Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Someone in my book club in Qatar mentioned this book, Cutting for Stone, a while back, and I bought it, but it has sat for months on my to-read shelf (LOL, there are actually several, but one with the most important books, and another with the ‘guilty pleasures,’ the ones I am addicted to and save as a reward for good behavior, like vacuuming.)

When a good friend said she was reading it, and that it was good, I decided to move it up in priority, sort of like taking medicine, read a book that is good for you.

Oh WOW.

First, it is a great, absorbing story. Twin boys are born, totally unexpected, to an Indian Catholic nun and an English surgeon, working in Addis Ababa. How they were conceived is a mystery. The mother dies in childbirth, the father flees in horror, the children are born conjoined at the head and must be separated. The boys are adopted by an Indian couple, doctors at the hospital, and are raised with love and happiness.

That’s just the beginning!

I’ve always wanted to go to Ethiopia and Eritrea. I want to visit Lalibela, and some of the oldest Christian churches in the world. When my father was sick, he had a home health aid from Ethiopia, Esaiahs, who told me about the customs in his church, and how Ethiopian Christianity is very close to Judaism, with men and women separated in the church, and eating pork forbidden.

Reading this book, I felt like I had lived there, and I want to go back. The author captures the feelings, the smells, the visuals, the sounds, and if I awoke in a bungalow at the MIssing (Mission) Hospital, I would say “Ah yes! I remember this!”

I kept marking sections of this book that I loved. Here is one:

They parked at Ghosh’s bungalow and walked to the rear or Missing, where the bottlebrush was so laden with flowers that it looked as if it had caught fire. The property edge was marked by the acacias, their flat tops forming a jagged line against the sky. Missing’s far west corner was a promontory looking over a vast valley. That acreage as far as the eye could see belonged to a ras – a duke – who was relative of His Majesty, Haile Selassie.

A brook, hidden by boulders, burbled; sheep grazed under the eye of a boy who sat polishing his teeth with a twig, his staff near by. He squinted at Matron and Ghosh and then waved. Just like in the days of David, he carried a slingshot. It was a goatherd like him, centuries before, who had noticed how frisky his animals became after chewing a particuar red berry. From that serendipitous discovery, the coffee habit and trade spread to Yemen, Amsterdam, the Caribbean, South America, and the world, but it had all begun in Ethiopia, in a field like this.

We live inside the hearts and minds of doctors, some practicing under the worst possible conditions, and learn how they make their decisions and why. Verghese is a compassionate author; while his characters may be flawed, they are forgivable and forgiven.

Another section I loved, the man speaking is Ghosh, the man who adopted the twins with Hema, another doctor:

“My genius was to know long ago that money alone wouldn’t make me happy. Or maybe that’s my excuse for not leaving you a huge fortune! I certainly could have made more money if that had been my goal. But one thing I won’t have is regrets. My VIP patients often regret so many things on their deathbeds. They regret the bitterness they’ll leave in people’s hearts. They realize that no money, no church service, no eulogy, no funeral procession no matter how elaborate, can remove the legacy of a mean spirit.”

Things in Ethiopia get sticky, politically, and one of the twins is forced to flee, implicated in an airplane hijacking only because he was raised with a young woman involved. He is spirited into Eritrea, where he awaits his ride out to Kenya, and he helps the Eritrean rebels when large numbers of wounded are brought into his area. When the time comes to leave, his thoughts will strike a chord in anyone who has ever been an expat:

Two days later I took leave of Solomon. There were dark rings under his eyes and he looked ready to fall over. There was no questioning his purpose or dedication. Solomon said “Go and good luck to you. This isn’t your fight. I’d go if I were in your shoes. Tell the world about us.”

This isn’t your fight. I thought about that as I trekked to the border with two escorts. What did Solomon mean? Did he see me as being on the Ethiopian side, on the side of the occupiers? No, I think he saw me as an expatriate, someone without a stake in this war. Despite being born in the same compound as Genet, despite speaking Amharic like a native, and going to medical school with him, to Solomon I was a ferengi – a foreigner. Perhaps he was right, even though I was loath to admit it. If I were a patriotic Ethiopian, would I not have gone underground and joined the royalists, or others who were trying to topple Sergeant Mengistu? If I cared about my country, shouldn’t I have been willing to die for it?

The book has a lot of observations about coming to America; some of which made me laugh, some which made me groan. Coming back is always a shock to people who have lived abroad for a time, but it is a huge shock to those coming for the first time:

The black suited drivers led their passengers to sleek black cars, but myman led me to a big yellow taxi. In no time we were driving out of Kennedy Airport, heading to the Bronx. We merged at what I thought was a dangerous speed onto a freeway and into the slipstream of racing vehicles. “Marion, jet travel has damaged your eardrums,” I said to myself, because the silence was unreal. In Africa, cars ran not on petrol but on the squawk and blare of their horns. Not so here; the cars were near silent, like a school of fish. All I heard was the whish of rubber on concrete or asphalt.

As I neared the end, I read more slowly, unwilling for this book to end. It is one of the most vivid and moving books I have ever read. AdventureMan has gone online to find the nearest Ethiopian restaurant so we can have some injera and wot.

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March 15, 2011 - Posted by | Africa, Books, Bureaucracy, Character, Community, Cross Cultural, Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Fiction, Food, Interconnected, Leadership, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Marriage, Mating Behavior, Political Issues, Social Issues | ,

8 Comments »

  1. Wow! I am thinking they ” actually” have a book club in Qatar. Good for you!

    Don’t know if you’ve read the God of Small Things by what’s her face – Arundhati Roy.
    If you did or ever do please post on it – I honestly didn’t follow a word.

    Comment by The Scent of Jasmine | March 15, 2011 | Reply

  2. LLLOOOLLLL, Beautiful Liar, I’d know that voice anywhere. :-) Yes, I read The God of Small Things about twelve years ago; I found it at the Jarir book store in Riyadh. What I remember is that her mother made lemon pickle every year, and while lemon pickle is a highly astringent taste for the American palate, it’s a taste I have come to like a lot. All due to that book. :-)

    And – there are at least three book clubs in Qatar that I know of.

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 15, 2011 | Reply

  3. oh i do miss reading these novels! its been a long time. is there by any chance a library in kuwait you might know of?! a teeny weeny ray of hope!!

    Comment by onlooker | March 21, 2011 | Reply

  4. Oh Onlooker, I am sorry. I don’t know. I would check the Kuwait Book Store in the Muhanna Mall downtown, or even the Jarir Book Store. You might be surprised at the numer of titles you can find there – I used to!

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 21, 2011 | Reply

  5. thank you intlxpatr! ya i knew there was a very slim chance. Yes i love the jarir book store, but havent been to the other one. shall some day now! :)

    Comment by onlooker | March 22, 2011 | Reply

  6. I was always astonished by the breadth of the books Jarir carried. Like in Riyadh, I found The God of Small Things. I think “God” was black-inked out on the cover, but nothing blacked out on the inside.

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 22, 2011 | Reply

  7. [...] and I do like Macy’s. There are no Ethiopian restaurants, (remember, I just read Cutting for Stone) and we like Ethiopian food. We know Atlanta has both, so we plotted our return trip with a [...]

    Pingback by Atlanta: Ethiopian Adventure and Macy’s « Here There and Everywhere | June 10, 2011 | Reply

  8. [...] short while back, I told you about a book I read and loved, Cutting For Stone. You know it is a really good book when, months later, you are still thinking about [...]

    Pingback by The ExPat Dilemma « Here There and Everywhere | July 25, 2011 | Reply


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