During the past two thousand years Ancient Egypt has effectively been destroyed, both by the Egyptians themselves and by a host of foreigners, many of...moreDuring the past two thousand years Ancient Egypt has effectively been destroyed, both by the Egyptians themselves and by a host of foreigners, many of them arriving in the Nile Valley in the name of science and nationalism. The loss to archaeology is incalculable, that to Egyptian history even more staggering. As a result of the looting and pillage of generations of irresponsible visitors, the artifacts and artistic achievements of the Ancient Egyptians are scattered all over the globe, some of the most beautiful and spectacular of them stored or displayed thousands of miles from the Nile." (From pages 11-12)
Ever since I was a little girl, I've loved learning about Ancient Egypt. I remember trips to the British Museum with my Mum to gawp at the Rosetta stone and writing my name in hieroglyphs at primary school. Later, at university, I studied Egyptian language as part of a linguistics unit and I've read countless books on the Ancient Egyptians themselves. The story of the European rediscovery of the Nile Valley in the eighteenth and nineteenth century is an exciting one, full of Indiana Jones type figures, such as Giovanni Belzoni. But in The Rape of the Nile, Fagan challenges the actions of Western treasure seekers and archaeologists. Who gave them the right to remove the artifacts from Egypt and keep them in foreign museums?
It's hard to argue with Fagan's arguments as there is some shocking behaviour on the part of early Egyptologists in the book. Whilst Fagan does cover tomb robbing and looting through Ancient Egyptian to Islamic times, the real pillage only starts with the arrival of Westerners in the form of Napoleon's expedition. We read about tombs being blown open with dynamite (and a near miss with one of the great pyramids), reliefs scraped off walls and my personal favourite, a sarcophagus being chopped in two as the whole thing was harder to transport. The early treasure seekers had little more than the desire to acquire exotic things, so there was no attempt at scientific recording or archaeology. So much was lost.
Fagan does balance his argument with stories of the pioneers who tried to make archaeology in Egypt more scientific and less about the treasure seeking, but it all comes too little too late. Egypt doesn't get a fully functioning national museum until late in the day and the patronising 'we can look after them better than you' attitude continues to this day. I read an early edition of this book (1977) but I know there is a more up to date one out there - it would be interesting to see what Fagan makes of the modern argument that Western museums should return some of their treasures to Cairo, put forward by people like Hawass. However, the benefit of reading the 1977 edition (pulled out of the reserve stacks of the library) was that it was a beautiful copy, hard back with illustrations on most pages.
I loved this book, but I can appreciate that some people might find it a little dry. Fagan has an engaging writing style but the book is fairly detailed and you would need a keen interest in Egyptology before starting in order to enjoy it properly. It's one I would recommend though, it's got a good balance of the history of what happened to Egypt in modern time and of the moral issues surrounding Egyptology.(less)
Most of us tend to think of slavery as something that happened in the past. We imagine Africans at slave markets, on overcrowded ships or working on p...moreMost of us tend to think of slavery as something that happened in the past. We imagine Africans at slave markets, on overcrowded ships or working on plantations. In Enslaved, Jesse Sage and Liora Kasten, the directors of the American Anti-Slavery Group, hope to enlighten people to the fact that slavery still exists in the modern world in a number of forms, from the traditional to sex slavery to labour camps. Inspired by the slave narratives of the nineteenth century, each chapter is the narrative of a person who has been a modern day slave, in a variety of different contexts.
Enslaved was certainly eye-opening. Whilst I was aware that modern day slavery existed, I had no idea of the extent and scope of it. To pick just a few narratives, in this book we meet: Micheline, a Haitian woman trafficked to the USA; Abuk, captured in a raid in Sudan; Jill, kept as a sex slave in suburban America; Beatrice, who thought she had got a job as a maid only to be enslaved and Harry, a victim of Chinese labour camps. There's also a narrative of a slave owner in Mauritiana, that still operates what we would think of as a traditional slavery system. Taken together, the chapters definitely raise awareness and they opened my mind to the suffering of millions of people around the world.
The more I read, the more the connection between slavery and poverty became clear. People who are living in extreme poverty are the ones that will apply for au-pair or maid positions abroad, without knowing enough about the situation to know if they are safe. They are the women driven to work as prostitutes, vulnerable to sex trafficking. The final chapter in the collection is about what we can do as readers and abolitionists, but it didn't really address this connection. Whilst I agree that there's much Western citizens can do about slavery (raising awareness being the least of them), until poverty as a whole is tackled it will continue. Corrupt governments and failing states have much to do with modern day poverty.
I think Enslaved is an important book, one to pass one and discuss with the people you see regularly. Modern slavery is an invisible thing, suffered by people that generally aren't educated or literate enough to raise awareness or push for change. It's not an easy read but it will make you think.(less)
Jean Naggar comes from a wealthy Jewish family who had lived in Cairo for centuries. The early parts of Sipping from the Nile deal with an extravagant...moreJean Naggar comes from a wealthy Jewish family who had lived in Cairo for centuries. The early parts of Sipping from the Nile deal with an extravagant, sheltered childhood, as Jean and her family live comfortably in a large house overlooking the Nile. Servants take care of her every material need, she is sent to a prestigious English boarding school and the family summer in Europe, away from the stifling Egyptian heat. The initial chapters are full of Sephardic Jewish rituals and there's an overwhelming sense of a large and close-knit family. But after the Suez crisis in 1956, when Britain, France and Israel tried to stop the nationalisation of the vital Suez Canal, the atmosphere in Egypt changes for Jean's family. After surviving the horrors of World War Two, the Jewish Egyptian population comes under threat due to anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiment. Eventually, Jean's family is forced to leave Egypt after some danger and the world of her childhood vanishes forever.
Sipping from the Nile is a very well written memoir. Naggar conjures up the atmosphere of upper class childhood perfectly and the love she clearly has for Egypt comes off of every page. Although the chapters dealing with boarding school and time abroad are also well written, the memoir truly comes to life when Naggar is writing about Egypt and the traditions of her family. I learned a lot about Sephardic Jews and felt like I was completely immersed in Naggar's world, a feeling that was helped by the photographs scattered through each chapter.
I must admit that whilst I was reading, I spent a lot of time waiting for the Suez crisis to turn up. For a book whose by-line is 'my exodus from Egypt', this event doesn't actually occur until quite late in the game, at least two thirds of the way through. Whilst the initial section dealing with her childhood felt leisurely and a bit over-long, the sections dealing with how it felt to leave Egypt behind could have been explored further. I appreciated the final chapters where Jean and her own family return to Egypt, but I wanted to know more about the intervening years, more about what it felt like to be unwelcome in your home land.
Sipping from the Nile is a decent, well written memoir about an interesting community. I enjoyed it, but it didn't set my world on fire.(less)
Blessing is twelve when her comfortable life in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, is destroyed by the separation of her parents. She moves with her mothe...moreBlessing is twelve when her comfortable life in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, is destroyed by the separation of her parents. She moves with her mother and older brother Ezikiel to a rural compound just outside Warri, in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Aside from getting used to the lack of running water, electricity and hygiene, Blessing has to learn to live in a violent community where the population is increasingly politicised by the actions of the oil companies. Her mother works night and day in an attempt to pay school fees, leaving Blessing in the care of her grandmother, a traditional midwife and her grandfather, a recent convert to Islam. Once top of the class, Ezikiel starts to fall behind in his studies after a gun attack and becomes seduced by the Sibeye Boys, a group of local boys arming themselves with guns and trying to be 'big men'. Tiny Sunbirds Far Away is a coming of age story set against a violent backdrop.
I thoroughly enjoyed Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, mainly due the charismatic narrative voice of Blessing herself. I think it's hard for adult writers to write in a child's voice successfully in a book intended for adult readers, but Watson manages it perfectly. Blessing starts the book relatively naive, shocked at the separation of her parents and worried most about how she will go to the toilet in a school without running water. As the novel goes on, she increasingly becomes more aware of the situation around her and comes to the realisation that the adults in her family are humans, as flawed as she is. Her coming of age was believable and very well written. Throughout the whole story, Blessing's voice is upbeat enough to off-set some of the tragedies and violence (gun crime, death, female genital mutilation). She's incredibly easy to identify with and it's her voice that set this novel 'alight' for me.
Tone is another challenge in a book with so many issues. Watson is helped in this by her choice of a teenage narrator; Blessing simply relays what is going on without judgement. Female genital mutilation is tackled in quite a bit of detail (Blessing is training to be a birth attendant with her grandmother) and the different perspectives and arguments are simply presented. Through Ezikiel we also get to see the different perspectives around gun crime and Western oil companies. Despite some of the heavy subject matter, the book doesn't get bogged down; Blessing keeps the pace swift and the tone just light enough.
The only criticism I have of this book is that at times, it was too sentimental. There's a lot of romanticism of Nigeria and of traditional African life; a grandmother telling folk stories with children gathered around, traditional cooking, African dance etc. Although this was necessary to balance the more heavy parts of the book, it felt a bit sentimental and stereotypical. But it's a minor criticism really; Tiny Sunbirds Far Away is compelling, expertly written and full of memorable characters. I couldn't put it down and finished it in just under two days.(less)
Black sisters' street refers to Zwartezusterstraat, a street in the red light district of Brussels famous for its African prostitutes. Unigwe's story...more Black sisters' street refers to Zwartezusterstraat, a street in the red light district of Brussels famous for its African prostitutes. Unigwe's story starts with three young women learning the news that the fourth woman they share a house with, Sisi, has been brutally murdered. Although they have kept their distance from each other in the past, this news brings the three women together and they start to share their stories. Efe had an affair with a married man as she thought this would lead to money and opportunity. Abandoned after the birth of her son, she agrees to meet Dele, who offers her a new opportunity in Europe, a chance to provide for her son. Ama is repeatedly raped by her step-father and seeking escape at any cost. And Joyce is a Sudanese woman caught up in the war who thinks she has found happiness with a Nigerian man, only to have it snatched away by his prejudiced family. All three are stateless and at the mercy of the madam and their debt to Dele, the man who arranged their transport to Belgium. They dream of a life free again, but as Sisi learned, dreaming can come at a high price.
On Black Sisters' Street is a heavy-hitting book. The stories of all four women contain suffering in lots of different forms and happiness is something only rarely snatched at between periods of hardship. Although the women come across as smart and resourceful, circumstance has made them desperate enough to make a choice that hopefully most of us will never have to face - the choice to become an illegal sex worker. And for three of the women it is exactly that - a choice. Joyce is the only one who arrives in Belgium not knowing what is expected of her. I really respected Unigwe for showing that prostitution can be something gone into with eyes wide open, rather than telling the 'easier' story of women smuggled to Europe ignorant of what their fate would be. It made for a far more nuanced and subtle book.
Despite the sections dealing with life in Europe, On Black Sisters' Street is mainly a condemnation of the corruption and problems facing Nigeria. Money, or the lack of it, is a powerful motivator for all the women, especially Sisi, who has a good degree but can't get a job as she doesn't know anyone who can pull the levers of power for her. Facing a life of living without, she decides prostitution is a better bet than poverty. Efe and Ama decide the same. And in some ways, it does turn out to be a good bet - some of the women manage to repay their debts to Dele and go on to live a life that would have been impossible without prostitution. Again, the inclusion of this by Unigwe makes for a more complicated book. I'm glad she showed the shades of grey in the issues covered in the story.
Although there is much suffering in the story, Unigwe's writing keeps On Black Sisters' Street from being too depressing overall. The characters are realists and there's always an undercurrent of hope that life will get better. It must have been a hard balance to achieve and I'm impressed with Unigwe for managing it. Overall, On Black Sisters' Street is a well written and sensitive examination of heavy issues and I would highly recommend it(less)
The Caliph's House is an account of the first year Shah and his family spent in Casablanca, renovating a dilapidated traditional house and attempting...moreThe Caliph's House is an account of the first year Shah and his family spent in Casablanca, renovating a dilapidated traditional house and attempting to fit in with the locals.
Unfortunately, not all of my expectations were met. In many ways, The Caliph's House is a wonderful book full of simple but absorbing writing and Shah certainly does a good job at describing Casablanca and Morocco itself. Although there are sketches included, they aren't really necessary as, reading the book, I felt as if I was actually there with Shah and his family. The culture of the Moroccans (for example their belief in Jinns) is described with respect but a gentle humour that shows the high regard Shah has for his adopted country.
As someone who has often daydreamed about packing everything in and moving to an exotic location, I enjoyed reading about the renovation of the house and how the traditional Moroccan artisans worked. But this was also where I felt the book fell down a bit; Shah's writing is much more suited to stories and atmospheres, not practicalities like finding a carpenter or fixing a sewerage pipe. The passages about the Moroccans and his visits around the country were enchanting, but the renovation sections seemed to drag. There's only so many times I needed to read about workers not turning up on time or the guardians of the house panicking about something the resident Jinn might or might not have done.
All that is not to say The Caliph's House isn't a wonderful book - it is. It's just that In Arabian Nights is better (more about Morocco, less about house renovation) and I happened to read that first. The Caliph's House was worth reading for the descriptions and for the friendships Shah struck up with some of the Moroccans in the slum bordering his house; I had a soft spot for the refined stamp collector, Hicham. I look forward to reading some of Shah's other books in the future, particularly In Search of King Solomon's Mines and Trail of Feathers, about Peru.(less)
This is going to be a hard review to write, because it's hard for me to find a standard by which to judge this book by. Told from the point of view of...moreThis is going to be a hard review to write, because it's hard for me to find a standard by which to judge this book by. Told from the point of view of Salim, who has moved from the coast inland to a nameless African country with remarkable similarities to the Congo, A Bend In The River is an observation of life in Africa following decolonisation. There is violence, corruption, political instability and periods of relative stability.
The reason this book is so hard to review is that techincally, it's not a story. So on all my assessments of narrative it falls short. There isn't really a plot, let alone one that it engaging. The main character is a vehicle for Naipaul's thoughts rather than being a 'real' character so I certainly didn't connect with him. The lack of these traditional story elements made this book hard for me to read and despite it being only 300 pages or so, it has taken me over a week to finish it. I got to the point a few days ago when I just wanted it done already.
But on the other hand, A Bend In The River is an extremely powerful piece of observational writing. Yes, not much happens but some of the things Naipaul writes about are very profound and clever. The character of Ferdinand for example, goes through a series of changes that reflect what is happening in the African countries themselves. One moment he is polite and dedicated to school and his bright future, the next he is doing all he can to get in with whoever has power at the moment, the next he is eschewing education for emphasising his tribal connections. Naipaul does an excellent job of showing the underlying tensions between groups of people that threaten to blow up at any moment, and this particularly works as Salim is an 'outsider' too.
The writing is very good too. Naipaul uses a simplistic style but there are plenty of underlying messages, meaning that the book repays any time spent analysing it. And that was the problem for me - I read this book at the wrong time. Some days I only had twenty minutes or so to devote to it, and the lack of plot became too much for me. It's a worthwhile book, but it requires time and concentration. If you like fast-moving plots, this isn't the book for you. If you enjoy reading about Africa and African history and go into it knowing that it is mainly observation, then this could be a very enjoyable read.(less)
I was always going to love this book about deciphering hieroglyphics. During my time at university I took a few modules on linguistics, I love Ancient...moreI was always going to love this book about deciphering hieroglyphics. During my time at university I took a few modules on linguistics, I love Ancient Egypt and I have visited the Rosetta Stone many times at the British Museum - I could hardly wait to open the cover of this one! Mainly a biography of the person to finally crack the code, Jean-Francoise Champollion, The Keys Of Egypt places Champollion's extraordinary discovery in context, explaining exactly why it took the world so long to be able to read hieroglyphics and the reaction of the academic community at the time.
The Keys of Egypt is engagingly written, but it's not the best example of entertaining non-fiction out there. The pace of events is quite brisk at the beginning of the book but definitely tapers throughout the middle onwards, finally ending with a long description of Champollion's time in Egypt including many page-length quotes from his personal letters. This meant that the last fifty or so pages did feel like a bit of a slog; I was happy that Champollion had finally achieved his dream of seeing Egypt, I just didn't want to read all of his letters! Therefore, this non-fiction book probably falls in a category with the vast majority of non-fiction titles; fascinating if you are interested in the subject, a bit tedious if you aren't.
One thing I really appreciated about The Keys Of Egypt was how the authors put Champollion's achievements in their proper historical context. There was a section on Napoleon's troops discovering the Rosetta stone, several on the political aftermath of the French Revolution and a comparison with the work of Champollion's main rival, Young. Reading about all the events going on in Champollion's life and his personal hardships (he was born into poverty and never really left it), the Adkins' managed to create a real sense of how big his achievement was and how much he was able to accomplish through hard work and sheer determination.
There were also some strong themes throughout the book. Champollion was very close to his older brother and the theme of sibling love/respect was a thread throughout all of the sections. Despite being an academic himself and therefore at high risk of becoming jealous of his younger brother, Jacques-Joseph Champollion often sacrificed his own goals and dreams in order to help Jean-Francoise. The snobbery and resistance to change of the academic community was another theme - Champollion really had to fight to have his achievements acknowledged, and there were also some sore losers who resorted to plagiarism claims. It's only really since his death that his accomplishments are freely recognised.
Whilst I loved this book (and will be giving it a high rating), I can see that it wouldn't be a book for everyone, only for big fans of Ancient Egypt and/or linguistics. If you are after only a brief introduction to the life of Champollion and the decoding of the Rosetta stone (as well as the discovery of many of Egypt's monuments), I would recommend Joyce Tyldesley's Egypt: How A Lost Civilisation Was Rediscovered and the excellent BBC series that went with it.(less)