A Modern Romeo and Juliet, With a Twist

I try to judge a book by what it is intending to do, not by how I would have written it. This is hard for a writer and occasionally takes discipline – as often times the prose does not live up to its desired intents; and my own prejudices, likes, and style get in the way.

So, that being said, what is it that “Sharia London” intends? I would suggest that its intent was to present us with a fast-moving, action packed readable adventure which entertained while also highlighting the dark underbelly of the Islamist sub-culture in London of which we read about so often in polemical articles and newspapers. Gang rape; honor killings; terrorist attacks – these things are not controversial in that they are facts; but writing about them can be controversial, for to do so without prejudice and respecting people while pointing out behaviors which are not conducive to life in a free society means these days to traverse a mine-field of political correctness which would make the bravest author blanch.

In that regard – and respecting the fact that insofar as the book is pop fiction and does not attempt to delve into the inner life of the characters, but simply recount a series of events, I think the author has done a fair job. Belying the title – which I might have chosen differently – this is not a novel which is attempting to disparage a whole group of people; it is not a “racist tome” – far from it. The protagonist, Marlon, is a scholar of Islamic history and falls in timeless “Romeo and Juliet” fashion for a young Muslim girl of Pakistani descent. Their love is clearly honest; and it is through the experiences of this young girl – who receives attacks and death fatwas for her doubting the faith she was born with and falling in love with a ‘kafir’ – that the author demonstrates his concern for the situation of people who while living in the West are still caught in conditions which we as westerners would never endure.

As I read the book I was reminded of the story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali woman who fled forced marriage and rape; of how she left the Islamic faith and was forced to flee and flee again under threat of death, arriving finally in the west where she was met with a secular fatwa from the Southern Poverty Law Center for being an “anti-Muslim bigot”. And how that remarkable woman has not been silenced but continues to speak out about the rights of the oppressed.

Now to the nuts and bolts. I owe it to myself, and my readers, to be honest. I did not really like this book (I did not like “Da Vinci Code” either; actually I thought it was very poorly written indeed, so if you did – and I am certainly in the minority – you might like “Sharia London”). I don’t like pop-fiction and I felt some of the topics were pushed too far to make it believable (people, especially Muslims and evangelicals – like me – can be liberals without being progressives). Also attempting to insert the Ismailis as the “Good Muslims” was somewhat facile, given some of the historical baggage of the Seveners and their place in modern contemporary Islam.  Its best if we do not try to pick winners and losers; instead championing debate and tolerance and speech.

I do like the fact that there are people willing to try and treat a complicated topic with honesty and realism – I wish there were more, because our freedoms are being suffocated like a fire deprived of oxygen. And our freedoms are only protected through their use. If for no other reason than that, buy this book.

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We All Who Are Human

It’s raining outside, that thick drenching African rain. On the other side of the concertina wire somebody is sheltering under a mango tree fiddling with a radio, looking for a signal stronger than the pounding of the droplets on the zinc roofs – only for those of us who know, a sign of wealth, of opulence in Africa. A twang replacing the thunk thunk of torrents on mud banco walls and thatch; reward for a season which has gone well, when the harvests are good or one of the family has finally gotten some sort of job, and when no one has died.

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Inside my armored walls, here in Elysium, my toddler is streaming something on Netflix, written in New York, drawn in Hollywood, digitized somewhere probably in India or China and sent around the world over fiber-optic cables dragged across the sea floor to Lagos. I sit here, procrastinating from my fifth novel as I chat in English with my Peruvian friend in Niger and Tweet madly through Venezuela’s bamboo curtain which keeps out only food – and hope – to the nouveau prisoners in humanity’s endless war of attrition against those who would control us.

And I think of the rains. Because it’s the rains, isn’t it? The answer; the natural world which we cannot control, try as we might. The rains which arrive sparingly; the plants which grow in season unless Israeli hydroponics or ancient Tiwanaku irrigation makes the rains irrelevant. But not for Africa, never for Africa. The ground is closer hear, the earth more prescient, the tiny maize shoots delicate against the bugs and birds and the pounding rains more real; gracious rains holding back the dusts of the Harmattan blowing off the Sahara covering Daewoo and donkey alike and causing a hacking, wheezing cough to all shades of man – black and white and tan and even sometimes the blue men of the desert, though more accustomed to it they are said to be.

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Life is like a flash of that raindrop – not choosing when it will fall, or where; will it water the Lake Titicaca in the precious form of rare snow melted in a moment of sunlight to trickle down from the imposing crowns around the Altiplano, or will it instead become murky and brown and rich as it loses itself in the ancient Niger, churning up the sand as the runoff from dunes which no longer hold their soil after the trees have gone, to be burned into charcoal and trafficked by terrorists for a dollar? Will it fill the bay at Monte Carlo, splashing playfully from the fiberglass hulls of yachts bedazzled with colorful drinks and barely-dressed party-goers or instead off the hand-sewn fabric covering the rundown fishing junks in Bengal, waiting out the rains for the fish never rise in the torrents? It really is only luck which decides where the drops will fall – if they water the storied rainbow tulip fields of Denmark or the earthen beans of Acholi. A luck that makes all the difference, though, doesn’t it?

My son has known many of the rains; I have known many more – I’ve been around longer, gone farther afield. The rains are the same. That our God of birds and prisoners is also the God of rains and floods; a God who provides, but does not have to as if by rule or natural law – a God who made us all but did not make us all equal, just as he lets the rains fall upon Lake Chad and Lake Geneva in equal measure; and what this all means for we all who are human.

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Book Review: The Lieutenant of San Porfirio by Joel D. Hirst

Reblogging this review of my 1st novel which I thought you might enjoy. All the best!!

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Genre: Literature & fiction, war, political, military

Length: 336 Pages

Publishing Date: August 6, 2012

Buying Links for The Lieutenant Of San Porfirio

Amazon

iUniverse

Google books

Author Website:

http://www.joelhirst.com

Twitter: joelhirst

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From the Blurb:

That is why, my new friends the visitor was still speaking. Freddy snapped back to the moment. I would like to make a special request to you from our Comandante, the freely and democratically elected president of Venezuela. He is holding a special socialist youth summit, where la juventud socialista will come from all over the world to learn the lessons of our Revolucion Pacifica. Freddy s heart skipped a beat. He looked up into the dark brown eyes of his new hero and was sure that the message was for him alone. Please, come. Take a folleto, and if you are interested, follow the instructions to sign up. And with that, the presentation was…

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Our Tremendous Inequality

Painters and poets and inventors, dreamers all – starving and blind. Paul Gauguin on a tropical island painting the interior walls of his desperate cabin before burning it to the ground in his madness (if we are to believe W. Somerset Maugham’s fictionalized tale). Earnest Hemingway tired and gaunt chasing the pigeons through Luxembourg Gardens. Harsh despair; how else would mankind achieve something so beautiful as “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”; to stare at for hours, to return again and again to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as we ourselves seek to answer those questions. “Old Man in the Sea”; tranquil in the glory of the written word that calms as it adds nuance and meaning, of a story well told which gives our lives satisfaction. Henry Ford in his tireless attempts to make his assembly lines work – and changing the world.

Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi sailing from Galata Tower to the wrath of the Sultan; followed centuries later by the Wright brothers. Engines and flight – what could be more magnificent?

Now I ask, what if Gauguin had not felt the need to compete, not sought for the brilliance of the unique but instead the safety of the just-the-same, of the equal? Or worse what if he had been told his work was not correct, that it did not conform to the established norms? What if Ford had given up after his first abortive effort in his frustration not with the problem of mass production but instead with piles of tape unmovable even by a genius? If Hemingway had stopped putting pen to paper in exasperation at the censors, like has happened so often; to extinguish himself and his stories in that bottomless bottle and be forgotten because he never was? What if the cushion for their failure was too thick, what if there was no panicky sweating through sleepless nights? And that, juxtaposed against a success which no longer sparkled with grandeur – a boring glass ceiling stifling breath and growth?

Now consider that there is yet another side to this; what if their very failures had become the conquest in that most heinous bait-and-switch by a system which attempts balance, not achievement? Ford’s first crappy car still clattering down 21st century highways (if he could have out-maneuvered the horse-and-buggy unions, that is). Hemingway’s purposeful prose crowded out to make room for “Eye of Aragon” ignoring the wishes of the readers.

If deprivation and desperation are the mother of art; if necessity (…) of invention: equality is the mother of the second-rate.

“But what about those who are truly poor, who have no chance to even have a chance?” you might ask as you sip your five dollar latte. “How cold a person you must be,” you snarl at me from behind your expensive laptop in your air conditioned house, looking down at your designer watch – you don’t want to miss the Antifa march!!

Fair enough; but you who are reading this are not the desperate poor, and I would venture rarely even consider them in your conspiracies for to legalize plunder. If you did, you would first consider the bounty you would deprive of them should your plans come to fruition – more than $400,000,000,000; a private windfall of goodness which in your blind hate you wish to appropriate to yourselves. Yes, you pretend you are fighting for the Syrians living in Jordanian camps; the Congolese who suffer from rape used as a weapon; the Venezuelan doctors and lawyers who march across a bridge to sell themselves in Colombia’s brothels. But is that really true? Or are you just jealous and angry? The answer to this question will be found in this, the followon question; “What have you done for them, the truly poor?” Did you know that inequality is also the mother of compassion? And compassion is that which makes us most human; empathy where we give of the bounty with which we have been so extremely blessed, filling our lives with meaning and reminding us to be thankful to our God for so great a prosperity. Empathy – have you gotten on an airplane, that tremendous invention product of our unsafe economics, to help the poor? Because I have; for 20 years actually; five civil wars, floods and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. IMG_0144Violence and death and terror. And I have rarely seen you there. I have, however, seen your ideas. In Venezuela, bonfires of human flesh beside a bread line; in Cuba, 60 years of untold stories; in Nicaragua, beatings by the secret police against those who dare to desire to live, well to live a life like yours. Because you who so decry inequality and rail against the wealthy – did you know you are the wealthy? When you say more ‘should be done’, I ask again “What have you done?”

So, with this in mind here is my un-invited guidance; for which I’m sure you will curse me. Get on an airplane, as I did, and go to Kigoma, or Dalori, or Zaatari – cut your teeth not marching the storied streets of Chicago but instead lending out a helping hand to those fleeing the ideas you cherish. Go into the dark corners of the world, as I have, to learn about its terrible equality. In the process you might even learn to love our messy, tremendous and glorious inequality. Disavow yourselves of the ruin you cradle – come back sad and perhaps broken by the suffering you have seen, as I was.

Heal and rebuild. Then, when you have earned the right to speak, you might slowly and gently begin to advocate for a better world from an empathy you will no longer be able to dodge; keeping always Venezuela’s starving poor in the forefront of your imaginations.

Because there but by the grace of God go we.

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The Ruin We Cradle – A Poem

Each one of us has temptation;
Tis something seeks us to bring down;
A flesh-pull of being which echoes of meaning;
And makes us lose sight for to drown.

Some struggle to death for with hate;
Sensations to them which are due;
Ev’ry situation to darkness oblation;
Repost to all discourse is rue.

Now others their burden is envy;
Dredging bitterness in the not just;
They rail ‘gainst the wealthy, the pretty, the healthy;
Finding how by to satisfy lust.

There are those who chase meaning in power;
Believing it their right to rule;
Still in the silence while gripping the violence;
Their worth they have found in the cruel.

But what for to those who all three;
Aforementioned vile traits they do strive?
In perfect rapport their great evil does soar;
Triad wicked of urge does connive.

For those discontent tis the way;
To cherish the ruin we cradle;
To see in the vice for our life a fine spice;
And which then we dispense with a ladle.

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Venezuela’s New Poor

“The poor you will always have with you,” a strange statement for he who came to give “life more abundant.” Is it possible that Jesus was not utopian. It’s an ironic and perhaps paradoxical statement since Jesus was the incarnation of utopia itself. Or was he? “I have come to set the captives free,” or “Give to Cesar what is Cesar’s and to God what is God’s.” How do we square this circle, how do we make sense of the paradox? Maybe we’re not supposed to – maybe it’s in the permanent tension where the delicate balance of salvation is found. Jesus understood that utopianism inspiring the political imaginations of man is dangerous. The 4000 year history of the theocracy, based in Jerusalem, was enough of a lesson to God the Father that man cannot exercise political power responsibly for him to continue to repeat those mistakes ad infinitum. He had to find another way.

A way to be found, it would seem, in making our peace with poverty – even while we fight it.

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“The poor you will always have with you.” But you never want it to be new poor. That is too sad, and too scary. We prefer to watch the nightly news about massacres in the Congo; about the killing of Christians in the Sudan and the murder of innocents in Cambodia. Those places have been always a mess; we don’t expect any different. We sympathize, we sorrow: we are a good people after all. Some of us get on airplanes to go serve. Those who cannot, open their checkbooks. Organizations are formed and dissolved – campaigns are waged and abandoned. Money flows. And still the weaponized rape continues. Third world problems for which we have developed third world answers, outsourced to NGOs and the UN; which let us give of our tremendous prosperity but not lose ourselves in the sadness.

But what about in places where we allowed ourselves to replace sympathy for empathy; not believing that act would hurt us – not really. The poor around the fringes of our civilizations? Those overlooked by so great a prosperity? They are comfortable to help – for are there not even poor where we ourselves reside? Alcoholics asking for a beer, seeking shade under the overpass of I-10 on Baseline road in south Phoenix? The single mother from Moody Church working two jobs, whom we help with a food basket, free babysitting, a bake-sale before worship on Wednesday to pay for that new water heater. This kind of poverty is safe; and accepted – it is ours and it is not dramatic, for we all can empathize. “What if my husband too died in a car crash?” You might ask yourselves sometimes. Do you who read this have enough life insurance? How long could your bank account survive an unwelcome calamity – a cancer diagnosis or an act of stupidity and selfishness which destroys a family? These are “first world” questions for which we have developed our own first world answers as we seek to take care of our own knowing that “there but for the grace of God go I.”

But what about an unexpected poverty – on an epic, catastrophic scale? That is what we who know feel about Venezuela. We who have lived there or visited; missionaries who have built churches in villages among the sugarcane fields of Aragua; diplomats and oil executives who have sailed the privileged winds in the Andes of Merida or dived the storied reefs in Morrocoy or Los Roquez. Who wear perfume by Carolina Herrera (when we can afford it); who celebrate the baseball victories given to us by Ozzie Guillen; who watch the movies starred by Edgar Ramirez. Who have loved beautiful Venezuelan girls and built families of children who are not even half-Venezuelan, not these days, not anymore. It was a land of real prosperity. Sure it was unequal and there were social problems; it was Miami without the rule of law, Costa Rica with an army (therein lies part of the problem). A country which knew about the problems raging around it mostly from those arriving to seek refuge and safe haven as it hosted Jewish refugees from WWII; Cuban refugees fleeing Fidel’s “sea of happiness”; Peruvians fleeing Fujimori; Chileans fleeing first Allende and then Pinochet – glaring at each other over polished countertops in the cafes of Altamira.

Political problems mostly. Fights for freedom with which we Americans can identify. But famines and camps? UNHCR building their latrines; UNICEF managing little schools where the children sit on the dirt in front of teachers brought in from Guinea Bissau and Mali; beautiful Venezuelan girls who before won contests now using those plastic sheeting showers thrown open to the squalor with a simple wind? World Food Program distributing bags of corn-soy-blend to be cooked into little patties on top of makeshift open fires beside deforested hills, the wood used for charcoal and the frames of the plastic houses in the makeshift plastic neighborhoods? Those little harnesses in which the starving children of the desperate are weighed to determine their malnutrition on a scale decided in New York for situations such as these.

No, we who had known the prosperity were caught off guard. To imagine the young people I took beach vacations with; girls I flirted with; professors who taught me how to enjoy Cervantes and Garcia Marquez; mentors who introduced me to my faith – now sitting silent and bored in the camps; eating the patties or prostituting themselves for a bowl of rice? That is what makes this tragedy unimaginable.

So what to do? There are no solutions, it would seem. Rebel warlords in the Congo recruiting child soldiers to protect their squalid bases deep in the jungle where their wicked rituals of domination are enacted; soldiers under the command of a onetime laureate of peace cleansing the Rohingya from land which is also theirs. Now a drug cartel supervising the annihilation of a once-prosperous state.

“The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus told us. He told us this to steady our nerves and our hearts for an endless fight against poverty and injustice; to remind us that we who are rich by any standards that matter might ourselves also become poor; and to guard against any utopian pettifog selling cities of gold beyond the next election – that is how Venezuela got into this mess in the first place, isn’t it?

What does this mean for you reading this? It means you should give – of your prayers, of your money, of your volunteer time. Help a Venezuelan refugee who has come to America. Take your summer vacation and go to Colombia to provide some love in the camps. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Jesus also told us, and examples like Venezuela do bring this home, for while we perhaps can’t imagine ourselves living in a squalid camp in the Congo, we certainly can – and have – seen ourselves in Caracas’ middle class apartments. So click the links below, which will take you to Andean Aid’s donation site if you want to help the refugees, and Fundana’s if you want to send money in dollars to help children abandoned in the mayhem. Commit to pray; sponsor a family. Forward on this heart-felt piece; and make common cause with Venezuela’s new poor. It is what Jesus would have you do.

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Human Rights and the Discovery of Empathy

In my first year of humanitarian work I was called on to help start up a program in Kosovo after the end of that bloody conflict. Ethnic cleansing they called it, genocide without the murder I suppose. I was 21 or 22, wet behind the ears – young and idealistic. I was going to change the world! I went into Kosovo walking alongside the new UN government, setting up shop in Prisren as we all began to work with the people who were returning in rivers from Albania and Macedonia to help winterize their homes for the coming frigid Kosovar winters and to get winter wheat planted before the earth became frozen and hard; a crop to begin that painful process of recovery.

From there, after the program was on its way, I was sent into the Democratic Republic of the Congo – Goma specifically and Bukavu where the second civil war had just started. Who knew it was going to be the worst war since WWII. Africa’s world war. I was still green – and plunged from one crisis to the next, literally flying from Tirana in to Kigali and driving across the border into Goma – I was struck by the difference between these two conflicts.

Kosovo – a population of maybe two million. The response? 35,000 NATO soldiers; every NGO on the planet (including “Clowns Without Borders” – its nice to know Clowns also have no borders); every UN agency. The work divided up into quadrants, funds flowing in for relief work which were staggering in their scope. Then Congo – I was there even before the incompetent peacekeepers. Uruguayans setting up prostitution rings, but this was before then. The sound of the silence of Congo’s civil war was deafening. In Kosovo we’d had the beating of helicopters and the crunch of friendly tanks and the huge parties with hundreds of foreigners who had come to help the little blond refugees. In Congo? A few haggard aid workers chain smoking and drinking themselves into early graves.

There has been much written on this of course, donor fatigue and the like. But all the analysis comes down to one word – empathy. With whom we identify has a great role in how we react to the evils we see around us.

I just finished reading Lynn Hunt’s well-written book “Inventing Human Rights”. First what it is not, it is not a story about westerners inventing human rights. Human rights – by their very “self-evident” nature have always existed; they weren’t dreamt up in a bar in Oxford or Geneva. The book might better be called “Re-discovering Human Rights” but I’d probably go with a different title – “Human Rights and the Discovery of Empathy”. Because that’s what this book is about. It is a well-researched and well-written account of how, coming out of the renaissance and the enlightenment and the industrial revolution people in western Europe began to rediscover their humanity, but more importantly the humanity of others, through the process of empathizing. The author chooses an interesting entry into this topic, the beginning of novel-writing in Europe. And how reading novels like Clarissa helped revolutionize the way people thought about other people by putting themselves in others’ shoes – in the abstract. The book then goes into the epic fights (legislative and in public opinion) against torture; on writing the different declarations which we hold now almost for granted; the pitched battle against slavery – as step by step humans rediscovered why we are different, and above the animals. Lynn avoids the religious arguments into the “Truths we hold self-evident” or the “Laws of God written on the hearts of men” or the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” – which is why the book is misnamed. Nevertheless as one in an endless series of tomes to help us figure out how we saved ourselves as a species from the rack and debtors prisons and enslavement – “Inventing Human Rights” belongs alongside others such as “Liberalism: The Life of an Idea” and “The Triumph of Liberty” to lead us in understanding the nature – and responsibility – of our humanity.

The case that the greatest piece of technological advancement in history was Gutenberg’s press is one that could be well-argued using this book; that is when everything started changing in the west – and the world.

On a personal note – I am very glad she started with making the case for fiction (a novel), and I feel somewhat vindicated for the sneers I receive in choosing literary fiction as my avenue for expression. There are too many people today who arrogantly and ignorantly announce to the world “I don’t read fiction” – probably not even knowing what they’re saying. Empathy – it is what I try to do with my fiction, to connect people to situations that they probably don’t think of. “I, Charles, From the Camps” the first person account of a black man from a refugee camp who becomes an LRA soldier in Uganda.

“Lords of Misrule” about a Tuareg boy who joins jihad.

But I digress. Read Lynn Hunt’s excellent book, and then continue on to the others I recommend and keep learning. We are losing our humanity – social media and hate are taking it from us – lets rediscover our humanity, and with it the rights not of ourselves but of others.

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