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.