Have you had a bad day?

Do you think you have had a bad day? Probably you have. But you might want to think again once you read Jean Hatzfeld’s book ‘A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide – The Killers Speak‘.

If you are interested in the antecedents and aftermath of the Rwandan genocide then you can find countless studies, both academic and popular publications, introducing the events from the survivors’ perspective or giving political, economic and social background of the many troubled years of the country. Despite the huge amount of information available about the pogroms, there are not too many sources that give us the viewpoint of those who committed the murders en masse. I have even met a handful of survivors in person who all emphasized the importance of forgiveness but I have never read accounts of the killers in this quantity and quality that I found in Jean Hatzfeld’s book.

Jean Hatzfeld is a war correspondent and a journalist that becomes obvious when you start reading his book even if you don’t know anything about his professional life. He doesn’t follow a chronological order but provides short chapters organized according to certain topics. This might be confusing at the start especially for those who do not have much information about the 1994-events and those that preceeded them. Only from about the 60th page we start receiving details that help to place the interviews in to a bigger picture. The author made interviews with a group of killers on the courtyard of the prison where they had been sentenced for a few years or a life. Despite their very confined situation and what they did, there is not much remorse coming through the discussions. Rather the opposite – as we all tend to blame others or the circumstances when we made the wrong choice, they also blame the actual leadership and atmosphere of the country arguing that there was no other option than going to the bog, exactly as if it was a 9 to 5 job, and eliminate the Tutsis as quickly and effectively as possible. They say that noone can understand them who was not there. They only did what they were asked to do and they are looking forward to returning to their previous life once released from prison.

I do not have many memories from my childhood and young adulthood that I can relate to watching TV simply because we lived the privileged life of those who spent their time outside playing and discovering the same streets day by day. However, two news headlines stayed with me. One of them was about the Rwandan massacre when the pictures showed an area where the roads and trenches were absolutely covered by human bodies. I was 16 that year and I do not think I was able to grasp the situation but after 20 years I still remember those images. I still find it absolutely unbelievable that despite the fact that foreign authorities knew about what is going to happen, all they did was rescuing their workers and representatives then withdrew most corps that might have had the power of forestalling the events. And a little later they sent their reporters to help us shudder a little during our afternoon tea.

I also cannot believe how far people can go from sheer greed that was a very important element of the killings. Day after day the Hutu went to slaughter their Tutsi neighbours and old friends then finishing at around 4pm they started looting to secure their own future. The Hutu participants have probably never had a life before like they had during these months. Food was plenty, the future looked bright and rich, they hardly ever considered the consequences of what they were doing. The result of this April to July period was the mass murder of an estimated 500.000-1.000.000 Rwandans, Tutsis and moderate Hutus alike, 20% of the country’s population, and many years of struggle for generations to come. Twenty years has gone since the genocide but its effects are still clearly felt in the Rwandan society.

Related post: Amahoro

Reading

I am in a troubled relationship with reading. I love it for the discoveries it can provide and I hate it for the struggles I many times have to overcome when I find a new book to read. The latter might sound harsh and definitely unusual from someone who has stored up a number of degrees over the years but I don’t believe that I should feel bad about it. Skills and abilities differ, the question is how you deal with the baggage you receive at birth. Pretending how learned I am by citing book titles is not my style. You need to feel books not to tick them off a so-called ‘must read’ list that often include popular but rather empty, meaningless books. You can read whatever you want if the book makes you feel good.

You can find countless articles about issues that the authors connect to the overuse of electric gadgets and the internet. One of these is the inability to read texts longer than a 140-character txt message. They say that there are so many stimuli in our lives that we cannot pay attention to a fat book anymore. This might be true to some but certainly not to me. I always had a certain level of daydreaming problem, and I can assure you the internet was nowhere near me when I was growing up. But I always did have hundreds of books on my disposal. And I did read them. Only I was slightly slower than let’s say my twin sister to whom it takes a couple of hours to finish a 300-page book. Annoying, isn’t she?

My imagination is very fertile and it must be an extremely engaging book to be able to keep my mind on the story. Otherwise it will wander along many other things so I have to return to the same lines several times and I still won’t have a clue what the book is about. I rarely give up on books though. Once I started I would struggle through them regardless of the quality and the topic. One can learn from anything, they say. I have finished a smaller library of books I believe but only rarely I find books that stay with me. One of them is the Roots by Alex Haley.  I most enjoy reading authors from non-European cultures because they add their own language, words and expressions to their writings making my brain work more, keeping my attention on the page longer. I especially like African writers for their unbelievably intelligent use of languages. In their case many times it is not enough to speak the European language given book was written in but you need a deeper knowledge of the culture they come from. It is also useful if you are familiar with a few expressions in their original languages. Yoruba and Swahili writers that I have most often read love to decorate their writings with words of their mother tongue, not speaking about African proverbs and sayings that might seem nonsense without knowing their context. The more you read of them the more you will understand of the stories for an African writer will never leave you without something to remember but it takes time and lots of learning to reach up to their level.

I was not trying to make a point with this post, I just gave up on a book last night that I started reading a few weeks ago and I still didn’t get through its first chapter. Letting go is not always easy but it helps you have a good night sleep at least.

 

 

The Horse Boy by Rupert Isaacson

I was sent a link a few weeks ago with a book review that included quotes from the book ‘The Horse Boy‘. The following day I went to Waterstones and bought the only copy they had in store. Already the description sounded eye-catching – The true story of a father’s journey through Mongolia to heal his autistic son.

Rupert Isaacson, a journalist, a travel writer and founding director of the Indigenous Land Rights Fund managed to arrange an extraordinary journey for his son thanks to his earlier experiences and connections he built during his work both as a travel writer and an activist.

From a western point of view you can say that taking a severely autistic boy to the opposite end of your world to be healed by shamans, is madness. However, despite my very confining western education and upbringing, as someone who has visited Mongolia several times, I say that curious things can and do happen there.

You do not have to believe in shamanism to feel the power of nature and its forces all around the country. If you know that these incomprehensible forces are that nurture shamanistic traditions, suddenly the whole idea becomes more westerner-friendly for not many of us could doubt the energy that those magnificent mountain ranges, vast steppes and endless rivers transmit. Of course, if you want to really see and feel the place, you need to be open and you need to leave at home not only your  negative but your positive stereotypes too. When you land in Ulan Bator, take it as an entirely new chapter in your life. Or rather the first. It can be a life-changing experience but you have to be receptive and unbiased.

The book is not only an extradordinary story of a family who fight for finding the best medicine for their son but it is one of the best travel writings I have laid my hands on about Mongolia so far. It is objective, descriptive and, thankfully, lacks the usual romanticism that makes similar less known areas of the world some kind of exotic fairy lands. You will get a good overview of how shamans do their job together with a short historical background, as well as a glimpse into the life of the Mongolian country people.

I am not going to tell you more about the core story, better to read and experience it, so you can decide yourself what you believe and what you doubt.

Read more about the author’s Horse Boy Foundation here, that ‘brings the healing effects of horses to autism families’.

Rupert Isaacson, The Horse Boy, Penguin Books, 2009

 

 

‘Tales from the Expat Harem’

I am just reading a brilliant book about some extraordinary women’s adventures. All of them is strongly connected to Turkey somehow. Some of them spent a few years in Turkey at a certain stage of their lives working and discovering, then returned home, others  married to Turkish men and stayed for good. What is common in these women is their passion and love for the country and its culture, and their openness about their own struggles and victories. The stories are unbelievably honest and not once heart-breaking. The book can be about any other cultures though, these tales and its lessons are universal.

When you come into contact with a culture different to yours, you inevitably transform to a bigger or lesser extent. When I say coming into contact with an other culture I mean a deeper level of interaction than what you might experience when you go into a restaurant and taste local cuisine. A one-week holiday can give you an impression of a country and its people but this way you will rarely experience reality. Even if you spend years in a country you can easily escape without being touched by its people. It’s all up to your receptivity and curiosity.

The authors of the mentioned book, thankfully, were curious enough to immerse themselves in everyday Turkish life, let it be rural or urban. Starting anew like a new born baby they learnt how to navigate in their new world and reassessed themselves too. From a new perspective they gained a better understanding of their homeland’s values, the stereotypes we all hold and even nurse throughout our lives.

As I said, the stories are universal. Regardless of the culture you are fortunate to experience, it is always a privilege to get the opportunity to peep into it. It is not only extremely exciting but an honour too. We all draw our own lessons from a book but to me it’s about how ridiculously scared we still are to step back from our own ways of thinking and to see and feel something new.

I recommend this book not only to those interested in Turkey but most of all to those who doubt that people from different backgrounds can live at peace and marriage alike. As someone recently kindly advised me ‘let’s just leave the pre-filled boxes out of the story, boxes are to be held on the shelves’. That is my advise too. Just let things happen, leave your preconceptions behind.

 

Anastasia M. Ashan, Jennifer Eaton Gökmen (Eds)

Tales from the Expat Harem, Foreign Women in Modern Turkey

Seal Press, 2006

 

‘Getting off the me plan’

The quote above is from Sakyong Mipham http://www.sakyong.com/ whom I have mentioned before. I discovered his books only a few months ago and I still don’t know much about him but it’s clear that he has an exceptionally deep understanding of both the Oriental and Western cultures. He is a Renaissance Man that quality I always admired in whatever shape this arrived into my life. Being able to consider these two huge slices of the world certainly helps when one tries to forward more hundred years old messages. Let me pick one thing now that his books talk about and always infuriated me but I never fully understood why.

The message couldn’t be more relevant and vital. That is, it’s time to forget about yourself and start caring about others. That is what will make you feel better and not pampering your ego. I don’t think I can count how many times I have heard ‘I need a me time’, ‘I need to focus on myself now’, ‘I need some time alone to think’ and the like. No, not all came from men as an excuse trying to get rid of me.

How do you do this? Seriously, please someone tell me how it works. Do you sit down at home facing a mirror then you look deep into your own eyes and start discussing your issues? I don’t get it. What if, for a change, we would forget about our own real or generated issues and we would start thinking about others?

I have a twin sister that means the notion of ‘me’ has a very different meaning to me than to the majority of people, and many around us struggle to understand this. I guess what we have is something that the Sakyong talks about. That is putting others forward instead of yourself. In 24/7. Without thinking and without this being an issue or nuisance. I can assure you, it is worth it. Because I have two more siblings I know ours is different to the usual sisterly relationship. The good news is that once you can do it with one person you can do it with anyone.

Let me give an example to explain what really bothers me. My housemates decided to cook dinner one night but they didn’t have one of the main ingredients at home. I offered mine. They used it. Then they had the dinner. Without asking if I would like to taste it at all. This is something that I can’t imagine doing to anyone. They did it not because they particularly dislike me but simply because their focus is on themselves and their momentary needs.

I don’t know how it feels to ignore others (for reasons see above), so I don’t even know what’s the benefit of behaving like this but I know that it feels good to help and being considerate towards others’ feelings. Start doing it and you will see things pouring into your life. By help I don’t mean big things, a nice gesture towards a stranger without expecting anything back or just doing things the way that won’t hurt anyone, even if it means some extra effort from you, will be a good start. And please, stop repeating how busy you are as an excuse. When we do this, we only prove our belief in our own utter importance above others.