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Mixed Media: Books

Remembering Akbar: Inside the Iranian Revolution

by Behrooz Ghamari (OR Books, ISBN 978 1 682190 8)

Leftist activist Behrooz Ghamari was incarcerated for three-and-a-half years by the nascent theocratic regime in Iran in the wake of the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. Arrested along with hundreds of other leftists as the Islamists sought to eliminate their political opponents, he was subjected to brutal interrogations and torture at the notorious Evin prison. Remembering Akbar: Inside the Iranian Revolution is his memoir of that awful experience.

The mass killing of leftists by the Islamic Republic is a matter of historical record; Ghamari’s account takes us beyond the cold statistics, with affectionate pen portraits of the many dissidents he encountered during his imprisonment, most of whom did not come out alive. In documenting their youthful utopianism, their courage in the face of totalitarian thuggery, as well as their human foibles, Ghamari has performed a valuable service to posterity.

We may discern, in some of the little details, telling clues as to the nature of the political upheaval in 1980s Iran. Ghamari discusses Mahler and Beethoven with one fellow inmate; a Western-educated comrade waxes lyrical about cold beers; another obsesses over his high-tech Citizen watch and bemoans Iranian industry’s inability to produce things of comparable quality. These snapshots underline an interpretation of the Islamic revolution as not so much a matter of politics as of culture – an assault by provincial ignorance against cosmopolitanism and modernity.

★★★ HB


The Seamstress and the Wind

by César Aira, translated by Rosalie Knecht (And Other Stories, ISBN 978 1 908276 84 1)

While playing with his best friend in the small Argentinean township of Pringles, an 11-year-old boy disappears. His distraught mother Delia, the seamstress of this novel’s title, believes he has been taken to Patagonia and gives chase in a taxi. Her husband sets off after her in his truck. He is pursued by a mysterious tiny blue car that keeps pace with him whatever speed he’s going.

What follows is, to put it mildly, unusual. Aira is a master of the unexpected, his narrative taking surreal twists and turns, capable of both delighting and infuriating the reader. Objects, as well as people, may vanish without warning. Everything changes, reality is fluid and dissolute. Anything can happen, and does.

The story cracks along, then is suddenly interrupted by the narrator/author philosophizing, before he whisks us off on another dizzying narrative flight. This is high-octane playfulness, but with an inner seriousness about the nature of perception, reality, life as we experience it.

Aira, regarded as one of Latin America’s most original and innovative writers and a big hit with the likes of Roberto Bolaño and Patti Smith, has written around 80 books. The publishers of this edition describe it as the ‘first novel in the Aira series’. So expect more. Or maybe not. Maybe all you can safely expect is the unexpected...

★★★ VB


Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy

by Ece Temelkuran, translated by Zeynep Beler (Zed Books, ISBN 9781783608898)

Depending on where you live, Turkey is portrayed as a model for the Middle East (which should become more Western in its habits and outlook), a threat to that great Fortress Europe, or a piggy-in-the-middle that doesn’t know what it wants or where it belongs. But what does Turkey mean to those who actually live there? In Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy, Ece Temelkuran, a high-profile dissident writer who has had her fair share of run-ins with the government and its allies, offers us a no-holds-barred insight into the psyche of a people ‘either too jaded or too angry to speak’.

With sardonic wit, she considers Turkey’s past and present. She notes that the country is divided, despite claims to unity – a founding premise of Atatürk’s republic. She derides the government, whose antics would be laughable if they weren’t so serious. One example she cites is an initiative to provide milk to schoolchildren. On the first day, 1,193 children were hospitalized as a result of poisoning; a government spokesperson said the children ‘had overdosed’.

And what of the future? Despite the 2013 Gezi park protests and Kurdish representation in parliament for the first time, Temelkuran finds it hard to be positive. As underlined by the recent failed coup, and the increasingly authoritarian response to it, Turkey is a nation in turmoil.

★★★★ JL


Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins

by Paul Rogers (IB Tauris, 97817 8453 4882)

The central argument of this timely and cogent book is that the world has entered a period of ‘revolt from the margins’, whose root cause can be traced to economic inequality and environmental pressures, which the author has encapsulated in the striking phrase, ‘a crowded, glowering planet’. While ISIS is presently front and centre of this threat to global security, Rogers also identifies groups such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, the Naxalites in India, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, as well as the fragmented but dangerous remnants of al-Qaeda, as potent actors in this emerging non-state irregular warfare.

Rogers analyses the Islamic ideology underpinning these groups and shows how their emergence into the calamitous post-Iraq-invasion landscape has been hastened rather than hindered by a Western Power response heavily reliant on military might, epitomized by massive air strikes that radicalize as they destroy. Such an approach, Rogers argues, is strategically flawed, even if, as is likely, these groups fail in their aim of obtaining weapons of mass destruction.

While casting much-needed light on the present dire global situation and the mis-steps by which we arrived at this point, Irregular War is not merely a jeremiad aimed at the woeful Western approach to asymmetrical warfare. In his final chapters, Rogers sketches possible futures for our ‘glowering planet’ and tentatively posits a way forward that yokes a move away from the military paradigm with progress on climate change and economic justice. It seems that, despite everything, Paul Rogers remains optimistic. For all our sakes, let us hope he is right.

★★★★ PW

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