I read once in an article about Condoleezza Rice that our Secretary of State enjoys reading fictional stories of characters crafted around historical and cultural events. She said that this allowed her insight into the human element of the equation, the side that speaks to feelings and emotion, pain and suffering, love and joy.
I am the first to profess my near-total ignorance concerning all things Middle Eastern. Granted, my father took me, my brother and my mother with him to Kabul, Afghanistan in 1968 when he was awarded his Fulbright Fellowship to teach journalism at the University there. And though I have grown up with the absolutely stunning pictures my parents took of 1968-70 Afghanistan documenting our life in Kabul, still I know very little about Islam, Muslims and the socio-political issues surrounding the Middle East.
It is only in the past couple of years I've attempted to educate myself on this group of humanity who, after all, lives on the same planet as I do. So in honor of last week's Peace Talks, I would like to recommend and share with you some books and movies that might shed a glimmer of light onto what is otherwise - for too many of us - a world we know precious little about.
Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner is an exquisite novel that is now a major motion picture. For those of us who love to read, I can honestly say you won't be disappointed by the movie. Indeed, Robert Schaefer, ASC, Cinematographer for The Kite Runner, deserves an Oscar nom for his kite fighting scenes alone. With the camera he paints a medley of kite colors and kilometers of rooftops set against a jewel-like cobalt sky. It is tough to believe that he and his crew actually slept in Yak tents heated only by coal braziers to buffer the 30° F and colder weather they encountered shooting on location. No doubt it gave them an intimate experience of what the people from those regions and climates live with every winter.
If you love Hosseini's The Kite Runner, don't stop there. Proceed with A Thousand Splendid Suns, also set in Afghanistan. The heroine falls deeply in love with her childhood sweetheart, a handsome young boy who happens to have only one leg. Losing limbs in landmines is not uncommon in these parts of the world. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a love story, of people who find wholeness in themselves in spite of it all.
Next up I recommend, Turtles Can Fly, 2004, written and directed by Bahman Ghobadi. It is a movie shot in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. The language of the film is Kurdish. The movie is about four young children. These young kids cope as best they can in a village trampled by war. We don't see the brutality much, we just see the kids coping with the life that their circumstances have rationed them. This, too, is a love story; young love in an impossible situation. It is also a story of great heroics exhibited by people who are but children. Important to remember is that the Kurds have always been a distinct people. It is the West who drew lines on a map a century or so ago and lumped them into a country that was then named Iraq, a "country" that was now populated by people who had been neighbors, but not countrymen, for thousands of years.
If nonfiction is your cup of tea, check out these three titles:
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. This is an account of how one man, just one man, decided to build schools in Pakistan for girls. He didn't have money, connections or government backing behind him but he did it anyway. This one person's actions touched many lives in very positive ways.
Mission Al Jazeera by Josh Rushing. This former Marine, public affairs officer, now works for Al Jazeera English as a journalist. A most informative book that isn't afraid to say the tough stuff. Notable points are that Al Jazeera, the news agency is AlJazeera.net (NOT .com, an entirely different organization altogether!) and Qatar, where Al Jazeera is headquartered, is a U.S. allied nation. They are officially our friend, not our foe.
Of course, a reading list isn't complete without Jimmy Carter's, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. If the only thing you do is look at the maps of Palestine & Israel since 1948 included in the pages of the book, you will no doubt be enlightened to some degree. Especially educational to me were the maps depicting the "occupied territories" throughout the years since 1967.
A wonderful documentary, 20 years in the making, is Shadow of Afghanistan. Lee Shapiro began shooting in 1986 and the film has some of the most startling yet intimate footage ever seen of a country at war. Shapiro and his soundman Jim Lindelof disappeared while filming. The footage was obtained by another filmmaking team who saw it to completion by a skeleton crew's labor of love, not least of whom is editor Mary Ann Skweres' contribution to the entire film cut. Shadow of Afghanistan has already had an Academy qualifying run and is also vying for an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
Steering back to fictional narrative, be sure not to miss The Sirens of Baghdad and The Attack, both by Yasmina Khadra which is the nom de plume of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian army officer. This writer lives in Aix-en-Provence and he has been compared to his Algerian compatriot, Albert Camus. The language of these books is so masterfully composed - even in the English translations - that I can only imagine how they must read in their original French - like a poetic symphony. If ever there was a writer who employed a technique of "A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down," it is this writer, Khadra.
The Attack is a fictional narrative that addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as told from a perspective that no doubt the average Westerner could never even imagine exists. If a writer's job is to convey the human experience, this man does it superbly, in all our glory and all our suffering. His artisinal use of language makes the stories instantly digestible. For The Attack, Khadra was awarded the Prix des Libraires.
The Sirens of Baghdad I read in one sitting. I could not put this book down. It is not harsh in a way that watching images of war on CNN are harsh. But it is painful in a way that impels you to ask, But wait! Aren't we all human?
The Sirens of Baghdad is much more of a visceral than a heady novel, nonetheless a writer discusses with a doctor of Philosophy toward the end of the book, pg. 280, "...If it's any consolation to you, I'm more controversial and hated among my own people than I am anywhere else...I'm only a writer who tries to put some of this spirit into his novels for those who may wish to receive it."
And final recommendations for this mini-course study on the diaspora that comprises Middle Eastern culture, are West Bank Story - a short film that won the 2007 Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film. You can rent the DVD of nominated short films for 2007 at a library or vid store or online. This is a complete feel good extravaganza directed by a USC student who had a big budget to play with. It's a spoof of West Side Story set in a Palestine/Israeli context. Production values are high. It's 15 minutes of musical dancing fun! And it makes its point.
A 2006 film not to miss is Offside, about a group of Iranian soccer fans, girls, who just wanna have fun. Director Jafar Panahi shot most of the film at the stadium while the Iran- Bahrain World Cup qualifying soccer match was taking place. It's girl power all the way - with charm!
Last but certainly not least, if you've never watched any of Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi's films then start with Children of Heaven, which received an Oscar nom for Best Foreign Language film a few years back, and proceed from there. Enjoy!