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review 2019-04-28 20:57
out on Aug, 20th
Syria's Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege - Mike Thomson

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

Ursula K Le Guin tells the story of a place whose happiness depends on one child being miserable in “The One Who Walks Away from Omelas” and the reactions to those when they discover it. In part, our ability to exist in the world is on our ability to disregard or ignore horrors, but sometimes we refuse that happiness, refuse to bow to the horrors. In many ways, Thomson’s book makes me think of that story as well as how much we take for granted. If you teach, then you know that tare a great many students who do not read for pleasure (shot, just ask how many people have read LOTR or GoT instead of just watching), yet this book is partly about the human spirit and partly about why books are important.

Thomson chronicles the story of a group of people who start a library in Daraya, a town close to Damascus. According to Thomson, the town has always had a proud history of peaceful protest, and therefore, caught up in the Civil War. Some of the town’s population flees, others stay. Some of those who stay realize the fighting is simply more than picking up a gun, but also the transmission of knowledge – their fight style includes the founding of schools and a library. In part, the library comes from a desire to save books that were bombed out homes. The lengths that the men, it seems it was largely men who gathered the books, went to collect items – books furniture- and the sheer fairness in which they kept records about where the items came from.

In part, Thomson also chronicle show these men, and later women, not only use the library but also try to continue as much as a normal life as they possibly can. The library, it seems, becomes both a cause and a symbol – not only of what was, of what we should be, of how we learn, but also of what the revolution is fighting for as well as the difference in sides.

We know from history that the quickest way to destroy a people is to destroy a culture. Destroy the books, the art, and so on. Culture can mean a people but it also can be a city. The library in Daraya was part of this - a desire to preserve the need for knowledge, the thirst for reading that many people never develop at least where access to a library is easy.

While I would have loved a bit more description of what books made up the library, Thomson does mention quite a few works, in particular the favorite works of the people who frequented the library. The list includes some that are unfamiliar to Western readers. In many ways, this insures that Thomson’s reporting serves another important function of a library – as a bridge between peoples.

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review 2017-10-24 00:00
Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria and Iraq
Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria and Iraq - Sarah Glidden Sarah Glidden's graphic novel, Rolling Blackouts is a book about the author traveling with journalists to document them documenting a story in the Middle East in the 21st century. She joins a crew of journalist friends who are bringing along a former soldier to document stories they found in Iraq and Syria. The team interviews many Iraqis and Kurds and There's a lot that I liked about this book I found at my library.

I like that it was both travelogue and an examination of regional issues. I love hearing about border crossing, running into random people and interviewing them. To me, meeting new cultures is one of the best parts of traveling. Glidden’s watercolors made me feel like I had already been there. The characters’ images are made with such subtlety it’s really like revisiting a memory. The scenes she presents work to help you see some of the broader stories that don’t make the news.

I like how the novel shows a soldier who isn't suffering wildly from PTSD or generally negatively affected by the war. In fact, it sounded like he had some pretty good times. It's a potentially fraught narrative, especially when thinking about the impact that the war had on the population of Iraq.

The book examined the results for Iraqis of Iraq War. They spend a lot of time in Kurdistan talking with Kurds who have a chance at a better future. The interviews at a Syrian refugee camp were really illuminating. Refugees’ stories are always heartbreaking, but hearing about the particulars make them so much more real. It's disappointing to hear about how refugees are so limited in their futures.

The only bit I was disappointed in was her thread of figuring out journalism. She set out a lofty goal and didn't address it to my satisfaction. She presents her figuring it out through discussions with her friends and I think she could have used some more of her own voice. That said, it didn’t detract much from the book. The whole thing was an exciting, fascinating look at a region I only know through headlines.

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review 2016-11-13 20:11
Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf
Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World - Katherine Zoepf

This is an engaging, readable account of a young journalist’s experiences in the Arab world, and particularly the women she met. It’s not as fascinating or information-packed as Geraldine Brooks’s fantastic Nine Parts of Desire, which you should absolutely read if you have any interest at all in women’s lives in the Middle East. But it is fun and informative, a great introduction to the topic. And from her writing, Zoepf seems adept at breaking through cultural barriers to connect with individuals, with the result that the women she profiles sound like people you might actually meet.

Each topic has a different overarching topic and location, with Saudi Arabia and Syria getting the most page time, while Lebanon, the UAE and Egypt get a chapter each. Other reviewers have commented that the book overall seems more “excellent daughters” than “bringing change.” I’d say it’s about evenly split. Saudi Arabia in particular feels static in Zoepf’s depiction, and those chapters mostly cover life as it is, focusing on topics like female friendship and matchmaking (though with some hints of change). Other chapters deal more with social problems and change: the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt; honor killings in Syria; young women migrating to the UAE in search of work, a practice that would have been unthinkable not long ago. But it’s true that the change that’s chronicled here is incremental.

Meanwhile, the book is very readable, and if you’ve read many stories in the New York Times over the years, you might just recognize some of it (in one case I did, which made me feel great about my memory!), since the book is drawn from the author’s research as a reporter. But it works smoothly as a whole, and though I recognized some of the material, the book never felt cribbed together from articles.

Overall, while this isn’t the most in-depth account you’ll read, it is still a good book. It’s a bit like having a conversation with a smart, perceptive, nonjudgmental and extremely well-traveled friend. I recommend it.

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url 2016-10-04 21:21
OT: Meet the hero who stays in Syria to care for its abandoned cats

Even in war-torn Syria, animals have brave protectors. Have you heard the story of the “Cat Man of Aleppo”?


His name is Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel. In a life now long gone, he was an electrician. Today, he’s the guardian angel to more than 150 stray and abandoned cats.


Read more here.

Source: www.care2.com/causes/meet-the-hero-who-stays-in-syria-to-care-for-its-abandoned-cats.html
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review 2016-08-03 23:53
The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984: A Graphic Memoir
The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir - Riad Sattouf
This was another one of those random grabs off the graphic novel shelf of my local library branch. Then a few weeks ago it turned up on the top 1o list of graphic novels or manga that have stuck with you of a friend whose opinion I really trust ...so I guess it was time for me to read this.
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