A TRIPS waiver to stop COVID-19

As you may know, a major barrier delaying international distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is intellectual property restrictions. Biden could remove that barrier by supporting a TRIPS Waiver.

Such a move is supported by many organizations such as Oxfam, Medicins san Frontieres, and Human Rights Watch. Without it, the pandemic will continue, quite likely increasing, and new lethal variants are certain to arise.

A TRIPS waiver is important to save perhaps millions of lives worldwide, but also for bringing the pandemic under control in the US.

Views of #45 from Kathmandu

The Himalayan Times: Plan to repair valley roads within a month

The Himalayan Times: Plan to repair valley roads within a month

At the risk of sinking the world in more words about Trump, I have to share a perspective I couldn’t have imagined a few months ago.

Back then, I was convinced that Trump couldn’t win and I didn’t know that I’d be in Kathmandu. But life is full of surprises, some bad and some good.

I’ve been here in the several weeks running up to the election, and seen it through the eyes of Nepali friends.

Around town

The campaign was of course the best show going, here as in the US and elsewhere. Everyone knew about it and had an opinion. I talked with some grade 3 children who were fascinated by the contest between Donald Trump and “that girl.” One said “I don’t like Donald Trump. Nobody does.” They said that Clinton was the President’s wife. I tried to point out that she’d actually had a distinguished career as Senator and Secretary of State, but that seemed to be of little interest.



Most Nepalis I’ve talked to were distressed to hear about the election. They worry both about the future of the US and about its impact on Nepal, particularly around trade. Some also display amusement. They would never say it outright, but it’s something along the lines of Americans being incompetent and clueless.

A few are Trump supporters, usually following the theory of creative disruption: The system is corrupt, leading to US arrogance, endless war, manipulation by banks, and so on. Something needs to be done to shake it up.

At a conference

As the election results were coming in, I was attending a conference here in Kathmandu. There were attendees from Nepal, India, Malaysia, the US, and some other places. Every speaker made some reference to the election. Late in the morning, which was the wee hours in the Eastern US, it started to become clear that Trump was winning.

One speaker said, “I know you’re not listening to me. Instead, you’re following the election on your phones. See, that proves my point about new technologies changing everything.”

Everest Trail Race

Everest Trail Race

That afternoon, everyone asked how I felt. It was hard to answer because I felt so many things: surprise, shock, depression, fear, anger, shame, and more. They wanted me to say what would happen next, which is ironic, since I was so wrong before.

So, what happens in the US has an impact everywhere. Yet many in the US may not appreciate how important global perception of our leadership can be.

In the media

Despite this, the US is not the center of attention all the time. I looked today at the online The Himalayan Times. There are nearly 100 articles. Several at the top of the page address the Indian government’s decision to ban 500 and 1,000 INR banknotes ($7.50 and $15). This is supposed to combat counterfeiting, but has dire consequences for many in Nepal, especially those in border areas.

There are articles about roads, traffic, health, sports, and many other areas, but nothing about Trump until you get to the special World section. There, you can read about Trump meeting with President Obama, and about reactions to the election from Russia, Germany, and UK.

Essentially, the US election is rapidly fading into “other news” or none at all here. With chronic infrastructure problems and a GDP per capita of less than $2 a day, most Nepalis have many other things to worry about. Of course, if Trump follows through on some of his outrageous statements, that will change. If international aid programs are cut, the effect here can be substantial and immediate.

I just keep going by reminding myself that I’m fortunate to be visiting an amazing and wonderful country. I experience surprising things every day, knowing that they’ll be only memories in a few weeks. They’re real of course, but not part of the real life I know back in the US. So, maybe when I return there I’ll discover that all this election stuff was just a strange experience that didn’t actually happen.


What is Islam?

Arabesque decoration at the Alhambra

Arabesque decoration at the Alhambra

All too often we hear simplistic statements about Islam, which tell us a little about the speaker, but nothing about Islam itself.

Candidates for President and mass media personalities say things like “We need to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods,” “Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S.,” “Immigration visas & refugees from countries with active terror networks must be halted,” “It’s time we made peace with the Muslim world [by dropping an atomic bomb],” “Islam hates us,” “The hate is in Islam itself,” and “Islam is in need of a Reformation.” These are typically said in the context of discussing terrorism, while Islam is widely ignored otherwise. Meanwhile, defenders talk about “true Islam” or define Islam is just another Abrahamic religion.

Setting aside the lack of evidence, the faulty reasoning, the many harms they cause, and the hurt they inflict, one thing stands out: The speakers and their audiences seem fully convinced that they know exactly what Islam is and what it means to be a Muslim.

Shahab Ahmed

Shahab Ahmed

Despite their lack of interest in the topic at other times and the inability to read Arabic, they profess to prove points by quoting the Qur’an out of context. With minuscule knowledge of Islamic history, literature (even in translation), culture, or actual beliefs and practices, they are nevertheless eager to pronounce what Islam is and what should be done to fix it. Most remarkably, they are able to conflate anecdotes and faulty data across diverse cultures to come up with simplistic generalizations that they would be ashamed to apply to say, Christianity, Judaism, Western culture, or atheism.

Shahab Ahmed

A Muslim who studied deeply the history, literature, philosophy, and practices of Islam, Shahab Ahmed (1966-2015), provides a richly detailed account of Islam that should cause us to question statements such as those above. His account doesn’t yield counter generalizations; instead it shows how such sweeping statements obscure rather than illuminate. His new book, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press, 2015) has been useful for both Muslims and non-Muslims. One implication is that to say that someone is a Muslim is little more informative than saying that they are a person.

Ahmed's posthumous book

Ahmed’s posthumous book

Ahmed was a postdoctoral associate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard. His personal history surely informed his international perspective. Born in Singapore to Pakistani parents, but raised in Malaysia, he was sent to a British boarding school. It was difficult for him being the only Muslim boy in the school, thousands of miles from home, but his skill as a spin bowler in cricket kept him going. Back in Malaysia he attained a law degree in Kuala Lumpur, then worked as a journalist in Pakistan, and then obtained degrees in Arabic Studies from American University, Cairo. After that, he attained a doctorate in Islamic Studies at Princeton and then a postdoc at Harvard. Last June he was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. While still ill, he married his fiancée Nora Lessersohn but died shortly after on September 17, 2015. You can see more about Ahmed and his book in How has Islamic orthodoxy changed over time?, by Elias Muhanna.

Reconceptualizing Islam

Through analysis of literature, art, philosophy, history, and politics, Ahmed asks “What is Islam?” To answer this he starts with a set of six questions (see end of this post). It’s clear that understanding the questions is a prerequisite to having a meaningful discussion about Islam.

Statue of Avicenna at the UN Office in Vienna

Statue of Avicenna at the UN Office in Vienna

Consider just one question: “Is there such a thing as Islamic art, and if so, what is actually Islamic about it?” Unlike most other religious art (Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.), Islamic art is typically abstract, often based on mathematical patterns (see above left from Calat Alhamra, in Granada, Andalusia, Spain). It doesn’t appear to represent religious ideas, the way that say, stations of the Cross do for Christians or statues of the Buddha do for Buddhists. Ahmed uses this key difference to talk about the way that Islamic art has developed. This leads to a discussion of the relation of Islam to science and philosophy, which accounts for why Islamic mathematics, science, and technology could build upon and extend the Greco-Roman tradition during a time when Christian Europe remained largely in opposition to it.

Throughout the wide ranging, long, and complex book, Ahmed struggles with the six opening questions and others, but more broadly, the variety and contradictions of Islam. Can it be defined through scripture, laws, cultural practice, or other means? He asks whether we should speak of Islam or of islams. He shows the challenge of relating the religious, the cultural, and the political, when those relationships shift across linguistic and national boundaries, as well as historical periods.

Inventing a concept

I’m reminded of Unamuno’s lesson that to invent a concept is to take leave of reality. Ahmed helps to reveal and interpret that reality as he questions the concept of Islam itself. At the same time, he helps us to understand the coherence that many people feel when they say they are Muslim, despite all the complexities. He offers a new paradigm for understanding how Muslims have historically understood divine revelation, one that shows how and why they have embraced values such as exploration, ambiguity, polyvalence, and relativism. It also helps to show how practices such as figural art, music, and wine drinking are Islamic. Crucially, it explains the historical constitution of Islamic law and its relationship to ethics and political theory.

Ahmed’s discussion is detailed and complex, one that is difficult to summarize briefly. Consider his discussion of what Muslims think Islam is: “[They] are in agreement that there is such a thing as Islam, even if they disagree about what it is.” For example, many scholars point to the Five Pillars–one God (the shahādah), five daily prayers, fasting in Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca, and alms-giving–as definitive for Islam. But others point out that the last four pillars are hotly contested theologically, interpreted in diverse ways, and as often ignored as observed. One says that if the pillars are seen as defining, then there are more negligent Muslims than observant ones.

So, some argue that it’s just the first pillar–one God and Mohammad as the Messenger. But that just opens to further questions: What is God? What is his message? What does it mean to submit (Islam) to God?

Ahmed’s richly detailed discussion shows that whether we talk about historical developments, theological interpretations, or diverse daily practices, we’re on very thin ice if we claim that we have an analytical tool that clearly marks out who is a Muslim, in what way they are, and what that means. Among the many people who would answer “yes” to the question, “Are you a Muslim?” there are non-participating adherents, strictly observant followers (of diverse tenets), mystics, skeptics, atheists and fundamentalists, feminists and misogynists. Moreover, Ahmed argues that the cultures that have embraced Islam are probably more diverse than those of any other religion, including Christianity.

Another example, comes from Rumi, His Maṣnavī-yi ma’navī (Doublets of Meaning) is one of the most significant texts in Islamic history. In one passage he writes about how attaining ḥaqīqat (Real-Truth) nullifies the (Islamic) laws and the paths or rituals to follow. This is similar to Buddhism and some versions of Christianity, in which the rules, practices, norms, beliefs, rituals, and so on, are but means to an end in which they no longer matter.

Ahmed does not conclude from many examples such as this that Islam is too diffuse to have meaning. Instead, he does an amazing job of communicating how Islam can feel real and important to people, even as they admit to its protean character. He offers at least a starting point for making sense of the impact that Islam has on the lives of both followers and non-followers, one that is far more productive than the inane comments I listed above.

Ahmed’s six opening questions

  • What is Islamic about Islamic philosophy?
  • When Sufis assert that virtuoso “friends of God” are no longer bound by Islamic law and practice, is this an Islamic or an un-Islamic truth claim?
  • Key ideas from Avicennan philosophy and Sufism “flirt incorrigibly with pantheism and relativism.” These have been among the “the most socially pervasive and consequential thought paradigms in the history of societies of Muslims,”  Are these Islamic ideas?
  • The Divan of Hafiz, the great 14th-century Persian poet, is “the most widely-copied, widely-circulated, widely-­read, widely-memorized, widely-­recited, widely-invoked, and widely-­proverbialized book of poetry in Islamic history.” It takes as its themes wine-drinking and (often homo-)erotic love, as well as a disparaging attitude to observant ritual piety.” Is that work and its ethos Islamic?
  • Is there such a thing as Islamic art, and if so, what is actually Islamic about it?
  • How can both the consumption of wine and its prohibition be essential to Islamic history and culture?

A football field every 45 minutes

Isle de Jean Charles

Isle de Jean Charles

John D. Sutter’s column ‘There’s no more land’ struck home for me about global warming and sea level rise.

It’s not that Sutter offers new data or analysis on sea level rise per se. There is plenty of that already. For example, Dahr Jamail’s excellent recent summary ‘Climate disruption in overdrive: Submerged cities and melting that “feeds on Itself”‘ is enough to ruin whatever you might imagine could be a good day. It starts with this

the planet is warming a stunning 50 times faster than when it comes out of an ice age. The implications of the rapidity of this warming, for those who care to digest it emotionally, are horrifying…. even if carbon reduction targets are achieved and the planet’s temperature is kept below the 2 degree Celsius warming threshold, sea-level rise will still inundate major coastal cities around the world, forcing one-fifth of the total world population of humans to migrate away from the coasts.

and goes downhill from there.

But Sutter shows what dreary statistics can mean for ordinary lives:

Isle de Jean Charles, the mostly French-speaking, Native American community where Billiot [Wenceslaus Billiot, an 88-year-old born on the island] lives, once was about the size of Manhattan. Now, it’s about a third of Central Park.

The coastal island has lost 98% of its land since 1955.

And what’s left is going fast.

“I don’t know how long we’re going to stay here,” Billiot told me.

“If a hurricane comes, we’re wide open.

“There’s no more land.”

The island is losing a football field chunk of land every 45 minutes. Also see Lauren Zanolli’s ‘Louisiana’s vanishing island: the climate ‘refugees’ resettling for $52m’.

I’ve never been to Isle de Jean Charles, but have traveled in that area just south of New Orleans. Susan and I once camped in a tent at Grand Isle State Park. We feasted on Gulf shrimp we bought directly off a trawler. It’s a rare and magical place to visit.

The website for the island/town says:

For the people of Isle de Jean Charles, the island is more than simply a place to live. It is the epicenter of our people and traditions. It is where our ancestors cultivated what has become a unique part of Louisiana culture. Today, the land that has sustained us for generations is vanishing before our eyes.  Our tribal lands are plagued with a host of environmental problems — coastal erosion, lack of soil renewal, oil company and government canals, and a rising sea level — which are threatening our way of life on this gradually shrinking island.

The land’s beauty is enhanced by the feeling of its impermanence, whether because of hurricanes or natural changes in estuaries and dunes. If I were typesetting the island, I’d look for a wispy font with a small type size.

Isle de Jean Charles

Bayous and estuaries south of New Orleans

But the fact of the impermanence has now been written in 96 point bold by the actions of humans rapidly destroying the land. Channeling the river, adding dams and levees, drilling for and transporting oil, developing resort communities, and other activities have all played their part, but stronger hurricanes and sea level rise are the final blows.

Our politicians seem happy to stay in blissful ignorance of all this (see ‘In their own words: 2016 presidential candidates on climate change’). Republican leaders are actually in denial and Democrats make tepid statements without programs for meaningful change. Naomi Klein writes that to make those changes, “some powerful interests will have to lose”:

A president willing to inflict these losses on fossil-fuel companies and their allies needs to be more than just not actively corrupt. That president needs to be up for the fight of the century—and absolutely clear about which side must win. Looking at the Democratic primary, there can be no doubt about who is best suited to rise to this historic moment.

For Klein, Bernie Sanders is the one best suited for that rise. But could anyone who stands up to the fossil-fuel companies ever be elected President? More importantly, could they stand up to the fossil fuel users, meaning us?

To win “the fight of the century” many more people need to connect the larger processes of human-induced climate change to the particulars of places like Isle de Jean Charles, and further, to connect that to the choices we make about lifestyle and to what we value.

Highlander Center

2016-03-11 14.10.00

In the midst of a long car trip, we stopped to visit the Highlander Research and Education Center near New Market, Tennessee. It was just a short visit, since we had many miles to go. Also, the workshop and conference areas were in use, so our options were limited.

In spite of all that, I was very happy that we could make the time to see it. I’d known about the Highlander Folk School for many years, through Myles Horton’s books and other writing. But I also knew that the state of Tennessee had revoked Highlander’s charter and confiscated the school’s land and property.(in 1961) and that Horton had died in 1990. I hadn’t kept up with all the good work that the Center continued to do.

2016-03-11 14.09.42

After two major moves, the Highlander Center came to its present site in 1971. It sits atop Bay’s Mountain in the Tennessee River Valley, looking across to the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Workshop Center is home to organizing and leadership development, workshops on civil rights, immigrant communities, and economic justice. Projects have ranged from connecting communities around the world affected by industrial chemical pollution to LGBTQ rights.

In the early years (1930s-40s) the focus was on building a unified Labor movement. Later (1950s-60s) Highlander helped incubate the SNCC and Mississippi Freedom Summer. Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger, and Martin Luther King were among the participants.

2016-03-11 14.10.27

Moving into the1970s-90s there was an increasing focus on land issues, environment, and global economics. This meant more international connections and collaborations. In the present century there has been even more emphasis on developing tools and connecting people and organizations. Highlander has also expanded work with immigrant communities.

The Resource Center is home to archives, book shop, and library. Within a small wooden building is a rich history of progressive movements over eight decades in Appalachia, the US, and worldwide.

2016-03-11 14.13.37

The activities of the Highlander Center are diverse. But they’re well symbolized through the metaphor of a conversation with neighbors, all sitting in rocking chairs, arranged in a circle.

Those chairs and that circle are real. The open dialogue across different backgrounds and experiences that they imply is the first step in enacting positive change.

We stayed that night in Fall Creek Falls State Park, not too far to the west of the Center. The Park is named for the highest plunge waterfall east of the Mississippi. The nearby Piney Creek Falls are even more beautiful.

2016-03-11 16.44.16-22016-03-11 16.25.13

Daniel Dejean, cartoonist extraordinaire

Daniel Dejean

Daniel Dejean

Daniel Dejean, a Wellfleet artist, is best known for his acrylic or oil paintings. These have been shown in galleries around Cape Cod and exhibited at a wide array of venues over 25 years, including recently at the Éspace Croix Baragnon in Toulouse and the Galerie Charlotte Norberg in Paris. See http://www.danieldejean.com and below.

Squash fashion

Squash fashion

Daniel’s paintings are often stunning, and always interesting. Like the best contemporary conceptual art, they invoke inversions of our usual ways of thinking. But whereas that art is sometimes thin to the point of obviousness, Daniel’s paintings are rich and generative. They invite repeated viewing and study.

One might instead think of the traditional style of art prevalent in Cape Cod galleries–seascapes and boats, wildflowers and ponds, portraits and houses. Daniel’s work then appears anarchic, conversing in some of the same language, but with an exotic dialect and a unsettling vocabulary.

New directions

Mozart on a snowy evening

Mozart on a snowy evening

Daniel’s artistry has recently expanded into what appears to be a new and growing venture, cartooning. I first became aware of this when his tromboncino cartoons, such as “Squash fashion” (above), began spreading uncontrollably across the ether. Whatever the topic, DeJean cartoons began to capture the essence of what was happening, bringing together humor, critique, and insight. I especially like his “Mozart on a snowy evening,” but also a new one about the major sport on Cape Cod this winter.

Skiing on the backside

Skiing on the backside

Some of Daniel’s graphic art has assumed a programmatic direction. For example, Women Directors: Navigating The Hollywood Boys’ Club, developed by Maria Giese and Heidi Honeycutt, is a website for people to share experiences with discrimination and explore strategies to create gender equity among directors of film, television and new media. It is “the world’s foremost website to explore, expose and remedy discrimination against women directors – because global culture depends on who tells the stories.” Daniel has created a wonderful series of graphic representations that tell the story in a succinct and memorable way.

Where are the women directors?

Where are the women directors?

Women directors: The coming tsunami

Women directors: The coming tsunami

Breathing the same air

Last July, Eric Garner was killed by police who choked him as he repeated “I can’t breathe.” He cried out 11 times, but eventually succumbed.

We didn’t need yet another example of police killing a young, unarmed black man. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and way too many more reveal a pervasive inability of some individuals, and more importantly, of our entire legal system to recognize that we all breathe the same air.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program at first seems worlds away from the racism and social injustice of America’s cities. But it too reveals racism and social injustice. It too shows how those in power use that power to oppress even admittedly innocent people. Often, the “crime” was to have a different religion, to wear different clothes, to speak a language other than English, or to be poor. The parallels are disturbing, even without considering how a favored torture technique of the CIA was waterboarding–to deprive people of air.

In the commentary regarding both of these cases I’ve been struck with how little there is about the victims as living, breathing individuals. Those who rightly argue for legal due process for the police or agents involved, talk about mistakes the victims had made, but not about them as people. Some mainstream news coverage does point out a little, that Garner was considered to be an even-tempered, good-natured presence in his community. He was the neighborhood peacemaker. He had asthma and sore feet. And yes, he had run-ins with the police before. But as one neighbor said, “His last penny was your last penny.”  (see “Friends: Man in NYC chokehold case ‘gentle giant’“). Rapidly, however, the real “Eric Garner” vanishes from the discourse as a person and becomes just a term to signal a point of disagreement between factions that seem to have little ability to understand one another.

In the last chapter of her 1902 book, Democracy and Social Ethics, Jane Addams writes about racism and corruption of a century ago, and the consequent need for political reform. Her examples draw on the glaring disparities in wealth of the Gilded Age, which are unfortunately being reproduced today.

Addams talks about the “honest absence of class consciousness” among the immigrants she worked with. That absence supported their faith in American democracy. They were taught ideals for “honorable dealing and careful living. They were told that the career of the self-made man was open to every American boy, if he worked hard and saved his money, improved his mind, and followed a steady ambition. [sic]”

Addams then recalls an anecdote from her childhood: “the village schoolmaster told his little flock, without any mitigating clauses, that Jay Gould had laid the foundation of his colossal fortune by always saving bits of string . . . as a result, every child in the village assiduously collected party-colored balls of twine.” In this way, children failed to learn that “the path which leads to riches and success, to civic prominence and honor, is the path of political corruption.” The end result was that every citizen participated in that corruption, even those who suffered from it. Her statement of this shared responsibility still holds today:

This is the penalty of a democracy,–that we are bound to move forward or retrograde together. None of us can stand aside; our feet are mired in the same soil, and our lungs breathe the same air.

The penalty that Addams describes is also the basis for making a democracy possible. Ethics cannot be limited to the individual virtues, such as honesty, courage, or duty, but must encompass social relations as well, the social ethics of her book’s title. That idea is expressed well in an essay she had written a few years earlier, called “A Modern Lear.” It’s about the railroad czar George Pullman:

Our thoughts . . .cannot be too much directed from mutual relationships and responsibilities. They will be warped, unless we look all men in the face, as if a community of interests lay between. . .To touch to vibrating response the noble fibre in each man, to pull these many fibres, fragile, impalpable and constantly breaking, as they are, into one impulse, to develop that mere impulse through its feeble and tentative stages into action, is no easy task, but lateral progress is impossible without it.

Addams knew that democracy was a hollow ideal without social ethics. So, it’s depressing to realize that the inequities of wealth, the racism, and the corruption of her day are still with us, and in some ways have become worse. Our social ethics appears piecemeal and ephemeral. At times the “mere impulse” seems nonexistent.

Can those who defend the CIA or the all-too-common official homicides imagine how they would feel if their own child, lover, or best friend were subjected to the same treatment? Could we instead see every person as a citizen who shares in a community of interests, regardless of race, religion, or official papers? What would it take to recognize the humanity in every one of us?

I’m reminded of the ending of “Salute to Life” by Pablo Casals:

Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and will never be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are?

We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all of the world there is no other child exactly like you. In the millions of years that have passed there has never been another child like you. And look at your body–what a wonder it is! Your legs, your arms, your cunning fingers, the way you move! You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must cherish one another. You must work–we all must work–to make this world worthy of its children.

Dink Starns and the Explorer Post Book List

Dink Starns was one of my Explorer Post leaders, including during the time of the 1963 Quetico trip. He was a big influence on my life and I was sad to hear that he has just passed away.

Dink worked for a publishing company and led the way on our 52 books project. We would identify 52 books for the coming year, which were important to read, would be of interest to adolescent boys, and were all available in paperback. Dink would bring in a copy of each for a display. We then had a program in which people talked about the books they knew. It was an unusual activity for an Explorer Post, and a novel way to increase interest in reading.

Here is one of the lists, probably from 1963, formatted as we saw it then. Each year would be different, although some books would have multiple appearances.The choices ranged from classics that we should have read, but hadn’t, to books that seemed risqué at the time, such as Fanny Hill or the Communist Manifesto.

Skimming the list below, your eyes might pass over Mutiny on Bounty. But that was significant. The remake of the Mutiny on the Bounty film had been released in 1962. It was based on the popular novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. Those of us who had read that book or seen the movie knew all about the evil Captain William Bligh. The selection below is Bligh’s own account, which tells a quite different story, and caused us to ask those fundamental questions: What is the truth? How can we know?. Reading Bligh was a much better introduction to critical reading than some didactic programs that lead students down a prescribed path in an ironically uncritical fashion.

This particular list has selections from the Bible (Ecclesiastes), from ancient Greeks (Plutarch, Plato), and modern classics (Hugo, Kipling, Shaw). There are books by atheists and devout believers. There was a fairly good representation of international perspectives, given that all the books had to be in English. Some books might not rank high on quality or message, but they could get boys to read. Some were school classics, but many were read in school only when they could be safely hidden behind a large history or math book.

Books that seem non-controversial today brought a frisson at the time and place. The Ugly American, written just a few years earlier, called into question the patriotism that led to the Vietnam War and a boom to the Fort Worth economy dependent on an air force base and airplane and helicopter manufacture. To Kill a Mockingbird was not just a good story; it was a challenge to the prevailing racism in a city that thought if itself as the beginning of the West, but was still part of the segregationist South.

The overriding theme was that reading was fun, something to do and share with others, and something that would help you think in new ways. Those ideas were not widely accepted then, especially among boys of that age. Dink helped change that for me and many others.

  1. Auntie Mame
  2. Beau Geste
  3. Bligh, W. Mutiny on Bounty
  4. Brestit, History of Egypt
  5. Bridge over the River Kwai
  6. Buck, P. Good Earth
  7. Cervantes Don Quixote
  8. Chesterton, G. K. Father Brown
  9. Cuppy, W. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody
  10. Ferber, E. Giant, Cimmarron
  11. Fisher, Gandhi
  12. Fitzgerald, F. S. Great Gatsby
  13. Fleming, I. James Bond
  14. Generation of Vipers
  15. Genghis Khan
  16. Golding, W. Lord of Flies
  17. Great Expectations
  18. Green Mansions
  19. Hilton, J. Good-by Mr. Chips
  20. Hilton, J. Lost Horizon
  21. Hugo, V. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  22. In Midst of Life
  23. Irving, W. Sketch Book
  24. Keys of Kingdom
  25. Kipling, R. Kim, Jungle Books
  26. Last Hurrah
  27. Lee, H. To Kill a Mockingbird
  28. Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letter
  29. Magnificent Destiny
  30. Max Schulman
  31. Melville, H. Moby Dick
  32. Morehead, A. Blue Nile, White Nile
  33. Nutting , A. Lawrence of Arabia
  34. Orwell, G. Animal Farm
  35. Orwell, G. 1984
  36. Packard, V. (any)
  37. Plato Dialogues
  38. Plutarch Lives
  39. Rand, A. The Fountainhead
  40. Roark, R. Something of Value
  41. Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye
  42. Seven Days in May
  43. Shaw, G. B. Androcles and the Lion
  44. Six Days or Forever
  45. Solomon Ecclesiastes
  46. Stillwell Papers
  47. Stone, I. Sailor on Horseback
  48. Teahouse of August Moon
  49. The Little World of Don Camillo
  50. Twain, M. Huckleberry Finn
  51. Ugly American
  52. Voltaire, Candide

Center of the World

Milyon column, İstanbul

Milyon column, İstanbul

The Milyon column in İstanbul (left) is one of many “centers of the world.” These centers seem to be everywhere, each signifying by its presence the yearning for a stable ground, but by their proliferation, undermining any notion of centeredness.

The column is all that’s left of a monument that was the starting point for measurement of distances for all the roads leading to the cities of the Byzantine Empire. It lasted for over a thousand years, but disappeared at the start of the 16th C. During modern excavations, some partial fragments of it were discovered and erected again.

It served the same function as the Miliarium Aureum of Rome, another center of the world, which was displaced when Emperor Constantine I the Great remade Byzantium into his new imperial capital.

Directions to the world

Directions to the world

Today, the Milyon column stands near the Basilica cistern, another ancient monument, which was covered up, then rediscovered in the 16th C. The cistern is a huge underground room to hold water. It’s 453′ x 212′, which is larger than a World Cup field, if you’d like a topical comparison.

It was built in the 6th C during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. During his era, and for centuries to follow, the cistern held fresh water for the citizens of Constantinople and the Milyon dome resting on four pylons marked the center of their world. As you explore the cistern’s eerily lit walkways, it’s easy to imagine that you’re in some mystical center of the earth.

Basilica cistern, İstanbul

Basilica cistern, İstanbul

The cistern was unknown in the Western world until P. Gyllius discovered it while doing research on İstanbul’s Byzantine remains. He was surprised to see people getting water with buckets from well holes, some within their own homes, and even catching fish.

There are many more such “centers” (click here).

Some manage to calculate the geographic center as being the same location as the Geza pyramid, which would be a coincidence supporting many mystical accounts. But more commonly, it’s calculated as being in the eastern Mediterranean Sea about halfway between Athens and Alexandria. Other methods locate it in north-east Turkey.

In either case, I like the way that it’s not too far from İstanbul. That fabulous city straddles Europe and Asia, and through its ports and the Bosporos serves as a bridge to Africa. Its layers of civilization locate it between old and new, encompassing many religious traditions. If you had to choose one center, İstanbul and its Milyon column wouldn’t be a bad choice.

Personal questions

Lonely Planet publishes a good Turkish phrasebook, which has been handy in many situations. It provides some basic information about the language, the country, and the culture. I’d recommend carrying a copy, unless you’re fluent in Turkish.

But like any guidebook, the advice about social interactions is necessarily simplified, often essentializing differences. For example, the book advises:

Avoid asking questions about someone’s age, religion, or sexual preference, as the Turkish prefer not to discuss these topics openly. They love talking about politics, but exercise a little caution when expressing your opinion – some Turks verge on the fanatical when it comes to the ‘p’ word.

Phrases such as “the Turkish” or “They” are red flags, which can never be universally valid. I accept the advice to avoid personal questions on a first meeting, but I’ve found that at least some of the “They” actually like to talk about these topics. I’ve been asked: How old are you? Where do you live? What religion are you? How tall are you? What do you think about Obama? What do you think of Turkey?

When in an eczane (drugstore), I took advantage of the free scale to weigh myself. A druggist peered at the scale to check my number and then gave his approval. That may have been professional monitoring, but I sensed simple curiosity at work as well.

I’m sure that some of the They “love talking about politics,” but we were cautioned not to bring up politics with two men, who despite being friends and colleagues, had radically different political views. On the other hand, in the US, I know many people who “verge on the fanatical when it comes to the ‘p’ word.” Maybe they all have Turkish heritage.

The phrasebook also suggests,

When you meet someone of the opposite sex who has strong religious beliefs, avoid shaking hands or kissing them. Instead, greet them with the Arabic words selamin alekküm. (p. 105)

Again, broadly useful advice, but off in so many particulars. Turkish people we have met seem to vary widely in terms of talk and gestures. Some women initiate the double cheek kiss. Moreover, in a city, especially in university communities, there are people from all over the world with diverse habits. “The Turkish” vary a lot in terms of their international experiences and customs. And I haven’t heard selamin alekküm used in greetings.

One might also ask how to know whether someone has strong religious beliefs if that topic hasn’t come up. You can guess by clothing styles, but that’s far from infallible. I have a friend here who is deeply religious, but dresses in a modern style and drinks alcohol. Some women dress very conservatively, but for reasons of family or personal choice, not religion.

At another point, the phrasebook suggests,

When talking with people you’ve just met, or those you’re talking to in the polite siz (you) form, it’s considered rude to cross your arms or place your hands in your pockets. (p. 108)

This reminds me of a different guidebook that warns “the Chinese” do not like it when you point a finger at them. In my experience, most people sense that crossed arms, hands in pockets, pointing at people, and so on, are at best informal, and usually off-putting. I might just as well suggest to a Turk, “when meeting someone in the US for the first time, especially in a formal situation, don’t stand there with your arms crossed or point your finger at them. The American doesn’t like that.”