Review of A People Tall and Smooth, by Judith Galblum Pex

A People Tall and Smooth

Stories of Escape from Sudan to Israel

by Judith Galblum Pex

Cladach Publishing, 2011. 219 pages.

A People Tall and Smooth tells the stories of many Sudanese refugees who have ended up in Israel.

Judith Galblum Pex and her husband John run a hostel in Eilat, Israel. She introduces the situation that developed in 2007 with these words:

“People from over one hundred nations intermingle in Israel. Besides Jews from Kazakhstan and Kansas, Burma and Belgrade, Calcutta, Congo and places in between, over a million tourists every year add to the mosaic. Include in the mixture two hundred thousand legal and illegal workers from countries such as China, Thailand, Philippines, Nepal and Ghana, and it’s clear that the average Israeli is used to seeing faces of all colors and shapes.

“In 2007, however, a new group appeared on the scene whose appearance and status was unlike any other till this time. We began to notice men, women, children and babies on the streets in our town of Eilat who were exceptionally black and strikingly tall.

“‘Where do they come from and who are they?’ My husband John and I asked ourselves. ‘What language do they speak?’ Having managed The Shelter Hostel in Eilat on the Red Sea since 1984, we are used to interacting with diverse people groups and were eager to meet these new arrivals.

“Our questions were answered when a tall, dark man walked through our front gate one morning. ‘I’m Gabriel, a refugee from Sudan,’ he introduced himself in perfect English. We then had even more questions. How did these Sudanese get to our city of Eilat in the south of Israel? What made them want to come to Israel of all places? Were they refugees from the genocide in Darfur that we’d been reading about lately?”

Their questions were answered by the refugees that came streaming to them. I was fascinated by how many Sudanese believed this passage from Isaiah 18 applied to them:

“Woe to the land of whirring wings along the rivers of Cush, which sends envoys by sea in papyrus boats over the water. Go swift messengers to a people tall and smooth-skinned, to a people feared far and wide, an aggressive nation of strange speech whose land is divided by rivers … At that time gifts will be brought to the Lord Almighty … to Mount Zion.”

Judith Galblum Pex writes:

“Whatever the original meaning, many Sudanese took this passage as a personal encouragement in their complicated struggle as refugees in Israel. Still, life with uncertainties in Israel was better for them than what they had endured in Africa.”

This book tells the stories of several Sudanese refugees, of different backgrounds, who wound up on their doorstep and became their friends. The writing is a little uneven. I would have preferred less about how they got the stories and the author’s reaction to the stories, and a focus on just the stories themselves. However, the stories are so compelling, you can get past that distraction.

This book contains amazing true stories of powerfully resilient people with a strong faith in God who have come through incredibly difficult events. The stories are both eye-opening and inspiring.

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Review of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe

by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Harper, 2011. 256 pages.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the story Kamila Sidiqi and how she kept her family of sisters — and many of their neighbors — going when the Taliban came.

Kamila got her teaching certificate in 1996, just before the Taliban came. She’d gone to classes despite the war. But with the Taliban in charge, she couldn’t teach. Her father and oldest brother had to leave Kabul, for fear of getting targeted by the Taliban. She and her sisters had to stay inside, and could only leave the house in full chadri with a male relative escort. The situation in Kabul got worse and worse.

“This is what I have to figure out, Kamila thought to herself. I need to find something I can do at home, behind closed doors. I need to find something that people need, something useful that they’ll want to buy. She knew she had very few options. Only basic necessities mattered now; no one had money for anything else. Teaching school might be an option, but it was unlikely to earn her enough money, since most families still kept their girls at home out of fear for their safety. And she certainly didn’t want her income to depend on an improvement in the security situation.

“Kamila spent long days thinking about her options, considering which skills she could learn quickly that would also bring in enough afghani to make a difference for her family. And then it came to her, inspired by her older sister Malika, who, along with being a great teacher, had over many years developed into a talented — and sought-after — seamstress. Women from her neighborhood in Karteh Parwan loved her work so much that Malika’s tailoring income now earned her almost as much as her teacher’s salary. That’s it, Kamila thought. I’ll become a seamstress.

“There were many positives: she could do the work in her living room, her sisters could help, and, most important of all, she had seen for herself at Lycee Myriam that the market for clothing remained strong. Even with the Taliban in power and the economy collapsing, women would still need simple dresses. As long as she kept quiet and didn’t attract unnecessary attention, the risks should be manageable.

“Kamila faced just one major obstacle: she had no idea how to sew.”

This book tells the compelling story of how Kamila faced that, and many other obstacles that were by no means minor, and built a thriving business that even helped other neighboring families without men in charge.

I like the author’s summary at the end of why Kamila’s story is so important:

“Brave young women commit heroic acts every day, with no one bearing witness. This was a chance to even the ledger, to share one small story that made the difference between starvation and survival for the families whose lives it changed. I wanted to pull the curtain back for readers on a place foreigners know more for its rocket attacks and roadside bombs than its countless quiet feats of courage. And to introduce them to the young women like Kamila Sidiqi who will go on. No matter what.”

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Review of Barefoot in Baghdad, by Manal M. Omar

Barefoot in Baghdad

A Story of Identity – My Own and What It Means to Be a Woman in Chaos

by Manal M. Omar

Sourcebooks, 2010. 244 pages.

Manal Omar knows how to work cross-culturally. She begins her book like this:

“Throughout my childhood I struggled to answer the simplest of questions: where are you from? I was born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents who moved to Lubbock, Texas, when I was six months old. During my childhood, my parents would uproot me every few years, from Texas to South Carolina to Virginia. Living in the American South, I was far from the image of a Southern belle, and yet the summers I spent in the Middle East only emphasized my American identity and made it clear to me that I would also never exactly be an Arab poster child.

“By the time I was in high school, I had learned to embrace and love all parts of my joint identity with the fervor only a teenager could feel. I was an Arab and an American. I was a Palestinian and a Southerner. I was a Muslim and a woman. As I grew, I accepted that the emphasis on each facet of my identity would shift with the phases of the moon. Growing up in a world struggling to understand multiculturalism, I saw this ability to move among my many identities as my own secret superpower. . . .

“In Iraq, I was finally able to put my superpower to full use. A wave of my American passport at the checkpoint of the fortified Green Zone allowed me access to the representatives of the U.S.-led coalition. My adherence to Muslim dress and my fluent Arabic made it possible for me to live in an Iraqi neighborhood with no armed security. This unique access allowed me to see an Iraq that was accessible to few others. With each passing season, the country would shed its skin from the past and emerge as a completely new place. Who was better positioned to adapt within a country experiencing a period of tumultuous change than someone who had been raised with an ever-shifting identity? In Iraq, I found a place with as many complicated contradictions as I had in myself. Here, though, my internal complexity was manifested in an entire society. My international colleagues were struggling to force Iraqi culture into convenient boxes, but I simply accepted its unique, fluctuating shape. International journalists marveled over the fact that women who were covered head to toe walked side by side with women with orange-colored hair and wearing tight jeans, but I simply shrugged. It was natural to me. The mosaic of identities inside Iraq was not hypocritical or schizophrenic; it was what made the country powerful.”

Manal went to Iraq to work for Women for Women International.

“Women for Women International focused on the most vulnerable women. This usually meant those who were the primary breadwinners in their house: widows, divorcees, or unmarried women living with elderly parents. In addition to the economic challenges, there was a social stigma attached to these women. This meant that their finding work was even more difficult.”

This book tells about her experiences there, and tells stories of some of the women she met and was able to help or wasn’t able to help. However, over the years she was there, the situation in Iraq deteriorated, and eventually she had to leave and base her actions from Jordan. So in that way, this book tells a sad story. Manal herself describes it this way:

Barefoot in Baghdad is not a story of the war in Iraq. It is the story of the women in Iraq who are standing at the crossroads every dawn. It is the story of my time working with Iraqis as they struggled to create a new nation and a new identity. It is informed by my years of living and working within communities throughout the country. It recounts my own experiences and the stories of the men and women I encountered, each of them players in one of the most complicated political struggles in our era. It is also a memoir of the discovery of my many identities and the strengths and weaknesses inherent within them. Finally, it is a story of finding love in the most unlikely place. As my life became intertwined with the lives of the Iraqis around me, I lost sight of where my horizons ended and theirs began. Their expectations became my expectations; their disappointments, dreams, pains, and losses became my own.”

This book tells a fascinating story, and will give you insight into the lives of women in Iraq today.

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Review of Little Princes, by Conor Grennan

Little Princes

One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

by Conor Grennan

read by the author

Books on Tape, 2010. 8 CDs.
Starred Review

I was happy when I learned that Little Princes is the 2011 choice for All Fairfax Reads. I was captivated by the audiobook version and found myself listening as eagerly as to a novel.

I do like that the author doesn’t try to glamorize what he set out to do. He freely admits that he was planning to spend a year traveling around the world, and he decided to volunteer to help at an orphanage in Nepal to make himself sound less selfish. He didn’t know anything about taking care of children. When he meets them, they literally pile on top of him, and from there, you can hear in his voice how the children win him over.

I especially enjoyed hearing the author tell the story himself. That way, you know the names are being pronounced correctly, for one thing! He tells how he didn’t have the heart to tell the children he would never come back, and so a promise to them got him to return. Then he found out that these “orphans” were not actually orphans. That child traffickers told families in remote villages that for a steep fee they would protect their children from being conscripted as soldiers and give them an education and opportunities. Instead, the children are sold or abandoned in Kathmandu.

It began with seven children that Conor and his co-worker almost rescued. When they learned that those children had been lost, he had to come back to Nepal to try to find them. And along the way, he began a mission to find the children’s families.

The story is beautiful and compelling. Above all, it’s about bringing hope and joy to children, children who are like any other children in the world, playful and loving and deserving of a wonderful future.

I enjoyed the audiobook very much, but I did check out a copy of the print version in order to see pictures of the children, whom I felt I had come to know. A map in the front is also helpful.

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Review of Dreaming in Chinese, by Deborah Fallows

Dreaming in Chinese

Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language

by Deborah Fallows

Walker & Co., New York, 2010. 205 pages.
Starred Review

I’ve always loved books about the cross-cultural experience of living in another country. Deborah Fallows has a PhD in Linguistics, and makes her story even more interesting by reflecting on aspects of the Mandarin language and the ways they are reflected in the Chinese people and culture.

She and her husband lived in China for three years, and this book is a fascinating look at her experiences. Don’t tell, but I’m already plannning to give a copy to my nephew for his birthday — He just spent two semesters studying in China. I wonder if he will have noticed some of these same things.

The author explains why the language lens worked so well for her:

“The language paid me back in ways I hadn’t fully anticipated. It was my lifeline to our everyday survival in China. My language foibles, many of which I have recounted in this book, taught me as much as my rare and random successes. The language also unexpectedly became my way of making some sense of China, my telescope into the country. Foreigners I met and knew in China used their different passions to help them interpret China: artists used China’s art world, as others used Chinese cooking, or traditional medicine, or business, or music, or any number of things they knew about. I used the language, or more precisely, the study of the language.

“As I tried to learn to speak Mandarin, I also learned about how the language works — its words, its sounds, its grammar and its history. I often found a connection between some point of the language — a particular word or the use of a phrase, for example — and how that point could elucidate something very “Chinese” I would encounter in my everyday life in China. The language helped me understand what I saw on the streets or on our travels around the country — how people made their livings, their habits, their behavior toward each other, how they dealt with adversity, and how they celebrated.

“This book is the story of what I learned about the Chinese language, and what the language taught me about China.”

Her result is completely fascinating. You will enjoy this book if you are at all curious about people and language.

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Review of Baking Cakes in Kigali, by Gaile Parkin

Baking Cakes in Kigali

by Gaile Parkin

Atlantic Books, London, 2009. 361 pages.
Starred Review

This enjoyable yet surprisingly deep book reminded me of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith. Both books are set in Africa, though this one in war-torn Rwanda instead of peaceful Botswana. But in both books, the main character’s profession lets her get to know people from a wide variety of backgrounds and help solve their problems and bring people together. Precious Ramotswe is a detective, but the protagonist of this book, Angel Tungaraza, bakes cakes.

We learn quickly that baking cakes in Kigali is a much more artistic endeavor than baking cakes in America:

“In the same way that a bucket of water reduces a cooking fire to ashes — a few splutters of shocked disbelief, a hiss of anger, and then a chill all the more penetrating for having so abruptly supplanted intense heat — in just that way, the photograph that she now surveyed extinguished all her excitement.

“‘Exactly like this?’ she asked her guest, trying to keep any hint of regret or condemnation out of her voice.

“‘Exactly like that,’ came the reply, and the damp chill of disappointment seeped into her heart….

“‘As you know, Angel,’ the ambassador’s wife was saying, ‘it’s traditional to celebrate a silver wedding anniversary with a cake just like the original wedding cake. Amos and I feel it’s so important to follow our traditions, especially when we’re away from home.’

“‘That is true, Mrs Ambassador,’ agreed Angel, who was herself away from home. But as she examined the photograph, she was doubtful of the couple’s claim to the traditions that they had embraced when choosing this cake twenty-five years ago. It was not like any traditional wedding cake she had seen in her home town of Bukoba in the west of Tanzania or in Dar es Salaam in the east. No, this cake was traditional to Wazungu, white people. It was completely white: white with white patterns decorating the white. Small white flowers with white leaves encircled the outer edges of the upper surface, and three white pillars on top of the cake held aloft another white cake that was a smaller replica of the one below. It was, quite simply, the most unattractive cake that she had ever seen. Of course, Mr and Mrs Wanyika had married at a time when the style of Wazungu was still thought to be fashionable — prestigious, even. But by now, in the year 2000, surely everybody had come to recognize that Wazungu were not the authorities on style and taste that they were once thought to be? Perhaps if she showed Mrs Wanyika the pictures of the wedding cakes that she had made for other people, she would be able to convince her of the beauty that colours could bring to a cake.”

Angel and her husband are from Tanzania. They lost both their adult children to AIDS, and now must take care of their five grandchildren.

“It’s only that we won’t be able to provide for these children as well as we did for our first children. But we must try by all means to give them a good life. That’s why we decided to leave Tanzania and come here to Rwanda. There’s aid money for the university and they’re paying Pius so much more as a Special Consultant than he was getting at the university in Dar. Okay, Rwanda has suffered a terrible thing. Terrible, Mrs Ambassador; bad, bad, bad. Many of hearts here are filled with pain. Many of the eyes here have seen terrible things. Terrible! But many of those same hearts are now brave enough to hope, and many of those same eyes have begun to look towards the future instead of the past. Life is going on, everyday. And for us the pluses of coming here are many more than the minuses. And my cake business is doing well because there are almost no shops here that sell cakes. A cake business doesn’t do well in a place where people have nothing to celebrate.”

Although Angel herself is dealing with some heavy losses, and so are the people around her, she is able to touch people’s lives — from convincing a mother to give her daughter a better name than Goodenough to providing family for a couple getting married who have lost all of their own families. This is an uplifting book and provides enjoyable and interesting reading.

One fun note: I was watching the DVD series of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which is filmed in Africa, and the first episode happened to have someone selling cakes. I noticed happily that those cakes were indeed far fancier and more colorful than cakes I’d see in America. So apparently I’ve learned something true about baking cakes in Kigali.

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Review of French by Heart, by Rebecca S. Ramsey

french_by_heartFrench by Heart

An American Family’s Adventures in La Belle France

by Rebecca S. Ramsey

Broadway Books, New York, 2007. 308 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #4 Nonfiction: True Stories

Having lived in Germany for ten years, French by Heart is exactly the sort of book I love — someone else’s tale of making a home in another country. There’s much that I relate to from my own experiences, much that I enjoy vicariously, and a wistful feeling of “Wouldn’t I love to move to France for four years!”

Rebecca Ramsey’s husband works for Michelin, and for four years they moved their family to Clermont-Ferrand, four hours south of Paris. Her three children attended the local French school, and her family’s way of doing things quickly came under the scrutiny of their neighbor, a grandmotherly type with definite opinions.

Rebecca has a wonderful way of pulling you into the confusions and delights of living in a foreign country, of beginning to feel like you belong, while always knowing you are different. She expresses the joys and frustrations of building a friendship with her nosy and opinionated neighbor. We cringe with her as she describes the daunting adventure of getting stitches for her bleeding son, and feel pride with her at her success.

One of the things I love about living in a foreign country is how it adds a certain sense of wonder even to the events of daily life — shopping, going out to eat, going to school, talking with friends. Everything is new and different, memorable and exciting.

Rebecca Ramsey catches some of that as she describes their arrival in France:

“What was it about this place that was so enchanting? Even with my queasiness, I couldn’t help feeling charmed by it, from the old brass door knockers shaped like a lady’s hand to the women, young and old, with their sultry eyes and obvious confidence. As we walked by the cafes I tried not to stare at the people sitting there, their beautiful French words twirling out of their mouths, mingling with the swirls of coffee perfuming the crisp morning air. I wanted to understand it all, the Frenchiness of this place. I wanted to be part of it and for it to be a part of me — a part of us, our family. We hoped to have four years or so in France. Could that happen in four years? We were nervous, yes, but our American hearts were open. Could we be French too, just for a little while? French, not by citizenship, but by heart?”

Reading this book, France will win a place in your own heart, too.

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Review of Four Seasons in Rome, by Anthony Doerr

four_seasons_in_romeFour Seasons in Rome

On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World

by Anthony Doerr

Scribner, New York, 2007. 210 pages.

Anthony Doerr won an award to come to Rome for a year to write. What a fabulous opportunity! The timing, however, was interesting — the fellowship began when his twin sons were six months old.

Four Seasons in Rome tells the story of that chaotic and amazing year when Anthony Doerr and his wife and infant sons got to live in the Eternal City. This wonderful book combines aspects of many types of memoir: the bemused blunderings and awe of a new parent, cross-cultural adventures and misadventures, musings about the writing process and the ways we avoid it, and the wonders of Rome.

I had an extra interest in the book, because the time our family visited Rome (our last family vacation as an intact family) was during the very year that Anthony Doerr was there — We were there after the Pope’s funeral, but before the next Pope was elected. So we saw a teeny tiny bit of what he mentions.

Here’s a little taste:

“Every few days there are moments of excruciating beauty. We are simultaneously more happy and more worn out than we have ever been in our lives. We communicate by grinning and pointing and waving food in the air. We don’t sleep as well as we used to. Our expectations (today I might take a shower; the #75 bus might actually show up) are routinely dashed. Just when we think we have a system (two naps a day; Shauna finds a rosticceria with chickens on spits that is open on Sundays), the system collapses. Just when we think we know our way around, we get lost. Just when we think we know what’s coming next, everything changes.”

It’s fun to vicariously share in Anthony Doerr’s experiences, not quite sure whether to envy him or to feel sorry for him — mostly glad I can enjoy it in nice comfortable book form.

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