If you are looking for a 40 minute read on a train ride, this might do. I read it in one go.
It’s a play combined with some narrative in between. I did not arrive to appreciate it and it might be a question of personal preference. The story line brings two main characters together on a street in Paris: a young Jewish and an elderly Sufi. Their relationship evolves into a camaraderie of some sorts, filling respective voids in their lives. I did not fully get it if the author tried to make a point about religion and intergenerational relationships. The characters seemed infantile and perhaps they were supposed to mature during the actual play. I found the finale a bit cliché, again perhaps there was no other point to make.
I started reading it couple of years ago. I abandoned it 20%in. It seemed discouraging to learn that humans react rather than they actually think. This year, I decided to give it another go. And I appreciated all the wealth of perspectives about how we can improve our decision-making once we are aware about our biases and the shortcuts our brains take. Kahneman puts it this way: “So this is my aim for watercooler conversations: improve the ability to identify and understand errors of judgement and choice, in others and eventually ourselves, by providing a richer and more precise language to discuss them. In at least some cases, an accurate diagnosis may suggest an intervention to limit the damage that bad judgements and choices often cause”.
At times the book is theory heavy, yet I found many useful things for my project management work. I learned more about how the human brain works, so that I improve my interactions with others. It can serve us in preparations for the project’s board or in negotiations with the project’s sponsor. Especially, if we remember that “We can be blind to the obvious. And we are also blind to our blindness.”
For teams management, I found it useful to note that “Too much concern about how well one is doing in a task sometimes disrupts performance by loading short-term memory with pointless anxious thoughts. … self-control requires attention and effort”. Or that for some of us, “cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain”. And the concept of affect heuristics – the tendency to base our decisions on our emotions; “the emotional tail wags the emotional dog”.
When we do risk management in projects, it is useful to remember that “risk” does not exist “out there”, independent of our minds and culture, waiting to be measured. Human beings have invented the concept of “risk” to help them understand and cope with the dangers and uncertainties of life. Although these dangers are real, there is no such thing as “real risk” or “objective risk” (see Slovic’s theory for more).
For a drop of intellectual humility it is useful to be aware that “Expertise is not a single skill; it is a collection of skills, and the same professional may be highly expert in some tasks in her domain while remaining a novice in others”.
These are just a few of my takeaways. You are welcome to share yours if you read the book.
It was not a light reading, so be prepared to face it. I am in awe about Seierstad’s ability to tell us the story of a massacre in the heart of Norway committed by one of them. It takes maturity to take responsibility. It takes true compassion to pay all due respects to the victims and their families.
The story of this massacre is furthermost the story of young people who shared views of a better society, regardless of the background they came from. Until 22 July there was no sign they or their parents could see of an iminent danger of the being sacrificed to the “cause” a man created for himself. Unlike those he killed, “for Anders, dreams were not achieved through community. He wanted to shine out above the grey mass.”
How does one arrive at that? The testimony of the psychiatric doctor sheds some light: “‘The first time I saw Breivik enter this courtroom – and as psychiatrists first two or three milliseconds – it is important to note. I did not see a monster, I saw a deeply lonely man… Deeply lonely… Then quick as a flash he was inside his shell, making himself hard… But… At his core there is just a deeply lonely man. We have with us here not only a right-wing extremist bastard, but also a fellow human being who, regardless of what he has done to the rest of us, is suffering. We must try to put ourselves inside his brain, make his world comprehensible. His personality and extreme right-wing ideology are combined in an effort to get out of his own prison. He ends up ruining not only his own life but that of many others. We have with us here a fellow human being who will be left not only in his own prison but also in an actual prison. It is important for us to appreciate that this is something much more than a pure right-wing extremist. This is a tragedy for Norway and for us. I think it is also a tragedy for Breivik.”
Seierstad is equidistant to the tragedy of parents of the perpetrator and of the victims. And that is very noble in a society based on blaming the other. She let parents on both sides decide how much they wanted to be written about their children in the book. Because above all, this is a story of Simon, Anders and Viljar, Bano and Lara.
‘That’s where I wrote the song “Russian Mothers”. I was washing clothes and weeping, and suddenly I thought: our tears are the same, the Chechen mothers’ and the Russian mothers’. (Singer Liza Umarova)
I was speechless when I finished the book. It made me remember that we know nothing. And to never judge anyone, under no circumstances. I admire how Seierstad treats all people with utmost respect for their dignity. Talking to and presenting the story of abused children requires such a compassion and ethics that very few are capable of in her line of work. Same goes for victims of torture, and so many more victims of a merciless system. This should be in a manual of journalism schools, I think.
Much is written about this book. I will not describe it here. I would only mention what I found insightful.
When you talk with people who share different views, try to grasp how much propaganda they have absorbed. “Rizvan would not discuss whether the struggle was worth the countless innocent victims. ‘Svoboda ili Smert,’ he replied again. ‘We’ll fight to the last man and the last drop of blood. But don’t look on us as fanatics; we want a secular state, like Norway, for example.’”
Before we embark on a judgement journey, we should ask ourselves what did we do, what is our responsibility and how it is seen by others. “The West, with its so-called humanitarianism, could have helped us, but you don’t say a word!’” “No one trusts anyone else any more, because Putin had a stroke of genius: he let Ramzan Kadyrov do the dirty work. Now it’s Chechen against Chechen.’ It’s called ‘chechenising’ the conflict. Whereas before, Russian forces committed the worst abuses, now the Chechen militia maintains control in a society maimed by fear.” “Religion is the only real way to get rid of crime, to teach people, improve them, purify them.” Only then perhaps we will start to understand. “Something about Chechen men gives the impression that they are always prepared. Ready to attack or to defend themselves. It’s as if they are filled with a perpetual, unreleased tension.”
Always remember the ones who are behind, in the shadow or totally invisible: “Vladimir Putin is only the latest in the line of conquerors. The latest to try to tame the wolves. Myself, I am more interested in the wolf cubs. Zaira knew where I could find them, and had promised to take me to a woman they called the Angel of Grozny.” Seierstad made us see the orpahns we pretend do not exist.
One of the things I noticed in common in all her books is how Seierstad talks about sisterhood. Her fellow reporter Bojana in Serbia, or in Iraq…
Back to “With their backs to the world”, the book came to life after three visits to Serbia between 1999 and 2004. She wanted to understand: “I couldn’t stop wondering about the Serbs, these outcasts of Europe. This people that started one war after the other, and lost them all.” And so she does and helps us understand.
I have to say that whenever I met Serbs, my brain was full of stereotypes from both western and eastern media. The book broadened my perception and I will look with a lot more compassion and empathy at anyone coming from a Serbia governed by Tito, Milošević and other subsequent governments. Seierstad talks to people and listens to them. She does not judge and offers no personal views. So that we take it unaltered from Serbs of different background, genders, age, social status, regions and income. By sharing their daily bread, she teleports us into their lives, dreams and regrets.
The lines I found insightful about the way Serbs think:
‘The bombing was the worst thing the West could do to us – it only validated Milosevic’s rhetoric about the West hating the Serbs. The West has committed a series of blunders in its dealings with Milosevic,’ Bojana explains.
‘I can’t let them down. I’m their voice, and I have to go after those in power, the new and the old.’ – a Serb journalist.
‘The media is another problem – journalists here have been taught to repeat what they’ve been told and have grown up in a culture of self-censorship. Most of them do what they’ve always done – they just have different bosses. And the new power base is happy to exploit the situation.”
‘The only way for a reconciliation to occur is by knowing the truth about what has happened here. So many atrocities have taken place, but in order to forgive I need to know who I am to forgive, and why. It will be a difficult and painful process, but we have to go through it in order to proceed. We need a truth commission, like in South Africa. If we don’t determine who is guilty of what, the entire nation will be guilty – just of being Serbs.’
“Because no one was ever held accountable for anything, people allow themselves to forget – or, rather, remember only the parts they want to remember.”
“And this is how so many wars have started in the Balkans – through stretching historical facts to fit an emotional state, through lying about everything from statistics to myths. Great wars start out as folk songs and camp-fire stories, and end in genocide and bloodbaths.”
‘The West should be ashamed. The bombing presented the opposition with enormous difficulties. At the last election I urged people to vote for a democracy styled on Western Europe, and then these very same democracies attack us. How am I supposed to justify this? I asked people to put their faith in the EU flag – and the next thing we know, we’re bombed by the EU!’
“The best way to shake people out of their inertia is to put them in debt. Then you give them the power to realise their dreams overnight, while ensuring that they’ll spend years paying for their dreams. This is the principle upon which the stability of the Western world rests.’
I read the book in one go. The novel is a take on the airplane hijack happening in 1983 in soviet Georgia. I was in kindergarden at that time in Soviet Moldova and obviously knew nothing about such brave people and most tragic events happening across the Black Sea. You had to be brave to undertake a plane hijack in USSR at that time. The group of young persons who undertook it in November 1983 had different personal and political motivations to embark on it. The loss of lives which it brought is telling of the methods the authorities used at those times. The storming by spetznaz of a plane where there were already wounded passengers, crew members and highjackers was part of “most humane justice system”. Same goes for a forced abortion of a young women arrested as a member of the group of dreamers who moved into action.
If you are looking for a recount of events, you might want to read the declassified files of KGB and other documents. This is a work of fiction inspired by events and the characters and their courage are romanticised. The stance of their parents, renown inteligentsia of Georgia, is depicted with a dignity that resonated with my parenting approaches.
To me the central character is the monk – Father Tevdore. He was condemned and executed for a crime he has not comitted, for actions he was not part of. It was very handy for the authorities to put the blame for such an anti-soviet act on a person of Christian belief. Father Tevdore – only 33 years old – took the blame in the hope that authorities will spare the younger people. He believed in humanity till the end and his last gesture of love was to arrange within the walls of the merciless prison for a last meeting between the newly weds of the group Tina and Gega right before the day of Gega’s execution.
I felt sad after having finished reading the book. Yet, these stories must be told and read, for this is how we stand a chance of remembering what matters most.
Anyone who doubts the value of ethical journalism need to read “A Hundred and One Days” by Asne Seierstad. The dedication of journalists in the midst of change is priceless especially in the era of know-it and believe-it-all social media. The risks they take in conflicts and war areas are beyond comprehension to those in front of screens in the comfort of our homes.
You’ll find the description of the book and the events it covers during the US army invasion of Iraq in other sources, so, no need for me to repeat it here. Yet again Seierstad offers us a literary journalism of the highest quality. I learned so much about so many things I knew nothing about the life of Iraqi. I will share some of these:
“The truth about the war in Iraq does not exist. Or rather, there are millions of true accounts and maybe just as many lies. My remit as a journalist in the chaos of war was not to judge, predict or analyse. It was to look, ask and report.”
“In the 1970s this was a beautiful country. We had the best education system, the best healthcare in the Arab world. Oil gave us riches. In 1990 I had a Mercedes, says the bookseller. – Now I have these two legs.”
“Hotel Palestine is a landmark in Baghdad. – They will never attack this hotel; after all, Americans live here, an Iraqi woman surrounded by her children had assured me. But that is exactly what the Americans have done. In the subject box I write: ‘Missiles against the cameras’.”
“They said they were opening the doors to freedom and they have opened those to chaos instead.”
“The soldiers I meet are possibly naïve, with a strong belief that Americans can do what they want, but they are a more diverse group than I had expected.”
“Iraqis have always craved books. They are our sustenance. Besides love they are all we need, the bookseller says, and recites one of his own poems, about a man who is dying of love but has not the courage to tell his sweetheart.”
This is the second book by Asne Seierstad I read. “Two Sisters” is her sixth book. Released in Norway in November 2016, it became the bestselling book of the year, and won the prestigious Brageprisen.
The book is about the journey of two Somali sisters from Norway into the jihad in Syria. The author did a tremendous job to reconstruct the scenes as accurately as possible, which is not at all an easy task. In literary journalism the accuracy depends almost entirely on sources and in this case there were scattered, plentiful and fragmented. If you are interested in the methodology the author applied, read the post-face.
The “entire world is trying to understand the reasons for radicalization among Muslim youth” and this is the impetus of the book. As the author herself puts it: “There is no single explanation, but one can point to several factors, including the search for identity, meaning, and status; the desire to belong; the influence of others; excitement; the need to rebel; and romantic notions.”
Imagine waking up one morning and reading an email from your daughters saying “We have decided to travel to Syria to help out down there the best we can … . It was painful to read about the struggles of the father who travelled to Syria to bring back his daughters and who gave it up failure after failure of rescuing them. It was even more painful to read about how judgmental or indifferent humans can be in the face of a family’s tragedy. This book is a must-read for parents and guardians. As children grow and start interacting more with circles outside the family the vigilance must increase.
When my colleague Elda Moreno announced on Linkedin that she self-published a book, I immediately got it on my Kindle. I found the book touching. It permeates with sensitivity and gives a voice to those of us who become invisible not by their choice – the elderly. I loved that the author gave the reader a multi-generational view on seniority and even the view of a pet, who remain perhaps the most loyal family members as we grow old.
The book is a wonderful reminder that we do meet in our lives “Butterfly people”. As the author explains us herself: “Butterfly people conquer the sky because they embrace and generate change. They know and are true to their essence. They see opportunities where others only see risks. If the wind knocks them down, they learn from it and pick themselves up.”
I loved the narrator’s style – it teleported me to the houses and streets of Kabul, and mountain paths in Afganistan. It was not a surprise as the author is a journalist, it nevertheless enchanted.
The author spent time with the bookseller’s family the story is about. She lived with them under one roof, shared their food and was present at small and big family events. She did not judge, she kept an unveiled perspective even when wearing a burka to venture outside with the women of the household.
The girls and women who lived through a kingdom, and communist, mujahedeen, taliban regimes have the toughest share of suffering. I valued that the author also wrote about boys and poor men and their suffering. How hard it is for unpriviledged men is often skipped in our Western gender narrative.
The degree and scope of distruction Afganistan went through does not cease to amaze. And its source does not really matter. The pain the patriarchical ruling inflicts on own members of the family, the bombings by foreign armies, the burning of books by communists, mujahedeens, taliban are all the same – they all require healing and rebuilding. There is no truth in suffering. As long as we become aware about it, including thanks to journalists and authors like Asne Seierstad, we stand a chance to heal as a humanity.
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