Category Archives: books

The books I read and a book I haven’t read yet

A long time ago I would bore my readership (all five people of them, no jokes) telling unwanted stories about whose book I like the most and why. It seems that a good part of ‘my’ authors are taken care of by the modern word [1) it looks like it is an excellent website, so you should check it both on my account [to read about my tastes] and on your account as well [to read something really good]; 2) I’m linking to its Flann O’Brien’s page, because the homepage doesn’t work].

Now, not all of the people listed there I know, and from those whom I know, not all I do like, but the number of those I do know and like is high enough to make  coincindence impossible and the whole thing interesting. And if it is so, then there is a solid fat chance that I would have liked the other listed writers were I acquainted with them, wouldn’t you think?

Flann O’Brien, the guy from the page I linked to, is the first on my list. For one, I love and enjoy the kind of imagination and humour which stands behind this:

In Donegal there are native speakers who know so many million words that it is a matter of pride with them never to use the same word twice in a life-time.

More importantly, there’s his Irish masterpiece, “An Béal Bocht” which seems like the best thing the Irish literature has on offer for me. Once I learn the darn language well enough, that is.

Dictionary fun

A short, chatty, senseless post:

Since a couple of days ago I now enjoy having a decent, up-to-date Persian-Persian dictionary. I’ve just bought فرهنگ سخن and frankly speaking I am quite amazed by my stupidity in assuming previously that nothing has changed on the Iranian dictionary market since 2000 and that I have to rely forever on the good but outdated Dehkhoda.

Second point is I have found out about Nairi, an Armenian publishing house located in Persian. A couple of years ago they had published a trilingual English – Armenian – Persian dictionary, which I am considering to buy.

An Introduction to Islamic Revolution

One of the books I’m reading at the moment is Sadeq Zibakalam‘s مقدمهائی بر انقلاب اسلامی [moghaddame-i bar enqelāb-e eslāmi]. I can recommend it as a very good read (and good for my Persian, too) and a solid refutation of all kinds of conspiracy theories and popular myths being circulated about the policies of the Pahlavi regime and rootcauses of the Iranian Revolution. I only wish its second volume was published.

Have an eye on its author as well. His takes of the current situation, both international and internal, can be very profound and instructive.

This post is just a pretext for saying: if you want to learn about Iran, you have to use inside sources (including those sympathetic to the government). Don’t limit yourself to what’s written by Westerners or emigre Iranians. I’m not saying that insiders “know better” or are impartial – it’s just that everybody has a particular perspective and a particular bias, and if you want to understand an issue you have to look at it from as many different viewpoints as possible.  Again, I’m not saying every account is equally true (or false)…

Black swans, study trips and predictions

I’ve recently finished yet another book from Schiphol – ‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A very funny and witty book it is, it makes you think a lot about the world we live in, and, if you’re me – helps you bring to surface and organise some half-conscious intuitions and ideas you’ve had had long before reading it. Go read it, really – I won’t do it for you.

For the purpose of this text let me just mention that the book is about our (= mankind’s)  inability make correct predictions coupled with insistance of making predictions anyway (and acting on them!). A lot of what we do is made of inpredictable stuff (like nobody predicted the existence of ‘black swans’ before stumbling upon them in Australia), yet many times we collectively behave as if weather, markets and societies were completely predictable. And for the umpteenth time we believe ‘the experts’ whose only ability lies in explaining why what has already happened was really inevitable and why is that that despite their previous predictions having been proven dead wrong we should firmly trust their new ones.

This made me mentally go back to my student times. You see, my university would encourage us to go on ‘study trips’ during the summer. You’d have to find 3 or 4 people interested in the same place as you, then write a research plan and voila – the uni pays for your plane tickets to Iran (or any other place).  There would be no real supervision either during your trip or afterwards. The only obstacle would be to get your research plan accepted, but as the students are usually extremely lazy, there was really no competition either. Just making the effort to write 5-10 pages of ‘project’ would be enough. Nobody’s gonna ask you if you have any prior experience in fieldwork, interviewing people, taking pictures of architectural details, read enough about the problem you’re going to research, know the language well enough to be able to talk to people etc. etc.

Now, I’ve never ever applied for this kind of thing. Not that I wouldn’t want to go, not that I wouldn’t need the money. It’s just I found the idea of writing a research plan troublesome. For the life of me I couldn’t make myself to write down what I expect to learn from the trip (and that’s what the plan was  supposed to be about). If I already know what is there to be found, what purpose does it serve to go there? If I don’t know what is there to be found, how can I predict what would I find? What if I made a prediction but then, out in the field, find a much more interesting topic? Pretending to be certain when I wasn’t seemed beneath my dignity. Silly me.

Of course, for most of the students taking time to apply for study trip funding it was all about having an exotic (and cheap!) vacations, not doing research. Their only worry was to get the money, so their focus was on making the project look good, not make sense. I mean recently I’ve been asked to support (ie. to write “yeah, it’s a great project and you should totally fund it”) such a project – it was about the language and customs of Iranian Georgians, yet they tried to link it to Russia-Georgia war of 2008, Nabucco gas pipeline and whatever else. I asked one of them if they were serious about it and he replied “Absolutely! We’ll be drinking only later, when we get to Georgia”. Sweet.

Anyway, I’d soooo like to see a proper study trip – you know, with a supervisor actually teaching the students how to do research, with the topic of research following up or expanding upon what they had already done in class, with the results being used afterwards (used in class, published)… Above all else – in a controlled, known beforehand environment, not based on ‘predictions’.

Mandela vs. Botha

“The State of Africa” by Martin Meredith – a book I bought at the Schiphol airport – is a really enjoyable book. It tries to tell something about the post-independence history of the continent not by being as encyclopaedical and wholesome as possible, but by focusing on a few ‘case studies’, fates of a few countries and a few leaders to demonstrate a general problem. It spends a lot of time on being anecdotal and biographic and I must say this approach works quite well. Anyway, one of the anecdotes is about Mandela.

So it’s early 1980s, Mandela’s as in prison as ever, but the apartheid authorities are starting to figure out that they’re in a dead end and that they might need to talk to Mandela sooner or later. So they approach him. It goes quite well, so one day they secretly drive him off prison to meet ‘somebody important’. He’s escorted into a basement where a man awaits him. This man is P.W. Botha aka Die Groot Krokodil (‘The Great Crocodile’), the man in charge of the whole regime. Mandela’d obviouslynever met him before  but surely’d heard a lot of bad things about him. And reciprocically, I suppose. Anyway, the moment Botha sees Mandela entering the room, he stands up, smiles, comes closer and shakes Mandela’s hand in greeting. Later – and this was the most shocking moment for Mandela – Botha himself pours tea for his ‘guest’ and they spend the next hour or so chatting about cricket and rugby.

Imagine now, there’s this guy, who basically personifies a vile, immoral, universally condemned regime founded upon racial inequality, hosting his own public enemy no. 1, a paragon ‘rebellious Negro communist terrorist’ and being all cordial and affable. No trace of, you know, racial supremacy, just cricket talk, because that’s what gentlemen talk about when they don’t know each other very well (and thus have to avoid divisive topics like politics). A beautiful scene, isn’t it?

Now, the reason I’m writing about it (apart from it being beautiful) is that quite often people see their political opponents as embodiment of evil, child-eating monsters or something like that. Quite silly. A ruthless dictator with a blood on his hands may well be a reasonable, cultured, open-minded gentleman with refined manners. Viewing such people just as a composite of all kinds of character flaws is dishonest but also dangerous, because it leads to contempt and underestimation.

But there’s a further twist to that. We’ve said that a dictator might be a great person to talk to. Be it as it may, the said talk may actually lead nowhere. Such was the Mandela / Botha case. They talked and maybe not exactly liked each other, but recognised each other as partners, people to make a deal with. The point is, no deal was made. P.W. Botha famously backtracked at last moment before his 1985 parliament speech which was supposed to be ground-breaking and the apartheid regime continued for a couple years more.

A bookstore found, a bookstore find.

I paid a visit to the Ethnography Museum in Warsaw today. The museum itself was closed, but it turned out that they had kicked out the ridiculous, kooky, New Agey, let-me-heal-your-soul bookstore (alas, it didn’t disappear just moved next door) they used to host and lent the space to a cafe-cum-bookstore thing obviously geared towards the English-speaking tourist (less than 10% books were in Polish). Very good, I say, as we have lamentably few such places.

What they sell is mostly heavy coffee table books with pretty pictures, focusing mostly on architecture and interior design. Oh well, let me just say they sell mostly Taschen and you’ll get the idea. There was very little in terms of ethnography/anthropology/history books you’d actually read, not look at plus a couple of Teach Yourself handbooks. Burrowing through these, I found a little gem (or maybe a semi-precious stone) called “a baba malay dictionary” by William Gwee Thian Hock.

The book itself is not terribly sophisticated (but at least it tells which lexical items are Malay and which Chinese, oddly giving only Mandarin cognates for the latter) and the ‘linguistic’ introduction made me smile more than once. Still, my joy is great as I have never expected to find anything on Baba Malay in Poland.

What’s so special about Baba Malay? To be frank, not that much. It’s the language spoken by so called ‘Straits Chinese’ (or ‘Peranakan Chinese’ or ‘Baba Chinese’), descendants of Malay women and Hokkien Chinese workers brought to Singapore, Malacca and Penang by the British. Baba Malay is a Malay-based contact language with generous amounts of Hokkien vocabulary. I wish people writing about contact languages (= the ‘mixed’ varieties arising in situation of contact between established language communities) wouldn’t focus that much on English or Romance-based pidgins and creoles, turning more attention to, for example, Baba Malay.

Books. “McMafia”

As a person involved in highly organised criminal activity (I work for the government, if you didn’t know; thus I live off the protection racket you pay ie. taxes), I am deeply interested in how the other, illegal, kind of mafia works.

That’s why a while ago I picked up a book “McMafia. Seriously organised crime” by Misha Glenny.  I honestly recommend it to everyone interested in learning how the things are and why they are the way they are. Reasons?

A) Very broad scope of research – both in terms of geography (British Columbia, South Africa, Russia, Israel, India…) and of types of crimes covered (from Nigerian e-mail scams to human trafficking, drug-dealing and protection rackets).

B) It tries to provide the background behind the organised crime’s spectacular rise in the last two decades. Assesses the impact of such factors as globalization, deregulation of financial market, fall of the communism and apartheid regime, American drug policy… Shows not only how organised crime rose, but why it basically had to rise.

C) Doesn’t try to romanticize nor demonize the criminals. Doesn’t focus on the street level “tough guys” nor smart people who “cheat the system”. It just tells some stories with a number of likeable and a greater number of unlikeable people in them.

D) (the most important point IMO) Stresses the responsiblity and complacency of your average, “law-abiding”, Western consumer for whose needs a large chunk of criminal activity caters. It’s not only blokes sniffing up coke or visiting hookers (btw, Glenny rightly points out that the latter caries much less stigma than it used to) that are financing really mean guys doing really horrible stuff. In fact, people buying pirated DVDs contribute as well, and there’re chances that your cellphone has helped finance the genocidal war  in Congo.

Just read it. It saved me from falling asleep at the Schiphol airport at 4.40 AM