Review: The Moor’s Account

The Moor's Account

By Laila Lalami.

A conquistador leads a party of 600 into present-day Florida.  A decade later, four men from the expedition emerge in Mexico: three Spainards and a black Muslim.  This is The Moor’s Account.  If it is fiction, it is fiction truer than any American history I got in high school. It’s a story we need so much and nearly had, making the book seem more like the recovery of history than the inventing of it.


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Review: Getting Filthy Rich

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is Mohsin Hamid’s 3rd book. Like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it is short, well-paced and innovative. At 200 pages, you could read it in a day. In the second chapter, Hamid promises not to waste your time like the pompous gasbags of “foreign” literature such as Salman Rushdie. OK, he doesn’t mention Rushdie by name, but I know that’s who he meant. HTGFRIRA is addressed to the second person: you are receiving directions from the self-help book you hold in your hand. The device works flawlessly, allowing Hamid to zoom way out to discuss the generic you, then narrow in to your most intimate details. At his best, he does both at the same time.

[dropcap background=”no”]I[/dropcap]t’s an instruction manual, so it instructs you, for example, to survive childhood, move to the big city and get schooled. The self-help is for anybody, so you aren’t told which city or which school to head for, which country you’re in, or even what your name is. And it works: there is so much about the book that you can see, taste and smell anywhere in the developing world. Yet he also at the same time is clearly describing Lahore, his beloved city, and Pakistan, Land of the Pure.

The anthropological detachment coupled with laser specificity meshes fantastically, such as when you are to join a student movement. “You attend meetings, read the organization’s literature … members of your organization urge you to … recognize your comrades as your true family, and to act through the organization to fulfill your destiny.” It is obvious that you have joined an Islamic party but it never needs be said, since it, like everything in the book, is of interest only inasmuch as it moves you towards the riches you seek.

You implicitly identify with the unnamed ‘you’ – it’s what we do – but you are a flawed man who has chosen riches as his goal and so your life ends with an unsettling mixture of success and tragedy, for yourself, and for your city, general and specific, as you profit from an industry that has contributed “to a noticeable desiccation of the soil, to a transformation of moist, fertile, hybrid mud into cracked, parched, pure land.”

It wouldn’t be fair to such a short book to poach any more of its lines, so I’ll just urge you to pick it up. The author promises not to waste your time and he doesn’t disappoint you.

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Review: The Way of Sufi Chivalry

The Way of Sufi Chivalry


Translated by Shaykh Tosun Bayrak

Not about martial codes, but more of a guidebook on proper etiquette (adab) in Islam. The biggest focus was on the virtue of generosity. True generosity is giving before your brother is forced to ask, because in asking, the needy one is humiliated by his need. A poem is related:

“The one in embarrassment asked but received nothing, 
For when he weighed what he had received,
His pain was heavier than what had been given to him.”

The Islamic ideal of generosity is then that much harder to attain for those of us who come from “ask” cultures, as opposed to “guess” cultures, an interesting way of thinking about cultural differences that is discussed here.

I enjoyed the book, but would recommend Ghazali’s On the Duties of Brotherhood as a better first book on the topic of adab.

The Way of Sufi Chivalry on Goodreads.

Review: Midnight’s Children

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

 by Salman Rushdie

Could the Booker Prize have gone to a novel that treats three generations of an extended family but remains emotionally dead-flat aside from twin swellings of self-pity and self-love?  Was a career launched by a book that contains 50 years of intricately plotted interconnections, parallels and synchronicities across the breadth of the subcontinent but scarcely a single meaningful insight?   Am I tired of snide snark sarcasm and twee wordplay all in the service of convincing us of the cleverness of the author?  Did I really give up on a book that bloats to 700 pages with endless never-ending repeating repetition and flashback throwback foreshadow for every one plot point? Friends, it could. It was. I am. I did.

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Review: Ottoman Age of Exploration

Ottoman Age of Exploration

By Giancarlo Casale.

The Ottomans were very active throughout the Indian Ocean world during the 1500s despite having no access to or knowledge of the area at the beginning of the century.  The author shows their exploration of the Indian Ocean is closely analogous to the activities of the Portuguese in same period. The most remarkable aspect of the story is the way Muslim peoples from East Africa to Sumatra were all prepared to give their loyalty and even their sovereignty to the Osmani Khalifah simply for showing up once with a boat or two on their shores.  Aceh is described mostly just in the context of Ottoman diplomacy. I’d like to read more about the Sultanate of Aceh in that period next.


The Ottoman Age of Exploration Goodreads page.

Review: Going Postal

Going Postal

By Mark Ames

Why do they hate America? Because there is a lot there to hate, says Mark Ames. Going Postal connects a lot of far-flung points to show the creepy similarities that exist between school and workplace rage killings and early American slave rebellions. Among them is that each and every slave rebellion was led by a certifiable crazy person. When the cruelty and hatefulness of American society is invisible, you’d have to be a lunatic to see it. It may be that the rage killers were crazy *and also* that there is something very very ill about American society that they are reacting to, just like old John Brown. Not entirely convincing on every point, but a good read for an emigrant to remind himself why he left.

Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion, from Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine

American Nations: Review

american_nationsColin Woodward traces the origins of settlement in the United States to demonstrate that American attitudes, values and politics are highly regional and perpetuate over time. This basis for this is the “Founder’s Effect”, a recognized phenomenon whereby the original settlers of an area have an outsize effect on culture across time. Looking at patterns of immigration and internal movement, Woodward shows the existence of 11 different regional cultural blocks. The unsurprising North vs South is certainly visible, as is the Red State vs Blue State divide of more recent times, but the book’s major revelation is that there exist multiple blocks within those broader divisions that are regional in nature, persist over time, contain their own political and cultural visions and agendas, and are capable of shifting allegiances in pursuit of those goals. It didn’t touch on race specifically or on more fine-grained immigrant contributions but in a way that allowed it to more starkly illustrate the differences among the multitude of white people that whiteness encourages us to gloss over. Regionally based, with different dominant churches, different dialects, different cultural values: It is not much of a stretch to say that America consists of 11 different emerging ethnicities that whiteness and other national myths render invisible.

Knowledge of Self

Invention of the White Race Theodore W. Allen (1919-2005) told me where white people come from. We like to think we know who we are, and indeed many things about ourselves we can easily define: male, muslim, American. But I am white and I could not explain to myself what that meant. Any meaning I set was either too narrow, too broad, or defined by negation. The Invention of the White Race, newly republished in 2012, makes plain the nature and origins of whiteness over 2-volumes and 700 pages. Reader, I never read it. But on the internet is a synopsis written by Allen himself that condenses his argument down to a mere 146 paragraphs, and I read that. It was mindblowing. I summarize Allen’s summary:

  1. White People as a term, concept,  or social grouping did not exist in Europe before the 1600s. The English already practiced a system of severe race-based oppression against the Irish, only possible because they were not together a People called White.
  2. Slavery in the 1500s and 1600s was not chattel slavery but various forms of indentured servitude that affected both European- and African-origin peoples.
  3. European and African slaves fraternized extensively in this period, and African freedmen enjoyed social mobility on par with freed Europeans, such as it was.
  4. An armed rebellion of hundreds of European and African slaves and recently freed men burned down Jamestown in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676.
  5. In response to the prospect of unrest and rebellion among lower-class Europeans and Africans, colonial oligarchs enacted, consciously and with malice aforethought, a series of laws aimed at reducing Africans to hereditary slavery and granting immunity from enslavement to all Europeans, henceforth termed White People.
  6. By design, the invention of whiteness also deeply hurt the interests of poor whites by preventing them from making common cause with blacks and by psychologically allying them with their exploitative overlords, a situation that continues unaltered to the present day, cf. the Tea Party.

When the Nation of Islam said white people where created in a lab by evil black scientists, they were half right. White people where created in the American Colonies by evil white lawmakers.   There is so much more detail in Allen’s online summary: check it out if you don’t believe me.