Review 1652: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

In the opening of The Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan talks about his uneasiness with the narrow focus of his historical studies in school, to Europe and the countries affecting Europe. This struck a chord with me, because I remember discussing this with my father when I was in high school. “Why don’t we learn about China or Japan?” I remember asking, and I didn’t even think of Central Asia or the Middle East. So, The Silk Roads seemed as if it would be very interesting to me.

Frankopan shows that while Europe was a backwater, the countries of Central Asia and the Middle East were vibrant with trade, of goods, culture, and ideas. His thesis is that this area of the world has long been its heart and is becoming so again.

The subject matter of this book is interesting, in a way that changes one’s preconceptions. Frankopan’s writing style, though, is clear but very matter of fact, with no attempt to be stylistically interesting or eloquent.

Although I’m sure this is a simplistic statement, it seems as if there are two ways of approaching historical content. One is to relate it more as a series of stories. The other is to throw in every fact that supports your thesis. Unfortunately, at least the later chapters use the second approach, making the last few chapters sort of a slog for me. For example, most of the last chapter is just lists to show the ways Central Asia has become wealthy. I believe that Frankopan’s ideas are important, but I sometimes found this book putting me to sleep.

The irony is that Frankopan’s book is, after all, westerncentric, especially the last half, which focuses on the mistakes England and then the U. S. made in the Middle East.

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Day 1228: The Great Railway Bazaar

Cover for The Great Railway BazaarBest of Five!
Although it was not his first published book, The Great Railway Bazaar was Paul Theroux’s first to be profitable. Written in 1975, it describes the journey he took from England through Europe and southern Asia to Japan and then back through Russia almost all the time on railroads. On the journey, he travels on some fabled railways, such as the Orient Express when it still went to Istanbul and the Trans-Siberian Express.

This isn’t a traditional travel book. For the most part, Theroux isn’t interested in describing tourist destinations. There is some description, but Theroux is mostly interested in the people he meets on the train and the glimpses of life beyond.

The book is interesting but especially for me in describing countries as they no longer are but were during my lifetime. He describes a Middle East not torn by war, as it has been since the 1980’s, an Iran ruled by the Shah, a Vietnam abandoned by Americans but still at war. He dismisses Afghanistan as a country to be avoided in future but not because of war.

His descriptions of conditions he finds are graphic, and his conversations on the train are sometimes funny. He is a keen observer of human behavior.

This book just zipped by for me, I was so interested. I was surprised to find that at that time, the Orient Express was one of the least luxurious trains he takes. It is more luxurious now, but sadly it no longer goes to Istanbul.

The Folio Society edition I have is full of beautiful photos of people traveling on trains. Unfortunately, none of them were taken by Theroux on his journey.

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Day 1177: Song of a Captive Bird

Cover for Song of a Captive BirdI have this little quirk. I’ll pick out a book, but when I actually get around to reading it, I don’t look at the blurb to remind myself what it is about. If I’d done that, I would have known that Song of a Captive Bird is about an actual person, and that knowledge may have affected my reaction to it. On the other hand, a novel should stand or fall on its own merits, not because of what you know or don’t know about it before you begin reading it.

In the 1950’s and 60’s Iran, Forugh Farrokhzad is having a difficult time with the strictures of her culture. She wants to be a poet, but the role of women in her country is still only that of a wife and mother. She has always been a difficult child, and as a young woman, her first act of rebellion is in trying to select a husband for herself. She chooses her cousin Parvez because of a shared interest in poetry.

She marries Parvez but at the cost of losing the regard of her father, a powerful general under the Shah. But marriage isn’t what she expected. Instead of staying in Tehran, her husband takes her home to his small village where they live with his disapproving mother. In the village, her every action is scrutinized.

link to NetgalleyThe novel follows Forugh as she pursues her career as a poet and later a film director despite being slandered, attacked, and viewed as a prostitute by most of Iranian society. It is interesting in its evocation of this time and culture, especially the details of everyday life and the build-up to the Iranian revolution. However, something was missing for me. The novel did not seem particularly successful as an inspiring and moving story of one woman’s courage.

I think my reaction was because of Darznik’s choice to write this novel in first person. There was something about that perspective that didn’t work, particularly at the end of the novel. Although I think I would have ordinarily been touched by this woman’s story—she was certainly gifted and courageous—something about the novel kept me from getting fully involved.

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Day 884: Tales from the Queen of the Desert

Cover for Tales from the Queen of the DesertTales from the Queen of the Desert is a set of excerpts from two books by a remarkable woman, Gertrude Bell. Bell was a travel writer, diplomat, linguist, archaeologist, even a spy during World War I. She was widely regarded as an expert on the Near and Middle East and helped establish the country of Iraq.

She wrote the first book, Persian Pictures, after she visited her uncle in Persia (modern-day Iran) in 1892. She was very observant, and whether she is describing the landscape, the bazaar, or her impressions of Tehran, her descriptions are so vivid that it’s possible to imagine exactly what she saw.

In this book, she is sometimes a little snide, in a superior sort of way, although sometimes funnily so, as when she reports her impressions of the famous Peacock Throne of the Shah. At first she is astounded when she realizes that every inch of the room, including the carpet, is encrusted with jewels. But then she notices other objects among the jewels—patent medicine pills and toothbrushes, for example, which are also treated as treasures. As a final touch, she notes that the room is lined with boxes, which turn out to be music boxes. She understands that the Shah likes to turn them on all at the same time.

Some of her observations resound strongly even today. For example, at the beginning of the first chapter, she describes entering Tehran from the west gate. From that side, the city at the time was relatively unpopulated, the desert creeping in. But by the east gate, the town was vibrant and full of people. She concludes, “The East looks to itself, it knows nothing of the greater world of which you are a citizen, asks nothing of you and your civilization.”

Syria: The Desert and the Sown was published in 1907 after what was apparently Bell’s second trip to Syria, as she references a visit five years before. In this book, although she visits some of the area’s most important cities, the excerpts concentrate more on her travels in the hinterlands, where she meets many interesting people and examines archaeological sites. She also has another errand, which she does not discuss.

The excerpts from this book seem more fragmentary, for she begins chapters in different locations than she left off. Again, her descriptive powers are notable. By now, she gets by very well in Arabic and has studied the customs and courtesies of the area. Her attitude of slightly amused superiority is gone.

In both books, Bell’s writing is almost poetic at times. It’s easy to feel the romance and dangers of the East. There is nothing like some books for taking you to another place and time.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Day 560: Shah of Shahs

Cover for Shah of ShahsI remember the Iranian revolution very well, so when my book club selected any book by Ryszard Kapuściński, I chose Shah of Shahs.

Before the revolution, I dated an Iranian student who called himself a revolutionary. Since I never knew him to work toward a revolution in any way, I always figured that he thought he was doing something fashionable or expected by espousing the cause. (I’m not saying that many weren’t sincere or that they didn’t have reason to want a change in government.) Still, I never believed that the Iran those students got was the one they wanted.

Shah of Shahs is an odd book, not exactly journalism, not as incisive and fact-based as, say, an essay by Hitchens, full of opinion and supposition. The book jacket refers to Kapuściński as a mythographer and to the book as a combination of journalism and literature. Perhaps it is this combination that I have trouble with.

What the book does provide is plenty of information about the roots of the people’s discontent—and they were truly a mistreated and abused nation. Kapuściński starts by describing his room in a Teheran hotel, where in 1985 he is the only remaining occupant. His room is cluttered with photographs and scraps of notes from interviews. He puts them in order, describes the photos—beginning with one of the Shah’s grandfather—and relates bits of the history of Iran. Later, he describes his interviews with intellectuals who returned from abroad, people whose relatives were tortured by the Savak, people who were afraid to speak or act for fear of torture, people who took part in protests at the risk of their lives, and so on. In one case, he tells the story about an old man who complains about the heat at a bus stop, calling it “oppressive.” He is hauled off by the Savak for using the word “oppressive,” and he probably wasn’t seen again.

The book is sparely written. It also contains fascinating material that brought me to a better understanding of the dilemmas of Iran. But especially toward the end of the book, it indulges itself in flights of philosophical rumination about the causes of revolutions, which I did not find as interesting.