The bookseller’s depressing warning

Perhaps the best reason to join a book club asne_seierstad_the_bookseller_of_kabulis that it will encourage you to read books which otherwise you would have missed. This was certainly the case with the “Bookseller of Kabul” which I ignored since its release in 2003 despite having garnered a considerable degree of praise. For some reason it never captured my attention sufficiently to get to get around to reading it. It was clearly an important book but one which passed me.

It passed me by, that is, until our book club decided to have a year avoiding European and American literature in an attempt to broaden our horizons. This was the second foray further afield, Israel having been our first. Am I glad that I have read this book ? Certainly, it was an interesting and educative read. Did the book deserve the praise it has received ? I am not convinced, it is a rather patchy offering, a rather strange hybrid of fiction and non-fiction.

This book is the result of a Norwegian journalist’s four months spent living with a family in Afghanistan. She has taken the interviews she had with the family members and turned them into a readable family saga. The book is well written and well translated, it is easy to read and she creates good character portraits of the family members. She has managed to convey a sense of life in modern Afghanistan which is revealing.

However, it is because it is this hybrid form that it also disappoints. Had it been non-fiction then supporting information about the historical events would have been valuable as well as some analysis of their relevance. As it is the occupation by the Russians and the Taliban are described as nothing more than scenery as the backdrop to this family story. Had this been a novel then there may have been more emotion. The author has tried to be non-judgemental and simply describe the lives of the participants. There are no heroes here, there is no attempt by anyone to change things, there is no questioning of the rightness of the situation. Like the women in the story, everything is passively accepted.

These snippets of daily life are so depressing, no-one fights or rails against their lot. Nobody has any vision of a better life. The lives of these women in a middle-class afghan household is that of servitude and bondage. Even the members who were older, and able to remember better and freer times, do nothing to try for significant change. The way this life, more suited to the medieval era, is accepted as reasonable leaves the reader with a feeling of hopelessness for the future of Afghanistan and especially its women. So, although this book does open a window to let us see an aspect of life which is often hidden to us, it also hides any causes or solutions (if there are any) from us.

I recommend the book therefore to anyone who doubts the dreadful position that women have in this part of the world; they need the distress of reading this. If you already know this sorry state of affairs it might be better using your reading to search for an explanation or, even better, the start of a solution.

 

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Will it never end ? Quebec’s terrorist attack.

Will it never end ? Quebec’s terrorist attack.

Another atrocity, six innocent men gunned down, while at their devotions, 19 others injured and 5 remain in a critical condition. Again we are witness to innocent people, slaughtered as thy try to get on with their lives and again we know that wives have been left widowed and children fatherless for no reason.

This time, it seems highly likely that a young man with right-wing nationalist views (Alexandre Bissonnette) is responsible for this horror. If it is he, we will no doubt discover that he, like Dylan Roof and  Omar Mateen and many others before him, was a warped young man unable to tolerate those he disagreed with, unable to tolerate those different to him. It is no surprise that these people choose their targets by features which mark out their group as different to his group; the white supremacist attacking those performing their religious duties while the jihadist identifies those participating in banned activities.

Terrorists from both groups are much more similar than they would like to imagine, both see themselves as warriors defending their group against the others or avenging wrongs done by the other group. While these are extreme members of their groups, this tendency to see politics and life in terms of groups is a major problem. It does not matter if the group is defined by religion or race, nation or class, heritage or any other  tribal banding, viewing the world in this manner distorts our society.

Humans are intrinsically social animals. We don’t survive in isolation and instinctively seek out our fellows. Despite what dystopian films and novels may tell us, in good times and bad we band together to cooperate, help and trade. We find ways to be with others that is mutually beneficial. It is important to recognise that xenophobia and fear of others is commonest in people who have little contact with other groups. When we have to opportunity to mix and mingle we find ways to make this benefit both ourselves and the others and fear quickly dissipates. When we are left to our own devices we create an emergent order which is beneficial to all. This only goes wrong when we are grouped and ruled.

This is not simply the old story of “divide and rule” but rather “categorise and control“. When we are encourage to see ourselves as members of groups ( American, Christian, Black, Lesbian, Working Class, Welsh, Jewish, Islamic, Aryan, etc) we are encouraged to see the differences we have with others. We are encouraged to view others as being not only different but wrong and potentially threatening. We are encouraged to feel under threat and in need of protection. And in responce to this perceived threat, there are usually a group of people (politicians, clergy, kings,  inspired leaders, etc) who will guard us and look after our interests. These are the people who benefit from this grouping, they now hold the power (and usually a great deal of the wealth) as they control how we may and may not interact to preserve our group. All their power comes from controlling spontaneous  activity by individuals  and disappears if people are allowed to interact freely.

Once in our groups we are encouraged to view all problems in terms of this. It leads to partisan and transactional politics. Our group is always right, the other always wrong. Our problems come from the malevolence of the other group. While watching the coverage of Quebec I noticed on social media the cheerleaders of each group swinging into action. Those on the alt-right ecstatic when it looked as if a muslim might have been involved (erroneously), the progressives cock-a-hoop at having another timely white nationalist terrorist just in time for the fight with Trump about closing borders. Our politics have descended into this. We are unable to discuss issues without this being along the lines of our group identities. This means we fail to develop and change as quickly as we might otherwise be able.

The Quebec tragedy will end up being defined as a battle between those fearing islamophobia and those fearing islamofascism. Left to their own devices, followers of different faiths would cooperate happily and beneficially. When they are individuals they find a way to coexist in a way that benefits all, it is only when they are pushed into groups that hatred such as this arises. It is leaders who lead us down these dark alleys of discrimination and violence.

Remember the men who lost their lives in Quebec, remember them as real people like you or I, remember them as fathers or sons like you or I, remember them as individuals.  Don’t think that their religion makes what happened to them explicable in any manner, nor does it explain their murderer’s actions.  Don’t force them into a group and don’t let yourself be forced into a group. When we stay as individual units we remain individually responsible and recognise that we have the same rights as everyone else. Maintaining this is our only hope of preventing future tragedies. The first step in murder and maltreatment is making the victim an exemplar of a group rather than an individual. The second step is removing our own individual responsibility by passing it to a higher authority.  Don’t be pushed to take these dangerous steps.