Cultures

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The Soul of Iran: A Nation's Struggle for Freedom Cover Image
$25.00
ISBN: 9780393325973
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - September 17th, 2005

My Dad has a Mediterranean complexion, with olive-colored skin and black hair. When my Mom introduced him to her family for the first time, during the Iranian hostage crisis, her brother yelled out, “Dad, Karen brought home an Iranian!!!” Thus started my love of Iran.

History books like these are especially fun to read because the author travels to various places across the country, and both describes his experience visiting these places and their historic importance. It allows the reader to get a taste of Iran through the author’s eyes. Afshin Molavi is incredibly talented as he effortlessly combines both currents and past events with stunning first-person testimonies that ranges from taxi-drivers and college students to government officials and religious leaders. This provides a more complete picture of Iran as you learn about various peoples’ lives and views on the 1979 Revolution.

One of the sections I found fascinating was the part describing the relationship between the bazaars and the mosque. I have been to both bazaars and mosques in Egypt and Turkey and could not imagine more polarizing places. Mosques are quiet slow-moving places of reflection and prayer, while bazaars are fast-paced, full of energy, as vendors and customers haggle of prices at an increasingly louder volume.

But Molavi describes that both bazaaris and clerics come from the same middle-class and often intermarry. The bazaar provides the mosque with revenue from religious taxes, while the mosque provides the bazaar with salvation. One vendor jokingly explained, “When you spend your days cheating your neighbor out of ten tomans, it makes you feel better to give one of those tomans to the mosque.”

Iran is not all that it seems from the cover, I would absolutely recommend reading this book in order to destroy your assumptions and learn to see this magnificent country in a new light.


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Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History Cover Image
$23.00
ISBN: 9780312680688
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Published: Picador - March 1st, 2011

Simon Winder maybe one of my favorite authors because of his expert use of combining comedy with history. If I had any talent as a writer, I would aspire to write books like his. Some authors of history books glorify the rulers, emperors, kings, and presidents they are writing about. Simon Winder takes a much different approach, he recognizes them for the flawed individuals that they are.

One of the key changes in Germany’s history came due to Napoleon, before Napoleon there were hundreds of states in the German Confederation. After Napoleon, there were only thirty-nine. Yes, this was a huge improvement except, “Unfortunately many were peculiarly dreadful or useless people.” It is this stye of language that makes a reader fall in love with Simon Winder. Instead of just focusing on the political decisions that a head of state makes, Winder looks at their eccentricities and weaves in hilarious stories about how they were able to indulge in their most ridiculous desires.

One of my favorite stories is about a small German town in the 17th century that was plagued by a man-eating wolf, when the wolf was caught and killed, the town’s Prince decided to dress the wolf’s corpse, “in a wig and coat-paraded through the streets before being hanged as a werewolf.” It is this level of ridiculousness that I find so amusing, and I applaud Simon Winder’s ability to tie in hilarious stories with history and his own travels through Germany. That is why tonight I chose to drink one of my favorite beers, Weihenstephaner Korbinian Doppelbock.

Weihenstephaner is regarded as the oldest brewery in the world, it was founded in 1040. Doppelbocks were created by German Monks because they needed a heavier beer to drink during lent. Korbinian is named after St. Korbinian whose logo is a bear with a saddle, because on a pilgrimage from Bavaria to Rome he was confronted by a bear but was able to tame it and therefore deserves to be a saint.


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Life along the Silk Road: Second Edition Cover Image
$35.94
ISBN: 9780520280595
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Published: University of California Press - March 25th, 2015

Everyone has heard of Marco Polo and his fantastical stories of the Silk Road, but he was only a minor footnote on the history of the Silk Road.

In this wonderful book by Susan Whitfield, she depicts what life is like for twelve different people along the Silk Road, such as a Chinese Government Official, a Uighur Horse Trader, a Buddhist Widow, and a Shipmaster from Axum. Susan Whitfield is almost more of a painter rather than an author, her descriptions of the lives of these ordinary people are so full of detail that it makes you feel as if you are walking in their shoes.

The wide array of geography and characters in these stories makes the reader understand the massive scale that the Silk Road operated on. It required horses, camels, yaks, ships, and a lot of people with different skills over multiple continents doing a variety of services to facilitate the exchange of goods and ideas between the East and the West.

My favorite chapter is about the Sogdian Merchant. Sogdia is in Central Asia, its capital is Samarkand which is in modern day Uzbekistan.  Sogdians wore a distinctive conical shaped hat and were excellent traders who dominated the eastern portion of the Silk Road. In the beginning of the 8th century CE, Sogdia was conquered by the Arab Caliphate who continued to push East until they faced off against a Chinese army at the Battle of the Talas River in 751. It is in this year, that the story of the Sogdian Merchant takes place. He talks about his travels over mountains and across deserts, bringing rare gems and other goods with him to China.

The Sogdian Merchant talked about various cities he visited along the Silk Road, being exposed to various cultures, languages, and religions. Of course, he had a favorite restaurant in the Chinese Capital of Chang’an, that was famous for spicy noodles, wine, and dancers. Unfortunately, this would be his last visit to Chang’an. The Arab and Chinese armies would soon face off against one another. The Arabs were victorious, and as a result the Chinese would not allow any more foreigners to conduct business inside of China.

The Arabs brought back to Damascus Chinese prisoners of war who taught the West how to make paper.  I believe that paper is one of the most important inventions in human history, and the spread of paper from East to West is the most significant transaction from the Silk Road.


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El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America Cover Image
$20.00
ISBN: 9780802148360
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Published: Grove Press - February 18th, 2020

Everyone remembers the Alamo, the historic site of the last stand made by Davy Crockett and a few hundred other Americans fighting to the last man against the Mexican Army. But what was the Alamo before this? It was a convent made by Spanish missionaries to service the growing Mexican-Indian Catholic population in Texas.

Learning about history is not just focusing on the parts of history that you like, but learning to embrace your entire history even if it makes you uncomfortable with your present. It is easy to focus and emphasize the parts of your past that make you proud, while at the same time ignoring, forgetting, or diminishing the parts that you do not want to include in your future. Hey my Grandma dated a Nazi, and if my Great-Grandfather had let her take that trip with him to Beijing, they probably would have been married and I, someone with Jewish ancestry, wouldn’t be here today making fun of this in order to try to sell you a book on America’s Hispanic heritage. 


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When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa Cover Image
$17.99
ISBN: 9780316018715
Availability: Special Order
Published: Back Bay Books - April 10th, 2008

I have never felt so connected to an author after finishing a book. At every turn of the page, you can feel yourself getting closer to the author. By the end, you almost know how he is going to react before you read it.

Peter Godwin deserves a lot of credit for making the reader feel so engrossed and invested in his book, while at the same time describing the many challenges that Zimbabwe is facing after independence. When the author discovers his older sister’s grave vandalized and defecated upon, you feel his anger as he is walking towards the warden’s office. I wept with the author, when after his Dad died, he discovered a box full of all his articles he had written. His father never gave him much credit for being a journalist, yet secretly kept all of his work. I truly did not expect this level of attachment when I started this book. The author does a phenomenal job describing how the country changed after independence, not a sudden jolting change, but a slow change that happened before your eyes without realizing until it’s too late.  

The book is filled with first-person testimony of corruption, land seizure, inflation, and how the violence quickly spirals out of control and engulfs the entire country in madness. But the most surprising part of the story, was when the author discovered that his father had hid is Polish-Jewish ancestry his entire life. His father was born in Poland and was raised Jewish, luckily, he was able to move to England before the Nazis invaded. Unfortunately, the rest of his family was not so lucky, and tragically died in the concentration camps. The author decided to hide his Jewish and Polish ancestry, married an Englishwoman and then immigrated to Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) after WWII.

It’s always funny what you will discover when you pick up a book. Before reading this, I thought this was a book focused on the history of Zimbabwe after independence. I never knew this was a story about a white Zimbabwean who discovers his Jewish ancestry while struggling to help his parents survive in a country suffering from corruption and hyper-inflation. But that is the power of books, you can never judge them by their cover.  I encourage anyone who wants to expand their horizons and maybe see the world through someone else’s eyes to read this book.


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Lebanon: A Country in Fragments Cover Image
$21.95
ISBN: 9781787383654
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Published: Hurst & Co. - May 1st, 2020

For everyone during this Pandemic; Einstein’s Theory on the Relativity of Time has taken on a new meaning.

Does anyone remember the giant explosion in Beirut in August of 2020 that killed over 150 people and wounded thousands more? So much has happened in the world that it seems like the explosion of a 2,750-ton stockpile of ammonium nitrate took place years ago.

This book was released shortly after the explosion and I immediately ordered it to learn more about what happened in Lebanon leading up to this disaster. Andrew Arsan looks into the role of politicians, corporations, former colonial powers, refugees and migrant workers have had on Lebanon. This country’s inhabitants face a variety of problems on a daily basis like lack of an effective garbage collection service, lack of a functioning electrical grid, and one of the highest numbers of refugees in the world.

The author argues that the current political situation unequally benefits certain citizens, like wealthy businessman, while pushing others to the margins, like refugees and migrant workers. The irony is that the rich and middle-class Lebanese are reliant on these migrant workers as a source of cheap labor that are willing to do the menial work that Lebanese people don’t want to do. The author also goes into how the government’s catering to real estate developers have completely changed downtown Beirut into “a glorified food court” full of Starbucks, P.F. Chang’s, and Pinkberry.

These developers specifically, Solidere, have ripped the authenticity away from Beirut and turned it into an overpriced generic place that could be found anywhere in the world. It is unlikely that anything will change because “The state, the private corporations that control so much of the economy, and the partisan organizations and communitarian support networks that provide welfare to the country’s inhabitants are controlled to a large extent by the same actors.” The author means that the elites have such a strong control over all aspects of the economy that wealth will still be transferred from the public into private hands and the poor will still struggle to survive daily life.


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The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale Agrarian Studies Series) Cover Image
$25.00
ISBN: 9780300169171
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Yale University Press - November 30th, 2010

The vast majority of history books are about countries, states, and governments ruling over their citizens, while this book is about the people who refused to be governed and instead form communities in isolated places to protect their freedoms.

Anarchy is often used in a negative way to express a state of chaos and disorder. Anarchy comes from Greek meaning, “without a leader” it is only pessimistic people who believe that living without a leader would mean chaos and disorder. Optimists think that humanity can not only survive but thrive without leaders and governments because people will come together for the collective well-being of everyone.

The author, James C. Scott provides a well-researched book that describes the lives of these anarchic communities living in Southeast Asia in a region known as Zomia which includes parts of various countries like, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, India, Myanmar, and China. There are many different communities that live in isolated highland villages, far away from center of government in order to protect their way of life. These communities are able to survive by growing crops that are easy to grow in high altitudes and require a minimum amount of maintenance. The heavy forested and mountainous region they live in provides security against states trying to conquer them because the terrain makes any attack difficult and not worth the cost. In addition, when any of these communities are under attack; it is easy for them to split up into smaller numbers and disperse into a new area.

One of the more interesting ways these communities repel state intervention is by having, “A highly egalitarian social structure that makes it difficult for a state to extend its rule through local chiefs and headmen. One of the key material conditions of egalitarian structure is open and equal access to subsistence resources.” When everyone shares the land’s resources, society becomes more equal and therefore little reason to revolt.

Modern society can learn a lot by studying these anarchist communities in Southeast Asia and hopefully begin to see the benefits of living in a society with less structure and more equality.