What I’m reading lately

overcoming writer's block - crumpled paper on wooden floor - crushed paper

I’m stuck in writer’s block both on the blog and with my novel, so I’ve been doing tons of reading, hoping inspiration will come.

One of the coolest things I’ve come across is Delancey Place, which sends interesting excerpts in your email every morning so instead of laying blearily in bed and deleting coupon spam that tries to “ease you into the week,”:

you get to learn stuff.

Here’s the first paragraph of today’s:

In today’s excerpt – the Soviet Union’s masterful Boris Spassky versus America’s unpredictable Bobby Fischer was the greatest chess match of all time. At the time, it was a proxy for the cold war between the U.S. and Russia — fought without nuclear weapons. It was Ali versus Frazier, the Yankees versus the Red Sox,  and the Superbowl all rolled into one. Spassky was the reigning champion and the USSR was dominant in chess. In previous games between Fischer and Spassky, Fischer had not fared well. Spassky had an uncanny ability to read his opponent’s strategy and use it against him. Adaptable and patient, he would build attacks that would defeat not in seven moves but in seventy. He defeated Fischer every time they played because he saw much further ahead, and because he was a bril­liant psychologist who never lost control. One master said, “He doesn’t just look for the best move. He looks for the move that will disturb the man he is playing.”

Yesterday’s was about how the American mafia started in New Orleans.

I also finished Trinity, which has the most embarrassing book cover known to man. The title symbolizes the three sacred truths of the Irish Republic: Catholicism, guns, and the guarantee that Leon Uris will write a really bad, long book about you.  I’ve been trying to write a review of this book for the past month, but it’s hard to know the right approach to review this book. In that way, it’s like reviewing a Nicholas Cage movie.

 After I was done with that, I started The Secret History of Moscow.  The secret of this book was that you can’t get more than halfway through without putting it down.  The author intersperses Russian and English words so much that it gives even native Russian readers a headache.  Also, the plot is boring and I hate all of the characters. So, basically, a Very Russian book.



When we went to Portland, I stocked up on resarch material at Powell’s, but I also bought Mujahababes, which is about a British woman studying the Middle East and trying to understand Middle East youth culture, and what it could mean for the geopolitics of the region.  Last time we had British people study the Middle East, we got that whole Sykes-Picot thing, so if I were the Jordanians, I’d be paranoid.  But, you know, she does mention Haifa Webhe, so it seems legit.


I started reading this book because I thought it would be a light take on German history and I was happy to see someone else writing satirical historical-travel-diaries, but it turned out to be as depressing as my own work, so I had to put it aside.

For research for the novel, I’m currently in the middle of these two books, and they are both amazing.

No snark.

In Russian, I’m still working my way through The Golden Calf, which has a much cooler cover in English, and is the golden standard of Soviet satire.  If you’re looking to pick up an English version with cultural explanations, this one‘s your best bet.  I’m also reading a book about Birobidzhan, but that one’s slow going, so I’m not going to include it and by the time I’m done you’ll just assume I’m a super-fast reader and forget all about it.

Take it away, Haifa!


James Zogby Wins Me Over with his Lebanese Trickery and Charm

Remember back when I lived in the capital and everything was happy and shiny and government-subsidized elves polished my shoes every morning? Back in those days (12 days ago), I used to go to all sorts of international enterprises, like the Middle East Intitute, the Hillwood mansion, and all the embassies.  Also I used to live with Mr. B and had somebody to peel my oranges. Those were the days.

I was happy to learn that end of the universe -I mean Philly -has a little bit of an international scene as well, although, obviously not good enough for me to stop white whining about it.

Last night, I went to see James Zogby speak about Arab-American and Middle Eastern perceptions of America at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, located in a very snazzy building with a view of City Hall.


He spoke about how bad our American media and our education system is at informing us about the world around us, which is what his new book is about. He started the lecture by asking people to buy his book and maybe stick around for the lecture, because, after all, he was descended from Lebanese merchants, and he had a book to sell.  This immediately appealed to my Jewish entrepreneurial instincts.

He then talked at length about how misunderstanding between the Middle East and the US occur, a topic I’ve been exploring on my own for quite some time. Zogby’s points  were all ones I’d heard before, but he’s such a great and involved speaker that he wrapped everything up into a neat little package:

  • Only 37% of Americans know where Iraq is on the map.
  • The American media is notoriously bad.  He gives two examples: Fox News had asked him before to come on and speak about Afghanistan. He doesn’t know much about Afghanistan, only about the Middle East, so declined. Fox News was surprised, because they don’t really ever have guests decline speaking engagements. No one will say “I don’t know.”
  • The second is that, the day before the guy threatened to burn the Quran in Florida, there was a interdenominational conference between 5 Jewish groups, 2 Muslim groups, 3 Christian Groups, etc., on calling against religious zealotry. It got scant coverage. Zogby says he was disappointed with the coverage of the Quran guy because it shows the world the same image of America as we get when we see Arabs burning flags in Amman or Cairo: a very limited and incendiary scope.
  • We do ourselves a disservice by not knowing anything about the Middle East.  “We live in a  country so heavily mired in the region and yet we are all so ignorant” was his exact phrase.
  • And, only 370 U.S. colleges teach Arabic. Considering the demand given the action in Iraq, this is very disappointing.

The talk was great and really captivating. The best part is that Zogby uses polling to back up his assertions, which a woman of statistics like me can agree with. I had to sneak out early so I wouldn’t get mugged going to my car-I mean could get home in time to dinner-Skype with Mr. B-, but the talk left me happy with vestiges of the D.C. scene I used to know.

Edited: P.S. there is huge money to be made in polling the Middle East. If you know Arabic, you have a job for the next 5-10 years. Then you’ll need to learn Mandarin. And then Portuguese.


Books: O Jerusalem

I’ve been gushing about this one for the past couple weeks on various social media outlets because it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.  It’s really rare that I’m be sad when books end, the way I was when Jonathan Strange+Mr. Norrell ended, but this is one case where I was.

The book goes through, detail by detail, of the battle for Jerusalem during the war for Israel’s independence in 1948, from both the Israeli and the Arab perspective (both military and civilian), incorporating a freaking impressive range of historical evidence, interviews with hundreds of people (including the King of Jordan, homegirl Golda, Ben Gurion, and American, British, and French sources.) and mashes up each perspective in a way that’s not dry.  Each person interviewed is painted as a character that keeps the pages turning fast and furiously.



A book about why the Middle East is crazy

I’ve been going on non-stop about this book on Twitter for the past couple of days now, but I really loved it and I think it’s really an important read for anyone involved in any sphere of Middle Eastern relations, even as a navel-gazer.

MacFarquhar, who grew up in an expat compound in Libya, writes about his long experience in the region as a reporter and as someone who is constantly amused, amazed, and frustrated by movements there.

He focuses on Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon  as he intersperses apt analysis of the region with his experiences over 20 years of reporting for the New York Times and other publications from Cairo, Riyadh, Beirut, and Jerusalem (although Israel is not at all the focus of this book and only comes up tangentially.)

Reading this book is like having Turkish coffee for hours with a(n amazingly Arab-speaking) friend who is both knowledgeable and amiable and has all the right contacts to give you a behind-the-scenes look at how news is made and how journalists work, as well as a broad strokes view of how politics in the region work from the outside in.

Highly recommended read that I am recalling today as I read about the matzav between Israel and Lebanon.


Mrs. Bej and Bellydancing After the Saudi Arabian Embassy

Years ago (10th grade), I had a wonderful Honors World Cultures teacher, Mrs.Vera  Bej (pronounced Bey.)  She was from Soviet Czechoslovakia, and she blew my mind.

Raised in suburbia, secluded from any type of ethnic, religious, or racial minority, I felt on my own as a Russian Jew with mainly American friends. Adriano Celentano was my favorite singer,

Lagaan was my favorite movie, and my parents would have hour-long blab sessions with their friends about how Putin was going to be bad for Russia.  And I couldn’t talk about any of it with my friends because they thought I was weird enough already.  Why couldn’t I just listen to Blink-182 and talk about what was going on at the mall on Friday?

But Mrs. Bej opened my eyes to so many new and exciting things, and I always felt that she “got” me because she was from Eastern Europe, too.  And she was hard as hell.  Lots and lots of people failed her class because she handled the room the way a Soviet teacher would and didn’t fall back on crappy U.S. teaching methods.  We had to “internalize, then synthesize” everything, write 8-page-long papers, memorize all of the countries on the continent of Africa and read lots and lots of books.  Midterms and finals were a nightmare and I stayed up until 2 am studying for her exams which always included at least two essays.

I loved and excelled in World Cultures, but man, was it hard.  One of the hardest parts for me was when she divided the class and we had to take viewpoints opposing our own.  I was a Palestinian arguing for land rights.  Since I hadn’t been exposed to much bilateral discussion of  Israel at  home, it was insanely tough.

We had four divisions: Russia and Eastern Europe, The Middle East, China and Japan, and the Modern World. Among the things Mrs. Bej introduced me to that I still reference today were two of my summer reading books Guests of the Sheik (which we read before the United States invaded Iraq) and The Good Earth.

For our field trip in the spring, we went to Washington, D.C. and visited the Saudi Embassy, the Islamic Center of Washington, the Smithsonian Sackler Gallery, and the Hillwood Estate (which Mr. B and I actually went to last year again.)

I was in love.  I couldn’t believe there was so much going on in one city, and so many exotic things.  I’d never seen or thought about Muslims in my life before until we went to the Islamic Center and all the girls had to wear headscarves.  My classmate, Arthi, almost got into an argument with the mullah who answered her questions about why women had to wear headscarves.

The highlight of the trip was dinner at a Moroccan restaurant that night, Marrakesh.  I had never been to one and had my eyes open wide the whole time as I ate with my hands and sat on the floor.  At the end, the belly dancer came out and Mrs. Bej danced right along with her and our class clapped and she laughed.   It is probably the only field trip I still remember from high school or middle school.

What caused me to remember this?  This recent article about the Saudi Arabian Embassy and Saudi Arabia’s recent relationship with Washington, which, it seems has cooled down quite a bit

The Saudi Embassy is covered in snow, and U.S. Foreign Service officers on their lunch breaks in Foggy Bottom skid by and giggle. Washington is notoriously incapable of digging itself out from under, and almost a year into the Obama administration, it seems the Saudis are having the same problem.

The Saudi-American relationship has traditionally been managed from the Saudi embassy, especially during the heyday of U.S.-Saudi comity presided over by Prince Bandar, a high-spirited Dallas Cowboys fan affectionately known to members of two recent administrations as Bandar Bush. “Bandar used to have strong ties with everyone in town,” explained Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a Washington-based journalist with Kuwait’s Al-Rai newspaper. The prince, who once bought a Jaguar for the wife of his long-time tennis partner, Colin Powell, and was shown war plans for Iraq, was far and away Washington’s preeminent diplomat.

While I was reading the story, I reminisced about our trip to the Saudi Embassy-huge and glittery and expensive and was amazed at how something I was taught so long ago continues to be relevant in my life today as I’ve grown out of the awkward weird foreign kid phase and now live in that city that amazed me before.  It really is true that some teachers can have a big impact on the direction your life goes, and Mrs. Bej was it for me.

Related on the blog:

The Sands of Saudi
Another person who wasn’t a big fan of high school