Sunday, December 07, 2008

In The Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom by Qanta Ahmed

Sourcebooks, Inc.


464 pages

September 2008

When Qanta Ahmed MD (of Pakistan descent, UK-Educated, NYC-practicing doctor) was assigned a job at The King Fahd National Guard Hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, she grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Coming from a Muslim background as she did, she assumed she would assimilate easily into this Islamic-governed country, but what she found instead is that she stuck out like a sore thumb for despite her Muslim upbringing she found she had much more in common with people in the west than with these people that shared her religion.

Living as I have in the Middle East, I don't find that hard to believe at all. After all, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is truly a world apart...what sets it apart is the equal prominence given to the monarchy and clergy and the state-sponsored Islam that they follow-

However, my fascination with Saudi Arabia has more to do with its people than anything else.
Broadly, the people of the country maybe classified into 5-6 groups. First, you have the
Bedouin or the nomadic people making up some 7 % of the population. They are fiercely clannish and do not often mix with the rest of the population. Then you have the feared Mutaween or the religious police. Most go to strict Islamic schools and operate under the command of the Saudi king and are empowered to arrest or apprehend individuals if they (the mutaween) are accompanied by the Saudi police, The Mutaween are highly intolerant of anything they perceive as western and thus ankles, uncovered hair, intermingling of the sexes and so much more) . It is rumored that many of the Mutaween are actually convicts who earned their freedom by memorizing the Koran!

Their polar opposites would be the young
Saudi men with their fast cars, Rolex watches, designer clothes , Dunhill cigarettes etc. You also have what the author very aptly calls, "The Lost Boys of The Kingdom". This group is made up of all those Saudi boys who, thanks to unrestricted polygamy in the kingdom, are spawned by men who are so old they have lost all interest in children, even if it's a male child. The Lost Boys generally grow up with a mother and an absent father and without any male role models or a direction to the future, many of these boys find belonging in drugs and fast cars.

However, it is the
Saudi woman that makes the most fascinating study. Many of them are well educated, independent-minded, beautiful and strong women, yet is is astonishing to see how they comply with the subservient role laid out for driving, no working (unless it's as a teacher or a doctor), no leaving the country unless permission is given by a senior male member of the household. But of all the things a Saudi woman has to contend with, the one that horrified Qanta Ahmed the most was the wearing of the abaya, a head-to-toe black garment which all women in the Kingdom must wear when they go out in public, no matter their nationality or beliefs....
"during the day, or in public, these women not only veiled their beauty and their clothes in those black abayas, they veiled their spirits, their souls, their joie de vivre."
Later Qanta would admit that the abaya was paradoxically restricting and liberating. Among other requirements there are those that forbid women to wear seat belts because it results in their breasts being more defined...imagine that!!! I am particularly indebted to Dr. Qanta for giving us a window into the world of Saudi women because it is an almost impossible task to get to know them on a social level. The fact that Qanta Ahmed was a female Muslim doctor, she naturally had more privy to these women than any one of us will ever have.

Some of the other notable characters in Saudi society are the monarchy and the expat worker. The royal family is much loved by the Saudi people, especially
Prince Al-Waleed and some of the younger princesses who champion women's rights. It is perhaps due to these forward-thinking Royals that the clergy is getting increasingly agitated .

Qanta was in Saudi Arabia at a very interesting time (just before and during the 9/11 attacks) a time when Saudi Arabia was at its most angry and probably most radicalized. I found the chapter on 9/11 and the reaction of the Saudis a very telling one, one that is bound to make a western reader quite angry and afraid.

Despite the many differences Qanta experienced between the people of her faith and herself, strangely enough, this stay to Saudi Arabia brought her closer to her God and the chapters on her pilgrimage to
Hajj are perhaps the most moving in the book.

So far so good, but I do have some quibbles with the book. For instance, I dislike how the author discusses many of the Saudi's social issues anecdotally. You hear about the Saudi practice of "blood money" ( money paid to the next of kin of a murder victim as a fine) from a conversation that Qanta has with a co-worker and "hymenoplasty" from a woman she meets at a party. There is also this chapter on the custody of children should a Saudi couple get divorced and most of the information is provided by someone Qanta knows at the hospital. I would have preferred the author to have researched some of these important issues, rather than just quoting what she heard in everyday conversation.

Another quibble (albeit a small one) is her preoccupation with people's looks and brand names...makes her come across as being slightly superficial even though one has to presume she is not.

When Ms. Ahmed was asked why she wrote the book, she said when Americans in general think of Muslims, the radical Islam aspect of it comes to mind. Through the book she hopes to humanize Muslims and the Saudis, but in her last chapter when she talks about the glee with which they greeted the attacks of 9/11 and their hatred for the Jews there does seem to be a contradiction. Where are these moderate Saudis/Muslims hiding? Most of them seemed to believe that the US deserved what they got and that was quite disturbing to read.

Still, overall the book is a wonderful and informative read and a real window into a society many of us will never get to experience for ourselves. I am grateful to Ryan of Sourcebooks for providing me with a review copy.


"In The Land of Invisible Women" is a memoir of the author's time in Saudi Arabia from 1999-2001 (almost a decade ago). Since then the Saudi people, with access to more advanced communication, have become more confident...the voices of the mutaween have grown weaker and the women more emboldened. There seems to be a progressive change in the air...let's welcome it.

**08 March 2009** An Update:

The author mentioned how much young Saudi men like to race cars, she also mentioned how touchy-feely Saudi men were with each other and how they had no hesitation in kissing each other or holding hands. She, however, made no reference to "drifters" (young Saudi men who employ the dangerous practice of deliberately deliberately spinning out and skidding their cars sideways at high speeds, sometimes killing themselves and spectators). According to this article in the NYTimes,

Drifting, which tends to attract poorer, more marginal men, has also been an unlikely nexus between homosexuality, crime and jihadism since it emerged 30 years ago. Homoerotic desire is a constant theme in Saudi songs and poems about drifting, and accomplished drifters are said to have their pick of the prettiest boys among the spectators. Drugs sometimes also play a role. But a number of drifters have also become Islamic militants, including Youssef al-Ayyeri, the founder of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who fought in Afghanistan and was killed by security forces in Saudi Arabia in 2003.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

An Affair With Indian Cooking: The Khaana Sutra of Indian cusine by Geeta Maini

  • Paperback: 213 pages

  • Publisher: Vakils, Feffer, Simons (January 1, 2007)

  • Language: English
(available at or order directly here)

Six months ago, bored with my repertoire of recipes I decided to visit the library hoping to find a book that would breathe some life into my old, tired menu. As most of you well know, the library has a stack of recipe books making it rather hard to pick one, but the ingenious subtitle, "The Khaana Sutra of Indian cuisine" on Geeta Maini's book titled, "An Affair With Indian Cooking", caught my eye and made me pull it off the shelf. I was rewarded with such an aesthetically- pleasing book....its quality soft cover makes it easy to hold and the pages inside are dripping with eye-popping food photography and recipes which are very easy to read.

I carried it home excitedly and although the aim was to start cooking from it immediately I was drawn to Geeta's introduction of how she grew up in Kenya in an extended (Punjabi) family where her mom and aunts did most of the cooking. When she moved to Canada as a young bride she realized she was now the prime nourisher for her family, forcing her to hone her skills as chief cook, a job that she has perfected over the years.

The recipes in Geeta's sumptious book are arranged in organized sections with tantalizing subtitles that made me smile. Ofcourse, this being the "Khaana Sutra" (you might have heard of the Kama Sutra?) a referring to appetizers as "seduction of the palate"; Meat and Seafood as "Succulent,Saucy Somethings" and Desserts as "the final embrace" seems very fit. Some of the recipes have accompanying pictures but all include a brief introduction, giving you
the history of the dish or why Geeta chose to include it in the book. The recipes are well laid out and many are garnished with additional cooking tips and laced with suggestions on how to change the dish around so as to give it a different flavor the next time you make it( I found the suggestion box to be incredibly helpful!) .

The book closes with a chapter on Menus (
Planning the Affair) - another wickedly delicious subtitle - where Geeta, using the recipes provided in the book, creates menus for a complete meal. You can find menus for a "Spiced-up Christmas Brunch", "Formal Dinner Parties", 'A Sunday Brunch" and much,much more. I made my sampler meal from the"Meals in Less Than an Hour" menu which included:

"Green Beans and Potatoes"
"Green Coriander and Tamarind Shrimp",
"Cumin Rice" and
"Yoghurt with Cucumber".

I had made the "Yoghurt with Cucumber" and "Cumin Rice" before (and she's right, both dishes take around 15 mins to prepare). This was my first time making the shrimp with coriander and Tamarind and what a treat that turned out to be! Not only is it terribly simple to prepare but the combination of the sweet and sour flavors with the aroma and taste of the roasted spices is guaranteed to make your tastebuds dance!

Know someone that enjoys Indian food but is intimidated by how long it can take to prepare? Give them Geeta Maini's book. Her recipes are truly simple and easy to follow without compromising on taste or authenticity. Not just that, in "An Affair with Indian Cooking" Geeta also shares, through her recipes, her culinary heritage and recipes enjoyed by generations of her own family. In my opinion, this book is the perfect introduction to Indian cuisine.

Now, just before I sign off, here's a the recipe for "Green Coriander and Tamarind Shrimp" or like they say in Hindi, "Hare Dhaniya Aur Imbli ka Jhinga" Enjoy!


2 lbs shrimp, shell on, deveined

1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp salt

fresh roasted
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 cup fresh coriander, chopped
1 tsp green chillies, fresh minced
2 tsp coriander seeds, dry roasted and crushed coarsely
1 onion, large, sliced thinly
1/4 cup tamarind paste

1 1/2 tsp garlic minced
1 tbsp brown sugar (optional)


`Wash shrimp under cold running water and set aside to drain

`In a shallow saute pan heat the oil and butter on med. high heat
`Temper with the cumin and coriander seeds. Once they start to sizzle, add the onions and garlic
`Reduce heat to medium and saute until onions are soft and slightly pink
`Add the fresh coriander, salt, cumin powder and green chillies. Stir until well mixed.

`Add the tamarind paste and stir until all te spices and ingredients are now well blended.

`Add the shrimp and cook until the shrimp turn pink and are well coated with sauce (8-10 mins) `Adjust seasonings - if desired add the brown sugar for a sweet and sour flavor.
`Serve over a bed of couscous pilaf or with a crisp naan and mango salsa

(serves 6-8 people)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Ghost Train To The Evening Star by Paul Theroux

Category: Travel - Asia; Biography & Autobiography - Personal Memoirs; History

Hardcover, 512 pages

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart/ Random House

Pub Date:
September 9, 2008


Thirty-three years ago noted travel writer Paul Theroux made a looping journey by train from London through Central Asia to Japan and all the way back again. This epic journey was the subject of his best-selling book "The Great Railway Bazaar". In 2006 he decided to retrace his steps and the book inspired by his return journey is called "Ghost to The Eastern Star" .

So, the big question is, why did Paul Theroux undertake the same journey? Why didn't he go somewhere he's never been before? Well, for starters, Theroux is wary of other travel writers taking "his" trip and then going on to write a book with the likely title, "In The Footsteps of Paul Theroux"! Also, he thought it would be a good idea to see how globalization had changed the world in 33 years...and most of all, to find out if he had changed as a traveller.

One thing he found that hadn't changed was his love of travelling by train. Theroux was more than happy to travel in hard seat, second class carriages, share his space with stinky strangers, endure their opinions often with no language in common and even their food, knowing that, as he puts it,
"Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world."

If you pick up this book expecting it to detail tourist attractions,
museums, cultural to-do's, things to eat, places to see etc. you'll be disappointed. To travel with Theroux means to be treated to a cornucopia of thoughts, impressions, observations, judgments, conversations, opinions,reminisces, etc., many of which may not even be connected to the place in question. As jumbled as this may sound, Theroux is in fact a very entertaining and informed writer and you will welcome his observations, even if he is given to making sweeping generalizations, for instance, "Georgia" , he concludes within days of arriving, is "a supine and beleaguered country of people narcissistic about their differences." About China he says, "(China) exists in its present form because the Chinese want money.", but he seems to reserve most of his ire for the Singaporeans which he describes thus: "Singaporeans' personalities reflect that of the only leader most of them have ever known, and as a result are notably abrasive, abrupt, thin-skinned, unsmiling, rude,puranitical, bossy, selfish and unspiritual. Because they can't criticize the government, they criticize each other or pick on foreigners. And in this hanging and flogging society they openly spank their children..." pg 327

So, coming back to the premise for the book, did Theroux find a whole lot had changed?
I think it's fair to say that of all the places he travelled to, Burma had stayed virtually the same, that is to say, it hadn't made any progress in 33 years, if anything it seemed to have become worse... "It (Rangoon) looked pessimistic, unlucky and badly governed. It had no bounce. It was a city without visible ambition: no challenge, no defiance. Being youthful here wasn't an advantage, nor was strength any use; brains just made you unhappy and a target for the secret police..." pg 265

Cambodia, which he could not enter on his first time, remains traumatized by it's violent recent history..."Most Cambodians have a memory of the bad years; the hurt was apparent in their posture, in their voices, in their eyes."

Vietnam was the place he found had changed the most and seemed to have his utmost admiration (which is saying a lot because it takes quite a bit to impress Theroux).
In the '70's Vietnam was flattened by America, but they crawled out from the wreckage and rebuilt a very viable country without American aid. Infact, it has now become a capitalist paradise, trying to beat America at its own game. Best of all, none of the Vietnamese Theroux met seemed to hold a grudge against the Americans, even though they were put through incredibly forgiving nation/

Despite all the hype over the New India, he found little to celebrate. Cities like Bombay and Bangalore where the economic boom is happening have not evolved but been crudely transformed. Beyond the concentrated cores of wealth, Theroux saw
"the India of the hut, the cow-dung fire, the bean field, the buffalo, the ox cart, and the bicycle — of debt and drought and death." He also saw a people for whom rituals, religion, beliefs and superstitions form an intrinsic part of their fabric. India's link with her past and religion keeps her looking backwards, on the other hand, China has been transformed and he is of the opinion that it was able to modernize because it has severed its links with the past, which has cost it its soul and many traditions.

Theroux has an unflinching ability to explore and evoke a place's dark almost every place he goes to, he explores its porn shops... "A country's pornography," he writes, "offers the quickest insight into the culture and inner life of a nation, and especially the male character." However Theroux reserves his sharpest barbs for political institutions...from the killing fields of Cambodia to the abandoned camps of the Gulag, he unflinchingly describes the brutality that humans can visit upon one another in the name of ideology.

All in all, I would rate this book highly. Theroux is a fearless traveler and definitely not afraid to speak his mind, nor does he feel the need to toe the line of political correctness. He calls things as he sees them and I welcome such honesty in a traveler. Also, Theroux's writing is not so much about the sightseeing as it is about the people and conversations with them. There is an abundance of wonderful dialogue in this book along with some entertaining chats with other writers like, Orhan Pamuk, Pico Iyer, Murakami etc. There is a lot you will learn from reading this book despite it's rather melancholic conclusion:

"Most of the world is worsening, shrinking to a ball of desolation. Only the old can really see how gracelessly the world is ageing and all that we have lost. Politicians and policemen are always inferior to their citizens. No one on earth is well governed." But is there hope? Yes, because strangers usually help, ghosts can travel and the going is still good.

The reference to ghosts in the passage is how Theroux sees his traveller self. He says that at 67, he feels “invisible” while traveling..."Young people seem to look right through you, acting as if you're not there, as they board a train, bus, metro or plane. You are inessential, overlooked". Sure, this may be regrettable, but very useful to a travel writer because you can make observations and record experiences, all the time listening while remaining unseen.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

India : In Word and Image by Eric Meola

Photographs by Eric Meola

Introduction by Bharati Mukherjee

Published by Welcome Books

Hardcover, $60.00 ($69.00 CAN)

One of the perks of writing my blog, besides getting to know other bloggers of course, is receiving the occasional book to review, so when Welcome Books asked me if I would like to take a look at
Eric Meola's new collection of photographs in his new book titled,"India : In Word and Image", I jumped at the chance.

After saying "yes" to Welcome Books I went about my work not thinking too much about it. So, the other day, when I received a box, a rather heavy box I should add, in the mail I quickly opened it (I was curious to find out why the package was so heavy, after all, this was just a book), and was delighted to find, not just any book, but a beautiful ,glossy coffee-table book, about the size of a school atlas, filled to the brim, (yes, all 272 pages of it) with sumptuous color photographs from all over India!!!
From India: In Word and Image (Welcome Books). Photographs © 2008 Eric Meola.

As I leafed through the glorious pictures I found myself completely dazzled by Meola's beautifully-composed photographs. No matter the subject: a caravan of camel riders at dusk; sacred temple towers decorated with a phantasmagoria of multi-armed, blue-skinned Hindu deities ; man bathing in the Ganges or the absolutely stunning art detail of the 15th century Thikse monastery in the Indus Valley, all of Meola's photos are an invitation to share in Meola's skill with the camera and his love of India. And that's not all, Meola's images are interwoven with a personal essay revealing thoughts and insights on his trip to India as well as a feast of literary snippets from well known writers like Salman Rushdie, RK Narayan, Jhumpa Lahiri and so on. It is this ingenious approach - of examining India through fabulous photos and its literary heritage - that gives this book its edge. From India: In Word and Image (Welcome Books). Photographs © 2008 Eric Meola.

Celebrations, people and sacred architecture dominate the book and I am not surprised, after all, religion forms an intricate part of the social fabric of Indian life and with a pantheon that is tens of thousands of gods strong, religious celebrations are in abundance!
This is Meola's second book. The first is a collection of photos from what he calls "The Last Places on Earth" where he covered Burma, New Guinea, Africa, India, the Galápagos Islands, Mongolia, India, and Tibet. He returned to India to devote a complete book to the country, because as he says in his personal essay from the book,
“What I see more than anything else is a nation embracing life. Every day there is a celebration, if not dozens, throughout the country, for that is what India is about — a continuous celebration of life and its mysteries.

“As a photographer, I am drawn to India because of the psychedelic colors that seem to permeate every facet of life. I go there for all the contradictions of a place that is like no other I have ever been to; but I am drawn to India because the people are blessed with childhood’s sense of wonder, which they have never lost.”
From India: In Word and Image (Welcome Books). Photographs © 2008 Eric Meola.

"India: In Word and Image" is a beautiful way to get to know India. Leave it on your coffee table, not only will it look fabulous, but just watch how your guests will be drawn to it (I know I tried it!). Beyond it's silky cover, there's a colorful look at a country so vast that it would take several lifetimes to see it. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a copy this Christmas, its vibrant and warm pictures will give you several hours of joy over the cold winter.

About the Author

Eric Meola published his first book, Last Places on Earth, with Graphis in 2004. In 2006, Welcome Books distributed a book of his photographs of Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run: The Unseen Photos. Eric''s photographs are in private and public collections including the International Center of Photography, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the George Eastman House, and his graphic color images have appeared editorially in numerous magazines, including Life, Travel & Leisure, Esquire, and Time.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Recently, Steven Galloway's wonderful, wonderful book was longlisted for the prestigious Giller Prize and it seemed a great time to revisit this extraordinary book. Another reason for revisiting this post is because the Cellist, Vedran Smailovich,whose courage was one of the main inspirations for the book, has been talking about suing Galloway for using his (Smailovic's) story. While I understand his being upset about the inclusion of his picture (without permission) on the book cover, I do not think (Smailovic) has a right to sue Galloway for writing about a very public event. Sure, it would have been nice if Galloway could have spoken to him before he used the cellist as a subject and maybe even gave him a monetary token of appreciation, but that was Galloway's prerogative and he chose not to do so. Any thoughts?

Category: Fiction
Hardcover, 272 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada
Pub Date:
April 8, 2008
Price: $29.95

Before I tell you anything about Steven Galloway's book "The Cellist of Sarajevo" let me tell you a true story:

Vedran Smailovic was the principal cellist of the prestigious Sarajevo opera theater which was destroyed by sniper when Sarajevo was under seige in the 1990's.

At 4:00 pm on May 27th, 1992, a long line of starving people waiting in front of the only bakery in Sarajevo that still had enough flour to make bread were shelled. Twenty-two people died as Vedran Smailovic stood at his window a hundred yards away and watched.

The next day hungry people lined up again to beg for bread—certain they would die if they didn't come to the bakery and convinced they could die if they did. Then it happened. Vedran Smailovic arrived. He was dressed in the black suit and white tie in which he had played every night until the opera theater was destroyed. He was carrying his cello and a chair.

Smailovic sat down in the square and, surrounded by debris and the remainders of death and the despair of the living, he began to play the mournful Albinoni "Adagio," the one music manuscript that had been found whole in the city after the carpet bombing of Dresden.

What's more, shelling or no, he came back to the square every day after that for 21 consecutive days (one day for each of the people that had died) to do the same thing, a living reminder that there is a strength in the human spirit that simply cannot be destroyed. Today, where he sat, there is a monument of a man in a chair playing a cello. But the monument is not to his music, as good as it is. It is to his refusal to surrender the hope that beauty could be reborn in the midst of a living hell. Even more important, perhaps, is the fact that that small sound of hope rings on still around the world.

(Joan Chittister)

(from the famous two-page photo spread and article that John Burns did for the New York Times)

This act caught the imagination of people around the world. Composer David Wilde wrote a piece for cello called "The Cellist of Sarajevo" in his honor which was recorded by Yo Yo Ma. His daring act also inspired the song Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 by Savatage. Folk singer John McCutcheon also penned a song in his honor, "In the Streets of Sarajevo." Now, Canadian author Steven Galloway's novel "The Cellist of Sarajevo" joins that inspired list.

"The Cellist of Sarajevo" tells the story of three very ordinary people and how they go about their lives trying to survive the siege of Sarajevo. Arrow is the first protagonist we are introduced to, she is a young woman, a competitive shooter before the war and has been forced to become a sniper; Kenan is a middle-aged man and father who embarks every four days on a dangerous mission to collect water for his family and a hostile old neighbor and Dragan a 64-year old man who must make the dangerous journey everyday across sniper's alley to the bakery where he works in order to eat. The three are not known to each other but they are connected by the cellist of Sarajevo whom they go to listen to as he plays.

Although, as per history, the people under siege in Sarajevo were the Bosnian Muslims and the men holding them there were the Bosnian Serbs, Galloway doesn't refer to them by their ethnic labels, preferring instead to call the inhabitants Sarajevans and their enemy "the men on the hills". By keeping his story free of ethnic labels he is able to convey to the reader the horror not just of the Sarajevo but of any war.

The prose he uses is spare but so evocative you will be moved in ways you never imagined. Much of the narrative moves in slow motion giving the reader time to feel the same fear and panic the protagonists feel as they try avoiding the snipers on the hill. You are right there with them trying to survive just like they are doing. The story of these three people (and the cellist) and what they endure just to survive will touch your heart and break it at the same time.

While the novel is centered on the conflict in Sarajevo it is also a book about art.
We have a tendency,” Galloway says, “in North America in particular to view art as a luxury item, things like music or books as almost a frivolity. But the way Europeans look at it, and kind of the way I look at it, is that one of the points of art and music is to remind us of our innate humanity.” And that is precisely why the cellist played in the rubble for 22 days...he was offering his music as a healing tool, a tool to connect with one's humanity despite the inhumane actions going on all around them.

As anyone that reads my blog knows, I read a lot of books but I have to say this has been one of the better books I have read in quite a while. Please, do yourself a favor and buy a copy, heck, buy a copy for a friend or family member too, you won't have any regrets.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam

Category: Biography & Autobiography - Personal Memoirs; Current Affairs; Social Science - Third World Development
  • Format: Hardcover, 208 pages
  • On Sale: September 9, 2008
  • Publisher : Random House
(translated from the French by Lisa Appignanesi)

This summer when I was reading up in preparation for our trip to Cambodia I came across an article that described Phnom Penh as the "new Bangkok". At first I thought this meant that Cambodia had dethroned Bangkok to become the leading and cheapest place to buy designer knock-offs, but that wasn't what they meant. Turns out that Cambodia is now the premier destination for sex tourism in the South East of Asia, something that in the '80's, Bangkok (especially the "Patpong Area") was particularly well known. However, what it is even more disturbing is that Cambodia seems to have become some sort of a magnet for child molesters, at last count about 25 % of Cambodia's prostitutes were under-age.

Because there is such a lot of money to be made from this particular type of tourism and because a majority of Cambodians are so poor, Cambodian cities are flooded with girls who have either been sold into sex slavery by their parents or who have been kidnapped by sex traffickers (over a million young women and children are sold into slavery every year and a Canadian nonprofit estimates 1 in 40 girls born in Cambodia will be sold into sex slavery.). At $12 billion annually, the global slave trade has become the third most profitable criminal industry in the world, behind only narcotics and weapons!

One-third of Cambodia's prostitutes are under-age. Virgins are in particular demand by men with AIDS because of a legend that they can be cured by having sex with a virgin. Also, Chinese, Thai and Cambodian men believe that having sex with a virgin increases one's virility. To satisfy their demands, younger and younger girls are being kidnapped...some even as young as five years. Men also seek younger girls because they are deemed less likely to be infected with H.I.V virus, than the older girls.

Somaly Mam was one of those girls. When she was twelve her “grandfather” sold her into slavery. She was forced to work in a brothel where she faced hunger, punishment and sexual abuse on a daily basis. This continued for a few years, then one night, she watched a client murder her close friend and realized that if she didn't get out, her fate would be the same. Around that time a Swiss expat working for one of Cambodia's numerous NGO's came into her life and he gave her enough money to leave the brothel. Somaly held several different jobs for the next few years but her heart was always with the poor sex workers in Cambodia and she decided she had to go back and do something to help them.

So with a little backing from her French husband's contacts she started a non-governmental organization called “Acting for Women in Distressing Circumstances.” which to date has saved over 4000 girls from sexual slavery and rehabilitated them into society. Somaly has been rewarded for her commitment to this cause with a slew of humanitarian awards.

Last month Random House published Somaly's memoir titled "The Road of Lost Innocence". The novel, written in French (Somaly's third language) and then translated into English could be the reason the prose is so neatly constructed and so matter-of-fact. The details are horrific (Buckets of live maggots dumped on her body and in her mouth, days of brutal beatings, violent gang rapes, burning with car batteries, tied in a dark room full of snakes. . .) but because they are presented in such an impersonal way, you almost get the sense that Somaly has distanced herself from that part of her life and perhaps she has. The only time you get carried up with her emotion is when she is talking about the girls she has saved and in the last chapter when she discusses how writing this book has made her relive her awful past. Another reason for the emotionally detached prose could be the Cambodian's reluctance to discuss personal matters...Cambodians are very private people and it could be that writing down the really sordid details of her life made Somaly uncomfortable. It seems plain to me that the main reason she wrote this memoir was to educate people on the plight of prostitution, especially child prostitution in Cambodia and to that effect she's done a fine job.

The Khmers or Cambodians have always been known to be very happy and peaceful people, so how did they learn to be so cruel? Somaly is of the opinion that three decades of bombing, genocide and starvation have led to her country being morally bankrupt. During the cruel reign of the Khmer Rouge people learned not to trust anyone and to only depend on themselves, as a result, they have become completely self-centered and don't feel much empathy for their neighbors or friends, much less someone who is from the lowest strata of society, like a prostitute.

If in the 19th-century our ancestors decided that slavery was a moral blot on humanity and rose up against it, why can't we do the same today??? Why do we acquiesce in 21st-century slavery, when 15-year-old girls are imprisoned in brothels and sentenced to death by AIDS? Come, let us together raise our voices against this terrible issue and join causes that are fighting it.

A portion of the proceeds of this book will be donated to the Somaly Mam Foundation.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

As a foreign correspondent for NPR, Eric Weiner spent more than 10 years reporting on problems overseas, such as suicide bombings in Iraq and student suicides in Tokyo. A little tired of all the unhappiness he saw around him he became intrigued with finding the places in the world where people are reportedly the happiest — and learning why.

In The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World he plots a map of happiness (for lack of a better description) and then travels to some of the happiest countries in the world to find out why their people are happy.

What I have done here is to summarize what came out of his travels to various places and what Weiner thinks could be factors in making the people of those countries so happy(or unhappy). This is not a review, just notes that I would like to come back and refer to at a later date.

For instance, in Switzerland, there could be several factors - moderation for one. The Swiss neither get euphoric with joy nor do they get debilitatingly depressed over things...where emotions are concerned they seem to know how to strike a happy balance. Also, efficiency could be another measure for happiness...everything in Switzerland runs on time and to perfection. The Swiss vote a lot,heck, they vote on everything with the average Swiss voting atleast 6-7 times a could democracy or having a say in your life be the answer to happiness? And how about the chocolate? The Swiss are known for their chocolate and in turn chocolate is known for its feelgood chemicals, so do the rest of us need more chocolate to be happy? Finally, the Swiss don't believe in flaunting their good fortune. If they have money, you'll never know because it's not like them to buy fancy cars or eat in fancy restaurants like the rich and famous do elsewhere. Perhaps they believe that envy is the enemy of happiness? Switzerland is truly an interesting case because for a country where you cannot flush the latrine after 10:00pm or laugh out loud after midnight, in other words, a country with so many rules, it is a surprisingly happy country.

If a government decides that a country's progress should be measured by its Gross national Happiness rather than its GDP, I would surmise that the government is reasonably assured that its citizens are happy and it would be right because Bhutan, a tiny mountainous country to the north of Nepal was rated as one of the happiest countries in the world. Why? It could be their belief in reincarnation which translates into "having a second shot at living life" or it could be their complete single-minded devotion to their king (is there a lesson for us here, should we be putting more faith in our government?) or is it because there are more monks than military personnel in Bhutan and the few military personnel that exist are in the distillery business! Also, the Bhutanese excel at the art of compromise or knowing their limitations...are we less happy because we believe we can have the sky if we want to? Finally, the Bhutanese don't spend their time reflecting...they don't ask themselves questions like "Am I happy" or "What would it take to make me happy", they just go about their day and are happy. The Americans, on the other hand, spend so much time worrying about what makes them happy that they seem to have missed the Happiness Boat.

Now, for everyone that thinks money buys happiness let's examine the lives of the Qataris from the oil-rich nation of Qatar. Sure, the Qataris appear to have everything that money can buy...fancy cars, posh malls, opulent hotels, the best in education. As if that isn't enough, they don't have to pay taxes, they have free medical benefits and college students get a stipend while they study!!! Can you really have it so good and NOT be happy? Sure you can. Studies have shown that one of the main factors for happiness is your relationships, but, Qataris are awfully isolated, living in their palatial houses behind high walls rarely mixing with anyone outside of their tribe, leave alone someone from a different nationality! In other words, they are bereft of meaningful social relationships. Also, when a country grows as fast as Qatar has, putting up 100's of new buildings every year while bulldozing its past, is it possible for its citizens to feel rootless and can being rootless or less grounded put a damper on being happy? Sure it can! Finally, and probably most important, the Qataris have no goals to achieve, because no matter how successful or rich they become in life, they remain only as small or as big as their place in their tribe.

And then, there's Iceland where darkness reigns supreme for 6 months of the year and yet its people are supposed to be some of the happiest in the world. Weiner visited the country in winter and concluded that any or all of the following contribute to the Icelanders being so happy: A)Creativity : Everyone's a poet in Iceland, everyone's a dreamer and if you believe that dreams are the laboratories of reality then the Icelanders must have the ability to dream (thus creating) happy things for themselves. B) Great sense of community: The Icelandic people truly enjoy helping each other to do well or to be successful. All knowledge is shared and there is no envy, just a collective joy in seeing other Icelanders doing well. C) Failure is not looked down upon. As a result you will find a lot more people trying their hand at something because they don't fear failure. D) Icelanders wear many hats. In other words, unlike in North America, they do not restrict themselves to specializing in just one particular field. This means they are able to switch career paths as often as they desire. E) Icelanders are fiercely patriotic (they do not indulge in jingoism however) about their country and extremely proud of their language . How does being proud of one's language make you happy, I hear you ask...well, if you love your language you'll use it to express yourself and all your moods...and expression is an outlet of both joy and sorrow...

According to the World Database of Happiness, maintained by the godfather of happiness research, Ruut Veenhoven, Moldava is at the very bottom of the happiness scale. No doubt it is a poor country, but if poverty were the only factor to unhappiness then we could Sub-Saharan countries to be much unhappier than Moldova, but that is not the case. Moldovans are very part because they are poor, but also because they are constantly comparing themselves with other successful European countries in the neighborhood, also, Moldovians were once an integral part of a thriving empire (Soviet) but after its independence it is simply a tiny, poor independent country struggling to stay afloat. That just shoots down the theory that political scientists have been spouting for years, people living under democracies are happier than those living under any other form of government. Rather, the truth seems to be this: It's not that democracy makes people happy but rather that happy people are much more likely to establish a democracy. Also,the Moldovans do not have a strong sense of identity. In Russia they are referred to as Romanians and in Romania they are thought of as Russians.

Want a new mantra? Try, "mai pen lai", Thai for "never mind. Not the "never mind" that we in the west often use angrily as in, "Oh, never mind, I'll do it myself" , but a "drop it, it doesn't matter, let's not sweat the small stuff" kind of "never mind". The "mai pen lai" attititude has its drawbacks no doubt - it is the perfect excuse for incompetence or laziness - but it is also a very wise attitude to have when we find ourselves clinging to something that simply hampers our progress. The other great quality the Thais have going for them is that they refuse to overthink anything. Unlike us, the over-examined life does not interest them. They are equally accepting of both joy and sorrow in their lives and never question why they have one or the other. Would we perhaps be more happy if we resisted less and accepted more?

Great Britain has always been known as the nation with the stiff upper lip. As some Brits like to say, they are not in the business of happiness. For the British, happiness is a transatlantic (read American) import...silly, infantile drivel. So just because the British prefer to moan rather than smile or grumble rather than rejoice, does that make them less happy? Au contraire! While the Brits may not rate very high on the happiness scale the author found that they were latently happy and didn't feel under any compulsion to wear their happiness on their sleeves as we are prone to do.

Indians (especially the Hindus) are firm believers that one is a child of destiny. When unhappiness comes their way, they accept it as something that they have no control over. You may call that fatalistic, but it also brings acceptance and thus peace. Statistically, the poorest countries in the world are also the least happy and that is certainly true of India who ranks in the lower end of the Happiness Sprecturm. However, in a survery conducted by happiness researcher Robert Biswas-Diener, the destitute of Calcutta city were far happier than the homeless people in the State of California even though the Californian homeless had access to better food, clothing, shelter etc. Biswas-Diener attributed the surprising result to the Indians having strong social ties. Wiener sums it up this way...No one is really homeless in India. Houseless perhaps, but not homeless. So, can we conclude that strong family and social ties are a precursor to happiness?

So how do the Americans compare with the rest? Well, America's place on the happiness spectrum is not as high as you might think. Despite its superpower status it is the world's 23rd happiest nation behind countries such as Costa Rica, Malta and Malaysia. Perhaps it's safe to say that the United States is not as happy as it is wealthy? Some of the reasons for that unhappiness could be the long commute that many Americans have to endure (commuting has been found to be detrimental to one's happiness), also, American work longer hours than virtually any other people in the world. America is a very restless way Americans pursue happiness is by physically moving, but that means never having firm roots also means never fully committing which could be a dangerous thing, because, as the author says, we can't love a place or a person, if we always have one foot out the door.

I have to say I really quite enjoyed this book. It reads like a travelogue and a social commentary, providing insights along the way that really do shatter your previously held notions of what happiness is. The author's writing style is witty and upbeat, so, yes, I think I can say this book did make me happier, hope it will do the same for you! :) It also makes you think of some of the happiest places you've been in...for me it is a book store or at an airport getting ready to go on a you want to share your happiest place/s?

Saturday, September 06, 2008

"Firaaq" a movie by Nandita Das

I'm back, thank you, everyone, for the holiday wishes, we had a great time and there are pictures on FB should you wish to view them. But now, on to the Toronto International Film Festival and the brilliant film I saw yesterday titled "FIRAAQ"

Firaaq has been directed by Nandita Das, prominent Indian actor who has appeared in such films as Deepa Mehta's Fire (96) and Earth (98). Firaaq (08) is her feature writing and directing debut.

Here's a small introduction to the movie from the TIFF site

Onscreen, Nandita Das has proven herself the most soulful of actors, capable of combining emotional expressiveness with unshakable integrity. Off screen, she has maintained an ongoing commitment to social justice in India. Das brings these two worlds together in her feature debut, telling the story of one of India's great wounds with both sincerity and passion.

Conflict between Hindus and Muslims continues to flare into violence in India, and is often stoked by political interests. Firaaq begins in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where three thousand Muslims died in communal riots. In an early scene of almost Shakespearean gravity, two Muslim men dig a mass grave for the victims. From there, the story jumps forward one month, away from the direct physical effects of the conflict to the more amorphous – but increasingly persistent – inner discord.

When Hanif and Muneera return to the modest home they had fled during the violence, they find it ransacked. With their lives shattered not simply by vandalism but by betrayal from their neighbours, Hanif seeks revenge. Elsewhere, middle-class Hindus Sanjay and Arati were untouched by the hostilities, but are met with new moral challenges. Serene older musician Khan Saheb (Naseeruddin Shah) has tried to transcend religious differences, but as a Muslim living in a Hindu neighbourhood, he now finds this stance more complicated. At the same time, Anu and Sameer, an intermarried Hindu-Muslim couple, finally face the tensions they have long suppressed.

Das interweaves these stories over one twenty-four-hour period, as characters of both faiths and from many levels of society grapple with the new, post-violence reality. Through it all, a young boy named Mohsin embarks on an urban odyssey from his refugee camp towards a better future, wherever he might find it.

Firaaq is an Urdu word that means both separation and quest. Like this courageous and essential debut film, the word acknowledges divisions while pointing a way forward to hope.

My thoughts: There were several things I loved about Firaaq. One, neither the Muslims nor the Hindus were made out to be the villains of this sorry affair, rather, the movie seems to place the onus squarely on the shoulders of the police and the state of Gujarat and I, for one, am inclined to agree with that determination. Also, the movie poignantly explores through the character Samir (ably played by Sanjay Suri) what it might feel like to be a Muslim in India. Is it right for one to have to live in fear just because of one's name, one's religion? It also explores how fear eats at you, eats into your relationships, your self-worth and changes the kind of person you were meant to be. No one should have to pay for the sins of another, but as a society isn't that what we're doing when we paint an entire community with the same brush? There can never be peace or justice for as long as we keep doing that. I think this movie forces us to examine our racial prejudices, hopefully it will make us see people as individuals and not tag them based on their names, castes or religion.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Summer Vacation

It's that time of the year again and we're off on our annual summer vacation...this time we're flying to India and from there to Thailand and Cambodia. See you all in September! Have a good August everyone!!!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Paying Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City by Hugh Miles

Trade Paperback: £10.99

Published 03/04/2008

Genre: Memoir, travel

An Abacus title

There's an old saying that goes like this: "Lucky in cards, unlucky in love", but Hugh Miles (freelance journalist and son of a British diplomat) manages to come up trumps in both, and in this part memoir, part travelogue he tells us of his love for Cairo, but specifically for a Cairene woman whom he later marries.

"Playing Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City" , Miles recounts how he returned to Cairo after a short stint there as a freelance journalist because he wanted to get to know, Roda, an Egyptian woman. He started off as her card partner and end up as her partner for life.

Initially it was very difficult for Hugh and Roda to be alone (Egyptian society does not allow a man and a woman to socialize without a chaperon), so Roda organized card games at her home thus providing an Hugh and herself an opportunity to be hang out together, albeit with a group of other card players. As they played tarneeb (a form of bridge) about 3-4 nights a week at Roda's apartment, Miles became privy to the inside workings of Egyptian society, especially the lives of young women and the problems they face living in such a tightly-controlled society.

He regales us with the stories of the other tarneeb players:
Nadia, whose husband beats her just because he can; Reem, who is suffering from the effects of a botched plastic surgery operation; and, most memorably, Yosra, whose life is so intolerable with a sick father and dominating policeman brother and a non-existent love life that she anesthetizes herself all day with prescription drugs. It is through the lives of these women that Hugh Miles makes us aware of the huge problems that the fairer sex must face in Egypt.

While I liked the novel's intense local focus, conveying the daily rhythms of life in Cairo's various neighborhoods,
I think one of the book's main attractions is Miles' acute observations of Egyptian life,stresses and codes of conduct.... toxic stress arising from overpopulation and unemployment; severe religious control; repressive regime; torture prisons; rising prices; the refugee situation etc. ( desperate refugees and economic migrants continue to arrive from across Africa and Iraq. In January hundreds of thousands of Palestinians burst through the Gaza blockade, an event that could repeat itself at any time.)

Miles' book also functions as a window into the political, religious and cultural tensions under which women in Egypt live. Egyptian woman are burdened with preserving the honor of the family and as a result they have to keep their private lives hidden which results in an inordinate amount of stress, lies and deceit. To add to that, they face constant discrimination and sexual harassment both, in the work place and in their day-to-day lives.

Whether you're interested in Egypt from the point of view of traveling there or just as an observer of world cultures, this book is for pick up a copy when you can.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan and Love Marriage by V V Ganeshananthan

  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
  • Pub. Date: May 2008
  • 352pp

As those of you who read my blog on a regular basis will know, I am very partial to novels that explore the lives of the Indian diaspora. I am especially intrigued by those groups of people whose ancestors left the Motherland in the second half of the 19th century not to find cushy jobs in the software industry or the medical field as they do now, but who were put on ships to distant lands in droves by the British to work as indentured laborers on rubber plantations, roads, railway lines etc. - one such land is Malaysia. Many of the Indians in Malaysia first landed on its shores to work on Malaysia's rubber plantations or to serve as coolies. Most were from the South of India, from the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh and they toiled the plantations for a mere pittance.

The cast of characters in Preeta Samskaran's first book "Evening is the Whole Day" belong to one such Tamilian-Malaysian family. The patriarch, Tata, through sheer guts and opportunity rises from a lowly coolie to plantation owner. His new found wealth allows him to educate his children at the best possible schools and colleges and when he dies, Raja, his eldest son (an Oxford-educated lawyer) returns to Malaysia to look after his widowed mother and their property known simply as "Big House".

For some inexplicable reason, Raja, although he is a man of the world, is attracted to the very gauche, uneducated neighbor's daughter, Vasanthi. Maybe it was out of desire to rescue Vasanthi from her autocratic father and her mother-turned-aesthetic. Whatever his reasons, he lives to regret them because Vasanthi is simply not in his league and knowing that she's no match for him turns her into a bitter, resentful person. Despite the failings of their marriage the Rajasekharans have three children, Uma, Suresh and Aasha.

There are many reasons to enjoy "Evening is the Whole Day" - its atmospheric, lyrical writing; snapshots of Malaysian history and its multicultural population all trying to live together, sometimes succeeding but mostly failing; how class and race continue to permeate Malaysian society; but best of all, the "Evening is the Whole Day" is a novel of family secrets and family relationships.

Coming back to the narrative style, while I enjoyed Samarasan's approach to the story - beginning at the end and then shedding layer upon layer as we reach the beginning -
there were times I thought it bounced around from one time period to another just a little too much, also, she does tend to be rather liberal with the use of adjectives, adverbs and metaphors. However, I did like how she peppered the conversations with Tamil colloquialisms. Even though I am not a native Tamil speaker, I thought the approach worked extremely well for it steeps the narrative in a local flavor.

Finally, and most of you probably heard this on the news, there were recent protests by Tamilians in Malaysia for equal rights and so on . I think this book makes the most perfect companion read to that as it explores through its fictional characters the genesis of the Indian disgruntlement with the Malaysian government over marginalization of the Indian ethnic community in that country.

Preeta Samarasan was born in Malaysia and moved to the United States to finish high school. She was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, and had begun work on a dissertation on Gypsy music festivals in France when she left to complete her novel. She earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where an earlier version of Evening Is The Whole Day won the Avery and Jule Hopwood Novel Award. She also recently won the Asian American Writer's Workshop/Hyphen Magazine short-story award.


  • Category: Fiction - Literary
  • Format: Trade Paperback, 320 pages
  • On Sale: April 8, 2008
  • Price: $14.00
  • Publishers: Random House Canada

In keeping with the Indian diaspora theme, specifically, the Tamilian diaspora, here's another one for you to sink your eyes into, Vasugi V. Ganeshananthan's "Love Marriage". I am just halfway through the book and it's proving to be a delightful read.

A little background first:

In 1983 some young men from the Tamil Tigers group set up a landmine which killed 13 Sinhalese police officers in Jaffna. That incident on July 23, 1983 (aka Black July) had the ability to spark riots in Sri Lanka, the kind that its people had never seen before. There was shooting, looting, burning of houses, killing. The whole of Colombo looked like it was on fire. On the 24th night of the rioting the Sinhalese government declared a curfew but by then thousands upon thousands of Tamilians had lost their lives, homes, families and everything they owned.

When the situation calmed down somewhat, many of the Srilankan Tamils found their way to neighboring India from where they left for London or the US and from there many of them walked across the border to Canada where they were freely weclomed and given refugee status. As a result, Canada today has the largest Srilankan-Tamil diaspora outside of South Asia.

Ganeshananthan's story is set in Toronto where Yalini the narrator has returned (she was studying in the US) to look after her dying uncle who was a Tamil Tiger . She traces her family's roots and the conflicts they faced as ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka and then in the West, through a series of marriages.

Most of the book has been written as a series of non-sequential vignettes which a reader is either going to love or hate...many pages have long blank spaces which I enjoyed filling with my imagination. :) The tone of the book is quiet, unusually so, especially when you consider the theme of the novel, but there is a strong undercurrent of emotion and the language is beguiling. There is an ensemble of characters...they slip in and out between the pages...some are directly known to our protagonist, others she meets through her parents' memories, but all contribute ultimately to telling us more about the lives of Tamilian-Srilankan diaspora and their lives in Sri Lanka and abroad.


2008 is the 25th anniversary of the Black July and the Canadian Tamil Congress have a series of programs to commemorate and remember the day. For more information, go here: Black July Events