Sunday, February 20, 2005

Capuccino Literature

Its been bitterly cold here. I awoke yesterday, zipped out of bed, opened the shutters, only to discover that the margallas behind my house were covered in snow. I had a brief moment in which to figure out the options I had ... a quick ski trip up there; perhaps a sleigh ride a la Zhivago? Or how about getting right back into bed. I took the path of least resistance. I could see the snow, but bed was about the warmest place to be. How's that for the best of both worlds?

Lying in bed all day allowed me to read two books that I had been meaning to. Both had elements in common. Written by white anglo saxon protestants as frothy accounts of life in Iran and Pakistan, they tried to intermingle the anecdotal with the historical. Both men are journalists so the style teeters between the literary, the factual, the personal and the honest rendition of an account.

"In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs" is by Christopher de Bellaigue - a Cambridge graduate, student of Persian studies, husband to an Iranian woman and correspondent for the Economist and the New York Review of Books. He doesn't have much of a pesonal story to tell. He does, however, speak Persian and manages to intersperse much anecdotal narrative with the history of Iran circa the Shah to the present day. Apart from his way too brief interlude into shi shi Tehran (women described as "matchsticks soaked in Chanel") he seems to find more of the "real" Iran among the clerics of Qom and Isfahan, the mafia of South Tehran and the editors of newspapers which are constantly banned and re-emerge under new names. The most chilling episodes in the book (for me) revolve around the horrors of the Iran Iraq war which resulted in some alarmingly high death tolls. De Bellaigue says that the army of Iran forgot one of the basic precepts of war - the minimisation of human casualty. If people die, so be it. The Shi'ite (and some would say Islamic) concepts of martyrdom allowed this to be absorbed by a seemingly accepting population. Graveyards serve as poignant reminders of what it was (or was supposed to be) all about. In a comic interlude, de Bellaigue describes how street names have been changed after relatively little known martyrs. In a chapter simply entitled "Gas" de Bellaigue investigates the severe after effects of chemical inhalation which occurred many years later. Western business, covertly and overtly, allowed Saddam to produce mustard gas and other chemicals with Western governments turning a blind eye to all this. As we know, the eye turned, with mock horror, when the self same chemical weapons became a raison for weapons inspection and (eventually) occupation.

"Alive and Well in Pakistan" (there had to be a better title) by Ethan Casey works on a smaller canvas. The first part of the book (probably the best) charts his travels in and around Kashmir as a correspondent for The Bangkok Post and the South China Morning Post. He's an avid reader of Naipaul in whom he sees little wrong. Naipaul's misreadings of this part of the world (in Among the Believers, Beyond Belief et al) should have rung an alarm bell somewhere - not a trace of it emerges in the book. The book begins its descent in the second part where Casey arrives to teach at the Beaconhouse National University in Lahore. The emphasis on history and politics of the first part, transfers to a chattier account of life in Lahore, with brief interludes in Islamabad, Peshawar and Multan. Casey's cast of characters are broadly divided among his students, his cronies at the tennis club and his landlord's family. Somehow, his characterisation of all these people lacks charm, is studied and they emerge as two dimensional. Casey's lack of a working knowledge of Urdu may play a part in this. There is a limit to which one can derive humour from the bad english Casey is subjected to by all he meets. Yes, I know bad grammar has its charm - it also has its limits. William Dalrymple did a better job of Delhi. He had the advantage of a true affection combined with a strong sense of academic knowledge. Casey is lacking on both fronts. When I finish the last page of a book, I often ask myself :"Now, what was that all about ?". In Casey's case, I still don't have the answer.


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