In the case of French maverick author, Michel Houellebecq, whose book, Submission, is the most controversial publication in the current season, and the brash amount of political satire has triggered the wrath of many segments of the European community.
This is not the garden-variety satire of Swift, Orwell, Huxley, or even Salman Rushdie’s scathing Satanic Verses, which earned him a fatwa for his disrespect of The Prophet.
Often, satire spills into the real lives of people with tragic consequences, like in Houellebecq’s case. In 2002, the writer was forced to appear in French court on charges of inciting religious and racial hatred for calling Islam “the stupidest religion” in a much-publicized interview. He was blasted for criticizing the Qur’an for its “badly written” text.
The beleaguered writer moved to Ireland, where he lived for several years.
What did Houellebecq’s Submission play in recent events involving the bloody ISIS bombings at Brussels Airport and a nearby subway station last March, killing over 35 and injuring more than 200?
His affiliation with the satirical political magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and its publication of inflammatory cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in 2006. put his life in danger. Five years later, its offices were firebombed after an issue was supposedly guest-edited by the Prophet.
Last year, the European edition of Submission was featured on the cover of the Charlie Hebdo, and the fallout was lethal on January, 2015, when a group of masked gunmen attacked the magazine’s Paris office, shouting “Allahu Akbar,” slaughtering twelve people and injuring many others.
Critics called Houellebecq’s work “Islamophobic scaremongering.” The country, and all of Europe, was frightened of the savage series of terrorist attacks, compounded by the influx of immigrants pouring in from ravaged Middle East countries.
At the moment of the attack, Submission publisher William Heinemann bought the book from the French publisher Flammarion, which stationed more security around its facilities after the book’s release. Freedom of expression had been trumped by strict religious dogma, terrifying all infidels.
Currently, the world is in an uproar, waiting on edge to see where the Jihadists will strike next. Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, feeds into the paranoia, generating heated debate about Islam and terrorism, multiculturalism and nationalism, freedom of expression and extremism.
It tells the tale of Francois, a 41-year-old professor of literature and an expert of lusty J. K. Huysmans, a seducer of perky teen flesh. In some sense, Francois is Houellebecq, commenting on the state of middle-aged masculinity, the future of marriage and family and the rights of the individual in an increasingly regulated society.
Submission’s plot runs a parallel track between the emotionally stilted quest of Francois and an imagined France in the election year of 2022, with the surging racist National Front Party threatening the rule of the Socialists, which teams with the Muslim Brotherhood to stem the road to power by the fascists. Some of the characters in the novel are ripped from the headlines, while others like the photogenic Mohammed Ben Abbes and his party of Allah’s faithful are a product of Houellebecq’s fertile imagination.
Many of the politically correct pundits disagree with his vision of a rapidly transformed Europe in the face of religious fundamentalism and extremism, but concede it can happen.
Houellebecq’s Submission concerns itself with political and cultural surrender, not just with the threat of fear and terror, but with intimidation and moral cowardice. It’s the type of situation that Germany, in its post-war Weimar phase, found itself with the rise of Hitler and his aggressive thugs; or with the diplomatic compromises of Chamberlain in Munich, throwing in the towel to the barbarians.
“Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear,” writes Albert Camus, the author of The Stranger.
With France beset in urban turmoil, its citizens chose the lesser of two evils, selecting the Muslim Brotherhood and a mild form of Sharia law, not the harsh brand practiced by the Islamic State, or the Taliban.
All facets of French culture are transformed on June 5th, the date of the Second General Election, including the forsaking of Western dress by the women. Men now take the jobs formerly held by their vanquished female counterparts. Under the new Islamic regime, crime vanishes and non-Muslim teachers are urged to quit unless they convert to the worship of Allah.
After Francois’ flight to the French countryside, he watches the Muslims spread their influence into every nook of Gallic culture and marvels as the Sorbonne is bought by the Saudis and prohibited to all infidels. In this world imagined by Houellebecq, the leading character succumbs to his lust for an abundance of flesh and a profitable Sorbonne post. So even the prickly Francois surrenders, like all of France, to a force, which allows him to indulge his manly pleasures while joining the ranks of a collective of willing converts.
Before continuing with the review, let’s explore this man, Houellebecq, who knows how to seduce the media and the publishing world by writing outrageous things. He makes trouble and heads for the hills. No signings, no interviews, no parties at public venues. Security is tight. Often, he’ll stay in his hotel room to avoid confrontations, for each book sparks resentment and insults. Submission, his sixth book,is no exception.
Born in February, 1958, on Reunion Island, Houellebecq, the son of a French doctor and a ski instructor, is proud to stir up bit of ruckus with his poetry, books, and films. Until 1961, he lived in Algeria with his grandmother, but was relocated to France with another relative, a communist.
There were bouts of depression and stints in mental facilities. He published his first novel, Whatever, in 1994 and a second, Atomised (The Elementary Particles), in 1998. That year, he received the Grand Prix National Des Lettres Jeunes Talents for his body of work. It was the third novel, Platform, which caused him to face legal prosecution for inciting racial hatred. That book, published in 2001, featured several lurid sex scenes with an endorsement of prostitution and sex tourism, both angered critics along with a harsh slamming of Islam in its pages.
In 2005, Houellebecq wrote another novel, The Possibility of an Island, and later adapted it for film. Unapologetic, he published another novel, The Map and the Territory, released in September 2010, winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt, but there was a charge of plagiarizing from another book. The writer dismissed the accusations.
Houellebecq was used to negative critics and bad press. “First of all, they hate me more than I hate them,” he said. “What I do reproach them for isn’t bad reviews. It is that they talk about things having nothing to do with my books—my mother or my tax exile—and that they caricature me so that I’ve become a symbol of so many unpleasant things—cynicism, nihilism, misogyny. People have stopped reading my books because they already got their idea about me.”
Asked about his religious beliefs, which play a significant part in Submission, such as Francois’s flirtation with the faithful, then brief embracing Catholicism, Houellebecq says he thought he didn’t believe in a Supreme Being, but added in a recent Paris Review interview: “I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise.”
In that same interview, he admits that he exaggerates situation and fantasizes, striking fear into readers. “Yes, the book has a scary side. I use scare tactics.”
Repeatedly, Houellebecq has denied Submission is not to offend or provoke anyone. “I can’t say that the book is a provocation—if that means saying things I consider fundamentally untrue just to get on people’s nerves. I condense an evolution that is, in my opinion, realistic.”
From the land of Chirac, Sarkozy and Mitterrand, Houellebecq has written a richly imagined, thorny, occasionally messy political satire about the future of Europe, the immigrant question, and the Muslim option with a heavy dose of religious extremism. He doesn’t care if he presents rude, impolite questions; all that matters is that the questions are asked.
Literary, dark, irresponsible, and full of surprises, it demands to be read as a possible prophesy for our times.
A few weeks ago The New York Times published a moving op-ed tribute titled “The Good Soldier,” an homage to Delmer Berg, for whom the paper had recently run an obituary. Berg was the last known living member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, one of about 2,800 Americans who had volunteered to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War of the mid-1930s. He was also a life-long Communist.
The tribute surprisingly was written by Senator John McCain of Arizona, who said of Berg and his comrades in arms, “I have always harbored admiration for their courage and sacrifice in Spain.”
Berg, McCain went on to say, “didn’t need to know for whom the bell tolls. He knew it tolled for him. And I salute him. Rest in peace.”
The senator’s reverential words from one warrior to another followed close after the publication of two masterful new books on the Spanish Civil War, Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild and Hell and Good Company by Richard Rhodes.
Hochschild, a founder of Mother Jones Magazine and author of the highly praised King Leopold’s Ghost, among other books, has perhaps crafted the more magisterial of the two entries in the crowded field of books on the topic, perhaps because he casts a wider net than Rhodes, whose intent is to focus on the technology of a war that was in many ways a testing ground for wars to come.
Hochschild covers the whole scope of the war with particular emphasis on the writers who engaged in it—and most particularly George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, who both reported on the Spanish conflict and immortalized it in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and in fiction, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, the book that may be all that most people know of the war that was the prelude to and was overshadowed by World War II.
Hochschild says he was introduced to the war in the mid-1960s by two older colleagues at the San Francisco Chronicle who were veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (later referred to as a brigade). And, the Lincolns too fascinated me as early as the 1960s. In fact, I got to know one of the veterans, Steve Nelson—a player in Hochschild’s book, much later, in the early 1990s.
Nelson, who died in 1993, spent his winter months in Pasadena with his son Robert, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and I sat with him for an afternoon in his son’s home when he recalled that as a young man he had immigrated from Croatia and soon became a member of the Communist Party, organizing throughout the country, and then going off to Spain to fight in 1937.
The perennial question is why young men, and some young women, would leave college or quit their jobs—if they were lucky enough to have one in the middle of the Great Depression—and travel, against the wishes of their own government, to fight for the freedom of people halfway around the world? One obvious answer is that nearly three-quarters were either Communists or fellow travelers, and the war was a cause promoted by the party, and loyal party members followed orders from Moscow.
They would only learn years later, most would claim, of the horrors of Stalinist Russia.
Nelson, the organizer, would become a commissar for the International Brigades in Spain, and in Spain in Our Hearts he becomes entangled—in a way understandable only in the context of 1930s politics—with Hemingway’s great book of the war.
In his 80s, when I knew him, Nelson had long-since renounced the party, but he still fervently believed in many of the causes that enflamed his comrades in the Lincoln Brigade, like economic and social justice and racial equality.
The larger character in Hochschild’s book, however, is Robert Merriman, the Berkeley graduate student who with his wife Marion, an aspiring writer, would travel to Moscow in the early 1930s to study agrarian agriculture and later become Commander of the International Brigades (for which the Lincolns were a division) and an inspiration for Robert Jordan in Hemingway’s novel.
But the book is especially about the writers, focusing largely on Hemingway, who reported for Esquire Magazine and the North American Newspaper Alliance; Martha Gellhorn, who would become his third wife, reporting for The New York Herald Tribune; Herbert L. Matthews, who covered the war for The New York Times; George Orwell, who was a volunteer from England who shortly after the war wrote Homage, an attempt to explain the factionalism that doomed the Republican or Loyalist side; Louis Fischer, an American propagandist for Moscow, and later a fighter in the war; and Virginia Cowles, also an American and reporter on the war. There were others, but these are the focus of this meticulously researched book.
The war itself broke out in 1936 after the first democratic government in Spain was established in Madrid and a dissenting army general, the short, porcineFrancisco Franco (later a butt of Monty Python skits) had been sent into exile. He returned to launch a revolt against the elected government, which was a coalition of democrats, anarchists, socialists, Trotskyists and Communists. The elected government came to be known as the Republicans or Loyalists, and the Franco rebels, the Nationalists.
The Republican side became a magnet for men and women from around the world who would form the International Brigades, joined by the Abraham Lincoln Battalion from the U.S.
From near the outset of the civil war there was foreign involvement. Hochschild argues that it was in many ways to become a proxy war in which the Spanish became pawns in a larger game played by world powers. Writer Jeremy Treglown in the New Statesmen said, “foreign involvement wasn’t welcome to everyone in Spain.” For example, Italy’s Mussolini, soon followed by Hitler, lent support to the Nationalists.
Stalin’s Soviet Union supported the Republicans. But here’s the rub. While Hitler supplied Franco with the most sophisticated weaponry, bombers and even pilots—and an American oil company provided most of the fuel, Stalin toyed with the government of Spain, leeching off the country’s gold reserve in exchange for leftovers from World War I—guns that wouldn’t fire, surplus tanks and other vehicles that often didn’t work, and inadequate personnel.
The United States, despite several pleas from Hemingway and Gellhorn—who was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, kept out of the war and forbade American companies from selling arms to the Republicans—although the fascist-loving owner of Texaco (he especially admired Hitler) Torkild Rieber was given a pass to supply oil to Franco throughout the conflict. FDR apparently agonized over the war but was swayed by the U.S. Catholic bishops who favored Franco’s Nationalists.
He would later say, Hochschild recounts, that the arms embargo was “a grave mistake.”
Orwell, who volunteered to fight for the Republic and later wrote the highly respected Homage to Catalonia—in which he tries to analyze what went wrong with the war—revised his thinking. His conclusion: “The Fascists won because they were the stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t.”
Much is made of Hemingway’s involvement in Spain and whether his dispatches to the U.S., much from the journalist’s refuge, the Hotel Florida in Madrid, counts as accurate reporting. He “said nothing in his wartime newspaper dispatches that might have tarnished the heroic Republican image,” said Hochschild.
“We seldom stop to think how much self-censorship we accept when there is a widespread belief that a cause is just,” Hochschild so wisely argues.
It is in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hochschild says, that Hemingway “showed a more capacious understanding of the civil war than in his journalism from the front.”
Hochschild recounts evidence that Hemingway spent extensive time with guerillas in a trek across mountains to Soviet-run training camps. “Like many novelists,” he wrote, Hemingway “rarely spoke of the research—sometimes surprisingly extensive—that lay behind his fiction.” This foray into dangerous territory certainly informed key scenes in the novel.
Hochschild also suggests that Hemingway spent time with Bob Merriman and was certainly aware of his leadership of the International Brigades. Like others, Hochschild assumes that Merriman was the main model for Robert Jordan, although the hero of For Whom the Bell Tolls is not a Communist but rather a homegrown American idealist. (Our other author, Richard Rhodes. concludes that Jordan is Hemingway himself.)
But the party was apparently not happy with the novel, perhaps because the hero is a lone wolf. In a crazy twist, after the book was published, former Lincoln Brigade commissar Steve Nelson wrote an enthusiastic review in which he called the book “a monument in American literature.” But the party disagreed—perhaps because one of the most wonton acts of barbarism is committed by Communist-controlled Loyalists—and, it ordered Nelson to retract his opinion. Finally, Hochschild says, Nelson followed the party line and said “that it was no accident ‘this book is hailed in the literary salons of the bourgeoisie.’”
John McCain would say the book is his “favorite novel, and its hero, Robert Jordan…my favorite literary hero.”
For Hochschild, one of the finest reporters on the war was Virginia Cowles, a young debutante, who by her own account had “no qualifications as a war correspondent except curiosity,” but apparently charmed Hearst executives into giving her a crack at writing from Spain. She would later compile many of her dispatches in her memoir Looking for Trouble.
Herbert Matthews became a booster for the cause of the Republicans in his many stories wired to The New York Times (as he would later become a cheerleader for Fidel Castro). Hochschild cites Matthews in 1937 visiting the trenches where Americans were hunkered down outside Madrid. The men, he said were “a healthy, happy lot with plenty of zest for fighting.”
Cowles clearly offers the less idealized version of events: “the men looked strained and sick, and I learned that they had been in the front line for seventy-four days without a break…. Their faces [were] lined and worn.”
Of the 2,800 Americans who fought the losing fight in Spain, 750 died there. Hochschild points out the obvious fact that rate of deaths far exceeded American deaths in/ any other of the wars in the 20th Century.
If young men at war are pawns in old men’s game, this was never truer than in Spain.
Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 is essential reading; road in scope and meticulously researched, it places Spain and the Americans and others who fought and wrote there in perspective with the broader issues playing out and leading to World War II. “Men of my generation,” Hochschild quotes Albert Camus, “have Spain in our hearts.”
Richard Rhodes, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, in Hell and Good Company is concerned with the human stories of the war that he says had not been told in their entirety. But he says, “I was also drawn to technical developments of the war” and how “destructive technology amplifies violence” and perhaps “constructive technology amplifies compassion.”
From the beginning, Franco had the technology of destruction on his side, thanks largely to Hitler. Emblematic of the horror made possible by the German Luftwaffe’s aid to Franco’s Nationalists was the erasure of the Basque village of Guernica—depicted in Picasso’s famous mural.
Hitler had decided that Spain would be testing ground for his new weapons of war, including the treacherous Stuka dive bombers used in Guernica. At his Nuremberg trial Hermann Goering would say that he had urged Hitler to give support to Franco “under all circumstance, firstly, in order to prevent the further spread of communism in that theater and, secondly, to test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect.”
The reign of terror poured on the Republic by the Luftwaffe met with little effective resistance because, Rhodes argues, “Madrid lacked antiaircraft weapons. The Western democracies’ policy of nonintervention denied the Spanish Republic such weapons; it bought the few it had from the Soviet Union.”
The Nationalists, under German direction, chose market day to bombard and ultimately destroy the village of Guernica. Junkers-52 trimotor bombers released forty to fifty tons of bombs, while Fiats and Messerschmitts, Rhodes says, strafed “civilians as they ran to escape the rain of destruction; the pilots even play at machine gunning the herds of sheep and their shepherds heading home from the feria on the roads outside of town.”
A London Times reporter wrote that the dead in the village “lay about like dirty bundles of washing,” and that “fire was eating away the whole of crowded little Gernika [the Basque spelling].”
If the war was marked by the technology of destruction, Rhodes also presents the other side of the war: advancements in medicine and treating trauma on the battlefield. Wounded men were dying for lack of blood or from receiving tainted blood or wrongly typed blood. Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune was a pioneer in blood typing and cataloguing and organizing monthly blood donations in Madrid. With Spanish Doctor Frederic Duran Jorda he coordinated a program for delivering blood by refrigerated truck to the front.
A hero later denounced back at home in the political fervor of the cold war, Doctor Edward Barsky was a leader of the American Medical aid clinic group. A surgeon at Beth Israel Hospital in New York in 1936, Barsky went to Spain in 1937 smuggling morphine into the country and setting up emergency hospitals at the front; then devising portable trauma units that were lifesavers for battlefield casualties. Calling his units “auto-chirs,” the doctor said in a memoir, “it is surgery on wheels. In it a surgeon… can operate in perfect comfort under the most adverse conditions. He can move his auto-chir as close to the front lines as he dares.”
“As always in war,” Rhodes says, “the improvements advanced by involuntary vivisection—by necessary but terrible experimental interventions on the bodies of living men.”
For his heroic interventions Barsky was a victim of congressional witch-hunters when in 1947 he refused to turn over the financial records of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee that he had set up to aid Spain. He would spend six months in prison and have his medical license suspended.
When the Supreme Court upheld that suspension in 1954, the liberal justice William O. Douglas dissented, saying: “When a doctor cannot save lives in America because he is opposed to Franco in Spain, it is time to call a halt and look critically at the neurosis that has possessed us.”
Rhodes’s contribution to the history of that time and place that polarized so many is a valuable companion to the Hochschild book, both helping to fill in the mosaic of the war that inspired so many.
But the conundrum persists. Some say it is almost never a good idea to meddle in civil wars. But for the Lincolns and others like them what holds true is that:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Confession: I’m one of those readers who have developed an allergy regarding most Baby Boomer clichés. Like so many others, I’m tired of hearing about where they were when JFK was gunned down or how the Beatles changed their lives or why they did or did not go to San Francisco and wear flowers in their hair.
However, Forty Years Stoned, a memoir penned by former Washington Post staff writer Tom Huth, is a story so riveting and in some ways so unique that even though certain Boomer-centric milestones are repeated, the book is not stale.
Contrarily, due to the vibrant spirit of the author and also the exceedingly offbeat tale he has to tell, this memoir is nothing less than a heartbreaking delight. And if “heartbreaking delight” qualifies as a hefty oxymoron, a closer look is justified.
Right off the bat, Tom Huth’s narrative clarifies that he is actually a pre-Boomer. This is important. A vast number of books, movies, TV shows, and hit songs have focused on the lives and times of individual protagonists who were born between 1946 and 1955 (the first decade after the end of World War Two).
What this book convincingly establishes is how important a mere half-decade can be. Author Tom Huth was born in 1942. He anchors his narrative to the year 1972 as a starting point for myriad life changes that affected him after the 1960s ended.
As the author puts it, with admirable succinctness: “I have just turned thirty. I am married to my college girlfriend from my hometown of Detroit. Carol and I are two middle-class kids pretending to be grown-ups. We are good friends but intimacy has eluded us. We live with our two children…I am sporting a big Jerry Rubin beard to let my editors, and everyone else, know where I stand.”
For the record: Jerry Rubin was both a famous and infamous radical activist with wildfire Hendrix hair and a bushy beard, known mostly for his wide television exposure regarding the 1968 protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the subsequent trial of the Chicago 7. Once upon a time, Rubin was lionized by the New Left and a portion of America’s youth; later in life, before he died, he’d converted to Yuppie culture and a career in finance. Now he’s a footnote.
But it’s crucial in this memoir for Tom Huth to pinpoint the cultural signposts that buoy one of his key observations:
“When the 1960s broke out, there were lots of young people my age—the war babies, the pre-boomers—who were caught in the middle. The civil-rights and free-speech movements exploded just after I’d finished college and gotten married and started a career and had a child, all by the age of 23. I seemed barely too settled to go south, to join the revolution. But I was way too young to escape its siren song. So over the years I have kept my establishment job and atoned for it by growing a beard, smoking dope….”
That’s the memoir’s ultimate leitmotif. The author does a meticulous, honest, eye-opening job of explicating how everything that was loosening up in the 1960s became downright unhinged, unwieldy, and unmoored as the 1970s unfolded.
Of course, his first marriage collapsed. Millions of Americans who married young in the 1960s were divorcing in record numbers by the mid-1970s.
And, of course, regular marijuana smoking became for Huth’s demographic just as much of a daily and nightly routine as beer, wine, and whiskey (plus tobacco) were for innumerable American adults. The tingles of “this is illegal” added to its allure.
Instead of worshipping at Sinatra’s altar of martini bliss and Rat Pack iconography, Tom Huth and cohorts idolized Bob Dylan. Regardless of the great cultural shifts induced by the Reagan Era, they comported themselves as hippies forever.
But then the heartbreak occurs. In Forty Years Stoned, readers are plunged into the parallel universe of serious illness. All the predictable issues of a wayfaring archetype (and Huth is encyclopedic in his recollection of everything from fleeting Open Marriage trends to the inevitable miseries inflicted on young children, when their parents are pushing 40 and are still “on the road”) give way to a superb set of meditations about the illness of the author’s second wife, Holly.
Described in the book’s dedication as “a woman who has made an eloquent performance art out of her living, and her dying,” the heart of this memoir belongs to Holly Young Huth. Who is still alive, by the way, Parkinson’s disease be damned.
Forty Years Stoned is a lyrical tribute to the palliative, healing, inspiring, and perennial toking of marijuana in the lives of Tom and Holly Huth, who were both at ease with regular marijuana use long before her Parkinson’s diagnosis.
But in the many years that followed the onset of her disease, as Tom Huth became more than a husband and rose to the challenge of becoming his wife’s primary caregiver, the use of marijuana (in a judicious, disciplined way) continued to be their essential balm.
In recent years, the arguments in favor of medicinal marijuana and a whole passel of decriminalization efforts have led to significant social acceptance of pot. This gentle memoir reminds us with acute details and astute intelligence how marijuana and its many adherents have waited all their lives for pot usage to be accepted as readily as cocktails. Yet, it’s also a love story and a true-life tale of one couple’s spiritual quest.
I read travel books the way others watch The Game of Thrones, particularly those written by authors who have traveled to the Middle East. And, so, when I noticed a young woman sitting at the Greater Los Angeles Writers’ Society booth at the recent Los Angeles Times Book Festival at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (a yearly event held every April) holding a book by this title, Bowling in an Abaya, I was drawn to her.
Ms. Garcia is a pretty Latina lady (her roots are Puerto Rican) with an open face and a lively spirit. Soon enough we fell into talking about the excessive use of khat, a narcotic that is chewed by both men and women in Yemen. I knew about this from another book I had read on the region. When I offered to review her book for this magazine, she handed me a copy.
Yemen is at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, bordered to the north by Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea to the west, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea to the south, and Oman to the East. Most notable is that was the home of the Sabaeans; so, Queen of Sheba, who came bearing gifts to King Solomon in the 10th Century BC, came from Yemen. Its capital was Sana’a but now, since Sana’a has come since 2015 under rebel control, it has been moved to Aden.
Yemen is one of those Middle Eastern countries whose politics I find impossible to follow. It was a British protectorate after the Middle East was carved up following WWI until 1967, when it became a kleptocracy, “a government by those who seek chiefly status and personal gain at the expense of the governed.”
Yemen has been in a state of political turmoil since 2011, when its President Salah stepped down. It has affiliations with Al-Qaeda, particularly in the north. Recently, Saudi Arabia bombed area of the country but I don’t know why. I can’t even say whether Yemen is Sunni or Shiite, but I know it’s a country of religious extremism, not a particularly inviting place for a spirited young American woman such as Ms. Garcia.
After a decade working in advertising, Ms. Garcia transitioned into education. She realized the global appeal and travel opportunities for English teachers so she applied to teach overseas. In 2007 and was given an assignment in Yemen. She was situated in Aden, Yemen’s second largest city, a small seaport city situated in the southernmost tip of the country.
Ms. Garcia spent about six months there. Her good natured account of her oft-times lonely and frustrating experience, of the claustrophobic and secluded world of Yemeni women, did not increase my desire to visit Yemen. I didn’t realize until reading her book the degree to which a strict Islamic code restricts their lives: they cannot leave their home without wearing an abaya, which covers them from head to toe. Many of them also wear a niqab, a veil that leaves only their eyes visible.
They can’t go anywhere in public unless accompanied by a male member of their family—a husband, brother, father or uncle. At least Yemeni women have their families to keep them company; Ms. Garcia was utterly alone, as were the other teachers, making her isolation all the harder to bear.
Ms. Garcia’s classes were large. It was frustrating because all she could see of her students, women dressed their abayas and niqabs, was their eyes, so she had trouble distinguishing one from another. “I’m standing; there’s a sea of black fabric and eyes everywhere. The image is intense, drawing me into the blackness like a camper to a fire. The more I stare, the more intense it becomes….” Whatever she tried, like having them wear nametags, didn’t last long, and she was soon back trying to decipher who they were.
As an American teacher Ms. Garcia could have worn Western attire in the classroom but she found it easier to also wear an abaya.
“Initially, I don’t have a problem wearing an abaya to the remote campus and around town. It’s hot and bit awkward over my clothes, but nothing I haven’t been able to get used to, especially since it makes security check points more tolerable. Over time, however, I become conflicted about the garment: my figure is hidden and it’s not unlike wearing a graduation gown every day. Clothing is no longer a form of self-expression because I now blend in with every other female, which, of course, along with modesty is the main paint. Regardless, the abaya has rendered me formless and invisible, so I don’t feel like myself anymore.”
Of course, the title of the book refers to the absurdity of wearing an abaya when doing some things, like playing tennis or bowling, two activities which Ms. Garcia engaged in while in Yemen.
Her assignment was cut short by political unrest (this was 1978), and she returned to the United States. Upon her return she tried to make sense of her experience:
“It took me several years to understand my experience in Yemen, or at least make some sense of it. I realized that Yemen was just one piece in the puzzle of my life, an unexpected shape and size puzzle piece that I had to make fit. I now know it was a wake-up call, a call to action to start living authentically, living from my heart, not just with my head. I didn’t even realize I was asleep at the wheel. How do we know unless someone, or life, tells us? I think this is very common. People seem to just go through life doing what their or society expects of them, and I’m no exception. I went to college, got a job, and tried to advance in my field. I had goals and was considered a successful woman. What’s wrong with this? To answer my own rhetorical question, I think I was doing all of it without wakeful consciousness.”
I enjoyed reading Bowling in an Abaya. I enjoy Ms. Garcia’s bold candidness. I commend her for handling a difficult situation with fortitude and good grace. I wish her well in all her endeavors, which I hope will include writing about subsequent adventures.
What happens when you decide you are done with your office job and you are going to go on a five-month hike through the wilderness? Gary Sizer did just that, and Where’s the Next Shelter? is what happened.
It is the story of his adventure along the Appalachian Trail. He starts on a “shakedown” hike where he has a run in with a black bear. The excitement continues throughout the book, from Springer Mountain, Georgia all the way to Maine.
Sizer’s first-hand account offers a unique journey for his readers. He pulls no punches in taking us from the gritty lows of giardia and Lyme’s disease through the terrifying experience of a windstorm in the White Mountains to the heights of the final summit at Mount Katahdin. Each hiker has their own experience out there in the woods, but Sizer excels at bringing the trail culture to the reader while weaving in his personal experience.
His love for the outdoors is apparent from the start. Sizer (given the trail name Green Giant) teaches us about the flora, the fauna, Camping 101, trail etiquette, and the indomitable human spirit. Where’s the Next Shelter? shines as an account of real relationships and real challenges that people, adventurers, choose to face each year as the hiker community grows.
Gary Sizer has become somewhat of a celebrity for it with Where’s the Next Shelter?,and rightly so. In his book he brings together the social and personal aspects of the trail that we all can relate to in life. Green Giant does this with an episodic approach loaded like a pack with lighthearted attitude.
Readers can tell that Sizer will never be the same after his travels, and it is apparent how deeply touched he has been by the trail and the community that shares his wonder and love for it. Where’s the Next Shelter? is a should read for those who have hiked and for those with any interest in hiking or knowing what it is like to be a long distance hiker.
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