Our contest to match literary figures with high (and low) political positions has closed. The winner is: Arnie Draiman for his entry
Don Quixote: Prime Minister.
As charging at invisible windmills remains fashionable among many prime ministers, there is no need to identify any particular person in this modern, on-going charge of the International Light Brigade of Quixotes.
Arnie Draiman will receive a copy of Matt Beynon Rees’ brilliant Omar Yussef mystery, A Grave in Gaza.
Those three questions formed the title of Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting, which he finished while living on a South Pacific Island. It is Gauguin’s vision of paradise. That vision of Eden shaped the attitudes and beliefs of many generations. Ever since there have been painters, writers, explorers, adventurers, there have been individuals seeking to discover an earthly paradise. There is a deep longing to believe that given the right circumstances, we are kind, compassionate, forsake violence, jealousy, hatred and rivalry.
But deep longing doesn’t make such a belief true. At best, we are left with false hope in a belief that occupies the realm of the supernatural, fantasy, and folktale.
Gauguin would likely be locked up in the modern world for his preoccupation with preadolescent girls. Young eves populated in idealized Garden of Eden. Animals and humans co-existed in peace and tranquility. He lived a life isolated from others, living out his days in a stone hut on Marquesas Islands. His life’s work revolved many paintings that featured nubile young women.
At least Paul Gauguin asked the right series of questions. Questions that all fiction authors should ask themselves as they set out to write about another culture, history and people. It is one thing to ask the right questions, it is another matter to go about finding the answers in a systematic way that doesn’t cut corners.
In the case of Mead, nine months spent in Samoa doesn’t make for life-long expertise about the culture. In the case of Melville, a couple of months on a South Pacific island are long enough to reinforce cultural prejudices but not long enough to challenge them.
Both Melville and Mead’s works fudge the cultural details to suit in the case of Meville an adventure story (passed off as non-fiction)—making him an early example of contemporary authors like James Frey—and Mead to parlay a book into acquiring a position as one of the world’s leading anthropologists. The problem is that both writers made sweeping claims that clearly over-stretched their personal knowledge, research, and expertise and entered the realm of make-believe.
Mead had an axe to grind and Samoa was the stone she used to sharpen the blade, concluding after her brief stay the locals were had no room for guilt. She painted a paradise without neuroses, jealousy, rape, parental repression and the like. What she painted, though, was as stylized and remote from reality as was Gauguin’s paints.
It is hard to disagree with Wrangham and Peterson’s conclusion: “Mead’s generalizations about the peacefulness of Samoan society—no war gods, no wars, little serious contention or hatred or violence, and so on—are all, according to a wealth of historical, anthropological, and contemporary information, wrong.”
There are lessons to be learnt in the case study of these three explorers of other cultures. The first lesson is that in the case of Melville and Mead, their actual exposure to the places they claimed expertise about was limited in time—6 weeks for Melville and about 9 months for Mead. In the case of Mead, she spent most of her time living and working out of a naval officer’s house. Neither Melville nor Mead acquired anything approaching fluency in the native language. Although, their exposure to native populations was to isolated individuals from which they drew broad generalizations about culture, habits, rituals, and violence.
The second lesson is, in the past, readers without access to information from remote corners of the globe, had no body of knowledge to check the accuracy of the author’s claims. Vast numbers of readers, including policy makers, decision makers, and academics accepted Mead’s generalizations. With the advent of globalization, Google, Wikipedia, and the like it is more difficult for an author to pull the wool over the eyes of many readers. But it still happens.
I have read books set in Thailand, which clearly were written by authors with only the most Mead-like shaky foundation of knowledge about Thailand yet they were published and reviewed with some critical acclaim. That suggests a disconnect between the resources available to check the accuracy of books or suggests that many publishers, editors, readers and critics simply don’t care if the details are right or wrong so long as the story moves along at a cracking rate.
The third lesson is that a writer’s political agenda may colour his or her view of another culture to the point that everything is filtered through a rigid set of values or beliefs. Those aspects of what supports and affirms the ideology are emphasized and those that contradict the ideology are ignored or soft-pedaled. Or the author may have no agenda other than making money or a reputation—nothing wrong with either goal, but when the short-cuts are taken, the rewards yielded are a kind of literary theft.
The fourth lesson is that life is short. There is not enough time to read all the good books let alone the middling, average ones. If we want to address Gauguin’s questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Then, we need to start with books that are honest in the picture that they paint. Authors still are explorers into the human condition and as such have an obligation to be faithful in the claims they record about other cultures. There is no paradise—sexual, financial, no fountain of youth, no forgotten paradise. We are one species that shares the same biological imprint, DNA, and capacities; and along the way, our culture and environment helped shape the expression of the human potential in each of us. What is of value is the insight into those cultural and historical difference that, in the end, show not how different we are but how much alike we all are.
Since you’re reading this, you don’t care who I am. So I can be anyone I like. At least, that’s what somebody wrote here recently.
I posted on this blog a couple of weeks ago about Dashiell Hammett. I noted that, while a university literature student, I grew tired of all the post- structuralist and deconstructionist and Marxist esoterica I was studying. I picked up a copy of Hammett’s classic “The Maltese Falcon” and found myself transported into a gritty world, a world inhabited by real criminals, it seemed to me.
At the time, I was a real criminal. Only in the sense that I had shoplifted repeatedly (I stole books, including one by my university tutor) and indulged in proscribed intoxicants (including once with my university tutor). Not the kind of criminal Hammett revealed to me in his pages. Just a criminal, but not a bad guy.
In my recent post, I posited the idea that part of what made Hammett so good at writing about criminals was his career as a Pinkertons agent. For those not familiar with US law enforcement history, the Pinkertons were a private security agency whose men worked as detectives, but also did anti-union rough stuff, too.
This idea caught the attention of a fellow blogger who wrote that I was “romanticizing” Hammett. “Writers can toot their horn all they want,” he commented on this blog, “but an author’s bio is the least important — and least read –part of a novel for a reason.”
I think the “reason” may have less to do with readers’ lack of interest in an author’s bio than it has to do with the lack of information in the author’s bio. On a copy of a recent novel by Philip Roth, I learned in his bio that he exists only as a recipient of literary prizes (of which many were listed). He wasn’t born. He may not even write his books. He just collects prizes for them.
Nonetheless, if writers bios aren’t looked at (and are anyway not important), I plan to start including all the information about me which I’ve previously edited out. (In the past, as my novels are about the Middle East, I’ve included mainly just the facts that I was – unlike Philip Roth – born, and that subsequently I went to live and work in the Middle East, where much of what I’ve seen and heard makes its way into my books.)
Here’s my bogus new bio, which qualifies me to write about the Middle East, just as much as my previously available bio, according to some people (Note that only one fact listed below is correct. A free copy of my latest novel to the first person to identify which fact that is…):
Matt Beynon Rees was born in the George Michael Public Restroom on Rodeo Drive, Los Angeles. He was a milk monitor at kindergarten in Cardiff, Wales, until then-Education Minister Margaret Thatcher cut free milk from the schools budget, thus making five-year-old Rees the first of her four million unemployed. He graduated with a degree in finance from the Buddhist seminary at Mt. Baldie, where he minored in Leonard Cohen studies. He flew Tornado jets in the first Gulf War and was shot down over Iraq, trekking 400 miles across the desert to safety in Kuwait with nothing to drink but the urine of passing Arabs. He won Winter Olympic Bronze in the Darts Biathlon (cross country skiing with stops during which contestants must hit treble twenty and drink a lager). He was a ground-breaking radio ventriloquist on the BBC light entertainment program “Gottle of Geer,” until a producer saw his lips move and fired him. His first work of nonfiction “Get the Wife You Don’t Deserve” was an Esquire Book of the Year. He has been married six times, always to Mexican women below five feet in height (in homage to John Wayne, who did the same). He holds honorary degrees from the Mississippi State University School of Floral Management and from the Bob Jones University Department of Satanic Sociology. He lives in his house.
Well, Jonathan we move from stories to places, people and things that do it for me in İstanbul.
Yıldız Park. This is on the northern shore of the Bosphorus, to the north west of the district of Beşiktaş. Yıldız Park is actually a vast, sprawling palace complex which was built in the 19th century by the fascinating, if paranoid, Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Obsessed by fears of assassination and death, Abdul Hamid built Yıldız to a plan that only he truly knew. The various buildings that make up the palace were designed to incorporate hiding places for weapons the monarch might have to use against would-be assassins, secret passageways and wax models of himself that were strategically placed to strike fear into the minds of the women in his harem. In spite of a growing movement towards democracy, Abdul Hamid was determined to rule the then failing Ottoman Empire as an autocrat. But he was doomed to failure and by the time he was deposed in 1908 all that remained to him was his eerie palace complex. Today Yıldız is interesting inasmuch as it still reflects the strange and rather sad mind of the man who originally built it. Although convinced of his own divine right to power, there was also a part of Abdul Hamid that wanted to be just like everyone else. A boating lake, a theatre and even a coffee shop gave this poor, lonely man the illusion of normality. Go to Yıldız with a bit of knowledge about Abdul Hamid and you will find yourself bewitched.
Go out to the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara. Visit the biggest island, Buyukada, on the 23rd April. This is St George’s Day when the Greek Monastery of Agios Yorgos plays host to thousands of visitors keen on paying tribute to the saint. It’s quite a spectacle. People tie small favours with prayers on pieces of paper to trees and bushes on the long upward climb to the monastery. Another custom involves tying cotton thread to a tree at the bottom of the hill and unravelling it as one travels up to the monastery. Everyone goes – Christians, Muslims, Jews. A truly ecumenical event which attracts a lot of Greeks from Greece these days.
The Golden Horn is a waterway that people often forget or ignore. There is a ferry that plies these now quite clean waters. I can remember when the Horn was really quite unpleasant but that’s not the case these days. Also the Horn cuts through a host of fabulously fascinating neighbourhoods. The old Jewish neighbourhoods of Balat and Hasköy (read books by local author Jak Deleon for information about these), Fener, where the Greek Orthodox Patriarch resides as well as the district of Eyup which is home to the Eyup Sultan Mosque, one of the most sacred sites in Islam. I go out to the neighbourhoods often just to stroll in the graveyards. Odd but true. But they are fascinating. Eyup cemetery is where the French orientalist and adventurer Pierre Loti, spent a lot of his time. It is also where a number of Ottoman executioners are buried. Hasköy Jewish cemetery is a higgledy piggledy site on top of a hill. The gravestones are horizontal as in the Sephardic tradition. The views are great even if it is all somewhat melancholy. But then İstanbul, as you may have already discovered, has a very pervasive melancholy side.
I love Bülent Ersoy. Who is he? Well ‘he’ is actually a she and is one of the most successful popular singers in Turkey. Bülent has been around for a while. She started out as a gender bending diva in the early seventies. Then in 1979 she had a sex change operation in London. Glamorous and outrageous (a marriage to a 19 year old, numerous bans against her, a fanatical fan-base) Bülent is both talented and fabulous.
Burak Bekdil and Mustafa Akyol are journalists who both work as columnists for an English language paper called The Hurriyet Daily News. Mr Bekdil comes from a very secular position while Mr Akyol is an observant Muslim. These guys spar. In general it is good natured and I believe that they do respect each other’s beliefs. I like their columns because they represent two very powerful factions within Turkish life. Their columns aid understanding for outsiders but also they do make you think. Sometimes you will agree with one of them, sometimes the other and sometimes you will come down somewhere in the middle of their argument. Sometimes you may find yourself surprised at what you do agree or disagree with. I know that is my own experience.
İstiklal Caddesi in Beyoğlu is where all life and experience exists. You’ll see goths, punks, pious families out for a stroll, covered women, women so uncovered it makes your eyes pop, tramps, members of the Turkish Communist Party handing our leaflets, priests of all and every sort, policemen, fashion models, pimps, moody students and the most fabulously beautiful transsexuals in the world. Look out for the man with the three Irish wolfhounds. I think he may be some sort of seer.
Stuff. You will be tempted to buy carpets. Everyone is. Everyone also thinks that buying something antique and ‘special’ is possible and, of course, it is. You may very well get lucky. I have a genuine antique carpet myself. But I also have a very good friend who is a carpet dealer. If you don’t have that advantage, then err on the side of caution and buy what you truly love. If it is worth a fortune, then great, but if you have been ripped off it is no big deal. That carpet will still charm and delight. And you will know which carpet is right for you. How I don’t know. All I can tell you is that my carpet came to get me and not the other way around.
Other stuff. Go to the Spice Bazaar for a look around but actually buy your spices (and olives and lokum etc., etc) in the little streets beside and behind the Bazaar. Much cheaper. Do go to the Grand Bazaar but take some time away from the leather and the gold to go and find the metal workers kiosks. They work at lightening speed and with total professionalism in 19th century conditions. These guys can alter a ring or buff up a bracelet in less than five minutes for £10.
Books. İstanbul has some excellent bookshops. You’ll soon find them. One you might miss however is Simurg which is on a street called Hasnun Galip Sokak. All sorts of oddities in all sorts of languages. Also a lot of cats, many of whom sit on the books. An eccentricity. There are so many in İstanbul.
Well, that’s about it. A few suggestions that have given me pleasure and are meaningful to me. Now all you have to do is construct your own İstanbul. Have fun.
You’ve probably picked up on the fact that I’m a reluctant blogger. I miss the days when dirty underwear was aired in private, preferably behind a high wall topped with shards of broken glass. At the very least you’d keep it all in a diary and know that it was safe together with your stash of Health and Efficiency naturist magazines in the fake bottom of your second hand desk. In fact, if the other bloggers on this site weren’t holding my elderly mother: Ethel, hostage in a soundproof basement somewhere in Hove, you wouldn’t catch me blogging here with a nine foot pole. (Poor metaphor? It really doesn’t matter. Why not? Read on.)
I was initially nervous about broaching the subject of this week’s slightly stained but clean pair of Y-fronts: Self-Publishing, because I was afraid word would get back to the people who are supposedly self-publishing me (Contradiction in terms? It doesn’t matter. Why not? Read on.) But I was on my third double shot espresso in Surat Thani airport when an astounding realization hit me like a migraine – or it might have actually been a migraine – that nobody reads any of this. It really doesn’t matter what I write. According the Wikipedia, eighty-four percent of the inhabitants of earth have their own blog. That’s only ten percent fewer than those who have their own Facebook page. Assuming all those people are busy churning out daily nonsense, that only leaves sixteen percent of the world with any time on its hands to read the things. If we consider that most of these are impoverished people living in third world countries and that they can only get to an internet café once a month, that’s very compelling evidence that I’m writing this to me. To legitimize themselves, bloggers make up ridiculous names like “Michael Malone” and send themselves comments about their blogs. It’s all rather sad, really.
But the important point is that I can empty my spleen here without fear of repercussions. And that’s just as well ‘cause my spleen is full to bursting. I was advised strongly against publishing myself. I heard comments such as, “It’ll make people think you’re desperate,” and “It’s below a great writer of your status,” (I didn’t actually hear that one but I’m sure people were thinking it.) and “Only pathetic losers publish themselves.” But I have a collection of short stories and graphics about disgusting old people and I knew it would make a lovely Christmas gift. Mysteriously, I couldn’t find a publisher for it. No publishers actually read them, I hasten to add. “We don’t do short stories unless you’re Dan Brown or Charles Manson,” they said. “Nobody buys them.”
But I liked my stories. I thought they were damned fine. I’d even won a competition with one of them. Who was I to deprive the world? And there was always that subliminal hope that this might just be the short story collection that broke the mold. Eighteen months on NYT. A billion sold in hardback alone. So, I plunged. I contacted a company that indulged desperate losers such as myself, sent them a cheque and sat back in anticipation of my book publishing itself. That was six months ago. Following several months of their finance department urging me to upgrade to this or that ‘package’, numerous attempts at uploading my illustrations on our bush internet connection, a precipitation of emails from me begging the company to give me a production assistant with a name rather than a USB connection, I finally went into production…last Tuesday. I’m anticipating having a book sometime around 2098. I’ve prepared a posthumous author note for the occasion.
I haven’t been this frustrated since the night the Victoria’s Secret bus broke down in front of my place and my Auntie Hilda was sleeping over with her church group. I’d arranged a world exclusive premier for the book at this year’s Bouchercon in October and they were already talking about sales well into the tens. But the thing that irks me most is that I was really looking forward to sampling the publishing business by myself – from the inside – haggling with editors and well-intentioned banter with the art department, back and forth over marketing and cover design. To date, I haven’t had one email that I would consider personal. I have the feeling that when we stepped up to the production level, they just gave the computers interesting names and clicked the ‘use one or two adjectives’ button to fool me that the process was no longer automated. I’ve been telling the computer about my asthma and how the dogs really played up during the full moon, but I can’t get to its soft underbelly. I’m starting to think that without personal relationships, publishing is really crap. But what do you care? You’re not even reading this. You wouldn’t even be interested to look out for “Ageing Disgracefully – Short Stories About Atrocious old People.”
In writing a series set in Thailand I am mindful that Thais and foreigners have not just a different perspective, but a different paradigm when it comes to constructing their reality. Richard Nisbett has done research into the holistic way in which East Asian look at the world around them. Some years ago, I reviewed Nisbett’s book titled The Geography of Thought, How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why (2003).
How did such a different way of perceiving the world come about? Professor Nisbett’s thesis is that, in the West, we are all children of ancient Greece where a strong sense of individual liberty, freedom, and free will developed. In China in place of the idea of each person in charge of his or her own life and free to act accordingly, the Chinese valued harmony, friends and family. While the Greeks engaged in debate to discover the truth, the Chinese were less interested in the discovery of truth through debate than preserving a harmonious interdependent social life.
Nisbett’s theme was also picked up by Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. Gallagher mentions Nisbett’s metaphor based on a camera lens. In the West we use something like a zoom lens to get a close up of the environment; in the East people use a wide-angle lens.
This sounds interesting, but very academic. Here’s an illustration that helps bring it into focus (no pun intended). When shown a picture of cartoon figures in a crowd in a decidedly hostile looking crowd. One face is smiling. When the Westerner is asked to reply whether he is angry or happy, they reply he looks happy. The Asian, however, looks at the face in the context of the overall crowd and says may be he’s happy but may be not because those around him aren’t happy.
In the West we filter out the social context; the Asia, it is the social context that is the most important overall clue to reading what the scene is about. Of course this distinction doesn’t just apply to faces; it also is implicit when considering principles of social justice or equality. For example, assuming an allegation of corruption made by someone from the United States against another American, most people would focus on the evidence that supports the charge. A logical, analytical examination of all the facts would be assumed to be the best way to handle the case and to guarantee fairness in the final verdict.
In Asia, a charge of corruption by a citizen against an official or a cop would not necessarily follow the same route. The first question would be what did the person laying the charge have against the official, the official’s family, or friends. The social context of the people involved: the person making the charge and the person who was subject to the context would be evaluated. Did the person making the allegation bear a personal grudge over some personal or business matter?
The idea of laying the charge purely as a matter of ethics or principle would not be believed by most people. It would be perceived as a smokescreen behind which there was another agenda. As much time would be spent trying to determine that agenda, the relationships involved, the consequences for those relationship, the potential to cause a problem with overall stability. It is not that the facts of the particular case would be irrelevant in an Asian context, it is more that the facts are simply another part of the context which needs to be addressed.
The basis of what Asians pay attention can be traced back to Confucius who believed that there was truth on both sides so deciding one side to be the winner and the other the loser based on a finding on a single truth was pointless. In the West, the search for truth has a consensus as the right mission for government and the courts. That nothing should stand in the road for identifying the truth. Of course there are cover-ups and lies and more lies in the West. But those covering up and lying don’t argue that truth is pointless. They argue another version of “truth” as the premium brand.
In Asia, it would be wrong to say that Asians are disinterested in the truth; they are very much interested. But they see a larger issue of how truth can create enemies by designating someone a loser. In a face based culture declaring one person a winner and other a loser that can have lasting implications not just for the loser but his family, clan, neighbors, classmates and friends.
In the Vincent Calvino novels I work these issues into the narrative. Colonel Pratt, Calvino’s protector and friend, understands the larger social context in which crime and other anti-social acts occur. Calvino, a product of the West, is more focused on getting the facts, the truth out in the open and let the chips fall where they may. Pratt, on the other hand, understands, that in Asia the chips may be like a chunk of concrete that can fall on a police officer’s or a private investigator’s head.
One of the points Nisbett raised was his view of the lack of curiosity as characteristic of the Chinese. They had little interest in the views or stories told by foreigners. In his view, this absence of curiosity resulted in Easterners developing a strong loyalty to the inside group of friends and family and dismissing or distancing themselves from those perceived to be on the outside.
In the West we encourage curiosity and value this attribute as an essential part of the creative process. In Asia, there seem, on the surface of day-to-day life, more secrets; more of the unspoken, the glance, the raised eyebrow. There is an unwillingness to be boxed in by making a decisive decision or looking deeply into alternative ways of thinking about a problem or situation.
Curiosity is about how we focus. It can take us out of the social context. It can be a mashup of multiple possibilities. That leads to the possibility of instability. That is why curiosity is a dangerous thing. The curious person is changing the lens, looking through the zoom, the wide-angle, the close-up, and filtering each shot for some element missing in the earlier frame. When it comes to writing a book, one with characters from the East and West, I find it important to remember the perspective of each person is shaped by his or her culture and language. In the real world focus people have social constructs from which they draw their conclusions, take their stands, and what cause emotions like anger and hatred. Without an awareness of what shapes those constructs and once shaped, how they operate in practice, means we substitute our own constructs and project them onto others. There is the cause of misunderstanding. The cause of a narrative in a work of fiction failing. The cause of armed conflict and terrorism.
The Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family is a beautiful sandstone building on the corner where the Via Dolorosa turns briefly onto the main alley of the Muslim Quarter’s souq. Buzz at the main gate, climb up two flights of enclosed steps, and you’re in a palm-shaded garden fronting a broad, four-story façade. Nearly 150 years old, it was built for Catholic pilgrims and for much of the second half of the last century was an insanitary hospital. Now returned to its original Austrian owners, it’s a hotel for church groups visiting the historic sites of Jerusalem.
From its roof, there’s a panoramic view of the Old City. It’s for this that I labored up the front steps with my friend, videographer David Blumenfeld, and his numerous camera bags, lights and reflector shields, last month. We’d already filmed a promo video for my next novel THE FOURTH ASSASSIN in my favorite seedy Old City café, where I shone with sweat, swallowed cardamom-flavored coffee and sucked on a foul nargila, until I looked sufficiently like an inveterate marijuana-user coming down. Now it was time for a second video.
I approached the front desk of the Hospice in the large marble entrance hall. A blonde man in his twenties greeted me: “Grüss Gott.” I’m a lover of things Austrian, so I had a good feeling already.
“Grüss Gott. We’re making a short video for my website. Can we film on the roof?”
“It’s not allowed, unless you have permission.” Not unfriendly. Just stating the rules.
But I’ve lived in the Middle East long enough to know that there ARE no rules. “Don’t worry. It’s really nothing. It’s just for my website. To tell people about my book.”
“What is the book?”
The truth: It’s about a Palestinian teacher who goes to visit his son in New York and discovers a headless body in his son’s bed. No, I’d better not tell him that. It doesn’t sound like something he’d want a pilgrim hostel associated with. How about this? “It’s about Palestinians and how they live their lives.”
A bit more of this and the Austrian was thinking hard. “Ok, but just for ten minutes.”
“Of course, thank you. That’s very kind of you. Ten minutes, of course.” In the Middle East, one of the things that really gets me down is that putting one over on someone else isn’t seen as a bad thing to do. If you can get away with it, then good for you. Naturally when I get the opportunity to do this, I have a feeling of payback for all the times I’ve been deliberately misled by the locals. With that warm sensation, I ascended in the Hospice’s rickety elevator.
Up on the roof, the afternoon sunshine was too bright to film. It was so harsh I’d have been squinting into the camera like Clint Eastwood. So David and I descended to the Hospice’s garden café. For a mere 100 shekels ($30) we had a slice each of strudel (an uncommon dish in Jerusalem, where even Israelis who arrived as immigrants from Austria tend to eat Middle Eastern style), some soda and coffee.
Suitably refreshed we returned to the roof and soldiered on, despite the insanely bright sunshine.
Despite the occasional loud Israeli on a cellphone and the Korean tourists who stopped taking photos of the Dome of the Rock so they could photograph me, I managed to read most of the first chapter of THE FOURTH ASSASSIN without a pause.
Then, just before I’d finished, from the corner of my eye I spy the blonde fellow from reception striding toward me.
“Sir, you have to stop now. This has been more than 10 minutes,” he said.
“We’ve only been working a few minutes. We were down in the café most of the time. We had strudel.”
He twisted his face as though his finger had just gone through the toilet paper. “And I should believe you?”
“Yes, why would I lie? Go and ask the people in the coffee shop.”
I feel for this Austrian. After all, Israelis and Palestinians are able to lie with absolutely no compunction. It’s one of the first things you learn when you live here a while. I could see that this poor fellow had been at the front desk of the Hospice for a sufficient time to train him to recognize a lie, but not long enough to give him the graceful Arab ability to maneuver around someone else’s untruths without humiliating them. This fellow had only two options: let me get away with it, or kick me out.
“So five more minutes and then you’re out,” he said.
Here’s where my own cultural training came in. The over-emotional Welshman in me wanted to say: Listen, butty, I paid 100 shekels for some stiff strudel in your café, so you can bloody well calm down. In any case what do you think I’m filming up here? It’s just my face, some domed buildings in the background, and a lot of sunshine. What’re you protecting? It’s not a military installation. I’m buggered if I’m going to be hurried by you.
But I also know that the Middle Eastern way is to move from bald-faced lieing to apparent humility and submission, smug in the knowledge that you’ve got what you want. So I let him think he was having his way.
Twenty minutes later, when David and I passed the reception desk on our way out, I stopped to wave my thanks to the Austrian. Never leave anyone with a nasty taste in their mouth. Arabs taught me that. The kisses on the cheeks they bestow after a dispute really do defuse all the tension.
He ignored me. A Palestinian would never have done that.
You don’t know me, but I understand from my fellow blogger Mr Christopher G Moore, that you have now moved from Bangkok to become BBC Correspondent in İstanbul. And, although I am sure that your brain is already buzzing with hundreds of new experiences, sights and sounds, not to mention the odd bit of advice, let me add to your confusion by putting in my two penn’orth.
You will soon enough find your ‘own’ Turkey, the stories that fascinate, the towns and neighbourhoods that exert a hold over your imagination. Below and in next week’s blog I’m going to create a list of stories, places, people and things that grab me. If they don’t do it for you, then no harm done. But if they do and you get something out of them, then all the better. In no particular order:
1)The biggest story for some time has been Ergenekon. Allegedly an ultra-nationalist right wing organisation, Ergenekon’s membership it is said, reaches into the heart of the secular state apparatus. Generals, media moguls as well as some business people (some with dubious pasts) are accused by the current AKP administration of Prime Minister Erdogan of attempting to bring down the government. AKP is a party that has its roots in political Islam and, although the party now purports to follow a democratic secularist agenda, there are those who do not believe they are sincere. You’ll meet people who believe in the Ergenekon plot and people who do not. But every so often a high profile arrest does happen, even though the evidence does appear sometimes to be rather thin.
2) Earlier in the year President Abdullah Gul attended a football match between Turkey and Armenia in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Given the lack of communication between the two countries up until that time, this was a big step forward. Now Armenian President Serge Sarkisian is due to attend the second leg of the contest in Turkey on the 14th October. Given the lack of progress on the Nagorno Karabakh issue (Nagorno Karabakh is a region of Azerbaijan – another Turkic country – that is disputed by the Armenians) plus the never ending problems regarding the alleged massacre of Armenians by the Ottomans in 1915, it is possible that Sarkisian will not go. If he doesn’t this will put back a lot of delicate diplomacy that could, with luck, result in the opening of the border between Turkey and Armenia.
3) Ten years ago this week (17th August) a massive earthquake hit western Turkey, including İstanbul. Over 18,000 people died and many more were left homeless. Earthquakes are a feature of Turkish life and the next quake to hit İstanbul is in all probability going to be huge. After the 1999 quake not all the damage was physical and some people are still traumatised by what happened that night.
4) In July of this year smoking was banned in enclosed spaces in Turkey. Not universally applauded, most people did do as they were told and now the streets of İstanbul, like London, teem with al fresco smokers. My main concern with this story is the nargile, or water pipe salon and its culture. Just like cigarettes this most traditional of Turkish pursuits can only be performed outside. How this will play out in the coming months will be interesting. Will some of these businesses go under as autumn fades into winter and everyone wants to be inside? Some people believe that the smoking ban has politico-religious undertones. The AKP prime minister, Erdogan, is not just a pious Muslim but also an avowed enemy of tobacco as well as a non-drinker. Those in the distilling and brewing industries fear that the smoking ban may be a precursor to an alcohol ban. The government denies this. By the way, while the weather is warm, do have a nargile, Mr Head. I would recommend rose flavoured tobacco.
5) There is almost always a story in Franco-Turkish relations. Even before President Sarkozy, France and Turkey (France and the Ottoman Empire come to that!) have ‘enjoyed’ a love/hate relationship of some intensity. Deep down there is huge admiration on both sides, but words not properly thought about flow frequently, especially from Paris.
I started to write mainly because I could feel my ability to speak English slowly slipping away. Something deep told me it wouldn’t be long before I was left with two or three word grunted utterances. I knew that the only avenue I’d have left to convince anyone I was neither a turnip nor a professional footballer, was the one that meandered between my written thoughts. Those inky words could be constructed with patience, pulled down and refurbished if they threatened to expose my handicap. Prose gave me time to think.
And what disease was it, you ask, that took away my ability to speak? What terrible virus ate away at my orals? I can tell you here and now. It was a foreign language. I can only assume that when I started to learn Thai my boutique brain was already full to the brim with seventies pop songs and TV commercials. I had some hope that the complicated language might flush out all that nonsense and plug neatly into the vacant lot beside English. Two language tenements with connecting walkways. No garbage. But, reality is ever a disappointment. Not only did the Thai immediately start to edge out my English, it also began to tangle together with what was left like socks of different colours in a washing machine. And those damned foolish lyrics and Heinz beans jingles are still in there. Anyone want to hear the opening and closing theme tunes of the Beverly Hillbillies?
I am currently non-functional in my native language. When I return to England, people ask me where I’m from. Ask me whether I’m recovering from a serious head injury. Ask me if I play sport or if I’m a topless model. I have just returned from my ex-country where I chased conversations around dinner tables, always half a sentence behind. At cocktail receptions with eminent authors I filled every gap with a question. Writers like nothing more than being asked questions. It makes them believe you actually care what the answers are. In fact it’s a ploy to avoid having to give my own opinions. Not only would I have to form grammatically correct sentences, I’d also have to have an opinion. Usually, I do not. If I once had opinions, sadly they have been long lost through that overflow pipe that gushes important stuff out of the back of my brain. Were I given enough time to write my responses – mail them in by the end of the month – I could be thoroughly insightful and fascinating. The recipient would be none the wiser. But they expect an answer right there…live…unscripted. I don’t know how people do it.
If I have the misfortune of being there in the flesh I have to resort to a number of standbys that, with a bit of luck, will deflect questions.
“I’m sure you know what I think about that,” is always a good one. This is closely followed by the ‘shake of the head and, “Don’t ask!”’ routine. If it’s a literary question, of which I have to say there are far too many for their own good, I have found some success with, “It certainly wasn’t his/her best.” Then there’s, “I found something disturbing about it and I’m certain you know what that was.” Invariably, your interlocutor will take over from there.
All would be well, of course, if my Thai language had taken over the mantel of ‘communication method of choice’. But it hasn’t. I can no more wax lyrical on Thai literature than I can English. I do have an impressive vocabulary for gardening implements and fish but that’s because we live on farm land in a fishing community and I use it every day. At one long lunch with my editor I did attempt to swing the conversation around to mackerel but, wouldn’t you know it, I didn’t have enough English vocabulary to get beyond the obvious. I wasn’t able to expound upon the vagaries of squid fishing and the poetic irony of putting together a leaf-lined bamboo trap into which the foolhardy male squid escorts his prospective sexual conquest because it’s one of the few places around to get a bit of privacy.
Winifred Gallagher, the author of Rapt discusses the Washington Post identity experiment involving violin virtuoso Joshua Bell who played his $3.5 million Stradivarius as street musician at a D.C. subway stop. Let’s be clear. Bell is a classical music star. In the 45 minutes that Bell played over a thousand people passed him. Only sixty-three people paused to listen. Only two people focused on his music. One had studied violin to the professional level. The other person recognized him. Bell made $32 during his short street performance.
The point of the study was that Bell, who people would pay large amounts to hear in a concert hall, ignored him in the street. Same man, same violin, same music. But they didn’t focus on the man or music. There attention was elsewhere. People expect their musicians and music in a specific context. Once the context is radically altered, the ability to focus is, if this study is accurate, lost.
Incognito music might well be the fate of incognito books.
Bell’s experience had me wondering what would happen if books were sold with the plain vanilla covers that adore most Arcs. And there would be no author’s name or advertisement. The only identification on the cover would be something like: Book 10888. In this experiment, all other books in the street vendor’s stall also have plain covers, no author’s name, no identification other than a different number.
Would readers passing on the street ignore the books on sale like the commuters who passed Joshua Bell?
The chances are readers would not notice anyone one of these ‘books’ because they are detached from their authors and the eye attracting covers that attracted our attention. Except for the number, they look the same. There is nothing to focus our attention on a specific cover.
Of course, in the real world, we attach a great deal of importance to the author of a book. So do publishers and reviewers. Names create expectations. The author’s identity is the hook that makes us focus on a book. Readers want to know who wrote the book. There would be something alien about books without an author’s name.
Readers often form an attachment to their favourite author; they follow news and gossip about the author, buy his or her books. If the reader had to simply decide to whether to purchase a book on word of mouth or reviews or advertisement with no connection to the authorship, then how would a person choose a book? The decision would be made from reviewing the available information whether she liked the story or characters to buy the book.
Most scriptwriters for film and TV fall into the incognito category. When is the last time you went to see a film or watched a TV show because of the screenwriter’s name? Most people outside of the industry couldn’t count three or four screenwriters by name. With fiction, that is a different story. The names roll off the tongue: Stephen King, Dan Brown, John Grisham, J.K. Rowling are just a good start if you ask most people to name authors.
Some authors are stars in the way that Joshua Bell is a star. You see their names on the New York Times Best Seller’s list. But if you dressed most of these authors as street vendors and had them selling copies of their coverless books off a blanket in front of D.C. subway station, how many out of a thousand people passing would stop and look at the book? Recognize the author? Buy the book?
People often buy books because they like or have read about the author. They can identify with their personal story. This identification gives them the confidence to buy the book. There is another reason. The author who wrote the book has creditability. She has earned a reputation for accuracy, depth, understanding and sensitivity. In other words, the name carries with it a promise of quality and the promise of a certain kind of experience…
Not all musical compositions are by Mozart or Bach anymore than all books are by George Orwell or Graham Greene. A lot of music and books are enjoyable for the experience but ultimately forgettable.
Perhaps somewhere there is a study about the number of people who buy a book by a famous author or celebrity author (not the same thing) and how many actually start and finish the book? We are creatures of brands, icons, and personalities. They influence our lives in profound ways. They shape our expectations. They also provide us with a context. We are in a concert and we have read that Joshua Bell is a great musician. We listen, we focus, and he has our attention. The same with buying a book, we have certain expectations where books are available, who writes them, how they fit in certain categories and these expectation put us on automatic pilot when we enter a bookstore or stop at a street vendor’s stall. Our attention is drawn to those books whose authors we recognize.
If we suddenly lived in a universe without such context cues, we have to find the books that interest us in other ways. Through what friends said about the characters or story they read; or through reviews which shower praise on one book and withhold it from another. We’d have to work at it. No doubt short cuts would evolve over time because ultimately we love taking them.
In Asia, as in the West, authors’ names appear on books. Once it is named, a context is established. An identity is born. Would people write books if they knew that their efforts wouldn’t carry their name? Or would they write if each and every book meant starting over again, trying to win an audience with the characters and story of the latest volume? The author’s name wouldn’t allow him or her to glide for a book or two. In such a world, in theory, only those books, which worked as narratives to grab and hold a reader’s attention would sell. That might be a very different world that the one we inhabit.
What was revealing about the Joshua Bell story was how grateful he was when some dropped some coins into his busker’s box. The one who recognized him left a twenty dollar bill. An artist takes his validation of his art by being paid for it. Outside of his normal context, Bell found an emotional satisfaction in this small change, which would have been a grave insult if offered to him to perform at a concert.
If the books offered for sale were stripped of the author’s personal identity would the best-selling author feel like Joshua Bell, a sense of accomplishment, when a passer-by bought his coverless book for a few dollars? It would make for an interesting experiment. And, even without the experiment, the ideas of context and attention and focus are useful tools when thinking about how books are acquired, published, and bought.