“How can we write plausibly from the point of view of the dying, when we have not died ourselves, and have no one around to ask what is it like to die? But we do ask. We ask writers.”
In The Art of Death – Writing the Final Story Edwidge Danticat writes elegantly and simply, as she reflects on death as written in works by Leo Tolstoy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Albert Camus, Toni Morrison, and others.
Two early books by a most intriguing and lyrical author, Amitav Ghosh:
In an Antique Land (Penguin, 2009) is a spellbinding narrative that combines historical research with personal observations of skeptics and holy men, merchants and sorcerers. It transcends genres and eras. A fascinating re-read.
The Imam and the Indian (Penguin, 2010) is another compelling story by the same author, written in expressive, rhythmic prose. It narrates in part, his experience of living in rural, contemporary Egypt and its connection to western India via the lives of its people, past and present.
Given the situation in the Middle East and other war-torn areas, East West Street, by Philippe Sands (Knopf) is poignant. It is an account of the origins of crimes against humanity and genocide. It is a well-written book, which I highly recommend because it relates the personal and intellectual evolution of two men, Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who simultaneously originated the ideas of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” They did not know each other, yet studied at the same university with the same professors in a city little known today that was a major cultural center of Europe. “The little Paris of Ukraine,” was variously called Lemberg, Lwów, Lvov, or Lviv.
“The little town lies in the middle of a great plain…It begins with little huts and ends with them. After a while, the huts are replaced by houses. Streets begin. One runs from north to south, the other from east to west.”
Joseph Roth – The Wandering Jews, 1927
“What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.”
Nicholas Abraham – Notes on the Phantom, 1975
The Fall of the Ottomans by Eugene Rogan (Basic Books) provides a vivid account as to the origins of the current turmoil in the Middle East. The Ottoman Empire was established in the Sixteenth Century and extended from south of Vienna to include the Balkans, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, and all the way around the Mediterranean up to Algeria.
Fearing encroachment of the Russians on Turkey’s northern flank, the Ottomans formed a military alliance with Germany. Two years into WWI, Britain, and France were bogged down in the killing fields of the Western Front. To divert German resources, the Allies attacked the Ottoman Empire by landing troops in Gallipoli–a devastating defeat. The Allies further attacked the Turks up the Euphrates to Bagdad, at the same time Colonial Lawrence led the Arab armies north from Egypt to Damascus, with the promise that they were being given their independence. Instead, the British and the French became colonial powers, dividing the defeated Ottomans according to the Sykes-Picot secret agreement.
These new borders, drawn in straight lines, brought Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine under British influence, and Syria and Lebanon under French influence. The newly created borders did not correspond to actual sectarian, tribal, or ethnic distinctions on the ground, leading to the present-day conflict.