I didn’t know that……

Whenever you read a book, you come across words or phrases that you don’t really know.  Usually, you just keep going, knowing enough to understand the context.  But, wouldn’t it be a better learning experience if you jotted down or circled what you didn’t know so that you could actually learn something?

This is what I did on my recent trans-oceanic airflight when I read The Secret Servant by Daniel Silva.  This morning, my laptop on my lap, I looked up those words and phrases, with the hope that I might remember them the next time I run across them.

Here goes —

Mcyma” – an classical architectural feature.  Think of a pediment on top of a Greek temple.  The top is flat, and then there is a reverse-s shaped piece, with another flat piece supporting it.  It is that middle piece that is the cyma.

“Memunah”, which is used in the book to describe the most respected leader of the Mossad.  I am not sure this is the best use.  It appears that “Menumah” is the name of an angel, who was both powerful and a dreamer.   To say that the Mossad’s Menumah is powerful and a leader omits this important quality.

“the Bab al-Wad”, this is the gorge which you pass through heading west from Jerusalem toward Tel Aviv, as you leave the Judean hills for the coastal plain.

“shaheed”, an Islamic martyr, including a suicide bomber

“AIVD”, the Dutch Mossad

“Katsa”, a Mossad field chief who recruits and controls its agents

“Sayanim”, volunteers outside of Israel who help the Mossad”

“Brown cafes”, coffee houses in Amsterdam

“ayin”, trackers for the Mossad

“bodel”, couriers for the Mossad

“kufi”, a white (typically) Moslem skullcap

“allochtoon”, an alien immigrant to Holland

“takfir”, the act of declaring a Moslem to have left the faith (which can lead to the death of the individual)

“ghurba”, living in a land of strangers, or feeling that you are an outsider to the community

“Sayid Qutb”, a 20th century Egyptian founder of the Moslem Brotherhood

“ibn Tamiyya”, a 13th century Turkish Moslem fundamentalist

“Maglite”, a brand of small flashlights

“Balaclava”, a ski-mask type of head covering that would allow for eyes (or eyes and nose) to show

“SSI”, Egyptian secret police

“AMAN”, security branch of the Israeli Defense Forces

“Ketamine”, a drug used for anesthesia which can also be hallucinatory

“to debride” a wound, is to clean it of any foreign matter

“galabiya”, a robe worn by men

“niqab”, same as a burqa

“Torah Prison”, prison in Cairo

“djellaba”, a galabiya

an “ibn balad”, a conservative, old fashioned, unmodern person

“COBRA”, Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, the emergency center at 10 Downing Street

“Salafist”, fundamentalist Islam (like Wahhabi), which believes that it has all gone downhill since the days of the prophet

“Ushanka”, Russian hat with earflaps

“Tasbih”, repetitive Moslem prayer, and the bead string used to count the repititions

“Misbaha”, the tasbih beads

“Funen Island”, the large Danish island (connected to the mainland by bridges) where Odense is located.

“brogans”, wide toed boots

“Makarov”, Russian semi-automatic pistol

“plinth”, the base of a column

“adhan”, the Muslim call to prayer

The Hidden Dimension (4 cents)

It’s been many years since I have read Edward Hall’s The Hidden Dimension, a book written in the 1960s about human perception of space.  As I recall this extremely fascinating book, the premise was the perception of space was not a constant among people, but was highly influenced by culture.  The two examples that I recall best were (1) how close people are when they speak to each other (i.e., in some cultures, the speaker gets right in the face of the listener; while it others, this would be very rude and make the listener very uncomfortable), and (2) where private space lets off, and public space begins (i.e., in some cultures, in an office setting, the space directly outside of a private office, or even the space within the door jamb, but outside of the private office itself, is purely public space, so that a conversation ignoring the office denizen can take place, while in other cultures, it is unspeakbly rude to hold a conversation not including the person in the private office).

I think about Hall’s book fairly often, and that includes today, when I am thinking about the difference in space perception between the United States and Turkey.

In Washington, as I walked up Connecticut Avenue, I noticed how wide the sidewalks were.  I glanced at the windows in the stores on my right and as I passed a cosmetics store which had placed two small displays outside the door, I was startled, as if they had somehow invaded my public space (although it was not a very bothersome invasion).

Then, I recalled Istanbul, where every store spills out into the street.  Even where the sidewalks are very narrow, there can be large and multiple displays of wares on the sidewalks, or in the case of a restaurant, tables that go to the very edge of the street.  Who cares of pedestrians have to actually leave the sidewalks and go into the street in order to get from one block to the next?  Certainly not the Turks, as this is much the norm throughout the city.

Different perceptions of public and private space.   Different perceptions of who controls the space in front of a shop.   Neither perception is better or worse, I assume, although for me, today, the Turkish way, because it is exotic and unusual, seems by far the better.  But I would assume a visiting Turk might love the wide and unobstructed American sidewalks and, like me, be a little jarred, when two small cosmetic displays violate their public space.

OK, Now Beyond the Friends

1.  Book.  I did read one book this week, an old Penguin mystery called Puzzle for Fiends, written in 1946 by Patrick Quentin (who according to the cover was actually two people).  I read this only because I wanted a book I could actually put in my pocket, and there it was (why I don’t know).  There is no real reason to read it, considering there are several millions of books to choose from: amnesiac victim is released from hospital into the care of his wife and mother (but of course they aren’t really his wife and mother, but they need to have their son back to get the money from their recently deceased husband/father’s will), and he is trying to figure out who they are and who he is and he sense something is wrong and he is sure it has something to do with his new and seductive ‘wife’, never dreaming that she is in fact innocent and that it is his wholesome ‘sister’ who killed both her father and her brother, and not learning this until he realizes that his broken arm and leg, both in casts, are not really broken and he can run and shoot and do every thing else a man should be able to do.  And, yes, he does find out his real identity on the second to last page of the book.

2.  Theater.  It is time for the Capitol Fringe Festival and our first venue was to see “Dorks on the Loose”, not a title that would normally attract us, except that the dorks are two of Hannah’s college roommates, and Hannah produced the show for Fringe.  It was a lot of fun and quite silly, and they are getting full houses (that means about 80 people: not bad) at the small Warehouse Theater space.  So, I said, ‘ok, I’ll go to see more Fringe’ and yesterday morning (noon), I went back to the Warehouse to see “Three Girls and a Man”, about a man whose wife has multiple personalities (three), and one of them wants to divorce him, and he doesn’t want her treated because he likes the variety (the accomplished feminist, the subservient fundamentalist wife, and the nymphomanic).  The premise had promise, I thought, but unfortunately it was a bad play, badly performed.   So be it.

3.  The poet.  Gary Snyder, now 78, is a very famous West Coast poet (friend of Ginsburg and Kerouac and others), who is also a student/expert of Buddhism and eastern art and culture, and has spent the last 40 years writing Endless Mountains and Rivers, an epic poem.  I had never heard of him.  We saw him at the Freer (he spoke in conjunction with the Yellow Mountain exhibit I wrote about several weeks ago), and he was interesting in speaking about his life (somewhat) and soporific when reading his poetry.  But then I find most poetry soporific.

4.  We had a very nice event for American Associates of Ben Gurion University this week with Mick Alkan, professor of community medicine, and Sirak Sabahat, of “Live and Become” fame, and a nice dinner with them both at Clyde’s before the session.  We also had a nice dinner at Oyamel with Hannah after ‘Dorks’.

So, we have not just been sitting around, I guess.

Somerset Maugham’s “Cakes and Ale”

I really enjoyed The Moon and Sixpence, Somerset Maugham’s novel based on the life of Gauguin. I wish I could say the same about Cakes and Ale, which I read on this hot and muggy day.

A short novel, it tells the story of an English author, whose fame may be greater than his talent, and who dies at age 86. He has been married twice, first to a former bar-maid (who is unfaithful to him with virtually everyone she meets, and who finally runs off to America with her old hometown beau), and then to his former nurse (who wants to protect his reputation post-death). But he is hardly a character in the book at all. It is a first person book, written by a younger author, who knew the older man thirty years earlier when he was married to his first wife (and was in fact a lover of that first wife) and who met her again on a trip to New York, when she was a 70 year old widow. But you don’t learn that much about the narrator either.

Some critics say that the first wife is the central character of the book, but I actually could not discern much about her, outside of her activities.

All in all, the book did not speak to me at all. I thought the prose someone dry, the characters not very interesting, and the plot not there at all.

I believe that my view is a minority view among the few who bother to read the book today.

Back from the Trip and Three Books Read (3 cents)

We have returned after two very nice weeks in Spain and Israel, so it is time to resume the blog.

I know it would be more interesting to talk about the trip, but first, I wanted to write a little about the three books I read: The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman, written in the 1840s about the young man from Massachusetts who spent several months following the Oregon trail, and interacting with emigrant caravans, army posts, traders and, of course, Native Americans; The House of Exile by Nora Waln, written in the late 1930s about her twelve years living in China, first as a virtual adopted daughter of a feudal family and second as the wife of an Englishman who worked for the Chinese government; and 100 Hours to Suez, written in 1957 by British journalist/author Robert Henriques, and describing the military aspects of the Israeli march towards the Suez Canal in 1956.

I can’t say that I followed a rational path in picking these books. The Oregon Trail is a very well known book, of course, a presumed classic that I had never before wanted to read particularly. I had never heard of The House of Exile, but it was an easy to pack paperback sitting on a shelf next to the Parkman book and sparked my interest. I bought 100 Hours to Suez at a second hand store in Tel Aviv.

What did the books have in common? The presentation of human beings as rational, controlled, good hearted and then prone to unbelievable violence and cruelty. American Indians would welcome you into their villages, treat you with respect, feed you, smoke a pipe with you, but in other circumstances simply slaughter you with no second thoughts (so says Parkman). The Arabs would treat you with great respect and hospitality but also at times rob and murder you in the desert wilderness, even outside of wartime (so says Henriques). No one could be more cultured and proud of their traditions than the Chinese, implies Waln, but China in the 1920s and 1930s was the scene of recurrent political uprisings and riots. Three very different peoples, who in this respect are so very alike. Are we all like that?

I would grade the Parkman and the Waln books very highly. I am not sure how the critics have dealt with the Parkman book (Parkman went on to become a scholar, historian and Harvard faculty member), but I would be willing to bet that some of his tales and descriptions are a bit exaggerated. I’d be interested to know if others agree, or if everyone takes him at face value. If he was giving an accurate account of his time on the road, his time was extraordinary. The people he met. The serious and dangerous situations into which he fell consistently. The privations of traveling west in the early 1840s. The way he developed so many sudden friendships. The way he kept running into people he knew, or at least had previously met. His ill health, which did not seem to limit his athletic feats.

The Waln book, which I assume is not exaggerated (she went on to become a well respected journalist and author) is simply one of the most fascinating accounts (of life in the compound of an old, feudal Chinese family at the time of great transition from empire to republic, with communism and Japanese militarism looming in the background) of life in a very different culture that I could imagine. I don’t know if anyone reads this book today, or if it is generally available, but they should, and it should be.

I can’t say that the Henriques book lives up to the quality of the others. It was rushed into print. Henriques, a British-Jewish author, wanted to write something about Israel and, although he claims himself a non-Zionist, wants to help the young country. The 1956 war happens; he is too slow (or the war too fast) to let him participate, so he does the next best thing. With the approval of the Israeli government, he learns how the military decisions were made and carried out. But the book, although filled with interesting insights, needed a much better editing job, as he himself admits. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read the book, or that you won’t learn quite a bit, which you will. It is just the prose is not polished, and much of what he says is clearly opinionated, based on limited information, and may be not very accurate.

But three good books.

The 100 Most Influential Books

Last week, I saw a newspaper website which listed the 100 most important books ever written. The list was chosen by a group of experts. As soon as the list was published, people started writing comments. ‘What happened to the Bible? Or the Koran?” Where was Dostoevsky? And so forth.

Well, it did get me thinking about the books that I would have put on that list. Of course, I couldn’t begin to determine what books were important for all of mankind, or even for me. But I can think about those books that I read and said “wow!” about.

I am not going to list all 100 now. But I will start, and then will keep adding, and maybe subtracting, until I hit 100. And they won’t be in any order, except the order in which I think of them, although maybe at the end, I will move them around. And I am sure you will be surprised at what makes up the list. Here goes:

J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. (I am not sure why this came first into mind. But during my first year at law school, I got a case of the flu or some such thing, and started reading, and kept reading, and finished three days later.)

Graham Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal. (The story of the Ark of the Covenant, how it was taken from Jerusalem and moved to Ethiopia, and what all of this had to do with the Templars, the Order of Christ and the Freemasons.)

Various novels and books of short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the first of which was Satan in Goray. (I was mesmerized by the imaginative use of language and image and fantasy in Polish Jewish and New York Jewish stories.

The books of Robert Ardrey, starting with African Genesis. (A totally fresh look and what mankind really is and how he inevitably came to be that way)

The novels of Jorge Amado, the first of which I read was Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (This time, fantasy and reality mix in northeast Brazil, but with a rhythm quite different from Singer’s, but equally appealing.

Arthur Schlesinger’s “The Age of Roosevelt” series, starting with The Crisis of the Old Order, which taught me that history could be written to be read as easily as a novel.

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, which I started with trepidation.

Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which I read when I was still in high school, as part of a class, and which i found to contain world class humor.

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky

The short stories of Anton Chekhov.

OK, that’s a start.

On Tuesdays I think of a law school classmate who now lives in Albuquerque. For one of the reunion books, he wrote that he is very active in civic affairs, his biggest responsibility being taking out the trash faithfully every week.

Well, it is 10:45 on Tuesday night. Time for me to put in my time as a responsible citizen.

Constantine’s Sword Redux

Our study group read James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword a year or so ago. It is an extraordinary book, detailing the institutional anti-semitism found in the doctrine and practice of the Catholic Church over the centuries. When I learned that a movie had been made from the book, also to be called “Constantine’s Sword”, I was both amazed that such a book could become a film, and hopeful that it would be a good film that might help (and be a counter to the Mel Gibson fiasco). The movie has not yet been released, but was shown (for the first time before an audience) Monday night at the National Cathedral.

The best thing about the movie is that there is nothing offensive about it. At least not offensive to me. If I were a Catholic or an Evangelical, perhaps I would feel differently.

James Carroll puts a lot of James Carroll into his writing. About 10%, I would say, of his book Constantine’s Sword is devoted to James Carroll, and the rest to the church and its Jewish policy. In the movie, the Carroll element increases to, perhaps, 20%. While this helps set the stage, I also think that in excess it detracts from the message. The movie larger theme becomes less central.

Secondly, the movie is framed at the start and the finish by footage dealing with Evangelicals trying to convert Air Force Cadets in Colorado Springs, a interesting story in and of itself, but again detracting from the main theme. (I don’t remember this being in the book; if I could locate our copy, I’d know for sure.)

The historic story is told, but not in great depth. Had I not been basically familiar with the history, I am not sure how much I would have observed. As a movie, therefore, I was not impressed, I guess. It seemed more like a made for TV vehicle, and not the best of that genre, either.

Again, I am glad I saw it and am glad that it didn’t offend me, but I don’t think it will change the course of the world. There was a lot made of this being shown in a church for its first showing. Well, it was shown to a large group of Episcopalians, who don’t share the history of the Catholic church or the ideology of the Evangelicals. So, I don’t think they were offended, either.

A Book, a Movie, Two Sporting Events and a Record

The Book: “The Lost Gospel” by Herbert Krosney, published in 2006 by National Geographic in connection with their exhibition centered on the papyrus Coptic “Gospel of Judas Iscariot”, which was shown along with other artifacts at its museum in Washington that year. The Gospel of Judas Iscariot was found in Egypt in the early 1970s by peasants (that’s what they always call them), who knew a good thing when they saw it. But it traveled around the world looking for a permanent home (and a buyer with a lot of cash) for over a quarter of a century, being stored in odd places in Greece, Switzerland the U.S., disintegrating as it went on its way. The book itself is revolutionary in that it shows Judas not as a betrayer or Jesus, but as a co-conspirator of Jesus, fulfilling Jesus’ wish to be turned over to the authorities. (With all due respect, I always assumed that is what happened.)

The book is 15% about the document and the various interpretations of the role of Judas, and 85% about the, sometimes comical if it weren’t so important, history of this text from its discovery until it was finally provided with a home (in Egypt) and appropriate restoration and translation. The story is fascinating, and teaches you that nothing is inevitable.

But I can’t imagine who thought this book was ready for prime time. Its organization is weak, it is unbelievably repetitive, and every time a character is introduced, you have to read through his c.v. again (for some it happens almost every chapter). And there are no footnotes. I would recommend the book, but if I needed to have a book written, I would not turn to Mr. Krosney (who is described as more of a documentary film maker, anyway).

The Movie: “Nanking”, about the Japanese attack on the then Chinese capital in 1937. It is estimated that about 200,000 people died in Nanking, but that about 250,000 were saved by a bunch of British, American and German (read Nazi) foreigners living in the city, whom the Japanese were apparently hesitant to cross. Very interesting, and as depressing as watching a film about Auschwitz.

The movie itself had three components: (1) old footage, either from newsreels, official photos, or purloined photos, (2) interviews with octogenarian Japanese veterans and Chinese victims, and (3) a group of actors portraying the foreigners (none of whom are apparently alive at this point), reading from interviews or letters that were actually given or sent. There is no “script” and there is no action; the contemporary actors are all simply sitting down telling you something.

That does not make for the most clever of documentaries, but the story is so riveting, you don’t care about technique. Caps owner Ted Leonsis was the producer.

When I got home, I got curious about World War II casualties. We all know about the 6,000,000 Jews, but I thought: how many Chinese? According to Wikipedia, 20,000,000. And 23,000,000 Soviets. And over 70,000,000 altogether. (If you look at the Wikipedia site on casualties of world war ii, you will see that the deaths are divided between military and civilian, and the Jewish deaths are separated as well.

70,000,000? What goes on on this planet?

The Sporting Events: I saw both on TV. The Caps beat Boston last night 10-2 (I saw the last two periods). Why couldn’t they have done this on Saturday, when we were at the game? And I saw a Nationals/Dodgers spring training game today; Dodgers 5, Nats 3. Boy, is spring training boring. And the Nats did not look that sharp. But congratulations to Chad Cordero, who did his best in his 9th inning appearance. And Matt Chico, in his 3 innings looked poor. And there are all these guys playing who won’t make the team; they are just there. Non-roster invitees, they are called.

The Record: I have all of these autographed classical records, and I decided finally (after 5 years) to play one. I chose excerpts from La Boheme, with Carlo Bergonzi and Luci Albanese, with the orchestra conducted by Thomas Schippers. An Italian LP from the early 1970s. Boy, can those guys sing. And now, I am listening to Boris Christoff singing Moussoursky.

Quick Takes: Other Doings

1. The movie: “Mephisto”, directed by Istvan Szabo, at the National Gallery Saturday afternoon. Was it as good as “Taking Sides”, which we saw two weeks ago? Maybe it was; it was very, very good. Won the 1982 Oscar for best foreign film. Starring Klaus Maria Brandauer as Hendrik Hoefgen, Hamburg actor in the 1920s, whose goal is to make it big in Berlin. A member of a left wing political theater in Hamburg, he becomes, when the Nazis take over Germany, the favorite of the Nazis and the head of the Prussian State Theater. A movie about what it means to be an actor and to have theater as your life, and the important relationship between theater and politics, how your politics can director your theatrical enterprises, and how your theatrical enterprises can themselves be redirected by the politics of others. Brandauer did a fantastic job playing a role that was composed of many roles. You saw him on stage, and you saw him playing Hoefgen, a meek individual who, in his private life as well, was always playing one role or another. Based on a novel written by Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann’s son (who committed suicide in the south of France), based on the true story of his brother in law.

2. The book. I finished The Orientalist by Tom Reiss, and recommend it extremely highly. The story of Lev Nussimbaum, also known as Essad Bey, also as Kuban Said. Jew, Moslem, author. A man of mystery, writer of best sellers in Europe during the 1920s, when many Jews were looking east to their oriental roots, and others looking to escape their Judaism through adventure, rebranding, and sometimes new faiths. Nussimbaum died of Reynaud’s Syndrome while still in his thirties in exile in Positano, where he was penniless (he was for most of his life wallowing in money, either his parents or his wife’s) and known only as “the Moslem”. Beautifully written and researched. Learn about early life in oil-rich Baku, the escape across the Caucasus when the Bolsheviks took over, Constantinople, Paris and Berlin, when they were home to Russian emigrant communities. Meet the Nabokovs, and Freud and Einstein, and George Viereck, and Werfel and Zweig, and even Joseph Stalin who, as a young man, was a friend of the Nussimbaums in Baku.

3. The game. Toronto beat the Caps 3-2 in a just awful game.

4. The restaurant. Another great meal at Jaleo (no need to repeat was has been said before; this place is very consistent)

5. The exposition. The antique flea market at the Dulles Exposition Center. Just too much stuff. So many exhibitors, packing and unpacking and setting up and packing and unpacking. Big stuff. Furniture, for example. Fragile stuff. Hundreds (no, thousands) of glass and pottery pieces. Want post cards? Probably a million there. Vintage clothes? Old kitchen supplies or hardware? So much. There was one political ephemera dealer who most have had 40,000,000,000 buttons (more or less). Where do they get it all? How much of it do they really think they can sell?

All in a Day

1. The Book. I finished Paolo Maurensig’s short novel, The Luneburg Variation, and found it a worthwhile read. It takes place in Vienna, probably in the 1970s. Businessman Dieter Frisch is found dead, shot at close range in the temple. It appears to be a suicide, but Dieter Frisch gave no hint of being on the verge.

Flash back: Dieter Frisch, the young German master chess player, and Tabori, the young Austrian/Jewish master chess player. The early 1930s. The Nazis. 1938, Germany invades Austria. Kristallnacht. The rivals, Aryan and Jew, play to a draw in an important match.

Flash forward: German concentration/work camp. Frisch, the German officer. Tabori, the Jewish prisoner. The prisoner is saved because the officer wants to play chess. But it is a bargain with the devil.

The war ends. Time passes. Tabori returns to Vienna, an emotional wreck, hanging around chess halls, not playing. Frisch doesn’t play either, but becomes a successful banker. Both remain obsessed with the game.

Tabori has a young disciple. On his deathbed, he tells the disciple to find Frisch, and tell him what has happened since the war. He does. Frisch dies.

It’s a short book, compelling. Probably even more so if you understand the many specific references to specific chess games and plays.

2. The Play. “No Child”, a one-woman, one-act play that closes today at the Woolly Mammoth. Extraordinary performance the actor/writer Nilaja Sun, based on her experience as a part time drama instructor at an impoverished high school in the Bronx. She plays herself, the principal, the teacher, the janitor and the entire class. She is spectacular.

The play itself is a tragedy disguised as a comedy. How could the state of American education and culture fallen so low?

3. The Exhibit. Today was also the last day of the Marcel Breuer exhibit at the National Building Museum. Breuer was Hungarian Jewish Bauhaus architect and furniture designer. He started as a furniture designer, setting the mark for German modern furniture (of wood, leather, steel and aluminum) in the 1920s. In the 1930s he turned to architecture. His American projects include high rise buildings in Boston and Baltimore, the HUD and HHS buildings in DC, churches, synagogues, private houses and more. His specialty was the use of concrete as a building material, and designs which incorporated various geometric forms placed together often in unexpected ways. He has always been a favorite.

4. The Lunch. Camille’s, across from the MCI Center on F Street. A casual place for lunch. You order at the counter, they call your number, you pick up the food and carry it to your table. It is not expensive. It is slow. It is not very good.

5. The Dinner. Nela, a Mediterranean (read Lebanese) restaurant on N Street in Georgetown. It is pricey. I found it quite comfortable. It is fairly large. They have a fish special daily. Usually whatever white fish they can find, cooked whole, filleted for you, and served in a garlic broth with fresh vegetables. Today’s fish was bronzini. It was spectacular, and compares to the sea bream at Beni Dagim in Jerusalem.