Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sky of Red Poppies

Full disclosure: This is my friend, Zoe's book, however it is unique, and a marvelous read that I highly recommend.

The book takes us inside the lives of people who was struggled to survive under the Shah of Iran's regime (probably not too much different than the current regime, except that Ahmadinejad has PR people who teach how to talk without saying anything at all). The story is about two young girls, best friends who are very much alike, until each makes a seemingly trivial, but fateful, decision: Shireen becomes politically active while Roya does everything possible to not to draw attention to herself. The girls grow up, and they grow apart by virtue of the different paths they pursue, and the reader gets to see the consequences of those decisions, not just upon the girls, but their extended families, as well.

It would be difficult for an American reader to imagine what it would be like to live under an oppressive regime in which it is risky to have, let alone express, an opinion. The Savak (secret police) are everywhere. Much as in Ceau┼čescu's Romania, one could not be sure who to trust. Friends and family are forced to denounce each other in order to save their own lives, while a relative handful of people assume all the risks, and suffer all the punishments, themselves.

The two primary characters, Roya and Shireen, represent a nation at odds with itself, wondering "whether to take arms against a sea of trouble and by opposing, end them" (Shakespeare), or remain silent and obedient, rationally focusing on their own and their families' lives than those of their countrymen.

In spite of the world it depicts, Sky of Red Poppies (as its optimistic-sounding title suggests) is not a dark book, nor does it have a political agenda. It focuses on the relationships between the girls. Even once they are separated by geography and the very different paths their lives take, Roya doesn't forget Shireen, and struggles to find out whether her friend is dead or alive.

The book opens a window into a world that people from the West never see, not just the lifestyle, but the very real people inhabiting it. They are no different than you or I, but by an accident of birth live under a totalitarian regime. But whether Zoe Gharahmeni writes about the reality of life under the Shah, or describes the friendship between the girls, her words are emotionally evocative, and beautiful.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

On the Nature of Prejudice

The recent discussion about potential Koran burnings scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11 got me thinking: First, it reminded me that some people are very skilled at coming up with stunts to get publicity for themselves or their causes, but then also about how we, as a society, continue to generalize about and demonize certain groups of people, such as Muslims, according to the actions of a single (or, in this case, 19) individuals.

I found this a particularly stunning example of what a short distance we, as a society, has evolved since the abolishment of slavery, for example, 150 years ago or the Jim Crow laws that were still on the books in certain states as recently as 45 years ago. This point stood out particularly because the news about renewed hostility toward muslims came out while I was editing a certain section of my grandfather’s book

If you recall, anti-Semitism was the official government policy in Russia and its occupied territories in the early 1900s, and plenty of enmity was directed against the Jews (and not just in the form of discrimination, but in active, and brutal pogroms). Yet despite his experiences, I never detected in my grandfather’s words any hostility towards Russians, Poles, Ukrainians or any other ethnic group as a people. In fact, upon the death of one acquaintance, Semyon, he noted that “. . . In all the months of our acquaintance until th[e] moment [of his death], I had never heard him say a bad word against either the Jews or the Czar.” He held up Semyon in contrast to numerous other soldiers who had been schooled in violence and indoctrinated in chauvinism, and expressed their attitudes toward Jews unabashedly. Which suggests that such attitudes were so endemic that my grandfather fully expected and anticipated to be the target of  resentment and blame, and was surprised by its absence.

Considering the intimate nature of the thoughts and feelings that my grandfather expressed so openly in his diaries (possibly because he didn’t live long enough to edit out those sentiments), I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him let loose, on occasion, with some unkind words about certain groups of people who tormented him. But he focused his anger exclusively on the one individual most responsible for the deplorable conditions in the army and in the country as a whole – the Czar (which led to yet another death sentence, but you probably could have guessed that).

As the daughter of someone who had escaped from Germany during the rise of Nazism, one might expect me to have heard nothing but negative stories about all Germans while I was growing up. Yet my father remembered his years in Germany with great fondness – the nanny who had a picture of Hitler on her wall, the schoolteacher who wore a swastika armband and required the students to salute Hitler, but still treated the Jews in the class as equals of everyone else. (This open-minded attitude toward Germans got my father into trouble when he spoke, many years ago, to a group of Holocaust survivors, understandably a crowd that did not care to hear about ordinary Germans’ redeeming qualities).
When we find ourselves considering an isolated part of something as representative of the whole, we should remember, as Mark Twain noted, “All generalizations are false – including this one.”

Discussion: As open-minded as I try to be, I know there are situations in which I fall victim to the same type of thinking. I generally think that "all politicians are liars" because in order to get elected, a candidate needs to tell the public what it wants to hear, which usually isn't the truth. Where, in your experience, do you see such deductive reasoning arise?