Reading: China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

I was not expecting a new China Miéville book, nor was I expecting — if one existed — it would be non-fiction. That the subject is the Russian Revolution, however, doesn’t surprise me at all.

This is one of those books that went from “I do not know this book,” to “This book is ready to be picked up from your favourite bookstore,” in about a week. Doesn’t matter that Russian history is not really my thing (exceptions for Russia and the Soviet Union in Central Asia and the Caucasus, or interacting with communist China), nor that communism in general leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it’s China Miéville, and I will always read him — yes, even his Between Equal Rights – A Marxist Theory of International Law, which gave me none of the pleasure his fiction does, even if I do read the latter for the politics.

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution has a super fine cover, very Russian Constructivism (shoutout to brilliant artist Andrea Guinn for this). I said to Paul in St George’s, “Nice cover!” ’cos it’s true, and I do rate books by their covers. And it’s hardback, so it’s an all-round fine reading experience on the corporeal level. I should probably start a Cover of the Year thing too, to go with my fiction and non-fiction books of the year. I think I shall. Come October (heh) when I do my yearly round-up, I’m gonna enthuse wildly over cover art. There’s been some bangers this year, but October might be the one.

Not all about cover art though, Frances, what’d you read? A book marking 100 years since the Russian Revolution covering the year of 1917 from January to October, one chapter per month, the initial chapter a succinct history of Russia and St. Petersberg leading into that first month, and finishing on a short, critical epilogue. Additionally, a Glossary of Personal Names (so many names; so many acronyms), and a Further Reading section, plus an Index, some maps of St. Petersburg — at the time called Petrograd, and a central sheaf of photos. It is a story. Miéville says so himself in his introduction, he is telling the story of historical events as a story-teller, and not so much as a historian or academic. Nonetheless, because he is a formidable story-teller, erudite, and indeed a specialist on Marxism and history, he writes a captivating and lucid narration of those months.

He says also, in the introduction, “… I am partisan. In the story that follows, I have my villains and my heroes. But, while I do not pretend to be neutral, I have striven to be fair, and I hope readers of various political hues will find value in this telling.” Being partisan then, I have little interest in Marxism as a political philosophy, nor Marx the man, nor do I have much beyond scorn for Lenin and the Revolution, all of which are the habitat of loud, white, European men telling the rest of us how we need to listen to them, and that none of their failures fall on Marxism because hand-waving reasons. Miéville skates along the edge of this in his epilogue, giving some legitimate reasons for why things went the way they did in concise and graspable sentences, yet I still feel Marxists protest too much. “If only ‘x’ hadn’t happened, or ‘y’ had done ‘z’, we’d all be living in communist paradise,” is what my acutely cynical and partisan sensibility takes away from this. Which is to say, that I read October at all is because I think Miéville is a fine writer, a favourite for over a decade, with a sharp political mind, even if he is some kind of Marxist.

There are a lot of men in this history. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Bolsheviks, Monarchists, the Whites, others, it’s the easiest thing to write entire histories of the Revolution and never venture outside men. I appreciate that Miéville makes explicit effort to include the women and women’s organisations who were critical, women like Angelica Balabanoff, Maria Bochkareva, Catherine Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Maria Spiridonova , Ludmila Stahl, Vera Zasulich, all of whom get a mention in the Glossary. He also devotes pages to the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress (which I quoted here, and is probably worth buying the book for this alone), the Jadadist movement, the Muslim National Committee, the Union of Soviet Muslims.

A quick aside here about the All-Russian Muslim Women’s Congress, which I ended up tweeting about. The primary source for this, which Miéville includes in the Further Reading section (and I didn’t see at the time, so went off on my own fun research wandering, leading me to the same place), is Marianne Kamp’s paper Debating Sharia: the 1917 Muslim Women’s Congress in Russia, published in Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 27, No. 4, Winter 2015, available to read online.

Over the ten months and chapters of October, the story moves from the lightless and frozen days of deep winter to the heat and endless sun of summer back into grey and dim rain and snow. Time condenses. The first chapter covers centuries then decades, then years and months, then January; October reduces that to hours and parts of nights on single days. History rushes, then rushes again, finishing at 5am on the 26th, as dawn touches the night. We are left with an epilogue that stretches time back out, years and decades, as the Revolution grinds itself and the continent into autocracy.

I was wondering how to finish this. I wanted to say something like, “If you love China Miéville’s fiction, you’ll love this,” ’cos in many ways his novels are explorations of revolution, but that feels kinda glib. It’s more like this: If you love his novels like Embassytown, Kraken, or his Bas-Lag stories, Between Equal Rights will make you cry — unless you’re already partial to reading International Law, and you may or may not get a kick out of October, ’cos it’s non-fiction and non-fiction Miéville is a different writer from fiction Miéville however much he is telling a story here. But if Iron Council or Railsea are up in your Miéville faves, October will fit right in: It’s all about trains.

China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution
China Miéville — October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

Quote

The scale of the Third Front was staggering, as ab…

The scale of the Third Front was staggering, as about 1,800 factories were set up in the hinterland to prepare for war. As one scholar has noted, since about two-thirds of the state’s industrial investment went to the project between 1964 and 1971, it constituted the main economic policy of the Cultural Revolution. […] It is probably the biggest example of wasteful capital allocation made by a one-party state in the twentieth century. In terms of economic development, it was a disaster second only to the Great Leap Forward.

The Cultural Revolution: A People's History, 1962–1976, Frank Dikötter

Reading … A 9th Anniversary

It’s that time of year again! Frances’ and supernaut’s Books of the Year for the 9th time. And some most excellent books were read indeed. This time last year, I realised I’d been struggling a bit with enjoying reading. I looked back over what I’d read in previous years, compared it with 2015’s crop, and noticed I’d dug myself into a bit of a hole with mediæval art and history.

What to do, Frances? I dunno, Other Frances, how about read about space travel and stuff? Good idea!

Unlike last year, my ninth iteration of looking back on a year’s reading — and it’s in October because that’s when I first started blogging about reading, almost a decade ago — has some absolute slammers on the fiction side. Last year I didn’t even name a fiction book of the year. This year, if it wasn’t for one in particular, there’s be 4 or 5 smashing at it for joint Book. And in non-fiction the situation’s pretty similar, or even better, cos there’s barely a single non-fiction work I’ve read in the past 12 months that was anything less than well awesome. It’s also one of my least-read years, only 29 that I read and blogged (possibly a couple of others I’ve forgotten); definitely plenty of internet — I mean Rainbow Autobahn distraction in the last year, exacerbating my inability to focus on pages. I blamed my poor reading last year on that distraction as well, probably time to harden the fuck up and put away the internet.

Of those 29, only 10 were non-fiction; the remaining 19 non-fiction skewed more to fantasy than sci-fi, with around 7 works explicitly skiffy, 9 explicitly fantasy, and a trio (maybe more depending on how dogmatically I apply those categories) deftly straddling both. I call those Speculative Fuckery, ’cos I love when the only two genres I read start boning each other.

On the non-fiction side, mediæval Northern European history continues filling my shelves, and there’s a bunch of “not easily categorised on their own” which nevertheless fit predictably into my decades-long interests.

Then there’s the new, or maybe to say newly clarified bunch that I kinda want to call Islamicate Studies, though that might miss something, so it encompasses that, human rights, identity, philosophy, feminism, and is primarily from women from and/or writing on Iran, Near/Middle East (I’m a bit iffy on this appellation right now, and have been trying out ‘West Asia’ also because it shifts the centre and subject of focus out of Europe, dunno though), and people from or descended from those regions in Europe, North America, Australia. I arrived at this field of interconnected subjects after increasing dissatisfaction with how feminist/queer/left-ist writing addressed brown and/or Muslim identities; regarded these people living in Europe, North America, Australia; and when I spent some time thinking about how the diverse subjects I was reading needed to come together. Also it’s a lot of living in Berlin/Germany/Europe and getting increasingly pissed at the racism against anyone not unequivocally ethnically correct, and the white feminist/queer/left-ist bullshit distractions, and my own personal, slow movement towards identifying if not myself as Turkish/brown/West Asian/Muslim, then definitely my family history (as you can see from all the slashes, I have no idea).

Books! I have read them!

Fiction first. This was a fine year. If I hadn’t read Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, she’d still be my Fiction Book of the Year with The Winged Histories, though sharing with a few others. I don’t actually know how I would pick a book of the year from a pile comprised of that plus Jo Walton’s Necessity and The Philosopher Kings;  Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng’s The Sea Is Ours; and Ann Leckie’s masterful finish to her debut Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Mercy. Impossible. I would probably give it to the latter, but then … Necessity, a brilliant conclusion to another trilogy, and The Winged Histories: sublime. So I could possibly get it down to a trio of exceptional literature, but no further. Lucky then A Stranger in Orlondria saved me from that anguish.

I don’t want to say it’s ‘better’ any of those other three — though perhaps that’s the case when comparing it to The Winged Histories, which would lose its spot in the trio just as The Philosopher Kings does to Necessity. I think of the two Samatar has written it’s a more major work. If this is my final trio then, I’m not claiming one is better than another, simply A Stranger in Olondria has had a significant effect on me. Would that effect stand up under re-reading? How would that re-reading compare to one of Leckie’s trilogy? If I read them both back-to-back, what then would be my judgement? The best questions always involve more reading.

This is all anyway just writing from memory, how I remember a book made me feel. I’ve been thinking recently that eventually my memory of a book dissolves until it’s just feelings, colours, a glimpse of an image or two. It’s like sediment, like geology, layers upon layers of this.

A quartet of other books I liked a lot: Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, Genevieve Cogman’s The Masked City, K. T. Davies’ Breed, and Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space.

Breed was a romp of Oglaf proportions and probably the most fun I had this year. I wish she’d write more of this. Reynolds’ Revelation Space I read because I needed some hard operatic space sci-fi, and his Slow Bullets novella was a favourite of mine last year. This one was good enough for me to slog through the whole, uneven trilogy. I like him, but there’s a hopelessness in his work, like the heat death of the universe.

As with Reynolds, Genevieve Cogman is another whose previous works got me to read her latest. The Invisible Library, which I also read last year was well tasty. I was super excited to find she had this sequel — and OMG! Just like last time when I discovered The Masked City, she has a sequel to that! Excellent! The immediate result of me writing about my favourite books is I’m ordering more.

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. Yeah, loved a lot. Glorious cover art, almost almost one of my first choices, but a few flaws in it, and the cliffhanger “Will bad things happen? Stay tuned for Book 2!” guaranteed to piss me right off. Please, don’t do that to me. I’ve paid for a story, not half a story. If your story’s too big for one book, then at least divide it in a way that doesn’t leave me hanging.

All of these authors I’ll read again (along with a score of others on my Have You Written A New Book Yet? list). I might be a bit crabby here and there about the works, but I also possess a modicum of self-awareness that I’m a pretty fucking demanding reader. The authors and works above if you’re into sci-fi / fantasy (or if you’re not) are about as good as it gets. Not just for this year, but of everything I’ve read in the last 12 years or so. (And just wait for next year’s Books of the Decade! It’s gonna be hectic!)

Non-fiction!

I didn’t read much of this in the last year, but I lucked out here too, barely a dud among them (and that single one was an old book I realised I’d never finished), running out of superlatives here.

I tried to broaden my non-fiction reading a little again, move outside the clag of mediæval history. So I read Amy Shira Teitel’s Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight before NASA, Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, and Jo Walton’ What Makes This Book So Great. All excellent works in completely different ways, and which remind me I need to read more astronomy, astrophysics, and geology this year.

The Book of the Year though — and I’m forcing myself to pick only one — comes from another trio: Kathryn Babayan and  Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire; Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens; and Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War.

Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, in no small part for her writing on the Soviet occupation and war in Afghanistan. Her writing is chilling. Heart-rending. I even said Zinky Boys would be my Book of the Year. Pretty sure I said the same thing about Seyla Benhabib’s The Rights of Others. In truth I shouldn’t pick one over the other, except that Babayan and Najmabadi’s Islamicate Sexualities somehow is tying all this together, mediæval history, human rights, feminism, identity, migration, religion, and it’s so urgently pertinent to the slow stumbling back to the abyss Europe is currently taking. Read them all, or at least familiarise yourself with the writers.

Other books well worth reading: Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. Mediæval of course: Miri Rubin’s Emotion and Devotion: The Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures, and Gude Suckale-Redlefsen’s Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice.

And that’s my reading for the last 12 months. As if I’m not sated and replete already, I’ve already got a pile of new stuff.

Reading is a great privilege. It’s not however, explicitly a human right. Article 26 i. and 27 i. of the UN Declaration of Human Rights either directly imply or by extrapolation intend reading as a human right, yet nowhere is it explicitly stated that reading comprehension or literacy, and the opportunity to gain this ability is a right. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, yet I can interpret the UNDHR in a way that fulfils the letter of declaration while still populating my dictatorship with illiterate proles.

My ability to read, at the level I do, at the frequency, my ability to critically consider the works I read (with or without concomitant swearing), to write about them here, to discuss them with others, all this is a privilege. And I mean that in the sense of a special honour. And that necessitates obligation.

Rather than continuing blabbing, I’ll quote myself, first from 2013 and then from last year:

Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!

And:

So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.

Reading: Kecia Ali — Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence

Probably Twitter is where I first saw Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence, and a few months ago at that, before this revised edition was published. Probably it was also mentioned on one of the Middle East / Central Asia / Feminist blogs I read; things I’m interested in tend to circulate unconnected across multiple disciplines and fields, the same names coming up like ear worms. So onto my reading list it went, and being read it is.

Mid-late last year—October-ish, when I do my annual Books of the Year—I realised I was frustrated with my reading, and looking at previous years when I was mad-thrilled about far too many books, realised also I needed to diversify. That has been partly turning my euros towards—and here I get caught in words I’m not so fond of, so caveats ahoy—feminist-ish, Middle-East-ish, philosophy/ethics/human rights mashed with a secular-ish Islamic frame of reference, plus migrant perspective also.

I have a tendency to define things from the negatory: not this, not that. Yeah, so what? It helps elucidate what this or that is by shaving off what isn’t, often because I can’t say or don’t know what a thing is until I’m partially clear on what it’s not. So what I was not looking for was primarily yet another voice coming from white, Anglo-Euro-American culture. I’ve read enough feminism from that dominant perspective already, and part of that negatory process of mine is divining what’s being missed, not talked about, ignored, excluded. It’s a pretty simple and dumb method, and works for me.

That negatory resolved into a clear delineation of what I did want to read: it’s kinda, “What if Hannah Arendt was a secular Muslim (Turkish, Middle Eastern, Persian, you get the picture) in the 21st century, what would she write?” I dunno, probably something along the lines of Seyla Benhabib, Ruth Mandel, Katherine Pratt Ewing, Afsaneh Najmabadi, or Kecia Ali.

Let’s just say there’s some fully awesome women writing on these interconnected subjects, and Kecia Ali is one of them. And like black/brown, trans women feminism coming out of Anglo-American locations, it’s where the real hard work is being done. Compared to Seyla Benhabib, Sexual Ethics in Islam is light reading, which is not to say it’s not demanding and well-researched, just that Benhabib is more like ploughing through The Life of the Mind, and Ali I can read over breakfast without my brain leaking. Too much.

I’m about halfway through, so against my desire to write about why I’m reading a particular book rather than review it, this is slipping between the two. This far through, it’s pretty clear that Islam is unsalvageable. Just like Christianity. Unsurprising when they both share the same Abrahamic root, so could roll Judaism into that as well. It’s unsalvageable because either you’re a literalist or you’re a contextualist; you can’t be both, but that’s precisely what people in those religions try to do. There’s no way around God hates fags, women, and quite a few other things. So if you’re looking to resolve that in Islam or Christianity, it requires entering the realm of contextual interpretation—as well as historical revisionism, because whatever queer or homo is in the 21st century is substantially incomprehensible in medieval religion. It’s this approach also that’s seen by literalists and fundamentalists as ‘picking and choosing’ from the infallible divine word, and more or less defines the opposing sides in what Islam will become.

Mediæval history is full of extremely intelligent logical philosophers, of whom perhaps I could say their prime concern is internal consistency. This applies as much to Islamic theologians as it does to Christianity, centuries-long impenetrable debates that were as much political as they were religious. In Islam, or rather the medieval Islamic jurisprudence I’ve brushed upon, I often find a logical extrapolation that is either well-buried or not explicitly stated in Christianity, it’s a thinking through the implications of a statement, often well outside what empirical knowledge can deliver. While Ali isn’t proposing a manifesto for an Islamic reform, what she does do is work through these debates and decrees, point out their inconsistencies, and point out how they can be reconciled with a 21st century Islam.

One of the things I was thinking about early on in reading was how this book is contingent on 20th century history. The secular nationalist projects of the early years of the century in Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere, the post-war decolonising of Africa and the Middle East, all propose a different path for Islam than we currently have if these same countries hadn’t been the sites of West-East proxy wars and meddling. What kind of book would Sexual Ethics and Islam be if the 1979 revolution in Iran hadn’t happened, and the invasion of Afghanistan, if the 1950s and ’60s revolutions and coups hadn’t happened, or hadn’t become military dictatorships, if the 21st century ‘International Community’ hadn’t been so hungry for invasion and war across the Middle East and North Africa? Would it have even needed to be written? Would it have been only of academic or sociological interest? Or is it that anyway? Is the Islam that’s lived far more a secular, contextual experience than it’s possible to apprehend or understand while Anglo-Euro-American islamophobia and racism remains ascendant?

One thing that is missing though, and for which I’m pretty cynical about, is trans people—particularly trans women—in Islam. Ali mostly subsumes trans identities under homosexual/queer sexuality (when they’re mentioned at all, which is not bloody often) in the chapter “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Same-Sex Intimacy in Islam”. In itself that’s fine, considering the issues—legal, social, medical, religious—which determine the lives of people whose sexuality isn’t narrowly directed into normative roles affect trans people equally as they do lgbt/queer/non-straight people—and let’s dispense with glossing over trans lgbt/queer/non-straight people being a thing too. As well, she originally wrote the book some ten years ago, when cis feminists could easily get away ignoring trans issues with no repercussions. Now it’s all Tranny-Tipping Point (thanks tumblr, 4chan, and Twitter!) so there’s gotta be at least the effort made to lip service, tokenism, ‘intersectionality’. Yeah, pretty disappointed here on this one.

Najmabadi wrote a whole book on transsexuality in Iran—two if you count some of Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards as well as Professing Selves; Kohmeini’s Fatwas from 1963 on intersex people and 1987 on transsexual people is still remarkable (as I’ve said before, I’m using transsexual specifically to differentiate from umbrella transgender/trans/trans* cos I think if we’re gonna appellation everything, then there’s a need for a term under that umbrella for trans people who go down the ‘transitioning’/‘gender confirmation’ path, with all the institutional legal and medical processes that involves); there’s ample evidence in mediæval Islamic thought and writings that people who were somehow not categorisable as unequivocally male or female were a thing, and that Islam had far less of a problem with this than Christianity, more than enough that a whole new chapter on this would be more than appropriate. Nope. Disappointed. Really a missed opportunity there.

As a kind of muslim/non-muslim/wtf I don’t know … what happens when a parent is Muslim or was the child of Muslims, but raises their child without this ever being mentioned? Sure, you’re not brought up Muslim, but how much of the parent and grandparent’s experiences slips over? Not having a Halal kitchen is something a person who has never had anything to do with Islam has ever thought, “fark, that’s ruined it for the grandparents.” Anyway as an I don’t know with Muslim ancestors who is dead curious about that side of my family, I keep thinking of my grandmother while reading this. Also would recommend over any of the other books I’ve mentioned because it’s a much easier read, and far broader in scope, one of those fundamental texts, even if you read nothing else on Islam, there’s enough nuance, depth, scholarship here to actually understand the issues and what’s at stake.

Kecia Ali — Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence
Kecia Ali — Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence

Gallery

Pergamonmuseum — Wie die islamische Kunst nach Berlin kam

The Pergamonmuseum’s Wie die islamische Kunst nach Berlin kam (How Islamic art came to Berlin) was not one of their huge endeavours. Sprinkled through the permanent collection on the second floor to celebrate the 150th birthday of Friedrich Sarre were objects, photographs, and documentation he’d collected from across the Levant, Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, with influences from even further east, Indian and Chinese aesthetics in Islamic, Arabian, and Persian art. Sarre was responsible for the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum’s Islamic collection, the museum which became the Bode-Museum and part of Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. So, not a full exhibition; one of their many mini-exhibitions that rotate a small selection of their hundreds of thousands of objects through public display every year. And a good reason to buy a Jahreskarte.

I was there under the misguided belief there’d be plenty of Osman Hamdi Bey, one of my favourite artists of the late-19th century, who’d totally be filed under Orientalism if he was Christian European. He’s not, and there was only one work of his, Der persische Teppichhändler, which started the exhibition proper after the procession of Sarre’s photographs up both sides of the stairs. I would have bought the exhibition book for those alone if it was cheaper.

I’ve been through part of the Pergamonmuseum before, and I ended up photographing a lot of the same pieces. They appealed to me then, and they appeal now. Many of the bowls are profoundly beautiful; photographs can’t capture the deep lustre, the layers of glazing, the way the light moves through this. Also the turquoise prayer alcove (image numbers 34-39), which I discovered a way of convincing my camera to see somewhat as my eye does. Still nothing like seeing its massiveness before you, the colours shifting, it’s a lot less reflective than the photos imply, some of the closeups give a better sense of the intensity of the glaze. I also love that every time I’ve seen this piece, there’s a group of people sitting in awe before it. Perhaps it was only this visit, but there were a lot of Muslim people wandering through, which made me think the museum is doing something right.

There’s two rooms, about two-thirds of the way through which are devoted to works on paper. This time it was some of Sarre’s own collection, Persian and Indian miniatures, particularly ones which explored European influences in works from these regions, and in Mughal art. A couple of examples of this, (images 48 and 49) were on display, as well as beautiful calligraphy of Bismala in the form of a bird on gilt paper, and another calligraphy in the form of a Mevlevi Dervish.

All this sits on the unhappy mound of colonialism, despoiling of archaeology sites, quite a bit of European racism, of which Sarre and Bey were on both sides of. When I was in Dahlem Museum (before I got into my over-enthusiastic museum blogging), I was looking at all the works from Dunhuang Mogao Caves and elsewhere in what’s now Xinjiang and Gansu pilfered by Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, Albert von Le Coq and others. As much as the robbing of cultural history is unequivocally a crime, it’s certain little would have survived the 20th century of China’s Cultural Revolution. Of course some of that in turn got destroyed when Germany went all Nazi on Europe and Berlin got its teeth kicked in, so the argument goes back and forth. I’m not even sure how much value as works of art these things would have if it wasn’t for the idea of European archaeology and the monetary value that gives things lying buried for hundreds or thousands of years. We are however over a hundred years into museuming the fuck out of humanity’s history, so having these objects in museums is probably preferable, or at least inevitable, even if that means being buried once more, this time in the archives.

Later I discovered I’d never visited an entire wing or more of the Pergamonmuseum. I think I need to buy a Jahreskarte again. In the meantime, sixty images of works from Museum für Islamische Kunst or İslam Eserleri Müzesi or متحف الفن الإسلامي or موزه هنر اسلامی or Museum for Islamic Art.

Gallery

Pergamonmuseum: Osman Hamdi Bey — Der persische Teppichhändler

Obligatory exhibition for me to see: Wie die islamische Kunst nach Berlin kam at the Pergamonmuseum. Blogging all that has to wait until I’ve finished the Louvre behemoth (on the last score of images now), but there was this beautiful piece by one of my favourite artists, Osman Hamdi Bey: Der persische Teppichhändler (1888).

Reading: Svetlana Alexievich — Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War

Book of the year. Right here. There will be none better.

A few months ago, Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I’d never heard of her—not so unusual for me—saw her name in passing on the Russian, Central Asian, Afghanistan blogs I follow, thought, yeah, cool, woman winning for a change, didn’t really pause to read more until I saw Afghanistan mentioned, then found she’d written this: Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War.

Most of my reading on Afghanistan has been either pre-1978 coup and Soviet occupation or post that plus Taliban thrills (who were real money makers for analysts and pundits for about ten years until Da’esh came along). The decade of the proxy war, from which Afghanistan and the Middle East are still suffering, has been only the subject of two books I’ve read: Rodric Braithwaite’s Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979–89, and now Alexievich’s stunning Zinky Boys.

They’re called Zinky Boys because the teenage heroes come back from the land where the Soviet Union is certainly not waging a war in sealed zinc caskets to be buried at night without ceremony.

I can’t do justice to this work. A relentless, measured documentation of suffering, loss, lies, the devastation of a generation, of imperial arrogance and stupidity that brought about its own demise, that discarded used up and broken bodies barely older than children, and as those very same colonial nations now almost fifteen years into the most recent occupation and war in Afghanistan begin yet another barely disguised proxy war in Syria, after all the unending chaos Europe, the British, Americans and their fiefdoms have instigated from Hindu Kush to Maghreb, this is the history to read. This is what we have to look forward to, this is what we are complicit in. All of us. These are the same lies being told for a fifth decade. It’s all here. There’s nothing new to find in the current wars, there won’t be a different outcome this time.

The writing, voices of young soldiers, the wounded, mothers, nurses, officers, conscripted and volunteers, it’s a recital, a judgement. Through the pages of this slim book they become one, each story unique and individual, and each the same. I can’t praise the writing highly enough. It occurs to me the closest is one of Liao Yiwu’s works, maybe The Corpse Walker.

It was only because I saw Afghanistan mentioned that I paused. I’m not much of a Nobel Laureate fan, many of the awards are political choices, and of the authors I have read or have read about, very few are indeed of the brilliance the award is supposed to confer. Of the Chinese winners, Gao Xingjian has nothing on Liao Yiwu, and Mo Yan is rubbish, as a person and a writer. But occasionally—Samuel Beckett and Henri Bergson of the writers I know—politics or no, the author is that outstanding, their contributions unique. Svetlana Alexievich, who I so easily could have missed, is that, and is the equal of Beckett and Bergson. And if you’re not moved to anger and tears through these pages, if your dreams aren’t troubled, there’s no hope for you.

Svetlana Alexievich — Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War
Svetlana Alexievich — Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War

Reading: Ayize Jama-Everett — The Entropy of Bones

In the previous instalment, the protagonists hitch a ride across the Atlantic on a boat with a dead woman. She’s an aside in the main story, but in The Entropy of Bones, it’s all about her. Chabi, half-black, half-Mongolian, mute, living on a boat and training her teens away in various occult martial arts practices under the tutelage of Narayana, who’s turned up in the previous two books and is the kind of entropic person who would altruistically build orphanages only to see them all burn down, children inside (yup, that’s how Ayize Jama-Everett describes him).

Martial art girl fighting her way into and through life as irresistible force, absent father, problem mother, street tough and walls all round. I like Jama-Everett’s world, writing, imagination—duh, obviously, I’ve just read all three of his books and got through this one between Friday night and Saturday morning (with sleep)—and taking the Liminal War series off away from Taggert, his daughter, that story line and axis of Morocco to London via Marseille, to a distinctly minor character in the second book and building a whole new line from her, that’s good story-telling.

Martial art girl, etc yeah, that’s a bit of a cliché. The most recent I’ve read of that stereotrope is Tricia Sullivan’s Shadowboxer, and both indulge in and suffer from the endless descriptions of fighting, training, and corporeality, the body as a thing that only becomes true when it surmounts technique and training and finds its natural movement. There’s a shit tonne of essentialist problems in that model, as much as it is a fact—a fact that derives from the simple physicality of human bodies, how joints can articulate, muscles contract and release, nerves hold conversations, all the mess of having a body; and you can’t move outside your body without breaking it so, yeah, ‘natural’ movement—that fact doesn’t necessarily correlate to a truth. The truth being postulated is that of the authentic body and self, like Martha fucking Graham saying, “The body doesn’t lie” (yeah dunno if she said that or if it’s been corrupted from “Movement never lies” but much the same), or Star fucking Wars and “Use the Force, Luke” it’s an asshole full of orientalist shit.

And ’cos the protagonist always has to find the passive way, not be the irresistible force, be like wind or grass, which sure, is a legitimate way of fighting, Aikido, Tai Qi others work from these principles, but hitting shit until it breaks is also no less natural movement and authentic self (if we’re gonna talk in those terms), and the unspoken statement here is Chabi (or whoever else) is broken, incomplete, inauthentic until they find this ‘true’ technique-less movement. As someone who’s spent close to two decades training and suffering from the pervasiveness of that bullshit, I think I can say fuck off, and also, drop your essentialism and orientalism, it’s fucked up and it’s like you don’t even realise.

Otherwise, The Entropy of Bones is pretty bloody good. It’s not going to be book of the year—thinking there isn’t going to be a fiction one this year—partially for the above, partially for the stereotrope of ‘tough martial art chick grows up when irresistible force hits immoveable object’, partially for Jama-Everett’s need to mention one character in particular is gay when he never labels any of the others as hetero except for through their actions (a bit like Sullivan’s really awful attempt at a trans/kathoey/wtf?Idunno character), so it’s like he went through a checklist of tokens and … yeah, I’m as cynical as fuck about this stuff (no, I’m totally down with Taggert calling people “Faggot,” that’s the person he is) … partially cos there’s a darkness in these books that—I mean you can’t call any of the protagonists heroes or necessarily good people given what they do, but it’s not that darkness, it’s something underlying that, like a pessimism in the writing where everything is a rearguard action, like Anna Kavan’s Ice, brilliant book but God you come out the other side feeling hopeless and in need of a shot of heroin.

Like I said of the other Liminal books, read this if you love China Miéville (especially his stuff like Kraken, and Un Lun Dun) or Saladin Ahmed, or you’re looking for a world that isn’t full of hero white people.

Ayize Jama-Everett — The Entropy of Bones
Ayize Jama-Everett — The Entropy of Bones

 

Reading: Sally Hovey Wriggins — Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road

One of the first books I ever read on the Silk Road (Roads, Routes), was a biography of a wandering Buddhist, which I barely understood at the time, and forgot the title almost immediately. I’ve been hoping I’d find it again through a process of random elimination by reading all academic-ish books on Tang Dynasty Buddhist pilgrims in Central Asia. So far, my approach has failed.

Sally Hovey Wriggins’ Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road at least indicates whoever it was, they weren’t Xuanzang. Also in one of those pleasant surprises I often get when a book arrives, it isn’t heavy academia. It’s larger, almost square, a quick read, and heavily illustrated.

Xuanzang stole out of China proper around the same time Hild (she of Nicole Griffith’s excellent novel) was caught up in the conversion of England to Christianity. I’ve only recently started reading European mediæval history (let’s say, 600-1400 CE), and this simultaneous reading alongside China and Central Asian history (I’ve yet to properly read on the Middle East in this era) is the most inspiring and fascinating I’ve had since my first filling in of that vast blankness between Japan and Europe. More popularly, Xuanzang became the character in Journey to the West, adapted in one version for television as Monkey Magic, beloved of crusty ravers the world over.

I’ve forgotten where I first saw Wriggins’ book mentioned, but I think it was on Tang Dynasty Times in 2009, when there was a piece on the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan which the Taliban blew up. (The 2013 post, how should we think about bamiyan? (巴米扬) has some of the original, and quite a bit more.) It’s been on my To Buy List for that long. (There’s usually about 100 books on that list. I periodically trim it to maintain the pretence of reasonableness.)

As much as I try for impartiality while atheistically regarding religions, when reading about Buddhism in Central Asia, I can’t help but wish the ebb and flow of religions in this period had been reversed, and it was to Buddhism that the Islamic and Semitic regions had converted to rather than the other way.

Sally Hovey Wriggins — Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road
Sally Hovey Wriggins — Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road

 

Gallery

Pergamonmuseum — Museum für Islamische Kunst

Wednesday is not Museum Sunday. Nonetheless, having spent Sunday with Daniel and David, avoiding all museum visits (though plenty of talking thereof), today was the first day I had time, and having been entirely absent from museums since before Zürich, today it was. The Pergamonmuseum is one of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, so I got to use my Classic Plus Jahreskarte for the first time. Sadly no queues to jump, but the attendants seem more than usually smiley when I waved it in their presence.

I’ve been to a couple of museums with Dasniya; mostly though I go alone. Today was an exception being accompanied by David and his very own Jahreskarte. We met at the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, which is a perfect précis of this museum: colossal archaeological ruins dissected and transported to Berlin during the golden age of colonial pilfering. It’s magnificent, as are many of the pieces in the museum, not a few wouldn’t have survived the 20th century were it not for that museum-establishing period when they were acquired — some didn’t anyway, destroyed or looted at the end of World War 2 — either way, a museum visit for me is often coloured by this unease and tension surrounding the origins of the exhibits, and the Pergamonmuseum more so than most.

No plans to see the whole museum though; this is one of those behemoths like Gemaldegalerie which butchers the viewer with size and quantity. I was here for the special exhibition of Indian miniatures, Genuss und Rausch. Wein, Tabak und Drogen in indischen Malereien. Eine Ausstellung im Buchkunstkabinett, and imagined if I had enough time, I’d see the Museum für Islamische Kunst. The miniatures appropriately took up two small rooms, with around thirty works from the 16th to 19th centuries, all of men and women drinking and smoking, wine and other alcohol, tobaco, hashish, opium. They are uniformly beautiful, and one of my favourite art forms (how could I resist the group high on opium and hunting rats?). Sadly they suffered from two museum-wide annoyances.

The audio guide, while comprehensive for the works that did have an accompaniment, was sparse to the point where whole series of rooms were absent and none for the miniatures (or did I miss something obvious?). Most of the works had no more than a description and date, with no way of locating the item meaningfully within a temporal, geographic, or cultural context, and with the preponderance of archaeological megafauna getting the audio attention, virtually all the small works, ceramics, jewellery, artefacts of daily life went past in silence.

Then there was the light. Works behind glass lost in a glare of reflection; glazed ceramics with harsh top-lighting blowing out the details in more reflected glare; other works completely unlit or dim to the point of obscurity, or in the case of a beautiful shadow puppet a hideous combination of the two. The Gemaldegalerie also suffered from this but here it reached a new level of horribleness.

Finished with the miniatures then, it was back through the carpets rooms, around the corner, past the Astrolabe, and back to the 7th century city of Samarra. Many rooms later, I fell into the small part of the wall of Qasr Mshatta, massive, more than 30 metres long and 5 high, it’s only a very small part of the original which formed a square 144 metres a side and reached more than 20 metres high in places. Each section is a repeating pattern of a zig-zag line with a rosette in each triangle, and each section is uniquely carved with vines, leaves, flowers, animals. Preceding this in other rooms, exquisite and delicate glassware that somehow managed to survive centuries unharmed, plates and bowls glazed with arabic calligraphy like abstract, minimal line work, vast prayer alcoves, everywhere the words, “lā ʾilāha ʾil ʾāllāh, muḥammadun rasūlu-llāh.” Past the Mshatta and back through the miniatures (as usual, not performing correct museum wandering), and arriving at carpets. From kilim prayer rugs to massive, wall-covering tapestry-resembling works of geometric and botanic repetition. More ceramics also. I realised I photograph the objects I intent to steal. The carpets especially; I’ve wanted to have one of those huge ones composed of large blocks of colour like the prayer rugs for my room, but suspect I’ll only ever enjoy them in a museum. Finally to the Aleppo-Zimmer, too big for me to purloin, but to spend a night there at the start of the 17th century …

All of which is a single floor of the Pergamonmuseum, and but one of the several on Museuminsel. I’m not sure whether to see the last third of Gemaldegalerie next or continue here, or perhaps suffer paralysis at the vastness of museums in Berlin.