DANCING IN THE STREETS: A History of Collective Joy

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company. $26.

Reviewed by C.  Bertelsen

“Dancing in the Streets” is, frankly, a brilliant book. Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of “Nickel and Dimed,” “Blood Rites,” and other journalistic commentaries on human society, is not an academic, although she documents everything as would an academic. Nevertheless, some readers might quibble over this omission or that in this highly readable and multilayered book. But the truth is that Ehrenreich probes a hollow place in contemporary society and comes up with some intriguing explanations about why we are who we are today. By synthesizing a large number of seemingly disparate ideas and sources, she speaks with authority about the increasing absence of collective joy in Western society, tracing the loss of what appears to be a basic human need.

Using a chronological framework, Ehrenreich moves through western history, beginning with the prehistoric roots of archaic ecstasy, passing through the Middle Ages, the Age of Reason, Puritanism and its associated military reform, colonialism, fascism, the rock rebellion of the 1960s, and ending with the modern-day frenzy surrounding sports. Along the way, she touches on the oppression of women and ancient female-generated dance and worship.

Ehrenreich starts by examining the ecstatic ritual surrounding the worship of the Greek god, Dionysius, and the impact of that ritual on the everyday lives of the ancient Greeks. Hinting that early Christian rites bore no resemblance to today’s staid “sit-down” Christian worship services and that dancing played a role in those rituals, similar to Greek and Jewish practice, she proposes a number of credible reasons for the gradual decline of communal joy and festivities in the West and in areas colonized by Westerners.

One of the paramount reasons for this decline lies with the early Roman Catholic Church cracking down on sacred dance, which likely took place within the worship space. Dancing and festivals thus moved from the worship space to the streets. In the beginning, both noble elites and their vassals and peasants all celebrated feasts days and other events communally. But as time went on, the elite and the powerful found the raucous behavior associated with the festivals, particularly in the Lord of Misrule traditions and the antagonistic jokes made by the peasants about the nobility, to be disturbing enough to begin withdrawing from the public celebrations. More and more, the nobility and powerful Church authorities attempted to control these festivals that occurred with regularity through the year—one out of every four days during the Middle Ages was an official religious feast day or holiday of some sort. Carnival became a primary target for such control.

In another fascinating discussion, Ehrenreich shows how Puritanism helped to squelch the Carnivalesque behavior of the common soldier. Prior to the introduction of Calvinism, soldiers spent a lot of time sitting around, drinking and carousing. The seventeenth-century English soldier and politician, Oliver Cromwell, changed all that by demanding constant drilling and other tasks that left soldiers little time for anything untoward and undisciplined. The military of today reflects those changes.

Calvinism affected society in other ways as well. The number of suicides in the Swiss canton of Zurich increased sharply in the sixteenth century, just as Calvinism took hold. Prior to the sixteenth century, few remarks about depression turned up in historical records. Claiming that suicide is a sure marker for depression, the author documents these conclusions well and suggests that communal ecstatic ritual and festivities may well have acted as a cure for depression over the ages.

The signs of yearning for collective joy appear everywhere in our modern, individualistic society, but manifest themselves most vividly with the extreme preoccupation with sports. College football fans in particular represent a concrete example of Ehrenreich’s basic theory. With body painting, chants and songs, outlandish costumes and masks, and even just T-shirts in school colors, any American college town in autumn revels in a spectacle that could very well have transpired during Carnival week in the Middle Ages. And that’s the thing—society today is a “society of the spectacle,” of passive observance of organized activity.

If the book sports any defect, it lies with sporadic ponderous wordspeak and occasional convoluted sentence structure.

“Dancing in the Streets” is brilliant, profound, disturbing, exhilarating, and revolutionary. If nothing else, it will cause you to look differently at the sports fans in your life.

© 2008, originalyl published in The Roanoke Times.


secret-life-of-words1By Henry Hitchings
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 440 pages. $27.00

Reviewed by C. Bertelsen

In “The Secret Life of Words,” British author Henry Hitchings joins Bill Bryson (“The Mother Tongue”), Melvyn Bragg (“The Adventures of English”), and Robert McCrum (“The Story of English”) in seeking the bloodline of English, a language spoken by an estimated 350 million native speakers, and many others speaking it as a second language. To study the history of English is to delve into the history of the world and cultures grazed by political and economic power. And Hitchings’s version of the history of English renders a spellbinding story, full of all the drama of a well-orchestrated film or a gripping who-dunnit.

Hard as it is to believe that a linguistically prone book could hold a reader’s attention like a murder mystery, in this case it’s true. Every page reflects the “borrowing” of “loan words.” (Hitchings quips that English doesn’t really “borrow” words, because they’ll never be given back!) And the stories and reasons behind those words slipping into the English lexicon sometimes read like “The Arabian Nights” or G. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series.

Take food words. Because of trade during the Middle Ages, words practically leapt into the fledgling English language. Hitchings thrills to the musicality of Arabic words, “Arabic words for foodstuffs, alluringly simple, also gained currency. “Naranj” was the Sanskrit word for the citrus tree and its glowing fruit; in Arabic, it kept this form, but in English ‘a naranj’ soon mutated into ‘an orange.’ Other names of fruits and vegetables include lime (‘limah’), endive (‘hindab’), artichoke (‘al-kharshuf’), which was introduced to England in the reign of Henry VIII, and possibly spinach (which may ultimately have been derived from the Arabic ‘isfanaj’.” Nearly every the page finds this or that food word being added as people discovered each others’ cooking.

Sea-faring words, law and legal words, war words, farming words – Hitchings incorporates them all, and more. He shows how the English language mirrors the numerous bitter conflicts between France and English, the rivalry between Native Americans and American settlers, and the nuances of British colonialism in the Far East, how clashes of cultures create new words and encourage adoption of others.

Hitchings ends this delightful book with an excellent ‘if-you-want-to-read-more” bibliography and a seventeen-page special “Index of Words and Terms” scrutinized in the text. If history and love of language float your boat, “The Secret History of Words” will set you schooning through this remarkable story of an increasingly global language, ever-morphing into something new. As Hitchings concludes, “As long as there are groups on the move, languages will change. Such groups at present include migrant labourers, students, troops and aid workers, refugees, tourists and businesspeople. Think, for a moment of their influence: the ideas they propagate, the pleasures they share, the drama they witness, the opportunities they create exploit or implore.”

© 2008 C. Bertelsen. Publlished in The Roanoke Times, Sunday, November 16, 2008.

CLEOPATRA: Last Queen of Egypt

cleopatraBy Joyce Tyldesley
Basic Books. 304 pages. $27.50.
Reviewed by C. Bertelsen

Shakespeare immortalized the notorious Egyptian queen, Cleopatra VII, in his play (circa 1607), “Antony & Cleopatra.” Through the centuries, other writers and artists took up similar themes in numerous works of literature and art, including film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz who directed the 1963 film, “Cleopatra.” People today might be forgiven if Elizabeth Taylor comes to mind when they think of Cleopatra. Long considered the immoral and blood-thirsty Egyptian paramour of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, the legendary Cleopatra gets a new public relations agent, as it were, in British Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley’s “Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt.”

With the goal of putting “Cleopatra back into her own, predominantly Egyptian context,” Tyldesley traces Cleopatra’s Ptolemy family tree and the convoluted relationships therein. She confirms Cleopatra’s romantic liaisons with Roman rulers and conquerors, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, who appear in the book in detail. In Egyptian culture of the time, Cleopatra may well have thought she was married to these two men, a lawful wife. Archaeological and documentary evidence portray an entirely different Cleopatra from the one vilified in propaganda spewed by her contemporary Octavian and other powerful Romans. “The Romans, who looked long and hard at Cleopatra, never saw a wife. They saw an unnatural, immodest woman who preyed on other women’s husbands.” Unlike Greek and Roman women of the time, many Egyptian women lived free, intellectual lives. In this fact perhaps lay the seed of the rumors and back-stabbing behind Cleopatra’s legacy centuries after her suicide.

Tyldesley provides many scholarly tools for readers to use as she excavates Cleopatra’s life story from the many layers of Roman innuendo. Family trees, photographs of archaeological finds and statues, and maps help to make sense of the political intrigue characterizing Cleopatra’s times. Quotations from Plutarch round out details of Cleopatra’s palace life: “Philotas, the physician of Amphissa, used to tell my grandfather, Lamprias, that … having got well acquainted with one of the royal cooks, he was easily persuaded … to take a view of the extravagant preparations for a royal supper. … [He] saw … eight wild boars a-roasting,” for only twelve diners.

A solid piece of scholarship, Tyldesley’s revisionist “Cleopatra” examines the whole arc of Cleopatra’s life and her cultural milieu. The power struggles between Rome and Egypt predominate. And the city of Alexandria merits its own chapter, as it was an important center for the Ptolemies, their seat of intellectual and political power.

Tyldesley rebukes many academic accounts of Cleopatra’s life, a number of which “have been unable to cast aside Shakespeare’s vision and have been seduced into quoting Shakespeare as if he were a primary historical source.” Ironically, Arab historians, with access to Egypt’s oral history, preserved much of Cleopatra’s real story.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen. Published in The Roanoke Times, Sunday, November 2, 2008.

MY FATHER’S PARADISE: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq

By Ariel Sabar
Algonquin Books. 352 pages. $25.95.

Reviewed by Cynthia D. Bertelsen
Cynthia D. Bertelsen is a writer living in Blacksburg.

Be forewarned: you will lose sleep over this book.

Journalist Ariel Sabar’s story about his father, Yona Beh Sabagha (later Sabar), an Iraqi Jew who grew up speaking Jesus’s lingua franca-Aramaic, mesmerizes from the very first sentences: “I am the keeper of my family’s stories. I am the guardian of its honor. I am the defender of its traditions. As the first-born son of a Kurdish father, these, they tell me, are my duties.”

But Sabar wasn’t always the good son, the keeper of stories and honor and tradition. He grew up rebellious, born in the la-la land of make-believe, Los Angeles, California. “Ours was a clash of civilizations, writ small. He was ancient Kurdistan. I was 1980s L.A.” When Sabar experienced the birth of his own son, suddenly he needed to know his father’s story.  He quit his job at a well-respected newspaper and started researching and writing My Father’s Paradise. It took him three years, and included two trips to war-torn Iraq.

In the tradition of the famed storytellers of Zakho, his ancestral village, Sabar narrates a saga so touching, so amazing, so miraculous that the reader will feel awe for the resiliency of the human spirit. And also awareness of what immigrants to strange lands sacrifice in their exile, whether exile is self-imposed or forced upon them.

Beginning with the mud hut where his father was born to illiterate parents, Ariel Sabar recaptures the sense of Iraqi Jewish life in the shadows of looming mountains close to the Turkish border. From there the action moves to Israel, where phenomenal challenges faced his young father, one of the 120,000 Iraqi Jews airlifted out of Iraq to Israel in 1950. That little-known diaspora brought them to the Promised Land, but the bigotry and intolerance of European-born Jews toward the Kurds soured their experience. By the quirkiest of fates, young Yona earned his Ph.D. at Yale University and became one of the world’s most renowned and respected linguists of Aramaic at UCLA. In the end, the action moves back to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, where Sabar and his father searched for Yona’s older sister Rifqa, kidnapped by a wet nurse hired in the 1930s when Ariel’s grandmother couldn’t feed her.

Juxtaposed with Yona’s story are vignettes and informational passages about Kurdistan, Muslims, Jews, Christians, language, women, love, marriage, and history. Sabar also reveals the poignant story of how he came to understand and appreciate his strange immigrant father, a man who wore plaid suits better suited to 1960s golf courses than 1980s Los Angeles-“he was a bad dresser in a fashionable city.”

All this is the stuff of both Hollywoodish high drama and profound lessons about life. Unlike many memoirs flooding the book market these days, My Father’s Paradise is both unique and universal. Unique because of the isolation of the Zakho Kurds and the archaic language they spoke. And universal because it’s not just Yona Sabar’s story-it’s everyone’s. My Father’s Paradise is ultimately about the struggle to find a place in the world to call home.

C. Bertelsen’s review of Ariel Sabar’s new book, MY FATHER’S PARADISE: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, appeared in The Roanoke Times, Sunday, September 21, 2008. Read it here.


By Amitav Ghosh

Farrar Strauss Giroux. 504 pages. $26.00.

Reviewed by C. Bertelsen

Opium, scourge of China, coin of the realm for Britain, financed the British Raj in India under the flag of The East India Company. Beginning in 1730, China imported 15 tons of opium, brought in on British ships. The Chinese government soon realized the devastation wrought by opium and banned its importation. But the British continued to inundate China with smuggled opium; by the mid 1820s, 900 tons of Indian opium entered China yearly.

Indian anthropologist and historian Amitav Ghosh earned a doctorate from Oxford and writes well-received novels like The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide, and The Shadow Lines. His latest, and most ambitious, novel, Sea of Poppies, is the first in a planned trilogy.  And it flays the British opium trade.

Ghosh initially became interested in the issue of Indian opium when he learned about Indian indentured servants who fled India because of inroads on their livelihoods made by the opium trade. Using a former slave ship called The Ibis as the central character, he tells their story, wrapping it around the British opium trade. Dozens and dozens of characters flit in and out of the narrative. Three of these serve as the pillars of the sordid tale of Britain’s role in flooding China with smuggled opium:  the poor indentured Indian woman Deeti, the American sailor Zachary Reid or Zikri, and the French woman Paulette Lambert. Loves, deaths, betrayals, swindles, double-crosses, power struggles, and obsessions ebb and flow throughout the pages.

To his credit, Ghosh writes of the sea and ship life in the manner of Melville and Conrad. The tone of his book sounds very Dickensian, with a hint of Patrick O’Brien’s sea sagas. But Ghosh’s compulsive fascination with linguistics spoils the impact of his solid research on the minutiae of life and language in 1830s British India. His telling of a basically interesting yarn suffers accordingly.

For Sea of Poppies either has you running to the dictionary every five minutes or frantically paging through the “glossary” at the end of the book, searching for the meanings of words like “sheeshmahal,” “silmagor,” and “doolally.” Called “The Ibis Chrestomathy,” this eccentric “glossary” encompasses thirty-one pages of double columns and contains most, but not all, of the odd words swimming out of the mouths of Ghosh’s characters and throughout the narrative itself. Take the ship’s pilot words to Zachary about the old Raja of Raskhali: ” ‘Wasn’t a man in town who could put on a burra-khana like he did. Sheeshmahal blazing with shammer and candles. Paltans of bearers and khidmutgars. Demijohns of French loll-shrub and carboys of iced smikn. And the karibat! In the old days the Rascally bobachee-connah was the best in the city. No fear of pishpash and cobbily-mash at the Rascally table.’ ”

No doubt about it, reading Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel comes close to a Babelic nightmare.

And yet, and yet, the story takes hold as the three major characters attempt to make their way through the currents of their karma.  Sea of Poppies, for the patient reader, renders up a fascinating look at a little-known time period, with a story line worthy of trilogization.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen. Originally published in The Roanoke Times, Sunday, October 19, 2008.

HOUSE OF WITS: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

By Paul Fisher

Henry Holt and Company. 694 pages. $35.

Reviewed by C. Bertelsen

Recent studies indicate that parents, consciously or unconsciously, often tend to allocate more economic resources to one or two children in the family. And this generally predisposes those favored children to success.

Paul Fisher, professor of American literature at Wellesley College, illustrates this mode of parenting in his thought-provoking and well-written biography of the James family. Not the infamous James gang, but the family of William James, the famed nineteenth-century psychologist and his brother, the prolific writer and novelist Henry James, who wrote such classics as Daisy Miller, The Turn of the Screw, and Wings of the Dove, as well as The Bostonians, Portrait of a Lady, and other novels still in print.

This meaty tome also includes the other members of the family: alcoholic father Henry James, Sr. striding his world on one leg, mother Mary Walsh James, and the peripheral siblings-ner’do well brothers Wilkie and Bob, and perennial invalid sister, Alice. Fisher’s biography of the entire family isn’t the first attempt to dissect this remarkable group of American intellectuals-that honor goes to F. O. Matthiessen’s The James Family (1947). Nevertheless, the pathology and dysfunction that formed these children reveal a fascinating theme, and that is where Fisher’s work is unique. He explores this theme so thoroughly that the characters live again in all their palpable pain. At times Fisher appears to attribute feelings to the James family members, suggesting that he might be reading a bit too imaginatively between the lines of their voluminous letters and writings. The House of Wits could have been titled Portrait of a Family, parodying Henry James’s novel Portrait of Lady!

The stifling atmosphere of a normal upper-middle-class Victorian childhood, compounded by father Henry James, Sr.’s delusions of grandiosity and depressions-due in part to his own father’s neglect of him and the fire that cost him his leg as an adolescent, created tremendous challenges for all five James children as they sought to individuate themselves from their loving, but controlling, parents. At one point, their father enrolled and withdrew the children from ten different schools in New York City alone. Then he dragged them to Europe for years on end. Most of the time the parents homeschooled the children, who remained socially isolated. Their father encouraged the two oldest boys, particularly William, but the younger children, Wilkie, Bob, and Alice spent their lives seeking the approval and love they felt they never received. Depressions, breakdowns, puzzling illnesses, conflicted sexuality, alcoholism, and escapes to Europe resulted as the James children grew up. In spite of that, William and especially Henry finally found their niches.

Of all of the five James children, Alice is the most tragically drawn. As a brilliant woman, she contended with the Victorian ideal of womanhood, useless and ornamental. Alice’s own father expounded at length on the inferiority of women’s intellect in his writing and in the public lectures he gave over the years. Yet modern-day scholars consider Alice James’s diary a masterpiece, written before she died of breast cancer at age forty-three. She claimed that Henry borrowed her “pearls,” or ideas, and used them to write his novels.

The House of Wits offers a rewarding and fascinating read for those enamored of American political, social, and economic history, not just literary history.

© 2008 C. Bertelsen


Continued from September 30, 2008 post:

Reminiscent in many ways of the cultural delineations described by Philip Zimbardo in his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment and summarized in his book, The Lucifer Effect (2007), two very distinct cultures exist within Guantanamo-that of the detainees [prisoners] and that of the Americans holding the detainees [guards].

Marc Falkoff, a lawyer handling the cases of several Yemeni detainees at Gitmo, first arrived in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (also called Gitmo or GTMO) in November 2004, after the Rasul v. Bush Supreme Court ruling on habeas corpus.[1] In a section of Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, Falkoff makes the following statement: “What we learned from our clients on that trip was shocking. During the three years in which they had been held in total isolation, they had been repeatedly abused. They had been subjected to stress positions, sleep deprivation, blaring music, and extremes of heat and cold during endless interrogations. They had been sexually humiliated, their physical space invaded by female interrogators who taunted, fully aware of the insult they were meting out to devout Muslims. They were denied basic medical care. They were broken down and psychologically tyrannized, kept in extreme isolation, threatened with rendition, interrogated at gunpoint, and told that their families would be harmed if they refused to talk.”

Yet George Bush called the detainees “the worst of the worst.” So did Donald Rumsfeld. And Dick Cheney said in an interview on FOX News in June 2005 that “The important thing here to understand is that the people that are at Guantánamo are bad people. I mean, these are terrorists for the most part. These are people that were captured in the battlefield of Afghanistan or rounded up as part of the al-Qaida network.”

Many voices begged to differ. And thus emerged another side to the narrative.

“Innocent. Picked up in Peshawr, Pakistan, the ancient “City of Flowers.” Sold for $1000 to the Americans. Or $3000.  Or $5000. Suffered grueling torture and mistreatment by Americans at air bases in Bagram and Kandahar, Afghanistan. Transported in shackles to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba like slaves on slave ships. Languishing in Camp X-ray out in the open for months like dogs in a kennel. No due process of law.” This is the story that the detainees, their lawyers, journalists, and members of the U.S. Armed Forces are telling in the burgeoning literature and the films and the news stories about Guantanamo.

It’s hell on earth, according to Erik Saar, a young military intelligence linguist who wrote Inside the Wire, one of only two books written by U.S. military personnel about Guantánamo Bay, the other being American Muslim chaplain James Yee’s For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire (2005).

If it’s hell for the US soldiers and other personnel there, life for the detainees is a Dantean inferno of layer upon layer of different camps within a camp. Like some other sordid aspects of American history and foreign policy, Guantánamo has begun to infiltrate popular culture in much the same way that Alcatraz and Devil’s Island did during their times.

So far, non-Americans have written most of the accounts of the US’s Guantánamo Bay clandestine prison. A play, film documentaries, a book of poetry, novels, memoirs, and journalistic accounts of individuals released make up the body of literature available to readers in learning about just what life is like for the men wearing those infamous orange jumpsuits.

Any examination of Guantánamo must begin with two documentary films entitled “Gitmo: The New Rules of War,” produced in 2005 by Swedish filmmakers Tarik Saleh and Erik Gandini and “The Road to Guantánamo,” shot in 2006 by British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom. Both documentaries provide viewers with graphic accounts of torture, mistreatment, and false imprisonment. “The Road to Guantánamo” re-creates the journey of the “Tipton Three,” three British-Pakistani boys who traveled to Pakistan for the wedding of one of them and ended up with a two-year sojourn in Guantánamo Bay. There’s also the comedy, “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantánamo Bay,” a stoner film released in spring 2008, injecting political humor into a rather dark subject and revealing the real horror lying there.

One of the earliest attempts to graphically portray life in Gitmo came with Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo’s play, “Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom.” The playwrights derived the play’s title from the slogan emblazoned on a coat of arms placed in all public areas at Gitmo. The slogan is also a greeting required of U.S. military personnel in Gitmo-one person says “Honor Bound” and the other replies “To defend freedom.” In “Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom,” dialog is “taken from spoken evidence” from testimony by relatives, lawyers, judges, and politicians involved in the cases of British detainees like the Tipton Three and Moazzam Begg, who later wrote Enemy Combatant with Victoria Brittain, a former editor at The Guardian. Some of the other sixteen “characters” in the play include Lord  Justice Steyn, a staunch opponent of the Bush administration’s policies regarding the detainees; Bisher al-Rawi, a British resident and detainee arrested on false charges in the Gambia (and released from Guantanamo in 2007); and lawyer Clive Stafford Smith.

[1] Based on the World War II case of Johnson v. Eisentrager, the Bush administration’s lawyers, especially John Yoo, denied the Guantánamo captives POW status, thus avoiding having to adhere to the Geneva Conventions protecting prisoners of war. Without habeas corpus, the detainees were unable to challenge their imprisonment, leaving them to “rot in jail” in a manner not unlike associated with the Inquisition.