Monday, 27 December 2010

Peruvian anchovies are a commodity

My editor told me to take a week off, so I flew to Berlin for a few days (German Christmas! Family! 5,000 calories per day!) and when I came back, I decided to clear out various mystery boxes that have been cluttering my flat for about a year or so.

One of them contained a stack of folders from my days as a Reuters trainee.
Picture the bittersweet moment as I was reunited with seven-year-old mock press releases from the fictional failed state of Gregorija, named after our trainer's son. Scribbled on the margins of a rather breathless story about bomb explosions in the Gregorijan capital ("Police said the injuries treated in hospital included cuts, burns, broken legs and amputations") were some wise words from another brilliant trainer, Keith, who crossed out "amputations" and commented: "This is not an injury. It's a solution (of sorts)."
I also found my first bond market reports, astonishingly unmarked by the passage of time: they were just as boring as when I had written them.

Finally, I came across a list of 100 Learning Points. They were the result of a slightly odd Reuters ritual that involved throwing an inflatable ball around the room at the end of every training day and telling each other what we had learned. I can't remember the exact system but it somehow resulted in a long list of writing and reporting and general life-management tips. When I re-read them today for the first time in seven years, I realised that some of them were actually quite useful - not just for journalists, but also for novelists.
So here we go. I'm not going to post all 100 of them as I still need to clear out the other boxes, but I've selected some that will hopefully brighten up your New Writing Year:

1.) Use strong verb in headline (if you're a novelist - for headline read title, opening paragraph...).

2.) No one cares about irrelevant detail.

3.) Don't start leads* with "The..." (I don't think this applies to novels. And I'm not just saying that because my own novel starts with "The...".)

4.) Don't start leads with numbers.

11.) Byline: share with/give to stringer (= one of the things I truly love about news agencies: The person who does the reporting gets the credit. Whereas at most newspapers, eg the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, the person who sits in a warm newsroom and writes up reports from a freezing stringer, or a rain-soaked news agency hack, tends to get the credit). 

20.) Challenge the word "get", you can usually find a better one.

22.) Where, what, who, when, how, why in lead ( ... very different from a novel, where the what and how and especially the why tend not to become clear until the final chapter, if at all.)

28.) A golden quote makes a story sing. (This point probably helped me develop an ear for golden quotes, and by extension, for dialogue. Sitting through endless speeches while waiting for one colourful, telling quote wasn't much fun at the time, but it did teach me to listen.)  

31.) Bad style comes from bad reporting. (Possibly my favourite learning point, because it's true.)

32.) Accuracy comes before speed.

34.) Listen and watch (eg body language in interviews).

38.) Peruvian anchovies are a commodity. 

44.) People don't read websites, they skim. (Hey, this list dates from 2003. Online reading habits were still considered a novelty.)

48.) Never hand over notebooks to police.

49.) Get arrested rather than hand over notebooks or disclose source.

50.) Keep away from subsidiary clauses. (I still hear this every time I write a subsidiary clause. And then I write it anyway.)

59.) Defamation, slander, libel. (That's all it says. Presumably the learning point is that they should be avoided.)

60.) It's defamatory to quote a defamatory statement.

77.) Vox pops**: get age, profession, name. Ask a range of people. (If you're an intern at a media organisation and you follow this advice every time you go out to get "man on the street" quotes, your boss will love you forever.)

83. Sniff for the turkey. (Nope, I have not the faintest idea what this one is about, either.)

87.) Use dabs, not slabs, of background.

94.) Don't be bored by analysts. Fish for the golden quote.

97.) 'fess up when you've done something wrong and send a correction.

99.) Never keep gifts worth more than 50 pounds

100.) Keep a cool head and don't get flustered.

Voila! I'm going to merge this with my list of resolutions for 2011.
On that note, happy holidays to all of you. Thank you for reading my blog, and may the new year bring you lots of love, health and happiness.

Sophie x

* A lead is the first paragraph of a news report.
** A vox pop is an attempt to record "the voice of the people", eg you send your intern out to ask ten people what the fall of the Berlin wall means to them, then use the resulting quotes in your own elegant anniversary piece. This is also known as gathering colour. A good gauge of a journalist's character is whether they share the byline with the intern who did the vox pop/went out to gather colour.

Monday, 6 December 2010

MBA Rats

It started with a scratching, scurrying sound in the middle of the night.

"Did you hear that?" I asked Dan.

"Yes," he said.

"Squeak," said someone in the rafters.

"Was that a mouse?" I asked stupidly, still half asleep.

"Probably." Long pause. "Though it sounds pretty big for a mouse."

Oh, the beauty of big old country houses. The one Dan lives in is particularly attractive to rodents as it's shared by several MBA students. Think messy late-night dinners, hastily assembled sandwiches, pizza-fuelled student parties.

Dan called me in the afternoon, sounding partly disgusted, partly triumphant.

"Guess where I am right now!"

"At school?"

"At Carrefour, buying rat poison."

"So it was a rat? Did you see it?"


"Urgh. Was it big?"

"It was the size of a cow. It could barely fit its head through the door."

Dan had been sitting in his room, studying for his next class, when he heard a sound in his house-mate Nicolas' room. Someone was moving things around. How strange, Dan thought, Nicolas came back and he didn't say hello. He continued reading. Nicolas continued moving stuff around. Dan got up to see if he needed a hand...but when he entered the room, there was no sign of Nicolas. Instead, there was the cow-sized rat. It had been rummaging around for more paper to build its nest.

"I'm going to send you a photo of the nest," Dan said. "You can tell it's an MBA rat."


"It used the Financial Times."

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Eat, Love, Read

Last week, I went to two readings in Paris in the hope of learning a couple of tricks to help me sell my book next year soaking my soul in the joy of literature. I came away feeling heartened and inspired, not least because both events were absolutely packed, despite the miserable weather.

Ann Mah read from her debut novel, Kitchen Chinese, at Shakespeare&Co on Monday, attracting so many people they had to crouch on the higgledy-piggledy stairs of the bookshop. I enjoyed her vivid descriptions of family feuds played out over roast duck and Ma-Po tofu, and the friendly ease with which she later answered even the most exotic questions (the one about Pekinese dogs being possibly related to lions would have thrown me for sure).

Ann is a food writer as well as a novelist, and she cleverly used her culinary expertise to create a rich and satisfying event, at one point even passing around a jar of hot and numbing Szechuan pepper for people to smell and taste. I'm not sure Szechuan pepper would fit the Kurdish theme of my own book, but I love the idea of a multi-sensory reading and plan to shamelessly steal it keep it in mind for future events.

Antonio Caballero, the Colombian writer and cartoonist I went to see on Thursday night, opted for a more traditional format: no spices, no chapters from an unpublished novel, just a good old Q&A. Then again, someone with Caballero's stature doesn't need any special effects. Now in his 60s, he has written countless newspaper columns and essays but only one novel, Sin Remedio, which grew out of an essay about the difficulty of writing a poem. Set in Bogota, the story is chaotic, the ending farcical, and the entire book driven by the furious frustration of the protagonist, the poet Escobar, who is not even particularly likeable; and yet there are few books I love more. It's one of those novels I pick up again and again just to listen to the characters (stay tuned for some sample dialogue in my next post).

I had expected Caballero's event to be sparsely attended given that he is not all that well known in Europe, but oh, was I wrong. People were not just crouching in the doorway; they were queuing on the pavement. In the rain. Judging from the accents and mochila bags, most were Colombian, and they bombarded Caballero with question after question, the most pressing being: was he going to write another novel? Sadly, the answer was no. Sounding a little like Escobar himself, he said: "In great part it's laziness...It took me twelve years to write my novel, I don't want to spend ten more years on another one."
And also: He had said everything he wanted to say in Sin Remedio. 

Monday, 8 November 2010

Two Parisian writers walk into a bar

Overheard in my local cafe, which has decent central heating and is very popular with writers escaping their freezing garrets:

" I'm working on this novel about four women: one is terminally ill, another has terrible problems with her mother, and we follow their personal stories and how they intertwine, and, well, it's all very complex and it ends badly." (Sighs) "And you?"

"Oh, you see, I'm in a completely different registre! Mine is more like stand-up comedy."

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The advantage of dusty archives over online research... that you can read up on the history of women in science without being bombarded by ads offering "stunning Moldova girls waiting for your call".

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


The proofs for book 1 are almost ready! Glad we spotted the bit where it says "Sophie Hardach asserts his rights...". Let's hope the typesetters get the right PDF file.*

* Speaking of which: what I find most surprising about the Great Franzen Recall is that this doesn't happen more often. My own editing process involved various electronic copies (FinalFinalDraftTHIS ONE PLEASE.doc) as well as three printed manuscripts that were marked up by hand. The result was an amalgamate of ink, pixels and pencil marks spread liberally over 400 paper pages and a Word the typesetters figured that one out is beyond me. Sometimes it's best not to ask.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

"Filthy Luck"

Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of debutante chatter (...) 'I'm desperately well, thanks, how are you?' (...) It was some time before she was to put her head round Jane's door and announce, 'Filthy luck. I'm preggers. Come to the wedding.'
(Muriel Spark, 'The Girls of Slender Means')

Writing a historical novel is a great excuse for re-reading old favourites - in this case, The Girls of Slender Means and any Graham Greene novels that feature raids and rationing. The downside: why would anyone want to write another 1940s novel set in London after reading Spark and Greene? They've said it all, and so well.

The awful thing about a raid is that it goes on: your own private disaster may happen early, but the raid doesn't stop. They were machine-gunning the flares: two broke with a sound like cracking plates and the third came to earth in Russell Square; the darkness came coldly and comfortingly back again.
(Graham Greene, 'The Ministry of Fear')**

Hmm. Well, neither Greene nor Spark wrote about conscientious objectors, so I can always tell myself I'm filling a gap in the market.

**(Incidentally, Greene writes about this feeling in at least two books, The Ministry of Fear and The End of the Affair. Norman Mailer describes a similar moment in The Naked and The Dead. There is that sense of outrage and incomprehension that the raid - or battle - simply goes on even after the protagonist has been hit. To those who experience it, the feeling is often worse than the moment of terror itself. The human mind somehow expects stress and tension to be followed by reprieve, and finds it absolutely unbearable when this doesn't happen. It's almost as if our minds were built to cope only with a typical narrative arc: ie Hansel and Gretel escape from the witch's hut and are safe... rather than stumbling across another witch, and another, and another.)

Friday, 24 September 2010

Friendly Quaking at Swarthmoor Hall

My week at Swarthmoor Hall, a 16th-century country house where the first Quaker meetings were held, has produced more material than I could possibly use in my next novel. Guess that's how authors end up writing trilogies.

I was given access to a collection of 17th-century printed journals and soon lost myself in the adventures of Margaret Fell, rendered in a wonderfully clear, fresh and vivid style; a reminder that good writing ages well. Margaret lived at Swarthmoor with her husband, Judge Fell. She hosted the first Quaker meetings in the 1650s and was later imprisoned for refusing to take the oath of obedience to the king (Quakers don't swear but try to be truthful at all times - "let thy yea be yea" and all that).
As Margaret herself put it: "But I answer'd the Judge, That I rather choose a Prison for obeying of God, than my liberty for obeying of Men, contrary to my Conscience."

Apart from the worthy religious tomes there were several modern booklets that showed the lighter side of Quaker life. "Laughter in Quaker Grey", a collection of Quaker anecdotes, was published by W.H. Sessions in York in 1952. Here's a cute little passage from the book - a conversation between a typically sweet, shy Quaker boy and his girlfriend:

"Martha, dost thou love me?"

"Why Seth, we are commanded to love one another."

"Aye Martha, but dost thee regard me with the feeling the world calleth love?"

"I hardly know what to tell thee, Seth; I have greatly feared my heart was an erring one. I have tried to bestow love on all, but I have sometimes thought that thee wast getting more than thy share."

(Image: Frontispiece, "Margaret Fox of Swarthmore Hall", by Helen Crosfield, London Headley Brothers, 1913, University of Tasmania Library. [Swarthmoor is also known as Swarthmore])

Friday, 3 September 2010

The Kindness of Strangers

Last night I opened my letterbox and found two neatly hand-addressed envelopes with UK stamps. How odd, I thought; the only hand-written letters I get from the UK are thank-you notes (and I couldn't remember doing anything particularly thankworthy) and wedding invites (and I hadn't seen anyone changing their status to "is engaged" on Facebook).

I opened the first envelope while walking to the metro. The sender's address, carefully placed in the top-right corner, sounded very charming, rural and English.

"Dear Sophie," the letter began. "I am intrigued by your advert in the current edition of the Friend..."

Ah! Ha! Yes! Of course! I had placed the following ad in The Friend, a pacifist Quaker publication:

Writer working on novel about conscientious
objectors would love to hear your story

At the time, I didn't really expect anyone to respond, but I thought there was no harm in giving it a try and supporting The Friend in a small way.
And now there were these two letters.
On the metro, I started reading the first: a deeply moving and personal account of a man's decision to renounce war. Before I knew it, I was sitting there, tears in my eyes, unable to stop reading even though people in the carriage - in a rather un-Parisian way - were staring at me with collective pity. And craning their necks to see what on earth was in that mysterious letter.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Book lovers' special

The last thing I expected to find in Mestia, a Svan town of about 1,500 people hidden behind the gloomy mountains of the High Caucasus, was a stunning collection of illuminated bibles and manuscripts.
Mestia is more widely known for its defensive towers: in the old days, every family in Georgia's Svaneti region had one, due to a long history of blood feuds. The towers still define the Mestia skyline, giving the overall impression of a tribe of warriors rather than book-lovers:

And this is what the towers looked like one the inside (note the drinking horns and cups in the alcove):

As it turns out, the fighting, drinking, feuding Svans also managed to produce (or import) some the world's most beautiful books. Maybe it shouldn't be all that surprising given that Georgia was one of the first countries to become Christian, and its monasteries were full of monks painstakingly copying the bible by hand. But Svaneti is so remote, and the climate so harsh, that I still don't quite understand how all those ancient bibles got there (any comments welcome).
Below is the Book of Labskali, dating from the ninth century, and another, more recent bible; there were at least half a dozen in the museum:

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Georgia, Horsemen and the Apocalypse

"To peace... to Georgia... to our women... to the people who built the paths and huts in this national park."

Georgian drinking. We'd heard so much about it - about the infamous 2-litre drinking horns in Svaneti, about travellers forced to gulp down home-brewed booze at gun-point, about road-side "drinking shrines" where Georgians raise a glass to honour the latest casualty of drink driving.

So I'm not sure whether I should be proud or ashamed to report that we managed to spend 2 weeks in Georgia without once getting properly plastered.
We did, however, hear some wonderful toasts - like the one to the people who built the Borjomi national park, delivered by a ranger who acted as our tamada (toastmaster) in a random encounter at the Lomis Mta shelter after a day's hiking:

We had followed the well-marked Nicolaz Romanoff trail from Borjomi to the shelter, a cute hut with all modern comforts i.e. a spring, stream, bunk beds and a fire pit, and had just unlaced our walking boots when the ranger arrived together with a bottle of home-made wine and a Georgian couple on horseback. Apparently, we were supposed to down our glasses after every toast, but we had two more days of walking ahead of us and couldn't face the prospect of hungover mountaineering. So we merely sipped our wine like...well, like non-Georgians.

The next day, after a 6-hour hike, our trail came to a sudden end - floods or landslides had washed away the path, and where the map showed a bridge, there was a sheer drop. We were so exhausted that we decided to camp by the river, hoping a clever solution might occur to us overnight.

About an hour later, I brushed some ants off my face and peered out of my sleeping bag.

"What's that sound?" I asked Dan, thinking: bears.

"Horses!" he said. "It's the ranger!"

Oh, the relief. The ranger/toastmaster, it turned out, was on his way to the Marelisi hut - another day's walk in our time, but a mere 5 hours in ranger-time. We stumbled through the dark forest, blindly crossing rivers on horseback or greasy poles, losing the ranger, finding him again, until we finally crashed into the Marelisi hut long after midnight.
It was a fantastic hut.
In fact, at that moment, it was the most beautiful hut I'd ever seen.

(We called the park administration the next day to tell them about the path. I can highly recommend the Borjomi national park, and the Marelisi guest house in particular, but do make sure you pack enough food and water to cover an unexpected detour...)

Best breakfast ever after cramming a three-day-hike into two days:

Monday, 2 August 2010

Wild Svans

We're in beautiful Tbilisi, feasting on Georgian wine and watermelons, relaxing on leafy roof terraces and listening to our new friend Kakha's stories about the wild Caucasus. Kakha is also helping us plan our trip to the Borjomi national park and the Svaneti mountains, a particularly wild region even by Caucasian standards, which, as I just said, are already pretty wild.

"So what are the Svans like?" Dan asked Kakha.

"Blood feuds. Vendetta," Kakha said without missing a beat.

Then he smiled and bit into another slice of watermelon. "But don't worry, they only fight among themselves, and they'll tell you to leave the village before they start. And they are really very kind-hearted."
“Tell them the joke about the Svan diary,” Kakha’s son Giorgi suggested.
“The Svan diary…well, it goes like this. First entry – Monday: Today is very boring. Tuesday: Today I killed my neighbour’s mother. Wednesday: Today, my neighbour came over and killed my mother in revenge. Thursday: Today I killed my neighbour’s father and brother. Friday: Today, my neighbour came over and killed my father…and so on and so forth for the next couple of days, and then – “ Kakha leaned back to deliver the punchline – “Monday: Today is very boring.”
We laughed and had more watermelon and thought about the Svans. They seem to enjoy a near-mythical status in Georgia, with their harsh mountain rites and gloomy-yet-heartfelt hospitality. 
And according to Kakha, once in a generation, this mountain tribe, widely ridiculed for being backward and illiterate, produces an amazing Svan intellectual who comes down from the mountains, takes everyone by surprise, dazzles the cultural elite and becomes the pride of Georgia.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Pork belly

I'm off to Georgia (Caucasus) for a couple of weeks, but before I enter yet another phase of dodgy Internet connections I thought I'd share my latest findings:

1. You can now pre-order my book on Amazon!
(Though I can understand if you'd rather not. It's a bare-bones entry without any cover or blurb, and even if you order now you'll still have to wait until the official release next April.)

2. Speaking of cover design: if you want to recreate the effect of slashed human flesh, use pork belly for best results.

I learned this interesting fact last week, when I had my picture taken for the back flap of my book. Johnny, the friendly photographer at Simon&Schuster, shoots crime fiction covers as well as author photos and shared some of his tricks for producing exactly the right kind of gore. He works with a summary of the novel and the killer's signature move (eg, carving initials into people's bodies) and creates the props to match.
After many visits to the local butcher (picture the scene - "Excuse me sir, which meat most resembles human flesh?"), Johnny decided that pork belly was best.
Without the bristles, of course.

Here's an example.

In case all this is making you wonder about the cover of my book - don't worry, it will have an illustrated cover. Swirly waves, apparently.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

"Banditry enhanced my life."

At least for now.
Yesterday I sent the final version of the manuscript to my editor, accompanied by a style sheet (got the idea for a style sheet from Kate Mosse's blog - it's a handy way of keeping track of names, places and foreign words, especially in a novel full of Kurds, Turks, Germans and French people).

I'm a bit worded out now, so let me just share this wonderful passage by Yashar Kemal, author of "Memed, my Hawk".
The book, which traces Memed's journey from a harsh childhood in the thistle-covered mountains of eastern Anatolia to life as a feared and loved outlaw, became a global bestseller when it was first published in 1953. It doesn't seem to be that widely read these days - at least not in Western Europe. The introduction, in which Kemal explains why he became a writer, may offer some comfort to those of us who feel that writing is a bit like banditry. My friend Wendy has written a non-fiction book on Georgia called "Stories I Stole", and even as a fiction writer, I sometimes feel like a thief, stealing mannerisms, anecdotes, phrases I overheard on the bus.

However, after reading about Kemal's rather unusual family history, I wondered if being a bandit writer might not be such a bad thing:

"Back in eastern Anatolia, my mother's father, uncles, and brother were local bandits. I heard of their adventures from my mother and I listened to the songs the town bards composed about them. One is enhanced by what life brings," Kemal writes. "Banditry enhanced my life."

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Romeo and Juliet with Turbans

At last! Here's the Turkish-Indonesian fusion project you've all been waiting for: a duet by a Turkish musician and Fithrie, a singer from Indonesia's rebellious Aceh province. Visit her site to watch the video:

I met Fithrie at the Kurdish Institute, one of my favourite places in Paris - part library, part literary salon, part backpacking lounge. Yesterday, I visited the library to do some research on "Mem u Zin", a kind of Kurdish Romeo and Juliet with sheikhs, emirs and ruby-red wine. It's probably the most famous epic in the Kurdish language, written by the wine-loving 17th century poet Ehmede Xani (also known as Ahmede Khani, pictured above) and is a great read, very Shakespearean, with lots of cross-dressing, political intrigue, bawdy humour and, of course, tragic love.

The epic begins with Xani explaining why he decided to write in kurmanji, the Kurdish language, rather than Turkish or Persian: "So that wise men cannot say: The Kurds did not choose love as one of their aims..."
Xani, a Sufi poet, was not just referring to romantic love but to divine or spiritual love, the love that encompasses wisdom, knowledge, understanding. He wanted to show that the Kurds, often portrayed as savage, plundering horsemen, weren't just grunting robbers but had their own culture, spirituality and beautiful language.

I learned all this from Sandrine Alexie, the incredibly helpful and knowledgeable librarian at the Institute, who has produced a beautiful French translation of "Mem u Zin" and written some excellent essays on Xani.

Which brings me back to Fithrie. She was at the Kurdish Institute to research parallels between the separatist conflict in Aceh and the Kurdish struggle. It made me think of a short story I once wrote about a guerrilla consultant who travels from conflict to conflict, advising rebel armies. The character of the itinerant guerrilla consultant came to me as I was thinking about the strange similarities of separatist movements around the world - all those people fighting not just for land, but for the right to speak and teach their own language and write their own stories. As Xani said ca. 1700:

"Unwise and ignorant they are not,
Just deprived and dispossessed."

(Translated by Eziz Bawermend, in Fire, Snow and Honey: Voices from Kurdistan, Gina Lennox, Halstead Press 2001)

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Books don't grow on trees

Ten years ago, I bought three pirated books. I was a student at the time and, as I told myself, cash-strapped; I also told myself the authors would surely be glad to share their insight with readers who couldn't afford the originals.

Well, I've been feeling vaguely guilty every since, especially once I started writing my own books and realised how much work it was. So I was surprised/annoyed/enraged when I read the following post on the New Yorker's Book Bench blog, weighing the dilemmas of buying pirated books in Shanghai:

"When I'm at a book kiosk in Shanghai," blogger Jiayang Fa writes, "I find myself rationalizing that migrant workers, who account for the vast majority of book-peddlers, need the money more urgently than publishers or, for that matter, self-indulgent writers."

As a self-indulgent writer, I wasn't happy. It's true that Chinese migrant workers need the money more than me, but I need the money more than Jiayang Fan, and if no one pays for my books, I'll have to go back to journalism.

Hang on: I can't go back to journalism because people don't pay for that, either. In fact, about a year ago, Dan forwarded me an e-mail he received from a friend who works for the Guardian. "Guess who I'm plagiarising right now," the subject line read, followed by a story I had written for Reuters news agency out of Paris that day.
The Guardian journalist was based in London and didn't speak a word of French, but she quite liked seeing her photo byline on stories about France, so she took my story and published it under her name without crediting Reuters. Oh well. When I sent her a sulky e-mail about it, she said the practice was common at the Guardian because of cost cuts, but that there was a big "discussion" around it.

I don't know what it is with all these dilemmas and discussions. Why can't people just agree that it's mean to steal from starving authors and starving fellow journalists? We've all done it, but let's at least feel a bit embarrassed about it and promise to change our ways.

And spare a thought for the Chinese migrant worker whose harrowing-yet-beautiful first novel about a lovelorn construction worker in downtown Shanghai will never be published because there's no market for books.

Monday, 28 June 2010

The Politics of Soup

Summer has finally arrived in Paris! It's too hot to blog, so I'm just going to post a quick recipe for the wonderfully refreshing cucumber-yoghurt soup we had in Diyarbakir. I made it on Sunday for a picnic dinner in the park (following Sunday morning brunch in the park - hey, it's summer). It worked well as a simple, cooling starter.

A note on the politics of soup: our Kurdish friends in Diyarbakir called the dish "Kurdish cucumber-yoghurt soup", and something tells me that further west it's probably known as "Turkish cucumber-yoghurt soup". The Greeks, I guess, would put it down as a Tzaziki rip-off with less garlic and more water.


- Fresh cucumber, grated (I don't have a grater so I used finely chopped fresh cucumber, which is probably wrong)
- Full-fat creamy yoghurt, thinned down with water until creamy-soupy
- Chopped fresh mint
- Chopped fresh dill
- Salt & pepper
- According to some blogs, you can add garlic and a little olive oil if you feel like it. The version I had in Diyarbakir didn't have garlic in it so I stuck with that approach.

- Mix all the ingredients, pour into little bowls, add ice cubes for that authentic Diyarbakir feeling.


Sunday, 20 June 2010

It's Your Book Now! (Scoundrel Despots vs Literary Heretics)

Isn't this the coldest summer ever? We spent yesterday afternoon listening to Philip Pullman and other writers at the free Shakespeare & Company literary festival, the kind of summery event that should have everyone wearing floral-print dresses or shorts and straw hats, sipping sun-warmed rose*.
Well, the florals were there, but they were crushed between layers of thick tights, cardigans, scarves and coats. I had refused to wear tights, deciding to dress for June rather than June 19, 2010, and as a result, I looked pretty daft: the shivering girl in row 21.

Back to Philip Pullman. He was reading from his new novel, "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" - rather brave given that the festival tent was right across from Notre Dame, where Joan of Arc's mother Isabelle once appealed against her daughter's conviction for heresy. Pullman proceeded to thank Eve for eating the apple and thereby forever freeing us from an existence as God's "little puppy lapdogs" in the Garden of Eden. Fearless!

One of his most interesting riffs during the Q&A session was about despotism vs democracy. More specifically, authorial despotism vs. authorial democracy. Despotic authors, Pullman said, are aghast at readers who interpret their stories "wrongly", ie not in the way the author intended. Democratic authors, on the other hand, recognise their readers' right to interpret the story in their own way, spreading that interpretation in the best democratic tradition - through open debate.

I found that view extremely encouraging. When I read out chapters from my novel, I often feel that I've written two-thirds of the story, and the reader completes the missing third, filling in the blanks with their own experiences, their own hopes and fears. In fact, pauses and blank spaces - everything that it not there - are among the most powerful tools a writer has, because they allow the reader to become active, to use their own imagination instead of being a passive consumer. Horror and crime writers have mastered this technique particularly well, with their hints and clues and tantalising omissions. And readers love it.

It may also be one reason why attempts to create "interactive" novels on the Internet (the ones with alternative storylines and clickable buttons) have generally failed. Novels are already, and have always been, interactive. The author provides a strong narrative and a cast of interesting characters, and the reader contributes his or her thoughts and interpretations.

As for despots vs democrats: my feeling is that most authors subscribe to the democratic/interactive model, simply because it's quite hard to be a literary despot. After all, once the reader has bought the book, it's Power to the People. They can do whatever they like with it: glue in pages with extra scenes, rewrite the ending, scratch out the main character's first name and replace it with their own.
And there's nothing the literary despot can do about that, other than sit back, sip lukewarm rose and think of a time when rebellious readers were burnt at the stake.

*If anyone knows how to insert accents with blogspot, please let me know.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Of Buses and Cavemen

Sophie T. and I were sitting on the bus, driving through Hasankeyf, looking at the thousands of caves that perforated the mountains around us.

"I think they're man-made. Look, that ceiling is so straight and kind of perpendicular to the walls," perceptive Sophie T. said.

"Hm, but I can't imagine anyone digging a cave into that mountain face without high-tech equipment," I said.

We talked about how nice it would be to have a weekend cave - spend the week in town, the weekend in a cave - when the man sitting next to us suddenly leaned over and said: "They are man-made. My father actually used to live in one." He paused, then added with a smile: "We are all cavemen here."

Our new friend spoke excellent English because he spent half the year working in resorts on the coast, but he was originally from Hasankeyf. He explained to us that caves were actually better suited to the harsh climate than houses - dug deep into the soft stone, they are cool in the Summer, warm in the Winter. In the old days, women would carry up water from the Tigris, and the men would grow fruit and vegetables in the valley.
When the bus pulled past a few caves close to the road, we could see that the entrances were partly covered by brick walls.

It made me want to get off the bus and explore the caves, but we had to meet some friends in Diyarbakir that evening. Next time, we thought - though we shouldn't leave it too long. Even though the area is dotted with spectacular ruins and monuments, it may soon be flooded as part of the Ilisu Dam project.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Bread winners

This post is about Farha and Rozan, two women we met on our journey along the Turkish-Syrian border.
Farha was baking Kurdish naan bread in this wood-fired oven in the centre of Midyat, slapping the dough on the inner walls of the oven and pulling out the loaves with her bare hands and a frayed piece of cloth. (I think the technique is similar to Indian tandoori-baked naan; I also found this interesting blog about Kurdish bread, though the blogger's version is much flatter than Farha's).
She gave us a whole loaf as a gift. It was delicious. We chewed and smiled and chewed some more, and then she went back to baking the next dozen.

Rozan, pictured below, works for EPI-DEM, a women's rights organisation in Diyarbakir. The organisation was set up in 2003 to help women who had been raped or tortured in the war between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish army. However, Rozan's colleagues soon realised that women were approaching them with all sorts of problems, not all of which were caused by the conflict. A 2004 survey by EPI-DEM of 280 women in Kurdish villages found that 57 percent were illiterate. A quarter of the women had been married off before the age of 15. Two-thirds had more than four children, and many had eight to ten.

And yet, when it comes to politics, Kurdish women are among the world's fiercest. Teenage girls may not be allowed to go to a cafe by themselves, but they can pick up a rifle, head to the mountains and join the PKK. The all-women guerrilla units are well known, and female activists are often in the front line at demonstrations.

No matter how many books I read, no matter how many Kurds I interview, it's a contradiction that continues to puzzle me. If you have any thoughts on this, I'd love to hear them.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Touching Saint Gabriel

The nuns and monks at this monastery, Mor Gabriel, still chant in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. These days, there are just over a dozen of them left; they inhabit the fortress-like monastery together with 25 students, 15 employees, and 12,000 bodies in the crypt.

Our guide was a young Syriac Christian who spoke Aramaic, Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic), Arabic and Turkish. The mix of languages neatly sums up the history of this place: the monastery was built 1,600 years ago and has been at the centre of clashes between Syriac Christians, Arabs and Kurds ever since. According to legend, the Christian community has been protected by the spirit and relics of Mor Gabriel (Saint Gabriel), a 7th century abbot buried here.

In recent decades, thousands of Christians have fled their hostile neighbours and emigrated to Europe, which means that the dispute over this remote plateau on the Turkish-Syrian border is, well, no longer all that remote. A current row over land between Mor Gabriel and the Turkish government has sparked demonstrations in Germany. There are also financial ties - our guide at the monastery proudly pointed to recent restoration work and said it was financed by "Spenden" (German for donations).

The whole dispute is rather messy, but when we walked through the empty, cool corridors of the monastery, admiring ancient Aramaic carvings and vaulted chapels, it all seemed very simple.

As for touching the Saint: our guide showed us a little hole in the stone floor of the crypt and said "Gabriel". Then he encouraged me to scoop up a fistful of, hm, Gabriel and let it trickle back into the hole, as visitors have done for centuries and will continue to do for centuries to come. Insh'allah.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Home Sweet Home

Just a quick note to say we are back in Paris after an exhausting but wonderful week of interviews with Kurds, Turks, Arabs, and Assyrian Christians; bumpy rides on minibuses and leisurely walks through ancient cities; little sleep and much talking; and many, many cups of tea.
It's been an intense trip because we had so little time - we even skipped Istanbul to concentrate on remote south-eastern Turkey - but I hope to travel to the region again later this year.
I'll be publishing some posts on my favourite moments, and a lot of the material will find its way into my novel, "The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages."

Eternal Quest for the Elusive Sugarlump

"Would you like to come to the Turkish-Syrian border with me?" I asked my friend Sophie T. a few weeks ago. "It's very hot and there's not much to see."

"Sounds great!" she replied, and a few days later she had booked her flight. That's a proper hack for you.

It was only when we arrived here that I realised I had completely undersold the trip. There is lots to see - ancient monasteries, cave cities, carved stone mansions - not surprising given that we're in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation (Dan has started making a cradling movement whenever I say this). But when I planned my journey, I was so focused on the things I needed to find out for my novel that I somehow forgot about the sight-seeing aspect. One of the main items on my list was the practice of "kitlama", or drinking tea through a special rock-hard sugarlump (there shouldn't be a dot on the i but I couldn't find the right letter on my keyboard).

By the end of the trip, Sophie T. knew more about kitlama than she ever wanted to find out.

Amazingly, she never once complained that we were spending our time traipsing through tiny, crammed dried-goods shops, miming "tea-drinking" and "sugarlump" to shop owners, being met each and every time with puzzled looks at first, then contemplative head-scratching, then bing!, an expression of "Ha, I know what you mean!" The shop owner would reach up, rummage through tins and boxes, turn to us with a proud smile and hold out a cardboard box of...ordinary sugar cubes.
And we would shake our heads and mime biting on a hard sugarlump.

"Hmmm," the shop owner would finally sigh in a moment of sad understanding. "They only have those in Van."

That didn't stop us from trying again in the next town, hoping that at some point we might run into a shopkeeper from Van.

We also staged a few experiments to test different types of sugar. Here is Sophie T. trying to use a normal sugar cube for kitlama, with mixed results.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Kite Runners of Mardin

Watching the children of Mardin fly their kites in the cool evening breeze over the Turkish-Syrian border made me think of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. The Mardin version is a bit different - Hosseini's kite-running involves one person holding the string and the other running far ahead with the kite, which works on the wide Afghan plains but would be a bit difficult to practice on a Mardin roof terrace.

For a novelist, the advantage of the Afghan version is that it's done in pairs, providing a neat metaphor for friendship:

"Do you want me to run that kite for you?"

His Adam's apple rose and fell as he swallowed. The wind lifted his hair. I thought I saw him nod.

"For you, a thousand times over," I heard myself say.
(The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, 2003)

Here in Mardin, the boy on the terrace lay his kite on the ground, then somehow jerked it up using the strings. The girl's main task was to be a sceptical observer.

It's not as efficient as the running method, I think, because the kite kept falling flat. But it looked like they had lots of fun.