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Expat wanderer

Bordeaux/Dordogne Trip – We Owe it All to Martin Walker and Bruno, Chief of Police

Several years ago, I ordered a book recommended by Amazon. I do that from time to time, and I will tell you honestly, some of them are real stinkers.

 

This book, Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker, was delightful. So delightful I started looking for more of the series, some of which I was able to find used. So delightful, I shared the Bruno, Chief of Police with my husband, and he, too, was hooked.

 

If there is a genre I like, it is detective novels set in foreign locations, dealing with crimes that have to do with social issues current in the locale. The first I can remember is the Eliot Pattison series about Inspector Shan, a Chinese detective who falls on the wrong side of Chinese political correctness and ends up in a Tibetan jail, where he begins a series long association with Tibetan monks and the threat to Tibetan civilization that the Chinese pose. It is eye-opening reading.

 

The next series I discovered were the Barbara Nadel series set in Turkey with Inspector Cetin Ikhmen. Then the fabulous and prolific Donna Leon and Commisario Guido Brunette, set in Venice.

 

And actually, I don’t read all this books in sequence. I watch for books by these authors, and read them when they come out, not unlike my addiction to James Lee Burke and Dave Robicheaux, set in New Iberia, Louisiana and Montana.

That was a very long introduction to the idea that it makes travel in foreign lands much more user-friendly to have read books that put you on the ground, seeing what the people who live there might see. When we went to Venice, we went off the beaten track to eat at a restaurant that Commissario Brunetti recommends to a touring couple who witnessed a crime and made a report to him. It was a great adventure just finding this restaurant, Rossa Rosa (“Guido Brunetti Sent Us”) and it had delicious local food, no tourists. In Venice. Imagine. Now, too, when we read the newest Brunetti novel, or watch the German production of the Brunetti series, we feel a closer connection with Venice, a familiarity, because we have a “friend” on the inside. Or so we feel.

 

Bruno Correze, the Chief of Police in the fictional French village of St. Denise, along the Vezere river close to where it links with the Dordogne, loves his small town. In the very first volume, we meet his friends, we visit his home, we are with him when he prepares meals and entertains his friends (he uses a lot of duck fat) and we get to visit the markets and cafes with him. Every book, like the best of this genre, introduces us to at least one issue, social and/or criminal, past or present, which is manifesting itself as a problem in the Dordogne. The actual crime may or may not be the point of the novel, and the solutions are often very French.

 

We have devoured this series. We felt like we had been there. So we decided we needed to go there.

 

We visited the Dordogne – it seems like a short time ago – the last time, 35 years ago, when our son, now grown, was around 9. We made a special effort to make this a trip which was relevant to him, too. We visited Castelnaud, and spent hours with the trebuchets and mangonels, old weapons once the ne-plus-ultra of fighting off the enemy. We visited the old caves with early paintings, when they were still open to visitors.

 

We love France, we love traveling in France and we have never had a negative experience in France. While I once spoke French fluently – we lived in French speaking Tunisia – but language skills get rusty when they don’t get exercised. Oh, really, any excuse will do. Martin Walker’s books made us hungry, hungry for French foods and hungry just to be in France.

 

We booked a cruise out of Bordeaux, eight days of cruising on the Gironde, Dordogne and other rivers, visiting villages older than our entire nation, learning about major appellations, eating some fine food and drinking some very fine wine.

 

And then we picked up a rental car in Bordeaux and headed to the Dordogne. I’m going to tell you all about it, but first I want to share Martin Walker’s books with you. He, and Bruno, have a wonderful website where he tells you all his favorite places. As we read the Bruno books, we also take notes – which wine he chose to serve with the duck course, where he and his friends gathered for the wedding feast, etc. It was like having a friend who says “Oh, I am desolate I won’t be there, but here are all the places you need to go, restaurants you will like and oh, be sure to try this wine!” Hotel and restaurant recommendations are on the website under “Bruno’s Perigord”

 

Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police website

 

Here are the Bruno, Chief of Police books, in order, from a resource called How to Read Me, which puts the books in order. http://www.howtoread.me/bruno-chief-of-police-books-in-order/

1 Bruno, Chief of Police – Meet Benoît Courrèges, aka Bruno, a policeman in a small village in the South of France who has embraced the pleasures and slow rhythms of country life. But then the murder of an elderly North African who fought in the French army changes all that. Now, Bruno is paired with a young policewoman from Paris and the two suspect anti-immigrant militants. As they learn more about the dead man’s past, Bruno’s suspicions turn toward a more complex motive.

2 The Dark Vineyard – When a bevy of winemakers descend on Saint-Denis, competing for its land and spurring resentment among the villagers, the idyllic town finds itself the center of an intense drama. Events grow ever darker, culminating in two suspicious deaths, and Bruno finds that the problems of the present are never far from those of the past.

3 Black Diamond – Something dangerous is afoot in St. Denis. In the space of a few weeks, the normally sleepy village sees attacks on Vietnamese vendors, arson at a local Asian restaurant, subpar truffles from China smuggled into outgoing shipments at a nearby market—all of it threatening the Dordogne’s truffle trade and all of it spelling trouble for Benoît “Bruno” Courrèges, master chef, devoted oenophile, and, most important, beloved chief of police.

4 The Crowded Grave – It’s spring in the idyllic village of St. Denis, and for Chief of Police Bruno Courrèges that means lamb stews, bottles of his beloved Pomerol, morning walks with his hound, Gigi, and a new string of regional crimes and international capers. When a local archaeological team searching for Neanderthal remains turns up a corpse with a watch on its wrist and a bullet in its head, it’s up to Bruno to solve the case.

5 The Devil’s Cave – It’s spring in St. Denis. The village choir is preparing for its Easter concert, the wildflowers are blooming, and among the lazy whorls of the river a dead woman is found floating in a boat. This means another case for Bruno, the town’s cherished chief of police.

6 Bruno and the Carol Singers (short story) – Bruno is occupied with his Christmastime duties. From organizing carolers to playing Father Christmas for the local schoolchildren, Bruno has his hands full . . . at least until some funds raised for charity go missing.

7 The Resistance Man – First, there’s the evidence that a veteran of the French Resistance is connected to a notorious train robbery; then, the burglary of a former British spymaster’s estate; and, finally, the murder of an antiques dealer whose lover is conveniently on the lam. As Bruno investigates, it becomes clear that they are connected.

8 The Children Return (also known as Children of War) – Bruno’s village of St. Denis has been called many things, but a hotbed of international intrigue has never been one of them . . . until now. When an undercover agent is found murdered just as a prodigal son is set to retun from a grim tour in the Middle East, the small town suddenly finds itself host to a determined global tribunal, threatening the usual cheer brought by St. Denis’s annual wine festival.

9 A Market Tale (short story) – As summer blooms, the newest talk of the town is the rapport between Kati, a Swiss tourist, and Marcel, a popular stall owner whom Kati meets over his choice strawberries. None are happier than police chief Bruno to see Marcel interested in love again, but as his friend’s romance deepens, Bruno senses trouble in the form of Marcel’s meddlesome sister Nadette.

10 The Patriarch (also known as The Dying Season) – Bruno Courrèges is thrilled when he receives an invitation to the lavish birthday celebration of his childhood hero, World War II flying ace Marco “the Patriarch” Desaix. But when the party ends in the death of one of Marco’s longtime friends, Gilbert, it turns into another day on the job for St. Denis’s chief of police.

11 Fatal Pursuit – It’s the start of summer, and Bruno’s found himself the last-minute replacement navigator in a car rally race. The event has attracted a spate of outsiders with deep pockets, big egos and, in the case of one young Englishman, an intriguing story about a lost Bugatti Type 57C. When a local scholar turns up dead, Bruno suspects unnatural causes.

12 The Templars’ Last Secret – When a woman’s body is found at the foot of a cliff near the idyllic French town of St. Denis, chief of police Bruno Courrèges suspects a connection to the great ruin that stands above: a long-ago Knights Templar stronghold. With the help of Amélie, a young newcomer to the Dordogne, Bruno learns that the dead woman was an archaeologist searching for a religious artifact of incredible importance.

13 A Taste for Vengeance – When a British tourist fails to turn up for a luxurious cooking vacation in the idyllic village in the south of France that Bruno Courrèges calls home, the chief of police is quickly on the case. Monika Felder is nowhere to be found, and her husband, a retired British general, is unreachable.

14 The Chocolate War (short story) – Police chief Bruno enjoys wandering the stalls of the weekly market in the village of St. Denis as they are being loaded with wares. But when Bruno’s old friend Léopold from Senegal start selling African coffee and chocolate more cheaply than Bruno’s old friend Fauquet at his café across the square, a competition erupts between the vendors.

15 The Body in the Castle Well – When Claudia, a young American, turns up dead in the courtyard of an ancient castle in Bruno’s jurisdiction, her death is assumed to be an accident related to opioid use. But her doctor persuades Bruno that things may not be so simple. Thus begins an investigation that leads Bruno to Monsieur de Bourdeille, the scholar with whom the girl had been studying, and then through that man’s past.

How to read me: Bruno, Chief of Police

Bruno, Chief of Police Books in order: How to read Martin Walker’s series?

 

I owe a big thanks to Martin Walker for giving us so much inside information which enhanced our trip so much. I will try to remember to give him credit along the way as I take you along with us on our trip.

December 15, 2019 Posted by | Adventure, Blogging, Books, Crime, Cross Cultural, Cultural, Fiction, Food, France, Quality of Life Issues, Road Trips, Travel, Tunisia | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pilgrimage to Powell’s World of Books

It’s the last day of the trip, and we are back in Portland. In a day when Amazon reigns supreme, Powell’s still stands tall, a bookstore that is a legend, taking up city blocks in Portland in its multi level building, all sectioned off with a mix of new and gently used books in every subject.

Powell’s World of Books is overwhelming. If you love books, if you love all things related to reading, you must at some point in your life make the pilgrimage to Powell’s.

 

 

 

When you’ve got your fill of books, they also have a wonderful coffee shop.

 

June 4, 2018 Posted by | Adventure, Books, Cultural, Road Trips, Shopping, Travel | , , | Leave a comment

Life is Complicated: Maintaining Balance

It’s been an odd new year. It started with loss and grief, and quiet introspection. Once the season ended, we were caught in the whirl of daily life, amplified by our son’s need for an ACL fix, which has totally immobilized him for a couple weeks and which requires we all pitch in to help keep life going smoothly.

And, I had a major birthday.

The last major birthday I had like this one was when I turned 35 and realized that I hadn’t accomplished my major dreams. I cried all day. People kept stopping by, bringing gifts and cards, and I just kept crying That year, I started graduate school, and never looked back. I was a military wife at an overseas post, with duties to my husband, my community, my church and my job, and I piled on evening classes and all the attendant work of research and studying on top, and I had never been happier. Going back to school was like flying. I loved my studies, and on the days I felt overwhelmed, I would realize that grad school was the only thing I could resign from and I would choose to go forward. My studies were my reward for good behavior in all the other areas of my life.

“What? You didn’t love being a mother?” I hear you asking. We had an oddly shaped room in our quarters, long and narrow. My desk was at the far end, and next to it was my son’s desk. We would do homework together. I adored my son. I would take him to karate lessons, iron his acolyte robes, be there when he got home from school; he enriched my life. But what made my spirit fly was my studies.

Yesterday, things were relatively quiet and I started a project I usually start in January, cleaning out. We haven’t moved in nearly eight years. I tend to be pretty good at cleaning out and passing along or throwing out, but when you are settled, you don’t do so as conscientiously as when you live with a weight allowance. My weight allowance always heavily favored our items collected from foreign postings, and everything else was expendable. Now, the expendable is taking up space, and I want to clear out that which only burdens me and ties me down, and make way for whatever is coming.

En route, I came across a large packet of printed out letters from my earlier lives, one entry in particular, 5 pages describing our arrival in Kuwait. Oh! There are so many things I have already forgotten, so I read it through, and then passed it along to AdventureMan, and listened to him laugh as he hit the funny parts. I owe my Mother a great gratitude for having saved all those letters, for which, having gone through several computers since I wrote them, I have no records. Those were pre-FaceBook times, when we still sent out group e-mails, which then got forward on. Now, we have less time – or we take less time – to write at length about what is going on in our lives.

I made room for my growing collection of religious-oriented books. I have a shelf for them. I have my spiritual disciplines, like doing the Daily Lectionary, but for additional readings, books were scattered here and there. If I am going to get serious about reading them, I have to have them where I know where they are, and I can retrieve them easily. They don’t call it “discipline” for no reason.

When I was a nomad, life’s busier moments were balanced by the enormous quiet of being in a new location. There were the logistical challenges of deliveries, moving out / moving in, looking for the good grocery stores, the cleaners who could do your nicer clothes without ruining them, getting new visas, driver’s licenses, memberships, etc. but in general, life could be very quiet for up to six months. I always found those quiet times, before new friendships, meetings, commitments, etc. very nourishing to my spirit.

I’ve never been so settled. There are times when my spirit rebels against the sameness of it all. There are times when I miss being around people who don’t always use deodorant and who smell sweaty; it takes me back to riding the strassenbahn (street car) in high school in Heidelberg, or to Africa and our adventures there. There are times I catch a whiff of Desert Rose, and feel an urgent upwelling of nostalgia for walking down a Gulf Arab avenue, or through a mall, and how it was the men who smelled so good. There are times I would kill for real flatbread, fresh out of the oven, or for a Tunisian “brik,” done in pure olive oil, or for the simplest French dish, moules frites, mussels in a simple wine sauce with fries.

I do love Pensacola. I have friends here. I’ve always been lucky that way; people take me in and take me behind the scenes. I hear the old stories of how Pensacola used to be, and I hear the new stories, that corruption is never hidden enough to go undiscovered. People in Pensacola, like people everywhere, know things, and I am honored that they share these insights with me. I have found religious community here. I have found meaningful work.

I have a son of whom I am enormously proud. I love and admire his wife. And I have two of the smartest, funniest grand-children on earth, with whom I love spending time.

(Did you know that the use of “whom” is generational?)

It is a sodden, rainy day in Pensacola. AdventureMan is on the couch, here in my office, snoozing as I write. We are on our way to church, then I have a meeting before coming home to do my studies for my class this week. As it says in our Episcopalian Forward Day-byDay: Oh God, Give me strength to live another day. Let me not turn coward before its difficulties or prove recreant to its duties: let me not lose faith in other people   . . .

On on.

February 11, 2018 Posted by | Aging, Blogging, Books, Circle of Life and Death, Community, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Faith, Kuwait, Living Conditions, Parenting, Pensacola, Quality of Life Issues, Random Musings | Leave a comment

The Rules of Magic: Alice Hoffman

No, I haven’t gone silent. I’ve been busy, contacting my worthless representatives in the House and Senate, telling them to stop the thug-in-chief, to stop the carpetbaggers stripping our country of it’s resources and decency.

In response, they supported a tax cut that favors the very rich, and strips the neediest of health care that they might be able to afford. The also broke my heart by inserting a little amendment that allows for oil drilling in the Arctic, in my birth state of Alaska.

I used to write about corruption in Kuwait and in Qatar. I never dreamed I would be faced with such horrifying, outrageous behaviors in my own country. Very humbling. Very miserable.

So, when my heart is broken, I turn to books, and oh, have I found a delightful book. Alice Hoffman’s book The Rules of Magic. I’ve just gotten into it, but I wanted to tell you about a paragraph that hooks me and makes me want to stay up all night to read the whole book 🙂  This is my great escape.

 

Everyone had to leave home eventually, didn’t they? They had to set out on their own and find out who they were and what their futures might bring. But for now all Vincent wanted was a bus ticket, and when he looked at his sisters he could tell they agreed. No going back, no retreat, no settling for the ordinary lives they had been made to live every day.

Hoffman, Alice. The Rules of Magic: A Novel (The Practical Magic Series Book 1) (p. 19). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Update: I finished this book, and loved it. It was pure escape, and thoroughly engaging and relatable, although that may sound contradictory. 😉

December 2, 2017 Posted by | Adventure, Books, Counter-terrorism, Political Issues, Quality of Life Issues, Spiritual, Stranger in a Strange Land | Leave a comment

Nina George: Little French Bistro (aka Little Breton Bistro)

 

I haven’t been reviewing books so much recently. I run a local book club, we meet once a month, and this year, we chose some really HARD books. This book, The Little French Bistro, is not one of the books my book club read. It is not a hard book.

It is a great, quick airplane read, or a beach read. It is a book you can read and pass along to the person sitting next to you, because you won’t need to go back and re-read any of it.

I am pre-disposed to like any book that has France, French, or Paris in the title, or bistro, or book shop. I read another book by this author called The Little French Bookshop, in which the main character ends up taking his bookshop – on a barge – down a series of rivers, through locks and small French towns, to the south of France. I really enjoyed that book, and have thought of it often.

This book I just found annoying. I wanted to tell the main character, Marianna, to “man up,”, grow-a-pair, take responsibility for your own life! She lived in misery for forty something years with a man who treated her like an accessory, like a domestic, like a convenience, without respect, without . . . . respect.

Marianne gets sadder and sadder, goes to Paris on a trip with her churlish husband, and decides to commit suicide, but fails in her attempt.

She escapes the hospital in which she is about to be evaluated for mental stability, and heads to Brittany.

I’m not liking her very much so far, but I am hesitant to blame a victim. And I am annoyed; how did this sad sack get the gumption to go, and how did she happen to have cash on her, when her purse went into the river with her when she jumped off the Pont Neuf?

Her motivation? She wants to die in Brittany, and things the sea will do the job. She ends up in the sea several times.

Long story short, she finds work she enjoys and is good at. She learns a little French, she makes friends. She gets a make-over and buys some new clothes. She finds a lover, a French artist, who loves and adores her, and she blooms under his loving attention.

Sigh.

It’s a very romantic idea, and it makes me tired. I’ve met so many divorced people, men and women, who are still looking for that partner who will love and adore them. Some of them wish they had stayed with their marriage; some were smart to leave. Relationships are hard work. It may be all magical, as George implies, at the beginning, but as the relationship grows and enriches, deepens, you have to learn to accept another, warts and all. You can’t do that unless you can accept yourself . . . warts and all.

I object to the premise that you find a wonderful new lover and a new life begins. My experience tells me that you really need to be happy with yourself, first, and that wonderful love will follow . . . or not. If you are happy with yourself, and you are creating a life you love living, that may be as good as life can be. If you don’t find a way to be happy with yourself, if you don’t know who you are, every relationship ends the same way. God willing, we grow, we change, we learn more about ourselves, who we are, our relationship to the universe, and our purpose, and how to fulfill it.

There are some interesting characters, interesting situations and a lovely community life in The Little French Bistro. My frustration with the book is that it had more potential than it demonstrated.

September 4, 2017 Posted by | Books, Circle of Life and Death, Cultural, Family Issues, Friends & Friendship, Hotels, Quality of Life Issues, Relationships, Restaurant, Women's Issues | , , | Leave a comment

The Mockingjay

 

I saw a set of movies a couple years ago, about a post apocalyptic America, where there is a capitol full of fabulously rich, fabulously well-dressed, ornately made-up rulers who entertained themselves with a yearly survival ordeal, the Hunger Games, fueled by “tributes” who were chosen from each of 12 districts to compete to the death, to the last one standing. One woman and one man were chosen from each district to compete.

Upon the inauguration of our current regime, I had to find ways to fight my despair and outrage; I had to find ways to join with others of similar feelings and counter moves which I consider to be against the best interest of my country, and who I have always believed us to be – people who believe in liberty, equality and brotherhood, people who have all arrived here from elsewhere (Immigrated), and people who believe in giving others a fair chance at the American Dream.

My best friend forever (we met in college) and I challenged one another; she added Planned Parenthood to her charitable donations, and I added the ACLU.

I had always thought the ACLU a little nutty, but when the first immigration ban went into effect, and the ACLU had the skill, imagination and resources to mobilize and to man tables offering legal help – FREE – at the airports to stunned arrivals being turned back,  I was proud I had supported their efforts.

I live in a conservative area, and because I don’t want my car damaged, or any sort of ugly confrontations in parking lots, I don’t put bumper stickers on my car. There is one I have seen that I love:

I would never dare put this on my car, living where I live.

I did, however, buy a mockingjay  pin which I found on Amazon, amazing Amazon. I can safely wear it, knowing it signifies rebellion, and no one here has a clue.

Wear it in Seattle, I learned, and everything changes. My best friend forever and I went to dinner, and I was wearing that pin. The waitress peered, and peered again, and asked “Is that what I think it is?”

I said it was a mockinjay, and a metaphor. She took our order, left, and within seconds another waitress appeared, and then a waiter. Each treated me like royalty, giving salutes, blessing me with “may the odds be ever in your favor.” They asked me questions I couldn’t answer; I kept explaining that it was my metaphor for finding ways to counter a corrupt regime, and I particularly loved it because it connects us all, young and old.

I had seen the movies, but now I am deep into reading the Hunger Games trilogy, so that I can wear the pin again, with deeper knowledge when I run into the people who really know all the lore.

May the odds be ever in your favor 🙂

August 9, 2017 Posted by | Adventure, Birds, Blogging, Books, Civility, Communication, Community, Counter-terrorism, Cultural, Customer Service, Eating Out, Generational, Humor, Interconnected, Leadership, Pensacola, Political Issues, Seattle | , | Leave a comment

“Guido Brunetti Sent Us” (Rosa Rossa Restaurant)

AdventureMan and I read a series of detective novels set in Venice by author Donna Leon, who lives there. Commissario Guido Brunetti is a patient, thoughtful and smart detective, working under a lazy, corrupt and greedy boss in a country rife with corruption. Each book has a social issue in Venice as its topic, and not lightweight topics – the arrogance of dumping trash, boatloads of trash, off the coast of Somalia (had you ever heard of that before? Neither had I. But it is true, and it has ruined traditional Somali fishing), big pharma and tainted drugs, sex tourism and human trafficking, governmental bribery – Donna Leon fearlessly tackles them all.

Guido Brunetti loves Venice, and he loves his family. His solace in life is his wife, a professor of literature at the university, and his two children. His wife cooks meals that make the reader’s mouth water as they read, or Guido and one of his lieutenants will stop at a restaurant for lunch.

In one of the books, “Blood From a Stone,” American tourists give evidence to a stabbing they witness on their way to dinner. To thank them for their help, he directs them to a GOOD Venetian restaurant, and tells them to say Guido Brunetti sent them.

We don’t say that. No matter how real Guido Brunetti has become to us, we know he is not real, and we don’t say he sent us. But we do take the tiny winding back lanes to find Rosa Rossa, and while we order familiar salads, we also order Venetian specialities for our main courses.

Rosa Rossa on a tiny but busy street:

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AdventureMan’s favorite salad; he loves Caprese:

 

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I had a garden salad:

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I love black spaghetti, or Pasta Nero. It is made with squid, and squid ink, and I first had it at a lovely dinner a long time ago in Damascus, Syria, served by a beautiful Italian who swore t me that this dish is Southern Italian. If so, I ordered it anyway, in honor of Beatrice, and it was delicious.

 

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AdventureMan ordered Pasta with Squid and pepperoncini, and he said it was very piquant, and that he has never eaten so much squid in his life at one time.

 

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We passed on dessert, knowing we still had miles to walk, and possibly a gelato toward the end. We had such a short time to enjoy Venice, searching for and finding Rosa Rossa was a lot of fun, and a great adventure. They took good care of us, and the food was delicious.

November 14, 2016 Posted by | Adventure, Books, Bureaucracy, Civility, Community, Crime, Cross Cultural, Detective/Mystery, Eating Out, ExPat Life, Food, Italy, Local Lore, Restaurant, Venice | , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu

I saw this today on the NPR Books section, and as one great admirer of librarians, I wanted to share it with you. These librarians are my kind of badass! They are providing a service to humanity.

Timbuktu’s ‘Badass Librarians’: Checking Out Books Under Al-Qaida’s Nose

 
Handout picture dated 1997 and released in 2012 by the UN shows ancient manuscripts displayed at the library in the city of Timbuktu. Al-Qaeda has destroyed ancient texts it considers idolatrous.

Handout picture dated 1997 and released in 2012 by the UN shows ancient manuscripts displayed at the library in the city of Timbuktu. Al-Qaeda has destroyed ancient texts it considers idolatrous.

Evan Schneider/AFP/Getty Images

For hundreds of years, Timbuktu has had a place in the world’s imagination. Located on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, the city flourished as a center of Islamic culture and scholarship in the 13th through 16th centuries. It was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1988, recognized for the University of Sankore, which had as many as 25,000 students who studied the Quran, as well as the historic Djingareyber and Sidi Yahia mosques.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

by Joshua Hammer

Timbuktu was a center of the manuscript trade, with traders bringing Islamic texts from all over the Muslim world. Despite occupations and invasions of all kinds since then, scholars managed to preserve and even restore hundreds of thousands of manuscripts dating from the 13th century.

But that changed when militant Islamists backed by al-Qaida arrived in 2012. The hardline Islamists didn’t see these texts as part of their Islamic heritage, but as idolatry, contradicting their interpretation of Islam. They set about destroying important cultural icons, including 15th-century mausoleums of Sufi Muslim saints. Librarians feared the city’s prized medieval collections of manuscripts would be next.

Librarian Abdel Kader Haidara organized and oversaw a secret plot to smuggle 350,000 medieval manuscripts out of Timbuktu. Joshua Hammer chronicled Haidara’s story in the book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Hammer spoke with NPR’s Michel Martin about how a librarian became an “operator.”

 


Interview Highlights

Why these manuscripts were so important

These volumes — and we’re talking hundreds of thousands of them — at the point at which al-Qaida invaded Timbuktu, there were something like 370,000 manuscripts amassed in libraries in Timbuktu. And they portrayed Islam as practiced in this corner of the world as a blend of the secular and the religious — or they showed that the two could coexist beautifully. And they did in this city.

So it was tremendously important for Haidara and those who supported him to protect and preserve these manuscripts as evidence of both Mali’s former greatness and the tolerance that that form of Islam encouraged.

On Abdel Kader Haidara’s background

Abdel Kader Haidara was a son of a scholar and he grew up in an intellectual environment in Timbuktu. He was not a wealthy person. After his father’s death in the early 1980s he inherited the family’s centuries-old manuscript collection.

So in 1984 the head of the Ahmed Baba Institute, the government-owned library in Timbuktu, called on Haidara and said, “Hey, we’re having trouble getting off the ground, we need to find manuscripts. We know they’re out there, they’re hidden away in the desert, in river towns. Can you undertake this job of traveling around northern Mali, tracking down these manuscripts that have been lost — buried, disappeared — over generations? Gather them up, we’ll give you money. And we want this library to be splendid. We want this to be something that people from all around the world will come to visit. So go out, do your best, find books for us.”

He was reluctant at first, but the call of duty and the curator’s constant pressure prevailed. And in 1984 he began this what turned into a 12-year really amazing quest to ferret out these manuscripts all across Mali.

How Libya changed Mali

In 2011, the Arab Spring breaks out. Gadhafi’s downfall, the arsenals of Libya — in the chaos of Gadhafi’s murder and the disintegration of the Libyan state — are opened for the taking. Then you’ve got these various rebel groups in Mali. You’ve got Islamic radicals all descending on Libya — on these arsenals. Walking in, loading up their pickup trucks with heavy weaponry, driving through the dust across the desert back to Mali. And so these heavily armed rebels sweep across the desert and in three months have captured two-thirds of the country.

Why he decided to do what he did

The first thing that Abdel Kader was worried about, frankly, was looting. In the first few days after the rebels took over Timbuktu and the army and the police had fled, there was total disorder. That’s when he kind of began to scheme — “Hey, the great treasures of Timbuktu are being held in these very ostentatious libraries.” He said, “These are going to be targets.”

The looting subsided pretty quickly. But as it subsided, you had this growing radicalism, you had Islamic police roaring through the streets, stopping people, throwing them in jail, grabbing cigarettes out of their mouths, whipping them in public. He just foresaw that this was going to get worse, and that the manuscripts, which as we already said expressed values that were anathema to fundamentalist Islam — to Wahhabi Islam — were in danger. That sooner or later, these manuscripts are going to be held hostage. They’re going to become political tools, they could be destroyed in an act of vengeance, caught up in military action. We’ve got to protect them.

So that’s when Abdel Kader and a small group of his supporters, friends, relatives got together and began what ended up being a three-stage effort to protect, and essentially smuggle to safety, all of these manuscripts.

Becoming a ‘badass’

Let’s remember that Abdel Kader was more than a librarian, this guy had spent 12 years as a badass explorer, as an adventurer. He was traveling on camels across the Sahara, on riverboats, going to small villages, finding these manuscripts. So he was an operator. So when the time came, he just knew what to do.

He said, “The first thing we’re going to do is get them out of these big libraries. We’re going to take trunks, we’re going to pack them into trunks at night when the rebels are asleep. And then we’re going to move them in the dead of night by mule cart to these various houses — safe houses, scattered around the city. We’re going to stick them in there and hopefully they’ll be safe for the duration of this occupation.” Which of course, nobody knew when that was going to end.

Why it’s important

One of the things that I think is important to draw from it is to realize that there is this whole strain of Islam that is moderate, that celebrates intellectuality, that celebrates culture, that celebrates diversity, secular ideas, poetry, love, human beauty. I think that is lost in this debate that’s going on. We tend to really kind of turn against Islam because of the actions of this particularly violent group.

But I think in fact that the Islam represented by those in Timbuktu and the badass librarians is in fact more representative of what Islam is. And these people [who] were the real victims of extremism in this part of the world are fellow Muslims. They were the ones who really suffered. They were the ones who had their hands and feet chopped off, who had to live through the horror of daily occupation.

For the most part, we see this from afar, but these people are on the front lines and they are living through the horror of radicalism every day and every minute.

Where the manuscripts are now

He hopes that he’ll be able to return them to Timbuktu. They are in about a dozen climate-controlled storage rooms in Bamako, the capital of Mali. And as far as moving them back, he’s waiting. I mean, these are very hard people to root out. But Timbuktu is a ghost town — tourists aren’t going there, flights aren’t going there. It’s very sad. And I don’t know and he doesn’t know if those glory days can ever be recaptured, given the strength of the Islamists — the terrorists in that area, in that part of the world.

April 28, 2016 Posted by | Adventure, Africa, Arts & Handicrafts, Beauty, Books, Bureaucracy, Character, Community, Counter-terrorism, Cross Cultural, Cultural, Customer Service, Education, ExPat Life, Faith, Free Speech, Living Conditions, Quality of Life Issues, Work Related Issues | , , | Leave a comment

Doris Duke’s Shangri-La

Months in advance, my friend said “You’ll really want to see Shangri-La,” and I had never heard of it, but I looked online, and it looked beautiful. Doris Duke, one of the richest women ever to live, could buy anything she wanted. She had a good eye for art, good timing, and she bought much of what is in Shangri-La and her other residences at bargain prices after WWII. The value of her art holdings increased dramatically, and she ended up with an even bigger fortune than that with which she started.

How do I know? I am in the middle of my third book, reading about Doris Duke. The books are pretty bad. Each author seems to have an axe to grind, and one author took very little information and used it to speculate endlessly, full of gossip and mean-spirit. Altogether, Duke does not come off as a very kind person, but who can say which version of this very private person is the “real” Doris Duke?

To visit Shangri-La, you must go through the Honolulu Museum of Art. They have an online reservation system – the next two weeks are already fully booked. My friend booked months in advance so that we could attend. We got to the Museum, found a good parking place, entered the museum, receiving a lapel sticker and a wristband which later allowed us to visit the museum for as long as we liked.

We boarded a bus and watched a very romanticized movie about the life of Doris Duke, and then we were there! We were warned we could take no photos inside. What a pity! The interiors are magnificent, all marble, and tiles, gorgeous woodwork, and all kinds of Islamic Art that looks like it would go well in the Qatar Museum of Islamic Art. I couldn’t help but wonder if the newly rich aren’t trying to buy some of their cultural objects back?

 

 

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Our guide ushered us into a beautiful entry, with meshribiyya and tiles and beautiful light fixtures inside. I wish I could show you.

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About half way through the tour, we had a break on a terrace from which we had this spectacular view. I read in one of the books that Duke built this rock harbor without asking permission from the Hawaii government, just did it. It is lovely. The terrace also has gorgeous Persian tiles, the interior tiles are Persian and Iznik.

 

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After visiting the Damascus Room and the Syrian Room and the Mogul Room, we visited Doris Duke’s bedroom, bare but for a couple couches. Then, out to the gardens.

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We were allowed to take photos in the gardens 🙂

 

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This is a tree at the entry to the house; the tree sends down those shoots that form new roots and new trees. It is magnificent!

 

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After our visit to Shangri-La, we returned to the Honolulu Museum of Art, and had lunch. This is the market salad with salmon – Yumm.

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As we lunched, a character went around taking selfies. I think this is a performance artist, and I think it may have been a guy.

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Being three very independent kind of folk, we split up to see what we wanted to see at the museum. There was a special temporary exhibit on Japanese street fashion which I found fascinating. I loved some of these street fashions, which strike me as very imaginative. When I got to the Lolita section, however, little girl dresses for grown women, I found it too creepy and strange to photograph.

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There is a section on Islamic Art with beautiful tiles and examples of several genres of art objects.

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Out on one of the patios, I found this screen which reminded me of a very modern sort of tree-of-life.

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Altogether, a grand day. My friend was right – we really enjoyed seeing this.

March 16, 2016 Posted by | Arts & Handicrafts, Beauty, Books, Character, Cross Cultural, Cultural, Education, Entertainment, ExPat Life, Gardens, Living Conditions, Privacy, Quality of Life Issues | , , | 1 Comment

On Our Own in the Souks of Marrakesh and the Jemaa el-Fna

Free at last!

We are as giddy as children let out of school as the groups head left and we head right, going deeper into our favorite territory, the souks (small shops) in the great city of Marrakesh.

Before we ever went to Marrakesh, many years ago, we read a book by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, author of Guests of the Sheikh, called A Street in Marrakesh, talking about how her family lived in the center of Marrakesh, among Moroccans, and the adjustments they made as they grew to learn more about their environment. You know how you can read a book and feel like you had lived it? We felt we had lived in Marrakesh.

When we visited with our son, we had a car and were driving all through Morocco. We had left Ouazazarte and driven over the Atlas Mountains, stopping here and there to buy fossils and “thunderballs” which are also called geodes. It was late, and dark when we got to Marrakesh, and we had to stop and ask directions at a gas station how to find our hotel. We knew we were near, and we didn’t know how to close the distance. This was before smart phones and Google Maps.

Our son and I watched AdventureMan from the car, and as we watched him ask the two men working there, one pointed left and one pointed right. We were dying laughing. And, actually, both were right, there was an obstacle between us and the hotel and you could go right – or you could go left. At that moment, a motorcycle drove up, listened to the question and offered to guide us to our hotel. This is the essence of Morocco to us; the kindness and the hospitality of the Moroccans.

I wish I could remember the name of the hotel, but our room was huge, and full of tile work. Our son had his own area, on a separate level in the same room, and his own TV. It was a far cry from a sterile, modern hotel; this was full of color and detail, tile and wood work.

The next day, we hired a private guide for a tour of Marrakesh, and had a wonderful time exploring all kinds of wonderful places.

So now, off we go, and the smells and the feel of the souks almost make us giddy; we are back in our element.

As we wander, we can hear roosters crowing, and, in the middle of the souks, we find a souk devoted to roosters. It is the middle of the afternoon, a quiet time of day, perfect for wandering.

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Me and my attraction to light fixtures 🙂

 

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A mural of the Koutoubia mosque; one of the reasons we felt so secure in this souk is that if you get lost, you just look for the highest tower around, and that is the Koutoubia mosque, which takes you to Jemaa el-Fna.

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We walked to our content, and then settled in at late afternoon to a cafe with a terrace high over the Jemaa el-Fna, where we had our choice of tables and could watch the market come to life. As we sipped our mint tea, the other tables filled; Moroccan families, tourist couples, assorted characters. The day is gorgeous, we have a shaded location, life is sweet. We’ve soaked in the sights and the smells. We’ve done more than our 10,000 steps. We enjoyed this afternoon immensely.

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December 26, 2015 Posted by | Adventure, Arts & Handicrafts, Beauty, Books, Cultural, Entertainment, Exercise, ExPat Life, Fitness / FitBit, Hot drinks, Morocco, NonFiction, Quality of Life Issues, Travel | , , , | Leave a comment