Better than a thousand pundits and all their learned articles

That is my feeling about Khaled Hosseini’s second novel A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007). smiley-happy005smiley-happy005[3]smiley-happy005[5]smiley-happy005[7]smiley-happy005[9]

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a breathtaking story set against the volatile events of Afghanistan’s last thirty years—from the Soviet invasion to the reign of the Taliban to the post-Taliban rebuilding—that puts the violence, fear, hope, and faith of this country in intimate, human terms. It is a tale of two generations of characters brought jarringly together by the tragic sweep of war, where personal lives—the struggle to survive, raise a family, find happiness—are inextricable from the history playing out around them.

I was irritated by this New York Times review.

In the end it is these glimpses of daily life in Afghanistan — a country known to most Americans only through news accounts of war and terrorism — that make this novel, like “The Kite Runner,” so stirring, and that distract attention from its myriad flaws.

My attention was so distracted that I am convinced the “myriad flaws” exist more in the reviewer’s mind than in Hosseini’s novel, which is not to say the book is perfect but it is pretty bloody good. If it had been published in Australia it would probably be up for the Miles Franklin or something. I think it has suffered from being the SECOND novel after the phenomenon that was, deservedly, The Kite Runner.

t’s the whistling," Laila said to Tariq, "the damn whistling, I hate more than anything."

Tariq nodded knowingly.

It wasn’t so much the whistling itself, Laila thought later, but the seconds between the start of it and impact. The brief and interminable time of feeling suspended. The not knowing. The waiting. Like a defendant about to hear the verdict.

Often it happened at dinner, when she and Babi were at the table. When it started, their heads snapped up. They listened to the whistling, forks in midair, unchewed food in their mouths. Laila saw the reflection of their half-lit faces in the pitch-black window, their shadows unmoving on the wall. The whistling. Then the blast, blissfully elsewhere, followed by an expulsion of breath and the knowledge that they had been spared for now while somewhere else, amid cries and choking clouds of smoke, there was a scrambling, a barehanded frenzy of digging, of pulling from the debris, what remained of a sister, a brother, a grandchild.

But the flip side of being spared was the agony of wondering who hadn’t. After every rocket blast, Laila raced to the street, stammering a prayer, certain that, this time, surely this time, it was Tariq they would find buried beneath the rubble and smoke.

At night, Laila lay in bed and watched the sudden white flashes reflected in her window. She listened to the rattling of automatic gunfire and counted the rockets whining overhead as the house shook and flakes of plaster rained down on her from the ceiling. Some nights, when the light of rocket fire was so bright a person could read a book by it, sleep never came. And, if it did, Laila’s dreams were suffused with fire and detached limbs and the moaning of the wounded.

Morning brought no relief. The muezzin’s call for namaz rang out, and the Mujahideen set down their guns, faced west, and prayed. Then the rugs were folded, the guns loaded, and the mountains fired on Kabul, and Kabul fired back at the mountains, as Laila and the rest of the city watched as helpless as old Santiago watching the sharks take bites out of his prize fish.

Excerpted from A Thousand Splendid Suns copyright 2007 by Khaled Hosseini. Published by Riverhead Books.

People in Immigration should make this mandatory reading for all staff dealing with Afghans. Anyone thinking or writing about Afghanistan or asylum seekers should read this book.  You will understand the place more deeply than if you waded through a thousand pundits and their one-dimensional analyses and learned histories.

In a similar way The Promise, the Channel Four miniseries currently running on Sunday nights on SBS, takes you into the tragedy that is Israel/Palestine and especially the too little known events between World War 2 and 1950 that gave birth to the State of Israel. Based on all my reading in the past and on my experiences at school with the sons of the Holocaust generation and  later at Masada College with a cross-section of Israelis and Jews, I find the program deadly accurate and impartial in the very best sense. It is quite admirable, which is why partisans on all sides hate it.

Last night’s episode didn’t disappoint. Definitely one of the best things on TV in what has been in many ways a very good year. smiley-happy005[12]smiley-happy005[14]smiley-happy005[16]smiley-happy005[18]smiley-happy005[20]

Also on SBS last night was a rather fascinating episode of The Bible: A History. Now this series has in some respects disappointed me, because it isn’t what it says it is. Rather, it is a series of reflections, more or less worth listening to, by a number of people on aspects of the Bible. A systematic history it is not. However, getting Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams to reflect on Jesus was actually quite inspired, if confronting.

As a supporter of the people of Palestine, I believe the security of the people of Israel is tied inextricably with the Israeli government’s need to acknowledge and uphold the rights and security of the people of Palestine. When I have visited the Palestinian territories before, I have been saddened by the awful, visible evidence of occupation and injustice, particularly the failure of the international community to encourage a peace settlement.

This time my visit was non political but the tragic irony was sharpened by my new and growing knowledge of the ancient history of the place. What would Jesus, the Palestinian do?

I came away from this programme more aware of the relevance of Jesus’ message in these modern times. Not just in terms of forgiveness or peace making but also in social and economic issues. Jesus is about equality, the poor and the disadvantaged.

One thing is for certain. The core message of Jesus is relevant in today’s world. It retains the ability to motivate countless billions of people two thousand years after his execution.

If adhered to there would be no conflict, no hunger and no poverty in the world today. No wonder they crucified him.

While I don’t doubt Adams’s sincerity and acknowledge much that is good in him, especially in what he has done in recent years, I don’t entirely buy his justification for what happened in earlier days.

See this review.

There are obvious responses to such a programme. The first is to throw your hands up in horror, to curse and fulminate at what might be seen as the arrogance, hypocrisy or self-delusion of a man who, as a former spokesman-in-chief for IRA terrorism, can here, when asked if he has blood on his hands, blithely reply: “No, I don’t.”

Another, more simple, response is to switch off the television.

Then again, there is what could, in the phrase of that other great peacemaker of our time, Tony Blair, be called the third way. To sit down, watch, and see if one can actually glean something meaningful from it, however offensive it may be.

To choose this option was to be genuinely baffled at how Adams can see anything in the Christian message that corresponds with his own actions. Despite being a regular Mass-goer he always rejected the Catholic church’s condemnation of IRA violence, and refused to see the Troubles as a religious, rather than purely political, conflict.

Here, his trek through Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the West Bank, was less a spiritual journey than a history lesson on the Roman occupation of Judea. He seemed to regard his conversations with historians and theologians as opportunities for self-justification and political point-scoring (when Barabbas was described as a terrorist, he interjected “or freedom fighter”) as much as for understanding.

More than anything, his insistence that he could accept or reject whichever elements of Christian belief he likes, and still be a Christian – because “we all do it” – was revealing of a mindset that, fundamentally, sees only what it chooses to see.

Perhaps most revealing was Adams’s constant return to the only Christian themes he seemed to have any genuine interest in: forgiveness and redemption…

Well worth a look for its own sake and for what it says about this series is Mark Goodacre’s New Testament blog. “This is Mark Goodacre’s academic blog. It focuses on issues of interest on the New Testament and Christian Origins. I am Associate Professor of New Testament in the Religion Department at Duke University.”


One thought on “Better than a thousand pundits and all their learned articles

  1. See Hal Wootten “Much too promised land” 13 Feb 2012.

    …The Promise takes up a problem that has troubled Jewish thinkers since the Zionist project of creating a Jewish homeland or state was first mooted. Since the world had run out of uninhabited lands, what would happen to the people who already lived in the chosen territory? The question was debated with admirable frankness and calmness, but little consensus, by theorists who did not foresee the terrible urgency that the Holocaust would one day bring to it. They asked whether the inhabitants could be lured away by bribery or subterfuge or whether force would be needed. The optimistic view, expressed in Theodor Herzl’s novel Altneuland, was that life in the Jewish state would be so attractive that the indigenous people would happily submit – Israel’s “immaculate misconception” as the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit described it to me…

    Kosminsky has emphasised that he did not set out to take sides or offer solutions; his first responsibility was to present an image that did justice to the complexity of the situation. Historians and political commentators have written many volumes about this complexity, and the film was based on years of research. In contrast to a historian, the artist and film-maker must choose a few characters and events to capture the viewers’ attention, stimulate their minds, fire their imaginations and touch their consciences. It is inevitable that people with an existing view about Palestine will be disappointed that this or that point dear to them was not made or emphasised, but they can still be grateful that Kosminsky has put the fundamental problem on the table in a high-quality film with great human impact.

    Apologists for special interests have a choice. They can be open to The Promise as one of many ways a film about the Israel–Palestine conflict could be made, they can accept its challenge to seek solutions, they can learn from it, even if some of the lessons may be painful, and they can offer competing views and interpretations and emphasise different points if they wish. Alternatively they can firmly close their minds, refuse to recognise the challenge or seek solutions, resist any lessons they could learn, and seek to suppress the film. In that endeavour they may seek to place stereotyped and demeaning interpretations on the film. Antony Loewenstein, in his 2006 book My Israel Question, was far from the first to deplore the tendency to portray criticism of Israel and its policies as anti-Semitism, a practice he saw as wrongly conflating Zionism and Judaism…

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