Friday, 24 April 2015

Reading Some Context for the Armenian Genocide

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Turks, as the Ottoman Empire entered its death throes.  There are a number of articles and programs about the event, but here are a handful of books that give a wider context to what happened.

1. The Ottoman Empire began in the heyday of the Mongols: its dates are usually given as 1299-1923.  To understand who the Mongols are, read Jack Weatherford's excellent Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.  The great Khan was a Mongol chieftain who believed that he and his people were chosen by heaven--The Great Blue Sky--to conquer the world. By the end of his lifetime he and his four sons held sway over the greatest empire the world knew until the Britania ruled the waves 400 years later. They and their mounted followers went as far as the grasslands of Eurasia extended. Only the forests of Europe and the heat and humidity of southern India and Southeast Asia--both unwelcoming to mounted warriors--limited their advance.

Cruel in the extreme to those who refused to surrender, they searched talent wherever they went, and, Weatherford writes, produced a body of law that was relatively egalitarian and allowed considerable religious freedom.

2. Ali and Nino  by Kurban Said. The Romeo and Juliet lovers of this novel set in Azerbaijan are Georgian and Muslim, but the uneasy relation between Armenians and their neighbors is in the background.

3.  The Goodtime Girl by Tess Fragoulis. The Armenians were not the only victims of Turkish agression in the early 20th century: the Greeks of Anatolia also were chased and killed.  In this novel, the main character is a young woman who was her father's darling in the early 1920s in Smyrna.   When Greeks were driven from the city by Turks in 1922, she escaped to Pireaus and Athens where she ended up singing other people's songs of distress and love.

The worst of the story happens off stage.  Kivelli has wiped part of it from her mind.  It resurfaces in her dreams and in an abbreviated version told about half way through the book.  But we know always that a number of people were beastly to a number of others for reasons which in no way justify what happened.

Kivelli is a survivor, and sings her sorrows so movingly that she is able to escape. That she sings the songs of other people is also poignant, because Fragoulis makes it clear that while many people may have stories to tell, not all of them have the voice to tell them.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Why Didn't Joe Oliver Buy Canadian Shoes?

So the federal government is going to aim for more industrial growth?  What does it mean when Finance Minister Joe Oliver buys New Balance shoes for his big speech? 

Much was made of the fact that the shoes go with a zero deficit or "balanced" budget.  But I didn't see anyone comment on where the shoes were made.  At best they were made in the US (New Balance says one in four of the shoes it sells are), but none of the production is in Canada. 

Given that footwear once was a big Canadian industry, that's really telling.  As The Globe and Mail noted 18 months ago, Canada has lost its manufacturing edge, and it won't come back easily. And when I tried to find just how many shoes have been made lately in Canada, all I got on the Stats Can website was a cryptic remark that six monthly stats on footwear manufacturing--begun in 1926--were discontinued in 2005.

'Nuf said. 


Saturday, 18 April 2015

Saturday Photo: And Next up, Scylla

The progression of spring flowers is upon us.  Last week the snowdrops came up, this week it's the turn of scylla.  Tulip leaves have emerged also and my neighbor's crocuses are about to bloom

I spent Monday raking the garden, and installing drip hoses.  It wasn't a moment to soon since to do that work today would mean tromping on the emerging plants.  When spring arrives here, it often comes at a gallop.

Le Devoir Turns Green

Fascinating weekend edition of the influential daily Le Devoir: nearly all the news and features are about environmental topics.  Sure. there's the latest about the Stanley Cup--no Montreal newspaper could afford not to mention that the Habs lead the Sens 2-0--but even the culture and travel pages are loaded with stories that have an environmental twist. 

Editor in chief Josée Boileau explained this morning on Radio Can that the aim was, for once, not to concentrate on the dreadful consequences of climate change and our headlong rush to pollute everything.  Rather, the idea was to provide background that shows where we're headed in the right direction.  Lack of hope can lead to inaction, she said, when what is needed is action.  Tellingly, the title of the issue is Vers l'espoir, Toward Hope.

There are many articles worth reading, even if your French is rusty.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

A Little Context for Boko Haram: Two Novels

The news yesterday was full of images from Nigeria, where people were marking the sad anniversary of the kidnapping of 132 girls and young women by Boko Haram a year ago.  What is going on with fundamentalist groups is extremely hard for me to understand.  The BBC recently did a piece on the Nigerian group, which gives some context.  The aim is a caliphate where Sharia law rules, it seems.  Everything Western should be forbidden.

But Muslims are not the only terrorists in the world, as witness Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group operating on borders separating Uganda, Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ostensibly motivated by Christian revelations, it uses child soldiers with impunity.

Inter-ethnic violence also is a curse, and probably to date conflicts like those which have pitted  Hutus against Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi have killed and displaced more than the Muslim groups have.

How did things come to this?  Two novels I read recently give a little insight.

The first is Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. It tells the story of Jean-Patrick Nkuba, a Tutsi in Rwanda who wants to run.  He has a chance to represent his country in the Olympics, but is caught up in the 1994 genocide.  Much of his family is wiped out, but he escapes.  The frenzy that led up to killing spree--estimates are that at least 500,000 people were killed in three months--is portrayed in terrifying detail.  The story is not all horror though because it ends with a certain hopefulness that forgiveness is possible.

The subtext is that competition for land can be manipulated to profit the self-interest of individuals, and that vestges of colonial domination have exacerbated things.

The second is Three Weeks in December   by Audrey Schulman  takes place in Rwanda and Kenya. There actually are two "three weeks," the first at the end of the 19th century and the other at the beginning of the 21st.  In  alternating sections, Schulman tells the story of an engineer from Maine who heads up the team building of a railroad from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast to what would become Nairobi, and of a brilliant woman ethnobotanist who has Asperger's Syndrome and who is searching for a medicinal plant in the mountains where the last mountain gorillas live.  

There's an O. Henry-like ending that ties things up which I won't spoil, but I think it's fair to say the two stories point out what colonialism has done to the people and ecosystems of  Africa.  The dignified, wise hunter-gatherers of the first period contrast drastically with the drugged children's army, the Kuti, that Shulman has invented, who thrash about, trying to recreate a pre-colonial state. Similarly, the starving lions who ravage the railroad workers in the first story presage the sorry state of the gorillas that the ethnobotanist hopes to protect.

Both novels are good reads.  The Schulman one, however, is plagued by sloppy editing that casts doubt on the background research that she's done.  The two that bothered me the most were the reference to iced tea being drunk in 1899 on a ship in the Indian Ocean (where'd the ice come from?) and the repeated reference to jerricans, those useful metal containers that weren't invented until the 1930s. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

Saturday Photo, Several Days Late

Computer problems: that's my excuse for not posting for the last few days.  Think they may be solved, so I'll have no reason not to rant....

And here is the other reason for sloth: the weather has finally changed, the snow is practically gone, and the snow drops are up.  Tomorrow at some point I'm going to have to rake the little front garden and put down the drop hoses.  That has to be done before the bulbs come up, and I have a feeling that they are going to burst out of the ground quickly.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Sunday Photo: A White Easter


Saturday Photo: What We Don't Need

Appparently there was a big baseball game in Montreal yesterday when you actually could have imagine it was spring, and another one today, when it is snowing, again.  The Cincinnati Reds beat the Toronto Blue Jays 2-0 yesterday, I'm told.

The exhibition pre-season game is part of a campaign to bring baseball back to Montreal, I'm also told.  There have been drawings circulating which show what a new stadium for a revived Montreal Expos might look like. (The games this year are taking place in the old Olympic Stadium, built at the cost of $1.5 billion and now needing $220 million in repairs.)

The expense for a new stadium would be immense, and the location being proposed is far from Metro lines.  What's worse is that all this is coming when the Quebec government is cutting drastically right and left. 

No, we don't need a new stadium.  What we do need is a little wisdom when it comes to the ineffacity of austerity measures.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

This is Not a Poisson d'avril: The Rivers May Not Run Much Longer

Thinking about contact between humans and nature, particularly with the world's big rivers.  Kept coming across the important role they played in the peopling of the world, as highways for travel and as sources of food. 

Two things stand out today, April Fool's Day, which in French is Poisson d'avril:

First, that we've made a mess of most of them by dumping our waste in them.

Second, many are going to disappear due to climate change. Those rising in the mountains where glaciers are melting are particularly at risk, as are those of California where the fourth year of drought has reduced the snow pack to practically nothing in the Sierras.