Duck Duck Book


46 – barmi
06.11.2007, 8:02 am
Filed under: history & geography, social sciences

Barmi : a Mediterranean city through the ages / Xavier Hernàndez, Pilar Comes ; illustrated by Jordi Ballonga ; translated by Kathleen Leverich.
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
[MCL call number: j 307.709 H557b; one copy, no holds]

Open this picture book and you’ll see a two-page spread showing a tiny walled settlement in a wooded area near a river.  Turn the pages, and you’ll see the settlement grow from wee village to an significant Roman city, then fall into ruin, and then grow again as it becomes an ecclesiastical center, university town, and hub of commerce.  Keep turning the pages and you’ll see star-shaped fortifications grow during the 1600s, factories spread during the 1700s and 1800s, and modern suburbs, roads, and high-rises appear in the 1900s.

Each of these fabulous two-page views of the whole city at different points in history is followed by a terse narrative history of Barmi and its residents, and a few pages illustrating details — plants grown in the region, engineering methods for building bridges and civic buildings, the arrangement of domestic quarters, siege defenses, the operation of a paper mill, 20th century suburban slums, underground infrastructure.

Barmi isn’t a real city; it is an example imagined to represent the typical city in its region.  Their histories, geographical features, and civic infrastructure are collapsed into one tool for explicating the whole scope of how cities evolved on the northwestern edge of the Mediterranean over 2,400 years.  The focus is on the city fabric, and its physical context — political history, social changes, and religious trends are all present, but the place itself is the real story.

[thanks, Jamie]

 * * *

Barmi is part of a series, which includes at least three other books: Lebek : A City of Northern Europe Through the Ages (by Xavier Hernàndez,  Houghton Mifflin, 1991, also in Hungarian and Italian), San Rafael : A Central American City Through the Ages (by Xavier Hernàndez, Houghton Mifflin, 1992), and Umm El Madayan : An Islamic City Through the Ages (by Abderrahman Ayoub, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1994, also in Italian and Japanese).  Barmi was also published in Spanish and French.  The illustrations in the series are precise and intensely detailed, and the books’ ability to instruct with pictures reminds me of nothing so much as David Macaulay’s famous practical explanations of architecture, construction methods, and the uses of buildings in his books Cathedral : The Story of its Construction (Houghton Mifflin, 1973), City : A Story of Roman Planning and Construction (Houghton Mifflin, 1974), Pyramid (Houghton Mifflin, 1975), Castle (Hougton Mifflin, 1977), etc.

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46 – life turns man up and down
06.11.2007, 8:01 am
Filed under: literature

Life turns man up and down : high life, useful advice, and mad English : African market literature / selected and introduced by Kurt Thometz.
New York : Pantheon Books, c2001.
[MCL call number: 820.8 L722 2001; two copies, no holds]

If you had access to a time machine and were able to visit the great market town of Onitsha, Nigeria sometime between the Second World War and the late 1960s, you would have seen for sale a wide array of locally written and produced pamphlets and short books: instructional texts and self-help guides, romances, historical accounts of important events, and cautionary tales.  These pamphlets were written and published locally, and the entertainment and information they provide is tailored to a community of readers in a society where widespread literacy was a new phenomenon. Kurt Thometz has collected 18 pamphlets (three are complete; the remainder are excerpts) together for readers who do not have access either to a time machine or the rare library of African market literature. 

The collection is readable for many reasons — as a document of history, for instruction in morals and good conduct, as an exercise in understanding Nigerian culture, or simply as entertainment.  The pamphlets are perhaps most notable for the rich and striking descriptive language they employ — some of this beauty of language has no doubt to do with the fact that Nigerian English is its own creature, with vocabulary, syntax, rhythms, and literary conventions distinct from those of other forms of English.  But it also seems likely that the newness of the enterprise of publishing popular literature in Onitsha had its effect on pamphlet language.  This awkwardly elegant English is evident in titles:

  • Money Hard to Get but Easy to Spend (page 105)
  • How to Avoid Corner Corner Love and Win Good Love From Girls (page 131)
  • Drunkards Believe Bar as Heaven (page 125)
  • Mabel the Sweet Honey That Poured Away (page 151)

in front matter:

  • “The Adventures of The Four Stars dedicated to Samuel A. Okponku And International guy whom I chance to meet during the brief writing.  He says: ‘A quittes never wins, a winner never quiter’. That is to say, ‘Once a Radical Star, always a Star.'” (page 245)
  • “This very short but highly amusing drama called ‘The Statements of Hitler Before The World War’ is intended to entertain you much anywhere you may be: whether in office, or market, or workshop or house or in journey.” (page 295)

and of course in text:

  • “The breakneck speed, was terrific.  It was a bottle neck type of a run, rearing the fatal full-stop of the speedometre.” (in Rosemary and the Taxi Driver, page 21)
  • “Since the world has broken into pieces, truth is not said again.  If you ask a little boy a question, he will not tell you the truth, instead he tells you lies.  The same thing with little girls.  When little boys and girls could give up the truth, then imagine the degree of lies with grown ups.” (in Man Has No Rest in His Life, page 51)
  • “You could see a parcel on the street and call it a bundle of money, when you open it, it becomes a box of sickness and bad luck.” (in No Condition is Permanent, page 82)

But beyond the special qualities of Onitsha market literature English, the pamphlets collected here are just good, and varied, reading: a play about Hitler on the eve of World War II, a highly erotic novella about a woman gone wrong, a polemic against drinking in bars, a spiritual tract advising caution in all aspects of life (for “things are not what they seem, and life you see, is nothing but an empty dream”), and a Wild West-style adventure story are among the contents.  Life Turns Man Up and Down is the kind of book you should have handy to read on your bus commute, at the beach on a summer weekend, or in bed before you go to sleep.  Its contents are doom-saying and optimistic, sober and ridiculous, humorous and thoughtful.

A prefatory chapter provides context for the collection with a description of the Onitsha market, a terse introduction to 20th century Nigerian political history, an account of the legacy of traditional and international slavery, a brief discussion of Nigerian English, and finally an account of the beginnings of Ontisha’s popular publishing industry.  Thometz’s afterword explains the provenance of the particular pamphlets reproduced in the book, and his own interest in the study of this body of literature.  There is no index, but the text is followed by a reader’s guide to the study of Nigerian market literature, and a bibliography of the works in the anthology.



46 – among the righteous
06.11.2007, 8:00 am
Filed under: history & geography

Among the righteous : lost stories from the Holocaust’s long reach into Arab lands / Robert Satloff.
New York : PublicAffairs, c2006.
[MCL call number: 940.5318 S253a 2006; 5 copies, no holds]

Robert Satloff begins his introduction to Among the Righteous by stating the central question of his project: Did any Arabs save any Jews during the Holocaust?  It is a difficult question, considering the long history of animosity between the two groups, and especially considering the history of political developments in North Africa and the Middle East after World War II.  Not one of the people recognized as rescuers of Jews by Yad Veshem (Israel’s national memorial to the Holocaust), Satloff explains, is Arab. 

In some ways this is not surprising — might it not be difficult for the descendents of an Arab hero to claim publicly that she or he had saved Jews, given the contemporary political climate?  And then it is also shocking, since there are many stories of people unexpectedly taking considerable risks to help Jews in other places under Nazi, Vichy, or Axis control.  Is the absence of Arabs among the number of recognized “Righteous” due to the state of Israel’s reluctance to recognize Arab individuals in this way, or to a lack of Arabs willing to participate in recognition of that sort and from that quarter?  Or is it conceivable that no Arab helped or saved any Jew during the Holocaust?

Among the Righteous is more than just the story of Satloff’s search for an Arab who saved a Jew during the Holocaust.  Satloff provides a history of the progress of the war in North Africa — the Axis occupations of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya; slave labor camps along the nascent Trans-Saharan railway line (roughly parallel to the border between modern Morocco and Algeria, the political situation of Arabs and Jews in French-controlled (and then Vichy-controlled) North Africa, and the general state of relations between Jews and Arabs in the region.  Two chapters detail Arab participation in the persecution of Jews during the war, and Arab efforts to moderate or alleviate that persecution — from documented sources and orally reported stories.

But as promised, Satloff also sleuths along the trail of several promising stories of Arabs who helped Jews, and the tale of these investigations is fascinating — even a bit adventure-story-ish.  Satloff appears in small North African cities and earnestly interviews strangers about their long-ago neighbors or dead relatives; convinces powerful friends to introduce him to government officials and others who might ease his access to documentary evidence, exchanges emails with elderly Holocaust survivors about their experiences during the war, slogs through archives, and takes his family on at least one weekend drive into the desert to hunt out the location of a slave labor camp.

The investigation of possible Arab saviors, the wartime history of the North African region, and the stories of the fates and actions of Jewish and Arab North Africans during the period combine to paint a compelling picture, and it is certainly an interesting place to begin a study of the region and its history.