Saturday, May 28, 2016

Summer Reading: The Middle East, India, & some Nationalism

Scott Anderson’s Lawrence of Arabia is a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and has gotten great reviews since it was published in 2013. It’s about the making of the Middle East.

While Lawrence is essential to the story, Anderson puts him alongside three other characters, “Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish colonist in Palestine, who spied for Britain as a way of furthering Zionism; Carl Prufer, a German diplomat who dreamed of fomenting jihad against the British; and William Yale, a well-connected oil man who became, in August 1917, the state department's "special agent" for the Middle East.”

I'm reading it now and love it. And I'm learning a lot of history I had forgotten like Wilhelm II's bellicose and militaristic nature or Aaron Aaronsohn's discovery of wild emmer wheat on the slopes of Mount Hermon, long believed to be extinct and significant because it showed that agriculture could could feed a very large population in Palestine. And I had forgotten that T.E. Lawrence was only 5'3" or maybe 5' 5."

Amartya Sen won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2006 classic, Identity and Violence. It’s a fascinating book that attempts to explain why different groups fight each other. Why, for example, did Muslims and Hindus who had lived peacefully together for centuries, kill each other after Indian independence. Sen challenges Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization” because it sets up a singular civilizational classification like the Islamic civilization or the Western civilization. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie offers a similar thesis in a Ted Talk called "The Danger of Single Story."

Sen sees intellectual and material internal diversities within civilizations. People see themselves in lots of different ways. For example, Sen notes, “a Bangladeshi Muslim is not only a Muslim but also a Bengali and Bangladeshi, typically quite proud of Bengali language, literature, and music, not to mention the other identities he or she may have connected with class, gender, occupation, politics, aesthetic taste, sand so on."  This seems like a fascinating study, not just of identity, but also of nationalism.

Finally, I’m looking forward to reading Amitav Gosh’s Sea of Poppies, a historical novel and 2008 finalist for the Booker Prize. The story begins in India on the eve of the Opium War. Much of the novel takes place on the open waters on a ship called the Ibis.

According to the Guardian, the characters on the ship “are exposed to a suttee or widow-burning, a shipboard mutiny, a court case, jails, kidnappings, rapes, floggings, a dinner party and every refinement of sex.”

Gosh also dramatizes two important themes of the 19th century, notes the Guardian, “the cultivation of opium as a cash crop in Bengal and Bihar for the Chinese market, and the transport of Indian indentured workers to cut sugar canes for the British on such islands as Mauritius, Fiji and Trinidad.”

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