaut Christa McAuliffe:

“To me, when the nightmare sharpness of the horror has blessedly blurred with time, there will be, I’m afraid, one picture that will retain its piercing clarity. It is the picture of an inquisitive, innocent middle-aged woman and her affable, granity husband—Christa McAuliffe’s parents—craning their necks and squinting into the Florida sky, and watching the sudden fireball and looking a little puzzled as first-time spectators might, as if this were part of the show, part of the unexpected magic.” (p305)

Alistair Cooke, Reporting America: The Life of the Nation 1946-2004 (London: Allen Lane, Penguin, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 188.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Reporting America.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize winning author reveals the plot of this novel with these attention-grabbing opening lines:

“The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a wild love with an adolescent virgin.”

The story of this old newspaper columnist continues with the assistance of a madam who grants him his libertine birthday gift, after his long tradition of purchasing women for sexual pleasure.

As his opening gambit illustrates, Márquez is a master of shock, surprise and suspense. He is skillfully attuned to pace which he is able to build, maintain and slow when the drama requires. The author writes with grace, economy, elegance and poetry. Observe his mastery in describing events and emotional excitement after he undresses:

“A warm current traveled up my veins and my slow, retired animal woke from its long sleep.” (p28)

The novel could be said to be about an old guy trying to prove his virility but it is about attempting to allow newness to enter and pulsate in an old life. The book sets forth a “glorification of old age” rather than presenting “the usual lament for the years that were gone.” (p8)

Márquez writes of the movement into old age and the different way that the person growing old sees from the inside while others are noticing signs from the outside. (p9) Is it true that “age isn’t how old you are but how old you feel?” (p60) And is there a better way to measure one’s life than by counting the years?

Memories of My Melancholy Whores is about looking at old age as a sphere of new possibilities. The narrator reflects with resolution:

“Still, when I woke alive in the first morning of my nineties in the happy bed of Delgadina, I was transfixed by the agreeable idea that life was not something that passes by like Heraclitus’ ever-changing river but a unique opportunity to turn over on the grill and keep broiling on the other side for another ninety years.” (p108)

The author raises the issues of growing old, such as knowing the time when it is best for this ninety-year old editor to lay down his pen. It also explores the matter of new pursuits that senior adults might take up as this writer experiments in reading, music and the education of training a cat. In taking up new activities Márquez is attentive to the ways these affect his relationships, his emotions, his personality and his writing.

Without letting the cat out of the bag this book is about a new way of seeing and a new way of living and experiencing “real life.” (p115) It is realizing that we are never too old to grow in relationships, love, happiness, self-awareness and learning and discovering that when this happens on the inside we may appear different on the outside.

Márquez tests the thesis that “sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love” (p69) and he longs to experience the wonder of sex in the context of love.

This short novel is seamlessly translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman and it is multi-layered. This book is a treat that readers will want to reread and savor on each birthday as a reflection on life and the gift of 'real life'.

Gabriel García Márquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores (New York: Vintage, 2006). The title in Spanish is Memoria De Mis Putas Tristes.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Memories of My Melancholy Whores.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama Books Running Off the Shelves

UAE Daily News reports:

Barack Obama is the hottest name in publishing.

On the weekend after he became the country's first black president-elect, Obama's "The Audacity of Hope" and "Dreams from My Father," both already million sellers, ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on and Barnes &

Both hardcover and paperback editions of "Audacity of Hope" were out of stock Sunday on Amazon.

Sales are up even in Arizona, home state of Obama's Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain.

"People are generally much happier this week than they were last week," Gayle Shanks, co-owner of the Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, said Sunday.

Demand also has surged for "Change We Can Believe In," a collection of Obama's speeches and policy proposals that had been selling modestly; for "Barack Obama in His Own Words" and for such works about him as "Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope," a children's book by Nikki Grimes, and Robert Kuttner's "Obama's Challenge," a call for a sweeping, progressive economic agenda.

Where to Begin With Barack
Check out this review of Barack Obama’s first book, Dreams of My Father. This review gives the cost of the book at Magrudy’s Book Shops in the UAE.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Two books by Barack Obama.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Networking Pocketbook by Jon Warner

This 100 page pocketbook on Networking is described as ‘a pocketful of tips, tools and techniques to build and maintain successful relationships that will enhance your professional and private life’.

It is one of a series of over 100 pocketbooks looking at appraisals and balance sheets to time management and vocal skills.

Being part of the ‘Management Pocketbook’ series, it examines the art of networking primarily as a way of enhancing one’s business. However, the principles and tips will often have an application to other forms of networking such as bringing people together who are seeking friendship, those who have an interest in growing petunias or lovers of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

The author, Jon Warner has had twenty years experience as a manager in the UK, Europe, USA and Australia so his ideas have a wide application, at least in the western world. The size of a pocketbook limits the range of subjects that it is possible to address but this book would be enhanced by recognizing the different way that cultural contexts like the UAE or South Korea might affect the dynamic of networking.

Warner’s first section defines the new features of networking as distinct from more traditional forms of relating in groups. He recognizes that networking is an art that must be learned. This book, therefore, is a good introduction to people and organizations wanting to begin their learning about networking. In 100 pages Warner gives substance without getting bogged down in the clutter of detail and he concludes with references for readers wanting to go deeper.

The book progresses with ease through the different stages in networking—from learning to investing, nurturing and keeping the relationships. This Networking Pocketbook is motivational as well as educational and the illustrations by Phil Hailstone are apt and often amusing.

The word ‘networking’ is a slippery term but Warner focuses on networking as the art of relationship building—a ‘long term commitment to knowing more about yourself and others, and what you may be able to do together that you couldn’t do (or couldn’t do as well) alone’. (p3) With useful repetition Warner highlights this point later in the book with this statement: “Effective networking is more about what you can offer than what you can get from meeting with other people.” (p57)

Warner differentiates the various dispositions that people have towards relationships and specifically networking. He describes the traits of the ‘loner’, the ‘socializer’, the ‘user’ and the ‘builder’. In encouraging readers to develop the qualities of the ‘builder’ Warner says that such a person ‘takes a long-term perspective on relationships with others and thinks more about what he or she can give or offer, than about the return.” (p20) The book devotes attention to the core processes of networking and offers specific things and personal attitudes one can foster to become an effective networker.

Some of the spheres and strategies for networking that are cited include attendance at meetings, and the use of the business card, the telephone and email. One of the deficiencies of this book that was first published in 2000 and reprinted (but not updated) most years since this date up to 2005, is the absence of any reference to the new Internet networking platforms such as Facebook and MySpace. These communities have revolutionized the way people connect and do business. These new and interactive meeting places enhance the capacity for networking and take it to a new level. They do not contradict the principles of this book but any update of this useful primer might well address the way that the Internet can enhance the many forms of networking.

Jon Warner, Networking Pocketbook (Alresford, UK or Stylus Publishing, Sterling VA, USA: Management Pocketbooks, 2000).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 24.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Networking Pocketbook.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Goodword English Arabic Dictionary

Dr Johnson, the author and lexicographer, once said, “Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.”

While this English Arabic dictionary by lexicographer, Mohd Harun Rashid is like Johnson’s watch, here are some good things going for this version and some areas where it could do with improvement.

Many English Arabic dictionaries only have the Arabic script but this dictionary comes also with the Arabic words transliterated in English letters, pointed with symbols to denote a long or short sound and marks to alert readers to the difficult sound of a hamza or ain (strong guttural sound). For instance, the word ‘dictionary’ is transliterated as mu ‘jam, qāmūs.

This dictionary is small (A5 in size) and as such it is easy to carry around without feel that you are lugging a London telephone dictionary.

The Goodword dictionary is substantial containing 20,000+ words and phrases. It has an extensive number of scientific words (e.g. oxygenize, nitrogen, milliliter, morphine and glycerine), academic terms (e.g. inverted commas, earth science and semicolon) and political words (e.g. Senate, Congress and Secretary of State).

A big part of this dictionary’s usefulness is in its versatility. Idiomatic expressions are included—words such as hoity-toity, hocus-pocus, hobby-horse, hogwash and hullabaloo.

While not being exhaustive, words come in many variations e.g. swim (v), swim (n), swimmer (n), swimmingly (adv.), swimming pool, swimming-suit (n).

As Arabic vowels play an important role in the pronunciation of Arabic it is good to see Arabic words in this dictionary with vowels. This makes it helpful for beginners seeking to give the correct pronunciation.

This 824 page dictionary is amazingly cheap—only Dh27.00!

It would be good to also have Arabic to English included in the one volume (although this would double the size of the volume!)

The Arabic script is very small thus making it difficult for beginners (and those whose sight is dim) to identify the letters.

Samuel Johnson was right. Dictionaries are like watches.

Mohd Harun Rashid, Goodword English Arabic Dictionary (New Delhi: Goodword, 2006, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 27.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: A sample of the text from the Goodword English Arabic Dictionary. Click to enlarge.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron

Shadow of the Silk Road traces Colin Thubron’s journey along the ancient trade route from China, across the mountains of Central Asia, northern Afghanistan, Iran and southern Turkey.

By taxi, bus and camel Thubron records his solo expedition covering 7,000 miles in eight months.

This book encourages readers to think about why they travel and how they decide on a travel destination. Listen to London-based travel writer, Colin Thubron, share his thoughts:

“Sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your fingers travel along the map: Yes, here and here…and here. These are the nerve-ends of the world…”

“A hundred reasons clamour for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart. You go to encounter the protean shapes of faith. You go because you are still young and crave excitement, the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it’s too late. You go to see what will happen.” (p2-3)

Through his travel descriptions and thoughts Thubron highlights the things that are valuable about travel. For instance, his observation of ‘The Silk Road’ (a nineteenth century term) he identifies some ways that travel may shape, broaden and educate us:

“It [the Silk Road] was not a single road at all, but a shifting fretwork of arteries and veins, laid to the Mediterranean.” (p24)

And later some corresponding thoughts in these exquisite words:

“To follow a road is to follow diversity: a flow of interlocked voices, arguing, in a cloud of dust.” (p31)

With courage, curiosity and respect Thubron demonstrates how to travel as a pilgrim rather than as a tourist. He writes with a compassionate eye towards groups of people that are persecuted for their race, faith or sexuality.

The style of Shadow of the Silk Road is poetic and imaginative. The author synthesizes a vast body of historical research and presents it in a fascinating and amusing manner. He writes not only about the invention of silk but the creation of paper, printing, gunpowder, drive-belts, the mechanical clock, the spinning wheel and the equine harness.

The reader is led from the ancient past to contemporary accounts as the author views the ruins and observes monuments. He blends oral history, contemporary stories and his observation of issues as modern as the impact of SARS. Above all Thubron has harvested the legends, songs, poetry and prayers from a myriad of cultures and religions that he encounters in records and from people along the way.

Thubron’s writing is immediate, descriptive and perhaps, at times too detailed. The book records people and places that he encounters but also many vivid paragraphs that begin with the words, “I imagined…” Thubron captures the sights, the sounds, the songs and the smell of the Silk Road. He writes, for instance, of “the cold touch of silk in his hands.” (p30) Enjoy this cameo of camels having a lunch break:

“The camels were busy chewing the thatch from the watchman’s hut. Their prehistoric heads on bald necks, and their long double eye lashes, proof against sandstorms, gave them the look of seductive reptiles. As we mounted, they stooped forward with odd whimpering honks, then lurched angrily to their feet.” (p121)

With his trademark honesty Thubron admits his fear:

“I’m afraid of nothing happening, of experiencing nothing. This is what the modern traveler [and travel writer?] fears (forgive me). Emptiness. Then you hear only yourself.” (p25)

Thubron needn’t have feared for his experience of people and places is rich. He hears others but he also hears and records his own thoughts and feelings.

The Shadow of the Silk Road is much more than a travel book. It comes with maps, timelines and an index. This is a book that makes you check out some airfares and start packing your bag.

Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road (London: Vintage, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 63.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front covers of various editions of Shadow of the Silk Road.