Bigger lessons from “Arab and Jew”…

One of my favorite discoveries on Facebook is the “Hide all from…” option.  It has allowed me to continue to enjoy updates from beloved family and friends without having to choose between “unfriending” them or being constantly upset by posts that offend me or question my patriotism/morality/intelligence/common sense/right to exist on the planet.  (Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating on the last one, though not by much…)  Here’s the thing:  I pride myself on being open-minded, and on recognizing that there is ALWAYS another side to a topic, which is why I don’t want to resort to cutting out of my life all the people who don’t agree with me on every issue.

What does this have to do with my latest reading, Arab and Jew:  Wounded Spirits In a Promised Land (Crown Publishing Group, 2015)?  Well, if ever there was a case of “us vs. them”, of a refusal to accept or even acknowledge another side to a situation, it’s the Arab-Israeli conflict.  I’ll quote author David K. Shipley from his epilogue, because I think he cuts to the heart of not only the book, but the universality of the issues:

Because I am a writer, and I write about what people think, I naturally believe that it helps to know the other side’s viewpoint, even if you don’t accept it.  So in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the narrative of the other needs to be heard.  Jews see the creation of Israel as a rebirth founded on historical justice.  That does not mean it was a rebirth for Palestinians.  That they see it as al-Nakba, the catastrophe, doesn’t mean it was a catastrophe for the Jews.  But the two narratives must somehow be spliced together, not to endorse the other side’s story but to recognize it, to acknowledge it, to say, okay, yes, you had that experience.  We had our experience.  We honor your story.  We honor your experience.  You honor ours.  That is the hardest task, much more difficult than drawing lines on a map.

That it takes Shipley almost 700 pages to fully explain the experiences, beliefs, stereotypes, and grudges of the two sides speaks to the complexity of the situation, as well as to his fairness and unique ability to organize, clarify, and present labyrinthine information.  This book won a very deserved Pulitzer Prize in 1987 after it was first published because it is, frankly, remarkable.  The writing is engaging, the author’s voice is thoughtful and considered, and the numerous personalities upon which the narrative is based speak in their own authentic and unique ways.

I was a bit uncertain at first about the relevance or structure of a book re-issued after almost thirty years with updated footnotes and post-scripts, but my concerns were unfounded.  The text reads seamlessly, and the contrast of 1980’s attitudes to current ones only underscores the universality of the observations.  Shipley leaves no stone unturned in his effort to present a thoughtful and complete representation of the relationships and stereotypes between Arabs and Jews.  While there is some discussion of military and political actions and developments, most of this text looks at personal and individual experiences.  Movies, novels, television programs, textbooks, school curriculums, legal interactions, and cultural practices are all examined and interwoven into a complex tapestry that leaves the reader better able to understand the whole picture.

The result, though, does not leave the reader optimistic about an eventual resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  One friend of Shipley summed up the difference between the 1980’s Israel originally portrayed and the current one as “Everything is the same, just worse.” And as I read, I was constantly reflecting on what the situation tells us about the bigger picture of all human interactions.

Which takes me back to my original Facebook comparison, as well as to other books I have reviewed recently, such as Nonsense:  The Power of Not Knowing, by Jamie Holmes (who includes a discussion of a mixed experimental Arab and Jewish school in one of his chapters), or Travel As a Political Act, by Rick Steves (who devotes an entire chapter to “The Holy Land”). We humans seem to have a deep need for an “other”, and the temptation to view ourselves as “victims” of that “other” is intense.  Over and over in Shipley’s narrative we hear about how both sides of the Arab-Jew divide view themselves as “victims” of the “other”.  We humans also seem to have a requirement for concrete, black and white answers and a unique cognitive ability to reject any information that contradicts our conclusions, so that considerations of the viewpoints of the “other” become unacceptable.  I see this “victimhood” and rejection of the “other” in our current political dialogue, and it saddens me.  But it also encourages me to take a stand personally as someone who will continue my relationships with those friends and family members who may hold “other” views.  I don’t have to accept those opinions, and I have the right to not view a shared post that belittles or disparages me,  but if I can stretch a hand across the divide and try to listen to their viewpoints when they are sincerely and thoughtfully expressed, then perhaps I can make a small contribution towards avoiding the kind of polarization that leads to segregation, marginalization, suicide bombings, and Holocausts.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

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A gentle reminder of “The Novel Habits of Happiness”…

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is just watch people living their lives.  In Cusco, Peru, I sat on one end of a bench in the main plaza and watched a local festival, chatting with the various people who ended up on the other end when their curiosity about me proved overwhelming.  In Madrid, I had a coffee at the bar in the Corte Inglés and ended up having a wonderful conversation with the woman who sat down next to me and pulled out the novel she had just bought, one I had recently read.  It’s amazing, of course, to marvel at Macchu Pichu or the Prado art museum, but these small moments of connection are what make travel transcend tourism for me.

Which might be why I like the Isabel Dalhousie Sunday Philosopher’s Club series of novels, by Alexander McCall Smith, so very much.  My sister first introduced me to these gems a few years ago, when she suggested that I might enjoy the writing style and the setting in Edinburgh, Scotland.  She was right on both accounts, and I’ve come to look forward to the next installments in the life of the fictional philosopher, Isabel Dalhousie, every bit as much as my husband looks forward to a new Star Wars movie.  McCall Smith is more well known for his No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, which I have to confess to never having read, though they are certainly on my list of “Books I Hope to Get Around To Now That I Have More Time”.  He is certainly a prolific writer, with his 44 Scotland Street and Portuguese Irregular Verbs series also on my reading radar.

The newest Isabel Dalhousie installment is The Novel Habits of Happiness (Penguin Random House, 2015).  While the Sunday Philosopher’s Club books are nominally mysteries, they are gentle, thoughtful reads.  There is not a great deal of action in these, so if that’s the type of mystery you relish you might find yourself disappointed.  But if, like me, you love nothing more than to settle into a park bench or cafe chair and watch other people living their lives, they are marvelous options.  In this latest book, the protagonist Isabel, an independently wealthy woman who edits a scholarly philosophy journal, is asked to help the friend of a friend whose son is convinced that he has been reincarnated.  The action of the book revolves around Isabel’s efforts to identify where the son says he lived in a previous life even as she questions whether she even believes in the possibility.

My favorite part of immersing myself in Isabel Dalhousie’s world are her ruminations about pretty much every aspect of life, which is of course what one would expect from a philosopher.  Witness this consideration of the phenomenon of Las Vegas:

She (Isabel) was only half American – through her sainted mother- but that was enough to make her blush with shame for the mere fact that Las Vegas existed.  There was so much of which America could be proud:  it had made New York and San Francisco, along with a hundred other cities with parks and art galleries and universities, but then it had spawned Las Vegas, a place that carried vulgarity and venality to undreamed-of heights.  And yet people loved it…Perhaps this was a concomitant of freedom:  if people were free, then some of them, at least, would be free of the constraints of good taste.  Perhaps Las Vegas was just a great big cultural burp, of the sort that you are bound to get in a free society where people can burp if they wish.

A generalisation?  Why yes…

The trouble with generalisations was that they were generalisations, which in itself was a generalisation.

Despite being half American, Isabel is very immersed in her Scottish identity, which is another charming aspect of the series.  Having visited Scotland several times, both before, during, and after my sister’s marriage to a Scot, I have retained a deep affection for the country.  I agree with Isabel’s desire to treasure and nurture her unique cultural heritage:

She did not want that Scotland to disappear, that Scotland of ceilidh bands and kilts; it was hers, shared with so many others, a small fragment, an offshoot of the feeling that bound people together, that meant that people were not strangers to one another.  Every country needed that…little things, yes, and embarrassing too; sneered at; cliched in their repetition and their superficiality, but part of an identity that saved us from feeling utterly lonely and detached, mere passengers on a circular rock spinning through space.

Often Isabel visits art galleries and musuems, which parallels another interest of mine, and I have found that her analysis of pictures rivals that of the best art historians:

Was that what made a Vermeer so arresting?  There was an afternoon quality to it; a stillness, a warmth, that seemed to support the poeple and things in the painting, that gave them body.

If it seems like my analysis of these delightful books is a bit wandering, I’ll quote Isabel again.  And, if you are looking for something to read that immerses you in another life and gives you a great deal to think about, then I suggest you make a cup of tea and curl up with Isabel Dalhousie.

She thought of what Jamie had said.  She knew that she had a tendency to allow her mind to wander, but surely that was what made the world interesting:  one thought led to another, one memory triggered another.  How dull it would be, she thought, not to be reminded of the interconnectedness of everything; how dull for the present not to evoke the past; for here not to imply there.