Thursday, 30 September 2010

Togo - the Village of Waiting

The first book I've read about life in Togo is ex-Peace Corps volunteer George Packer's The Village of Waiting.

A frank, vivid account of contemporary African life

During my time in Central Asia, I became friends with several Peace Corps volunteers and have, since then, really admired the fortitude of the volunteers and their determination to learn something about this amazing world of ours, rather than live in the bubble of 'the West'.  I'm sure lots of Peace Corps volunteers have written books about their eye-opening experiences, living in countries, like Togo, that are otherwise forgotten about and misunderstood by the rest of the world.  I really enjoyed reading Packer's book and it was, as the subtitle says, an incredibly frank and vivid account of life in Africa, as he experienced it.

What I liked about Packer's book is that he didn't romanticise his experience in Africa, nor did he shy away from being brutally honest about his experiences in the Togolese village of Lavié.  He also didn't get bogged down in more 'challenging' aspects of his life in Togo, nor was the book a list of grievances about the inadequacies of the Togolese government or the society around him. 

Customs and traditions
As can be expected, Packer mentions some of the customs and traditions of the Ewé tribespeople and I found these very interesting, for example:

- the fact that it's customary in Ewé tribes to keep the chief's death a secret for one year.  Even if everyone knows that he is dead, they go on talking about him, as though he is still alive.
- He also mentions a pretty horrible tradition that, when a newborn baby dies, one of its hands is cut off before it's buried, to prevent it from crawling back into its mother's womb and starting the life/death cycle all over again.

Packer writes about animism and the villagers' fear of the forest, about the evil spirit Sakpaté and how it's taboo to say his name aloud at night.  Packer comes to the conclusion that the villagers belief in animism is a logical by-product of the lack of electricity in Lavié.  In the dark night of the forest, one can fantasise about the vulnerability of humans in a world ruled by supernatural forces.  It reminds me of something I read somewhere that pointed out how ghost stories died in England with the invention of the electric bulb.  Shadowy corners and creaky floorboards seem less threatening in the glare of artificial light. 

An African Bildung

Like a lot of Peace Corps volunteers, Packer ends up in the village school teaching English.  He makes some important points about the history of European-style education in Togo, starting with the German missionaries and their desire to educate the Togolese well enough, so they could read the Bible, but not well enough to think for themselves or became anything other than labourers in their Müsterkolonie.  The French took over with their model of education, establishing a bureaucratic system of formation that continues to hinder the development of Togo, well into the 20th century. 

I've never been to Africa and can't claim any expertise on the subject, but I can see the logic in Packer's argument that a European educational system is one steeped in failure for African students.  The entire system served to make the European colonisers feel superior and helped them impose their culture on their African 'subjects'.  Rather than breaking with an unnatural, European education system on gaining independence from France, Togo, like many other African nations, continued to use this system as a tool to control and contain the various different tribes making up their country.  It makes as little sense now, as it ever did and, from Packer's experiences, it's obvious that an African child, especially a girl, has the odds stacked against her.  Even if he/she does get an education, it will prove useless in a country that toes the line, idealogically and intellectually.

Le petit nordiste and Authenticity

Like far too many countries that I've blogged about, Togo lived for many years under the shadow of one man, Gnassingbé Eyadéma.  Elevated to the status of demi-God, after surviving a plane crash in Sarakawa, Eyadéma maintained a stranglehold on Togolese politics that lasted 38 years and is continued today, in many ways, by the current Togolese leader, also Eyadéma's son, Faure Gnassingbé.  Eyadéma was very much an opportunist, having fought for the French in Algeria in the 1960's, he was one of the many disgruntled soldiers from the northern Kabye tribe, dubbed les petits nordistes by Togo's first president Sylvanus Olympio.  In the first coup d'etat of the newly independent African nations, Eyadéma dramatically deposed (and apparantly murdered) Olympio, eventually replacing him as President of Togo.

Eyadéma believed his aircrash to have been a ploy by the French to get rid of him and he emerged from the ashes of the crash with a renewed determination to legitimise his authority and suppress any opposition to his regime.  He introduced a period of Africanisation, called Authenticity, banning the use of (French) Christian names amongst other things.  Interestingly, despite his criticisms of the Togolese regime, Packer does mention the fact that Eyadéma didn't really have the resources, as President of such a small country, to engage in excessive repression as was so common elsewhere in Africa, like Idi Amin's regime in Uganda, or the Apartheid regime in South Africa.  He points out that the Togolese regime, although inwardly oppressive, didn't really engage in the wider politics of West Africa and was only ever vaguely supportive of the leftist politics of its neighbours, Benin, Ghana and Burkina Faso (Upper Volta). 

Reverse Culture Shock

Something I could really relate to in Packer's story was the intense reverse culture shock he felt coming back to the West.  I imagine most of us don't really realise what we're taking on when we decide to live in another country, especially one with extreme poverty and daily hardship.  Nor do we expect the infectious joy of life lived in a way that doesn't revolve around greed and money-making.  It's obvious that Packer really came to feel part of the community that he lived with, so much so that, when he went to Barcelona for a Christmas break, he felt displaced and could relate more to the Africans he met there, than the European culture so similar to his own.  It was also interesting when he went to visit the north of Togo, a region that is very culturally and ethnically different than Lavie, he also felt a kind of 'culture shock' and the unfamiliarity of a different people than the ones he was living with.

I experienced something similar, returning to Uzbekistan after a week in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, everything in Uzbekistan suddenly felt so familiar and it really felt as though I was coming home. 

The Cicada's Life

An overarching theme of Packer's book is the wasted lives of some of the people he met in Togo.  He writes three really touching portraits towards the end of the book, about three different men he had become friends with and how they had each failed to acheive their full potential, in a country that, despite being their country of birth, was holding them back in so many ways.  It's the travesty of an intellectual mind, in a regime that cared little for independent thinking.  The concept of the Cicada's life for an intellectual in an oppressive regime is based on the premise that if you want to live happily, you need to live hidden. 

The significance of the title of Packer's book was not lost on me.  Amongst the joy and horror of life in the village, he also explores the monotony of life for the villagers, which is a constant round of toil and hardship, interrupted by occasional funerals which, far from being mournful, acted as a good excuse for a knees-up. 

The Ewe word for tomorrow is etso, which is the same as the word for yesterday or any day which is not today.  Other words I learned from Packer's book were: yovo, kazoo, baché, prestidigitation, kapok, iroko.

Image credits:

The image of the book cover was taken by me.

The photos of Togo were taken in 1984, around the same time that George Packer was living there, and have been provided copyright free by flickuser Paul-W - thanks Paul for sharing these images using the Creative Commons License. 

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Togo - Woezo!

It's more than 3,000 miles (or 5,000 kilometres) from the Saudi capital to Lome, the capital of my next country, Togo!  I'm quite excited to be blogging about Togo as it's a country I know practically nothing about.  Until I started researching this blog, I didn't even know what the capital of Togo was and I would have been hard pushed to pick out the Togolese flag from the range of similar flags of West African nations.

I've just started learning about Togo and I know now that it is a small slither of a country sandwiched between Ghana and Benin.  Togo is approximately the same size as Croatia, less than half the size of England and slightly smaller than West Virginia.  It has a population of over 6 million people and is made up of various different tribes and languages, the main one being the Ewe people of the south coast (including the capital). 

Something that fascinates me about Togo is that it was colonised by (the newly unified) Germany during 'the Scramble for Africa', one of two German colonies in West Africa (the other one being Cameroon).  Germany's colonial ambitions came to end after the First World War and the German Togoland was divided between Britain and France, British Togoland being incorporated into their neighbouring colony in Ghana, French Togoland becoming an autonomous country within French West Africa.  I'm not sure how much of a legacy the Germans left behind, as French is now the lingua franca, as in most of West Africa.  It's something I'm interested in exploring. 

I've got a couple of books lined up, have already spotted a Togolese dish I want to cook and I've started listening to some Togolese music.  So sit back, relax and enjoy the ride - the video I'm posting is from YouTube and fascinates me, just watching the coast glide past, you get a sense of what life is like in downtown Lome.  The artist is called Yawo and I really like the song Mi La Woe, which translates something like 'let's keep pulling together'.

Image credits:

The map of Togo is from Wikipedia, but originally came from the CIA's World Factbook and is in the public domain. 

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Happy birthday Blog!

It's exactly a year since I started this blog - 13 countries later, with 80 blogposts by yours truly and almost 2,000 unique visits from all over the world!  I've had the first 12 countries printed up in book form, as I feel like it's a great reference for myself and a proud reminder of all the blogging I've done in the past year - I must have written a novel's-worth by now! 
To celebrate one year of Learning about the World, I thought I would use this blogpost to remind myself (and you, my loyal readers) of the things that I have read, cooked, listened to and watched with the express purpose of increasing my understanding of this amazing world we live in :-)

In the past year, I've read 23 books related to my blog.  They were:

The President by Miguel Angel Asturias (Guatemala)
An Insular Possession by Timonthy Mo (Hong Kong)
Independent People by Halldor Laxness (Iceland)
History of Jamaica by Clinton V Black (Jamaica)
The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J Maarten Troost (Kiribati)
Singing Away the Hunger by Mpho 'M'atsepo Nthunya (Lesotho)
Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia by Louisa Waugh (Mongolia)
A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein (Netherlands)
Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton (Netherlands)
Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown (Oklahoma)
House Made of Dawn by N Scott Momaday (Oklahoma)
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (Oklahoma)
(part of) I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos (Paraguay)
At the Tomb of the inflatible Pig by John Gimlette (Paraguay)
Remembering Babylon by David Malouf (Queensland)
A Kindness Cup by Thea Astley (Queensland)
The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (Queensland)
Desert Places by Robyn Davidson (Rajasthan)
A Princess Remembers by Gayatri Devi (Rajasthan)
Hinduism: A very short Introduction by Kim Knott (Rajasthan)
Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif (Saudi Arabia)
(part of) Islam: A very short Introduction by Malise Ruthven (Saudi Arabia)
Arabia through the Looking Glass by Johnathan Raban (Saudi Arabia)

I learned to cook a variety of international meals, some of them I've made several times since:

Tapado (Guatemala)
Sweet and Sour Pork Hong Kong style (Hong Kong)
Liffrarbuff and Plokkfiskur (Iceland)
Jerk Chicken (Jamaica)
Palu Sami (Kiribati)
Chakalaka and Pap (Lesotho)
Tsuivan (Mongolia)
Stamppot and Limburg Beef Stew with Apples (Netherlands)
Cornbread, Choctaw Catfish and Fried Okra (Oklahoma)
Sopa paraguayana and Zoo-Tosopy (Paraguay)
Kangaroo Fillets with Mushroom sauce (Queensland)
Daal Baati (Rajasthan)
Chicken Kabsa (Saudi Arabia)

I watched 15 movies:

Reykjavik 101 (Iceland)
Noi Albinoi (Iceland)
Dancehall Queen (Jamaica)
Turkish Delight (Netherlands)
The Fourth Man (Netherlands)
Dances with Wolves (Oklahoma)
Gunfight at the OK Corral (Oklahoma)
Oklahoma! (Oklahoma)
A Man called Horse (Oklahoma)
The Mission (Paraguay)
Swimming Upstream (Queensland)
Praise (Queensland)
Dor (Rajasthan)
Jodhaa Akbar (Rajasthan)
Lawrence of Arabia (Saudi Arabia)

I listened to all kinds of music - some of my favourites were:

Sigur Ros (Iceland)
Phyllis Dillon (Jamaica)
Egschiglen (Mongolia)
Bettie Serveert (Netherlands)
Woody Guthrie (Oklahoma)
Eric Bogle (Queensland)
Jagjit Singh (Rajasthan)
Mohammed Abdu (Saudi Arabia)

One of the reasons I started this blog was so I would read, watch, listen to and taste things that I wouldn't otherwise have read, watched, listened to or tasted.  One year down the line, I feel incredibly enriched by the cultural experiences I've had through my 'armchair' travelling - I look forward to the next year and all the learning it will bring.

In the languages of some of the countries I've blogged about:

Happy Birthday!  Feliz cumpleaños! Sun yat fai lok! Til hamingju með afmælið! Letsatsi le monate la tswalo! Tєрсєн єдрийн баяр хvргэе! Vy-Apave Nde Arambotyre! जन्मदिन पर हार्दिक शुभकामनाएं! Janam ghaanth ri badhai, khoob jeeyo! كل عام وأنتم بخير!

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Saudi Arabia - مع السلامة

One way of saying goodbye in Saudi Arabia is ma'a as salama or مع السلامة which means 'go with safety' according to Wiktionary, said by the person who is staying to the one who is leaving.  It looks like I'm the one who's staying and I'm afraid it's time to say goodbye to Saudi Arabia!  I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of Saudi Arabian culture, nor have I had time this month to really do it justice.  I've learned a lot more about Saudi Arabia than I had time to blog about. 

I've also kept an eye on the English language and Saudi-based Arab News website - well worth a visit, if you want to get an insight into life in the Kingdom.  The news has been full of Saudi Arabia's response to the flooding in Pakistan on one hand, contrasted with the very disturbing reports in the Twittersphere about the abuse of a Filipino maid by her Saudi employers.  I was also surprised to read a report in the Arabic language Al-Riyadh (الرياض) newspaper, about the moral degradation of Saudi society, because of all the (straight) couples kissing in public.  Just today the Pink News has published a story about a gay Saudi diplomat, who claims he will be killed if he is sent home.

Some of the other things I've learned about Saudi Arabia are:

- It's almost ten times the size of the UK, with half the population.

- Saudi Arabia isn't just about deserts, it also has lush coastal areas on the Red Sea and fertile mountain resorts such as Abha. 

- The Rub al Khali or 'the Empty Quarter' is one of the most hostile landscapes known to man.

- Less than 2% of Saudi Arabia's land is arable. 

- According to The Economist's 2008 Democracy Index Saudi Arabia is the seventh most authoratitative country in the world.  I think I was more surprised to find out that Uzbekistan, a country I've lived in, came fourth in that index!

- Saudi Arabia didn't abolish slavery until 1962.

- Riyadh means 'the Gardens'

- 12 million Brazilians are of Arab origin.

- Non-muslims are not allowed to visit the holy cities of Medina and Mecca.

- Jeddah is the most multi-cultural and 'open' city in Saudi Arabia.

- Houses in Jeddah's Al-Balad district are made from coral, from the Red Sea.

- The religious police are called matawwa.

- Saudi Arabia has one of the highest road death rates in the world.

- Asir, now a province in the south-west of Saudi Arabia, was an independent kingdom until 1922.  It contains Saudi Arabia's highest mountain, Jebel Sawdah, which is 2910 metres tall.

- Wild baboons live in Asir region.

- The Farasan Islands, which are in the Red Sea, could become a major draw for tourists, if Saudi Arabia ever relaxes its strict visa requirements.

- Saudi Arabia is one of the richest regions in the world for Rock Art, with over 2,000 sites. 

- Saudi Arabia has a UNESCO world heritage site at Mada'in Saleh.

- Matthew Shepard's parents (the young man who was brutally murdered in a homophobic attack in Wyoming in 1998) lived in Dhahran and worked for the major oil corporation Aramco.

- Education isn't compulsory in the Kingdom and an estimated 39% of Saudi children don't attend school.

- Women are not allowed to practise law in Saudi Arabia.

- During Soviet times a quota of 20 Muslims were allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia from the USSR every year to perform the Hajj

- Winston's Hiccup or Churchill's sneeze is an anecdotal explanation of the sharp corner in the border between Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

- Folk beliefs claim that Eve is buried in Jeddah (جدّة‎) and that the name of the city comes from the Arabic word for grand-mother, which is jaddah (جدة)

I'm a big fan of Arabian music, although I'm more familiar with Arabesque singers of Turkey, than Saudi singers.  Arabian music has to be the definition of exotic for most western Europeans and, as I've been researching this blog, I've been listening to some of Saudi's greatest singers.

I'm going to leave you with one of my favourites - Mohammed Abdu.  Abdu grew up in Saudi Arabia's smallest province, Jizan and was orphaned at a very early age.  He's now a Saudi institution, but I like this video because it shows him at a time when he was still very young and had all the energy and passion of someone following his dream. 

Image credits:

The award-winning image of the Empty Quarter was taken by flickruser IrenicRhonda aka Rhonda Surman who is originally from High Wycombe, but now lives in the Highlands of Scotland.  You can see more of Rhonda's photos at

The picture of the Kaaba in Mecca was taken by flickruser Ammar Abd Rabbo

The photo of the Mada'in Saleh UNESCO site was provided by flickuser Omar A.

Thanks to Rhonda, Ammar and Omar for sharing your images with us, using the Creative Commons License.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Saudi Arabia - Cities of Salt

Abdelrahman Munif

As part of my learning about Saudi Arabia, I read the epic Cities of Salt (Al-tin) by Abdelrahman Munif.  Munif was a Saudi citizen who was brought up in Amman, Jordan and, despite being one of the foremost writers in Arabic in the late 20th-century, doesn't seem to be terribly well-known in the West.  He was well-educated, having studied at the Sorbonne, as well as the University of Belgrade and spent many years living in both Iraq and Syria.  Many of his books are banned in Saudi Arabia (no surprise there) and Munif, who died in 2004, criticised modern Arab states, like Saudi Arabia and parodied their ruling classes in his writing.  He was once a member of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath party and was stripped of his Saudi citizenship because of his political beliefs. 

Post-colonial literature

When I was in university in Dublin, I studied courses in post-colonial literature and I could see Cities of Salt fitting into a post-colonial literature course quite easily.  It has been compared to Chinua Acebe's book, Things Fall Apart, which I've also read and there are definitely parallels between the arrival of the British in Nigeria in the late 19th-century and the arrival of the Americans in the Gulf in the 1930's.

Wadi al-Uyoun

The book starts in a wadi called al-Uyoun, which is somewhere in Arabia, before the arrival of the Americans and their mysterious pursuit of water and eventually oil.  The people of the wadi are described as almost child-like in their innocence and there is a strong sense of centuries of unbroken tradition, as the famous orchards and water of the wadi serve as a much-needed respite to caravans crossing the hostile landscape of the Arabian peninsula.  The caravans in their turn bring news of faraway places, much sought-after tools and products that the villagers receive in return for their hospitality.  The arrival of the caravans in Wadi al-Uyoun is a time of a great joy, but also a time of sadness, as it often takes some of the wadi's young men with it, as they leave to see the world and seek their fortunes. 

Miteb al-Hathal

One of the things about this novel that I found most difficult to understand was the constant change in narrative.  I think this might be a particularly Arabic form of story-telling, but the novel moves from one narrator to another, leaving lots of characters at a dead end, no longer to be heard or seen of again. 

The story first unfolds through the eyes of one of the wadi's elders, Miteb al-Hathal and, unlike many of the other narrators in the book, Miteb's spirit pervades the entire novel, so that he is still hovering over the events that happen towards the end of the book.  When the Americans first arrive in the wadi, it's almost as though they've landed in a spaceship, such is the wonder and fear experienced by the villagers.  Unlike his peer Ibn Rashed, who welcomes the arrival of the Americans, Miteb is filled with a sense of dread, as he observes these newcomers and tries to figure out the significance of their sudden appearance in the wadi.  At first, he's seen as an old fool, but eventually, as the Americans come more and more often and their behaviour becomes more and more intrusive, the villagers turn to Miteb for leadership.  But by then it's too late and the famous orchards of the wadi are pulled down around their ears and the villagers are forcibly moved on.

Ibn Rashed

Ibn Rashed is Miteb's rival and, whereas Miteb represents a mindset that is naive, sincere and incorruptible, Rashed sees an opportunity to make his fame and fortune, regardless of the impact it has on his society and its traditions.  He's seen as a traitor by many people, but there's also a sense that he is a pragmatist, realising that there is little he or anyone in the wadi can do to stop the advance of a new era. 

After the destruction of the wadi, Miteb disappears into the desert, to become a haunting ghost-like figure, who only re-appears at moments of extreme tension.  Ibn Rashed, on the other hand, becomes a very real figure, employing the bedouin to work on the construction of a new American city in a (fictional) location on the Persian Gulf, called Harran.  I suspect Harran may be based on Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia, as it fits the period and the pattern of growth of that city. 

There are also some really funny bits in the description of this culture clash, as Ibn Rashed observes the Americans' strange exercises, which they do every morning, stretching out their arms and legs and bending their bodies in a way that seems incredibly strange as a form of prayer ritual!  Their is also the shock that the young bedouin men get, when they reach Harran and see the sea for the first time ever - it's a landscape that they just can't get their heads around, or begin to understand.  Although, Ibn Rashed reigns supreme throughout a large part of the novel, like most middle-men, he eventually becomes irrelevant, as Harran grows and prospers and a more traditional set of Arabian entrepreneurs takes notice and moves in, leaving Ibn Rashed to die a broken and irrelevant man. 

The role of the Emir
Munif makes an important comment about the role of the Emir in all of this.  When the Americans first arrive in Wadi al-Uyoun, it is under the protection of the Emir.  This is challenged by Miteb, but he is told in no uncertain terms that the Emir has taken the side of the Americans and will crush any of his subjects/kinsmen who object.  A new Emir comes into power during the development of Harran and is painted as a much more sympathetic character, albeit one who is completely enthralled by the presence of the Americans.  The new Emir becomes obsessed with the gadgets that the Americans bring him, such as the telescope and the radio.  I see the telescope as an important symbol of the Emir's impotency as he increasingly becomes a remote observer of the changes that are happening in his country.  As the novel progresses, there is an increasing sense of distance between the Emir and his subjects.  In true, autocratic style, the novel is only brought to an end by the Emir's death. 

The relentless march of progress

Towards the end of the novel there are a series of stories about the various different characters who show up in Harran.  The lorry-drivers, who gain our sympathy in their attempts to establish their business of transporting people from the older population centre of Ujra, to the new city of opportunities and wealth, Harran.  Eventually they are put out of business by bigger and faster lorries and even these, within a short period of time, are put out of business by a fleet of brand new passenger buses that ply the Ujra-Harran route. 

Likewise, the traditional healer Muffadi is side-lined, scorned and eventually scape-goated, after the arrival of a (supposedly) Western-qualified doctor, Subhi al-Mahmilji.  Muffadi becomes an incredibly important character towards the end of the novel - his demise coincides with the arrival of the first soldiers in Harran and the unleashing of their harsh regime, torturing and eventually killing Muffadi.  His death finally unites the workers and the inhabitants of Harran, as they go into open revolt against the Americans and the Emir, leaving an inconclusive end of the book. 

Other themes

There are many other themes in the novel, including the poignant story of Umm Khosh, an older woman in Wadi al-Uyoun whose son left with a travelling caravan, as many of the other local boys did, but failed to return, or even send her a message to let her know he was alive.  It's a theme of grief and madness and it was really touching how the villagers rallied around her and tried to shield her from the worst excesses of her insanity. 

There are the over-arching themes or separation and the loss of a traditional way of life.  Miteb's family is left scattered and defenseless, when he disappears into the desert.  We can take this literally, of course, but I think Miteb also symbolises the loss of a traditional way of life.  He becomes a ghost, a shadow that fades in the glaring sun of the desert, but reappears at night to comfort the bedouin and terrify the Emir and the Americans.

There is the theme of sex.  When a ship laden with scantily-clad women arrives in the American part of Harran, it throws the entire community into disarray.  The men become restless and unsettled, unable to concentrate on their work, or look at women in the same way again.  It's an insignificant and (seemingly) innocuous event, as far as the Americans are concerned, but it has a profound affect on the community in Harran and challenges their moral standards in a way that highlights the most negative aspects of cultural interaction. 

The Americans are keen to study bedouin culture and learn Arabic, so they come around with little leather-bound notebooks, asking questions that are incredibly inappropriate and rousing the suspicions of the local people.  This raises an interesting theme of the importance of the written word to Arabian culture.  The Americans' note-taking is seen as a kind of sorcery, even the leather covers are compared to the leather amulets that people wear to ward off evil.  Also, as far as the local people are concerned, there is only one book of importance, which is the Qu'ran - they can't understand why anyone would want to write words which are not somehow related to the Qu'ran and, in a sense, words themselves and the act of writing are given a religious significance that I'm sure the Americans would never have suspected. 

Cities of Salt is a long read and a sometimes difficult one, but it's an incredibly important book that touches on many themes of relevance to readers in the Arab world and deserves greater recognition by readers in the West.

Image credits

The photo of the book cover was taken by me - this is the copy of Cities of Salt that I read.

The beautiful photo of the desert in Saudi Arabia was taken by flickruser OrangeSmell aka Arnaud Desbordes, who is from Poitiers in France.  Thanks Arnaud for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons License.