“Birds Without Wings” – A Book Review

I first encountered Louis de Bernières through his novel “War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts”; a playful romp through revolutionary Colombia – with magic. I read this, Bernières first novel a long time ago – while I was still an adolescent. But decades later, as a magical realist novelist myself, I hearkened back to Don Emmanuel as I sought some of the tools I would use to write my own two-part “San Porfirio” series on socialist Venezuela. To a certain extent I identify with Bernières; who also was first inspired to write by what he saw in his time living in Latin America and processing the juxtaposition of the bizarre with the macabre up against the truly hopeful.

For this reason I set about the process of reading “Birds Without Wings”, Bernières 2004 novel with a certain amount of expectation. Bernières did not disappoint. “Birds Without Wings” is a true epic – taking us through the life of a Turkish/Greek village in the early 1900s as the Ottoman Empire, the “sick man of Europe” is in the final stages of its spectacular demise. There are myriad characters – a potter, a harlot, a crazy man they call “The Dog”. Above it all, interjected evenly throughout the narrative is the story of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk; the man who would mark the end of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of modern Turkey.

The story is not a good one – because it cannot be. The crumbling of the Ottoman Empire was extraordinarily bloody. Bernières plunges into the trench-war in great, gory detail. He does not polish over the agony and heartache that is heralded by the end of a world order. Genocide, fratricide, inter-religious strife. The mass-movements of people hither and thither at the whims of sultans and dictators; crusaders and jihadists.

The world is a terrible place; politics is often winner-take-all and does not consider the poor, the peasants. Armies march across lands friendly and unfriendly; and the expulsion of Christians and Muslims from ancestral homes does not contemplate old relationships and connections that go beyond faith, to the land and the trees and the waters in which are nestled people’s ideas of “home”.

Americans increasingly tend to see the world as a history-less place; a past too bloody to visit, heroes too flawed to know, stories too complex that do not fit into our clean vacuous narratives. I don’t know if it has always been thus; but it seems nowadays that we prefer to live in a world without a past, not recognizing the currents that brought us to where we are and therefore expecting people near and far to live up to our own nouveau-prejudices regarding race and religion and correctness. Reminding ourselves that history is an edifice built deep, layer upon layer upon layer of the stories of strife and blood and suffering helps remind us of what it means to be human; and to make common cause with the worries and fears – the plight – of civilizations that came before.

This book will help us do that; and that is why we should read it.

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“One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” – A Book Review

Have you ever pondered a crust of bread? Or stopped to consider the ‘thickness’ of a bowl of soup? Have you thought about food in terms of ounces? The exact number of pinches necessary to fill a hand rolled cigarette? The careful choreography required to give you an advantage over others – advantages measured not in grand titles or powerful friends but in slices of sausage or the thickness of a fleece coat?

I just finished Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s first, simple novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. Solzhenitsyn decided to write this book while he himself was in the Gulag, as a catalog of sorts of the experiences and concerns of the Soviet Union’s unfree. That alone amazes me; while this great writer’s mind was occupied with the not-so-trivial minutia necessary to stave off death till tomorrow, till next week he was also thinking about his writing. I guess that’s what makes great writers great.

I have a friend who always tells me “You have to hustle in this life, to get ahead”. We do that sometimes in the West – networking, going to happy hour after work when we’re tired, attending the Christmas party even though we’d rather be with our families. Some people “hustle” to get to Target superstore at midnight before “Black Friday” – pushing and pulling to secure a cheap flat-screen TV or a free foot massager. But “hustle” took on for me a new meaning, laid out as it was by Solzhenitsyn in that formidable daily struggle to stay one step ahead. Because in the life of the Gulag, hustling becomes existential, and sinister. Rushing to get in line for the many “counts” and “searches” – to preserve the precious minutes of free time before bed. Cozying up to the guard who will let you keep most of the package you receive from family … that is if you receive a package at all. Hurrying, wary to never be late for the countings in the morning; for breakfast – where your food is measured expertly in ounces by your practiced eye; trudging deliberately to your forced-labor site to arrive not too soon but not too late either; jockeying to the side of the fire, to soak up the precious warmth. Fighting through the melee for the thickest bowl of soup. Everything is for sale in the camps – a bizarre ‘people’s capitalism’ where you sell tiny favors, lies. Influence. “Peddlers of pull,” Ayn Rand called it.

“Waste not, want not” we are told by our grandparents – but storing away in your underwear detritus found on the side of the road, obsessing over its potential use all day long? Sewing bread into the interior of a mattress as if it were a sacred artifact? Experiencing a piece of salt pork; counting the puffs of a cigarette; measuring your misery honestly – those who lie to themselves will not survive the gulag. Who of us have done this, we who live in a world of excess?

Novelists depend so much upon luck – there are so many who fade away, never recognized for so great a talent married to such courage. Solzhenitsyn’s luck was that Khrushchev had an anti-Stalinist streak; he hated the despot and perhaps thought himself as more of a humanitarian. During one of his fits, he was handed a copy of “One Day in the Life”, and Solzhenitsyn exploded upon the world. I, for one, am glad he did. We need reminders of the dark shadow of totalitarianism; of the oppressive evil of communism; of the viciousness to which that ideology reduces the human soul.

We need reminders, because there are still gulags out there. In Venezuela people again are counting food; waiting in lines; turning their heads from the malevolent stares of their minders. They might be allowed to live in their houses – at least most of them, who have not become tools of the regime’s propaganda, people like Leopoldo Lopez and Lorent Saleh – but they still watch what they say, they still peddle pull. They are still unfree. Or North Korea, where Yeonmi Park eloquently and fearlessly tells us of the great gulags in that godless place. Cuba, Syria, Belarus, Iran. So many places still lock away those who dare to think of something other than the regime.

For this I thank Solzhenitsyn. You should too.

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On The Affairs of People: Responding to Jeff Bezos

Yesterday Jeff Bezos made an unusual request on Twitter. Now, Jeff is a man to whom I am and will always remain infinitely grateful. He has made my life easier. Amazon has been for me perhaps the most important innovation in shopping, living as I have been for the last five years in Africa. While I have worked beside people fighting insurgencies and terrorists; cementing peace and holding elections – his work has brought Purina Veterinary Diets dog-food to my door so that my wife’s ridiculous little dog doesn’t suffer from illness; and has served as an essential part of the lifeline by which I send food to my loved ones in Venezuela – who otherwise would be starved by the narco-communists.


So – it is in that spirit of gratitude that I answer this tweet, in the only way I know how. By my writing, and my ideas – and my experience, and tweeting it back. Because I have worked for the last twenty years at that special nexus between now and later; between policy and charity; between politics and development. And I know that these things are all inter-related; and I know how to make an impact.

It has always surprised me that people who are so successful in business are nevertheless unable to translate that to the affairs of people. This is why, for example – despite his monumental sacrifice, his tremendous business acumen and his extraordinary wealth – Bill Gates has not been able to translate business success to philanthropic success and his work continues to be lackluster and uninspiring; and ultimately unsuccessful.

Just as success in business is not about money injected – neither is success in the affairs of people. In order, Jeff, for you to be successful in your stated goal, you could follow the advice below. It has served me well in my own career:

1) Respect the Spontaneous Order: Charity workers, development agencies, philanthropies are all managed by central planners. It is not a field that attracts outside-the-box thinkers; instead bringing plodders who love five year plans, matrices, spreadsheets, indicators and contract management. They love to staff themselves with bureaucrats and technocrats – “experts” and hierarchical organizational structures. But just like economic development in true market economies follows a spontaneous order that is not only un-plannable, but that also defies the desires of the planners, so too work on the affairs of people. Small investments that catch on like fire, motivating other efforts and finding their way to great achievements through an evolutionary process; that is the future.
2) Take Risks: There was an analysis I read several years ago that compared publicly funded to privately funded initiatives in an attempt to understand which were more successful. The report returned with the finding that the source of the funding was not the issue – the issue is whether or not the activity was willing to take calculated risks. Risk-taking is the key to economic growth; and it is the key to momentum on the issues of people too.
3) The Private Nature of Change: Lasting change does not happen from the top down. Lasting change does not come from large, loser-take-all, cookie cutter approaches to human betterment. It comes from innovation, private innovation by private people who defy those who tell them why they can’t; who answer obstruction with the assertion that, in fact, they will. Howard Roark said it best: ‘Do you mean to tell me that you’re thinking seriously of building that way, when and if you are an architect?’, to which Roark answered, ‘Yes.’ ‘My dear fellow, who will let you?’ ‘That’s not the point.’ Roark responded. ‘The point is, who will stop me?’”
4) It’s about Momentum: Its commonplace for people to see the human betterment as a task of Herculean might. Lifting a boulder from atop a road; blocking a failing dam with an avalanche. But human betterment – because it’s part of the affairs of people – is not once and done; not by tremendous efforts or gargantuan financial outputs. In fact – if you read “Dead Aid” or “Why Nations Fail”, you’ll realize it’s actually the opposite. It’s about momentum – one small nudge, followed by another and another and another and slowly the ship of human progress begins to move in the direction of wellbeing; forced so by thousands of tiny bumps, not one enormous collision. Make your private goals seem inevitable, empower a million voices toward that inevitability and you will prevail.

Those are some of the things I’ve learned. Build an organization upon those principles – and you will change the world. I wish you all the best!

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“Four Futures” – A Book Review (if this had actually been a book)

Sometimes you click on a link somewhere, in something that you’re reading, which takes you to another link and another and another as you continue the train of thought of your line of inquiry as far as time allows. When that happens to me, often times the end of the line in the referrals process is a book, which I sometimes put in my Amazon cart and forget about it till it arrives at my doorstep and I pick up the book and try to figure out what I was thinking.

So it goes with “Four Futures”. This nasty little tome by Peter Frase isn’t really a book; it’s sort of more an extended whine replete – from the first sentence to the last (which I’ll admit I didn’t get to) – with tired recitations of the debunked thoughts of yesteryear and unsubstantiated assertions buttressed by outrage and insult as the only recourse by and for the weak-minded.

It used to be people would write to attempt to persuade others. It is widely believed that the best way to bring others around, to sway them to the validity of your claims is through the written word. Debates are hostile, arguments unhelpful – winners needing to show their dominance, losers attempting to not be humiliated in front of their peers. But the pen – in the quiet of night, darkness cut by the flickering flame of a candle that illuminates just as the black words on paper enlighten.

Those days are over, it would seem.

Specifically, “Four Futures” looked – at least when I mistakenly bought it – to be an outside-the-box presentation of four ways the world could see itself reorganized if things continue to go as they currently are. ‘Currently are’ means technological innovation continues to undermine employment and environmental degradation continues to cause life conditions to worsen for people who are degrading their environments. Indira Gandhi, Frase is not. “Poverty is the greatest polluter,” to Frase has given way to – wait for it – rapacious evil of corporations motivated only by a conspiracy of greed.

What does Frase propose? Ignore “climate deniers”, they are crackpots anyways; really try what Marx was trying for (of course not the half-hearted attempts of Pol Pot, Hugo Chavez and Joseph Stalin – but really do it!); condemn the corporate interests and the managerial elite, etc. How to do this? Read Keynes and Krugman – never mind that those two have been widely debunked. Never mind that Frase doesn’t seem to understand spontaneous order; can’t figure out issues of scarcity; and still pines for that simplified planned world that has produced famine after famine after famine. As I tried to read this book (I didn’t go very far, neither should you), I channeled Ayn Rand a little bit – for giggles. As Frase decried the fallacy of Wall-E’s portrayal of post-work, technologically advanced humanity (I’m not kidding) while he defended the idea of “Universal Basic Income” which, he claims, doesn’t have to produce sloth and deviance, I imagined what Rand would have said about Frase’s workless world. Machines producing for the consumptive purposes of the listless masses; what could go wrong?

Of course forget that we have the technology that we have because of capitalism which, though imperfect, actually does take into consideration incentives; forget that the only solution for greed is competition, and that planning just makes another less-accountable elite; forget that planned economies do not work because the profit motive is the only way for humanity to allocate its scarce resources. And forget that in rich places the environment is getting better: reforestation and water purification and detoxifying our rivers while in poor, workless places the environmental damage continues relentlessly. Or, for the know-nothings, better yet just forget everything humanity has learned about itself since we pulled ourselves from grinding poverty and 35 year life-expectancy. I’m sure that’s gonna work!!

All that to say – don’t read this book. And if you can figure out a way I can un-read it, I’d be grateful for the hint.

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Thinking of Cuba

I recently promised a new friend that I would write about Cuba. But what can I say about Cuba? It’s been said – everything. Fifty-eight years, a half century of that bizarre mix of sensational propaganda and blinding silence.

How many Cubans do you know? I don’t mean Cuban-Americans like Senator Marco Rubio and Gloria Estefan. I don’t mean the Cubans from Little Havana. I’m not saying that in a disparaging way – please hear me out. The wonderful folks who still have the island beats pounding through their veins, “La Conga” energizing their nights in exile. Who can still smell with every breath the wafting perfume of seas atop the delicate breezes of the Caribbean. A gaze that sees more deeply, salted with sadness, looking out and beyond – over the waters. Living reminders of a place long ago that is still out there that they cannot wash away, even if they would. Folks who are just as Cuban now as they were in the days when their daddies strung together used tires and some flotsam they found cluttering the beach to build their escape crafts.


Cuban in an old way – before the tyranny sucked away initiative and imbued terror. From a time of rum and travel; hearkening to an old movie, an epic novel. Cuba Libre. And Cuban in a new way too, infused now with the entrepreneurial, free-craving spirit of America; an America that has also changed, and for the better, as she embraced her sea-born arrivals.

But when I ask how many Cubans you know, I mean Cubans who travel on Cuban passports (if they can travel at all), who run island businesses or work at island hotels. Chances are you probably don’t know many. Neither do I. We often lament the enslavement of the islanders; speaking of them in plural and in the third person, like we do the North Koreans or the Burmese. “Those poor Cubans,” we say, shaking our heads, “when will they find their liberty.” Pity; condescension masquerading as concern peppered with futility. And of course we are worried; naturally we care. The fight for freedom – for ourselves and others – is in the American DNA, put there by successive generations of immigrants fighting for their right to exist unmolested: Immigrants from Ireland and Sudan and Syria, and Cuba.

But have you ever stopped to consider what that means for us, too; the world that has been robbed of so great a treasure? Can we not feel sorry for ourselves as well? We all know of the great ballplayers like Jose Abreu; dancers like Alicia Alonzo and musicians like Chucho Valdez. Writers and poets: Carlos Alberto Montaner, Julian del Casal; painters like Pedro Alvarez Castello. These are the lucky few who “made it”; who found their way despite crushing poverty and overpowering tyranny, who sometimes lowered their heads to their communist overlords – What else could they do? But what of the others? What of the thousands of ballplayers who would have made our great game better – had there been little leagues and minor leagues and work leagues to hone their talent? How many poets were never discovered, because there were no rebellious coffee-houses where they would be ‘discovered’? How many comedians were forced from the stage forever, after an off-color joke insulted the regime? How many musicians did not find an ear in the revolution, because they refused to play ad-nausea those whiny, pouty “trova” protest songs? How many new types of cuisine were not discovered, because they were not compatible with a ration card?

I love Latin America – I love her culture. Her literature, her music – her food and her beauty and her sense of struggle and freedom. And I can’t help but feel that our great region is somehow a little less rich, a little less grand, a little less glorious – because so many Cubans have been denied their chance to add to her their portion.

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A Birdwatcher, A Writer – and “Seeing”

I have a friend who is a committed birdwatcher. Everywhere he goes he takes the time to first prepare, leafing through birding books on the airplane while others are watching movies or reading candy fiction. “The reason I started birding,” he told me once, “wasn’t because I had a special passion for birds; at least not initially.” He went on, “I took up birding, because I found that it helped me see. I started looking closely, not only from where the sound came, atop a pole or inside a hole in a cactus – but also trying to guess what kind of bird it was. Whether it was male or female; old or young; strong or weak or dying. It was in those moments that I also saw the world around me in sharper relief; clearer and with greater compassion. The old woman selling pastries by the street; the child walking to school, tiny backpack bursting with knowledge. Life.”

I’m perhaps paraphrasing a little, but what he said struck a nerve. Because the reason that my friend ‘birds’ – well that’s the reason that I write. Because it helps me see the world around me – not only the passing currents of politics and violence and suffering – but the unseen things; undercurrents of history and meaning. As I wrote “Lords of Misrule” I found myself understanding better the history of Islamic dynasties, caliphates old and newer as they crashed upon the harsh sands. Tuareg mysticism and tradition, customs and conspiracies. The lives not only of people powerful who shaped the world, but also the unknown as they too sought that most human of rewards – significance. And as I penned the second part of my “San Porfirio” series – “The Burning” – I entered the jail cell that Leopoldo Lopez would occupy as I tried to dream of a world after the madness and the suffering, trying to understand what it must be like to be imprisoned; and how would I imagine finding my own acceptance in that greatest of injustices. In my newest novel “I Charles, From the Camps” I write in first person about an African boy who grows up – fighting anonymity to become a man in the only way he is permitted; and how that hunt for meaning destroys not only him but all those around him.

I wrote once about a suicide – because I saw one playing out before me; not of an individual but a whole civilization. I have written about changing tides in my own country – as something old passes away and something new and uncertain, but nevertheless exciting and stressful comes of age. I have written about violence lived; I write a lot about books I read – because books let me see events not only through my own eyes but the eyes of those who might have lived through something that also made them question who they were, and why.


Murchison Falls National Park – Uganda

I have sometimes made people uncomfortable – and I don’t apologize for that. I learn the most when I, too, am uncomfortably challenged. Sometimes I write from a place of tremendous sadness; or frustration; or even, yes, despair. My worst writing comes when I am angry – and for that I do apologize to those who have had the courage to point out that I am better when I do not permit the storms that rage above to affect the serenity of my pen. You know who you are.

And for all of you, I want to thank you for accompanying me on this, my life’s journey. Who take time out of your busy day to learn with me as I learn; to experience something through my eyes; to chastise me when you find I have strayed – companions all.

Somebody who once reviewed “The Burning of San Porfirio” wrote that it resembled to them “…a modern day, secular Pilgrim’s Progress”. That was not only a tremendous compliment – considering it was what I was clandestinely trying for – but also because that’s how I see life. Granny in “Downton Abbey” once said “…life is one series of problems after another, and then you die.” It is how we face those problems, how we respond to them, how we learn from them and grow from them and eventually move past them – that defines our character (or lack thereof).

Back to my friend the birdwatcher. Just as he found that “seeing” the birds in nature pushed him to see other things; so too in researching, reading, watching and finally writing I hope to see beyond the day to day to our amazing, epic story of humanity. Because it’s in understanding our humanity that we, together, might ever hope to find our way.

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From Us, On Distant Shores – Enough!

Once upon a time I was visiting a gold mine in the Amazon jungle, guest of a group of mine managers concerned with community relations during turbulent times. Restless winds of revolution were blowing silently but ominously through the foliage; and they were looking for ways to safeguard their investments. It had just rained; a mist clung rapaciously to the stories-high trees that crowded the slick red clay-marram road. In the ditches churning with the runoff from the tempest, specks of gold dust glinted – a call to riches in a place that was poor and vicious. The great gate of the mine closed behind us, guards with shotguns patrolling the top as we drove the kilometers into the village. Garimpeiros – illegal miners, spending the day filling the streams with arsenic or mercury and the nights blind drunk in the taverns and whorehouses; the true goldmines of that bent place.


We stopped in the center of town; it was about midday, and we went inside the clean, polished clinic built by the mining company as part of their “corporate social responsibility” (someday I’ll write about that). We’d only been there for a few minutes when an angry mob – incited by the neighborhood malandro-cum-mayor – stormed the facility, closing off our only exit. They had sticks and machetes and a few had Molotov cocktails; many were drunk. They forced me and my companions into green-plastic waiting room chairs, where they proceeded to work themselves into a lather. People are not naturally courageous, and committing true acts of savagery requires some priming. They wanted jobs – never mind that the socialist government hadn’t approved the mining conglomerate’s license. Never mind that nationalization proceedings had already begun for a mine that would sit – to this day – disintegrating into the immense jungle as yet another lifeless cadaver in the vast graveyard of communism.

The rabble just wanted their jobs.

“You’re not leaving till we get our jobs,” as if the four of us could move the levers of government a thousand miles away. “We’ll hold you,” the snapping masses ejaculated. “I know,” one brave drunk soul said, “we’ll burn your cars” to howls of approval. “How about,” another suggestion, “if we attack the mine?” More voices – the afternoon heat was stifling, the moonshine buzz was starting to wear off leaving behind that headache which makes people cantankerous. “No,” a quiet voice from the back said. “We’ll kill you.”

And there it was.

Echo chambers are dangerous things. They occur when people surround themselves with only those who think like them, who believe like them, who look like them and act like they do and dream of only what they dream of. Who are offended only by what also offends them. It is a pre-historic process, a tribal process – the creation of clans is. Although in America it is dressed up using big words like ‘intersectionality’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ – it is the same. A coterie of ever-outraged becoming insular; the collapsing star of reason that becomes smaller and denser and more sectarian and from which the only thing that escapes the event horizon is hate. It’s how the Hutus massacred the Tutsis; how the Serbs cleansed the Kosovars.

‘Progressive’ America’s temper tantrum has been bubbling for a while. Riots; marches and assaults; social media meltdowns. The denigration of our highest officeholder and thus by extension our highest office (and the 50% of America who voted that way); the debasement of our grand old republic – an inebriated mob searching murderously for the bottom. And then when the cacophonous echoes in the chamber have drowned out every mind, in that twilight moment of ‘progressive’ madness it appears, a final act of insanity: a pantomime mimicking the most horrifying act of barbarism by our greatest foe.

‘Progressives’ love to talk about extremism – an epithet thrown liberally against anybody who thinks differently or holds to another code. But what is more extreme than holding aloft a bloodied, severed head?

I can’t get the image out of my head.

They don’t think of this, do they? Those whose new extremism finds its way to us as we sit on distant shores, defending them… And I’m worried I can’t get back to where I was before. They did that to me – the extremists, far and now it would seem near. Because I have known them all. I’ve ‘sheltered in place’ with my three year-old; I’ve dodged the bullets, evaded the bombs and risked the violence. I’ve passed sleepless nights warned that the blunt-knife-holders were coming. I have fought the evils of this world. I have done this because of my love of country – irrespective of who sits in a stately old mansion atop a swamp. But I will tell you that today I am saddened, because America has always been for me an idea deep like the Hoover Dam and broad like the Colorado River; canonized by successive generations of men and women who recognize that though we differ on so much, there is even more about which we can agree.

When I was a child, I would sometimes get worked up about something or something else; and it would go on for a time while I became more and more and more agitated until my father would grab my arm, stare at me with his piercing Hirst eyes under their bushy brows and say “BASTA!” Enough. For America – that time came when a comedian became a jester-barbarian to act out for her horde the parody of a great evil.

So now, through my also-piercing eyes under my own less-bushy brows I channel my father as I too say, “BASTA!


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