Monthly Archives: November 2009

Across the Endless River

Across the Endless River by Thad Carhart is a historical novel about Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of the well-known Shoshone woman, Sacagawea, who was of invaluable help to Lewis and Clark on their expeditions.

The book’s gorgeous cover art gives you a hint of the beautiful writing that awaits. Carhart successfully transports the reader to the 1800’s and to a world very different from today.

Baptiste, or “Pompy” as he is called by his mother’s tribe, must learn to live life as a white man like his father, and also as a Shoshone like his mother, neither of which feels right. Forced back and forth between living in a house and going to school and church in St. Louis, to spending months in a teepee close to the river, Baptiste isn’t sure where he belongs.

When his mother dies, Baptiste finds he has inherited her love of wandering, discovery, and her ability to slip between worlds. A scientist recognizes Baptiste’s valuable abilities and hires him as a guide, to accompany him on his journeys which include going back to Europe where Baptiste continues to discover the world and himself.

Below, enjoy an article by the author which I have been authorized to share.

Imagining the Past in Paris
By Thad Carhart,


Author of Across the Endless River

To walk in Paris is to walk through multiple layers of the past, more than 900 years of built history that awaits any stroller. Having lived here for twenty years, I’ve seen the city change with new roads and bridges, new museums, new rows of apartments. And yet the deep respect that Parisians have developed for what they call their patrimoine, their inheritance, ensures that old buildings are regularly restored and preserved, integrated into the flux of daily life. The look of the city changes subtly, as it has throughout history.

The biggest transformation in modern times was simply the cleaning of the stone edifices of central Paris, initiated in the 1960’s by de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture, André Malraux. No change could have been more surprising, or more deeply satisfying. When I was a very young boy living in Paris, I was convinced that all of the buildings were made from the same stone, black as night and so softened by centuries of wood and coal dust that the surface was a felt-like matte whose edges looked as if they would soon crumble. This was the “atmospheric” Paris of all those voluptuous black-and-white photos (what blacks and grays there were on every side), the ponderous Paris of Buffet prints and countless tourist posters.

Then the government started to clean the major monuments one by one — Notre-Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre — and the transformation was shocking, almost troubling in its strange newness. The buildings of Paris weren’t black after all, but very nearly . . . white! It took almost two decades of careful cleaning and restoration, but Paris emerged from the process the albino twin of its former self. To appreciate the contrast, buy a vintage postcard aerial view, dating from 1970 or earlier, at one of the bouquiniste stalls along the banks of the Seine, then compare it with the present-day aerial shot: the era of dirt and grime looks like a photographic negative of the light and airy Paris that current tourists will recognize as the “real” Paris.

Walking, however, reveals just one facet of the landscape. Recently, in researching a historical novel, I needed to imagine Paris as it would have appeared in the 1820s. The first stop for any such endeavor is the splendid Musée Carnavalet, the Museum of the City of Paris, whose collection documents in elaborate and fascinating detail every step of the city’s past. As I consulted paintings, prints, and manuscripts, many of the differences were obvious: in 1825 the Champs-Elysées was already a broad, fashionable avenue, but the Arc de Triomphe did not yet grace its rise; the Eiffel Tower wouldn’t appear until 1889; and, of course, Beaubourg, the Pyramid of the Louvre, and the Grande Arche, all sturdy Paris fixtures today, would only appear within the last four decades.

Another clear difference was the absence of cars, though factoring them out mentally also involved imagining the presence of horses . . . lots of horses. As I examined the numberless paintings at Carnavalet, I thought a lot about the look, the sound, and the smell of tens of thousands of horses plying the streets of Paris close to 200 years ago. Merely disposing of their manure — and Paris was very well organized in this department — was a Herculean task daily. And, just as in our day, when playboys often drive Porsches and tradesmen more likely use vans, the paintings reveal fancy thoroughbreds ridden solo by dandies, sturdy draft horses pulling huge wagons, and bony nags hitched to battered carts.

Perhaps the biggest surprise that comes with seeking the past in the Paris landscape, especially after examining the documentary record, it to realize how little the scale of buildings has changed over the centuries. With two exceptions on the Left Bank (the Tour Montparnasse and the university’s Tour Jussieu), no high-rises spoil the illusion in the center of Paris that the modern age has yet arrived. Individual facades, a modern infrastructure, and hordes of cars all tell a different story, but the look and feel of many quartiers — the Marais and the Latin Quarter are simply the best known examples — would feel appropriate to a Parisian of the early nineteenth century. This tenuous, heady relationship to the past is often seductive, and yet it can also feel weighty, old-fashioned, and artificial. How long it can prevail in the face of change is anybody’s guess.

©2009 Thad Carhart, author of Across the Endless River

Author Bio
Thad Carhart, author of Across the Endless River, is a dual citizen of of the United States and Ireland. He lives in Paris with his wife, the photographer Simo Neri, and their two children.

For more information please visit www.thadcarhart.com

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Children of Dust

children_of_dust_covChildren of Dust by Ali Eteraz is the gorgeous, thought provoking, hard-to-put-down memoir of a Pakistani-Muslim man who struggles to untangle the difference between religious obsession and peaceful devotion.

The writing is carefully crafted, making a scholarly topic that could easily be lackluster, into a literary masterpiece. The stories from Eteraz’s childhood and difficult youth as he walks the line between American culture and strict religious expectations are touching and the imagery transportive. This is a memoir that anyone of any religion who has struggled to make their faith their own instead of an imposed standard, will be able to relate to.

You don’t have to take my word for it. I’ve been authorized to share the first chapter here. Read for yourself and enjoy.

Chapter I
by Ali Eteraz,
Author of Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan

My mother, Ammi, had just returned from Koh-e-Qaf, where women went when they were annoyed with their husbands. It was far up in the heavens, far beyond the world of men, above the astral planes of the jinns, and hidden even from the angels. Upon reaching Koh-e-Qaf a woman became a parri and congregated with others like her. Then all the parris gathered upon rippling streams and rivers of celestial milk. They bathed and splashed and darted around on rich, creamy froth.

I was just a seven-year-old child living in a tiny apartment in Lahore, Pakistan. I couldn’t get enough of Koh-e-Qaf.

“What happens there?” I asked Ammi. “Please tell me! Please!”

“It’s a safe place where I can gather my thoughts,” she said. “When women go there, we don’t take our earthly concerns with us. We don’t even need our earthly clothes. Allah restores to us the cuticle skin we had when He first created Hazrat Adam and his wife, Havva.”

Ammi said that Koh-e-Qaf was created secretly at the time the universe was made. Allah had asked each one of His creations whether they would be willing to bear the burden of free will. He asked the mountains and they said no. He asked the skies and they refused. He asked the sun and the seas and the plants and the trees and the angels. They all said no. But Adam, the first male — “who took too many risks just like your Pops” — accepted the burden. “And he didn’t even ask his wife what he was getting into!” Upon hearing the news, a chagrined Havva went to Allah and told Him that men would make a big mess of things and “then take out their frustration on their wives.” So, for all the wives of the world, Havva convinced Allah to create Koh-e-Qaf, a sanctuary for all time.

“Then she made Allah give long nails to women so they could remember their special place.”

“That’s not fair,” I said, poking a finger through Ammi’s curly black hair. “I don’t have a special place to go to.”

“You don’t need a special place,” she replied. “My little piece of the moon is more special than the whole world.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“No, I’m not,” she said. “Haven’t you ever thought about what your name means?”

“Abir?”

“Your full name. Abir ul Islam.”

“So what? It’s just a name.”

“Not just a name.”

I shrugged. Compared to intergalactic travel and teleportation and heavenly drinks, my name didn’t inspire much awe.

“Come on,” Ammi said, taking my hand as if she could read the disappointment on my face. “You don’t believe me? Let’s go see Beyji. She will tell you that you are the most special.”

Beyji was my maternal great-grandmother. She lived in a white marble bungalow in Lahore. She was a saint because she had forgiven the woman who used black jadu to kill Beyji’s husband. Beyji regularly met with the Holy Prophet Muhammad in her dreams. One year, during the Night of Power in the month of Ramzan, she got chosen as one of Allah’s elect and saw a glimpse of the Light.

Ammi led me past my grandfather’s room, where he was busy listening to old Noor Jahan recordings, and toward Beyji’s darkened quarters. We went inside and Ammi pushed me toward Beyji’s bed. She wore a floral print shalwar kameez — loose trousers with a tunic top — and had cast a gauzy blue dupatta over her head. Taking my wrist with one hand and holding my chin with the other, she gave me a smile. Her gummy mouth murmured a series of prayers.

“Beyji,” Ammi said. “This one doesn’t believe me when I tell him that he’s special.”

“The most special,” Beyji corrected.

“I told him that his name is Abir ul Islam.”

“Such a beautiful name, isn’t it?”

“He doesn’t think it’s such a big deal.”

“Is that right?” Beyji looked at me for confirmation.

I made my case. “Ammi flies around like a parri and goes to Koh-e-Qaf. I just sit here.” Beyji looked at me with compassion. She pulled a piece of dried orange out from under her pillow and handed it to me. “Come and sit with me,” she invited. “Then ask your Ammi to tell you the story of your birth.”

“What about it?”

“She’ll tell you,” Beyji said.

Ammi sat down on the other bed and rested a cup of chai on the palm of her hand. With two fingers she pinched the cream congealed on the surface.

“When I was pregnant with you,” Ammi said, licking her fingers, “Pops moved to Saudi Arabia for work. When he was there, he went to the Ka’ba in Mecca and made a mannat. Do you know what a mannat is?”

“No.”

“A mannat is like a covenant with Allah. You promise to do something if Allah grants one of your wishes.”

“Like a jinn in a lamp!”

“Except God imposes conditions!” Beyji amended.

“Your father’s mannat was that if his first child was a boy,” Ammi continued, “he would be raised to become a leader and servant of Islam. Are you listening?”

“Yes,” I said, orange sticking out of my mouth.

“Then you were born — a boy — which meant that the mannat must be fulfilled.”

“Are you still listening?” Beyji prompted.

I nodded and adopted the serious expression that their intensity seemed to require.

“So we needed to give you a name that reflected your purpose in life,” Ammi said. “There were many options, but Pops said that your name should be Abir. It means perfume. Full name: Abir ul Islam. Perfume of Islam. You were thus born to spread Islam as if it were a beautiful fragrance. Special, no?”

“It’s just a name,” I said skeptically.

“Ah, but that’s not all,” Beyji said, nudging me affectionately. “Keep listening.”

“Then,” Ammi continued, “right when you were born we moved to Saudi Arabia. When you were barely eleven months old, you and Pops and I went to dohajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca. I dressed you up like all the other pilgrims. You looked so cute wrapped in all white. You had been trying to walk for many weeks, but I swear as soon as we got to Mecca you began walking properly. It had to have been that holy sand. You really took to Mecca. Walking around. Greeting everyone. You even ran away from me in the middle of the night. We were frantic until you were discovered hours later with a pair of Bedouins. It was like you were meant to be there.”

“Did the Bedouins have goats?” I asked, my attention momentarily derailed.

“I think they did,” Ammi said. “Anyway. One night I went to circumambulate the Ka’ba and took you with me. The place wasn’t as crowded at night. There was a long row of Africans walking with their elbows locked like a chain. I stayed behind them until they made their turn and I found myself right at the border of the Ka’ba . . .”

“The House of God,” Beyji said, her eyes shining. “I’ve been there twice in my life. It’s the most beautiful thing in the universe. Astronauts will tell you that the world sits right in the center of the universe, and that Mecca sits right in the middle of the world, and that the Ka’ba sits right in the middle of Mecca!”

“There’s a semicircular wall around the Ka’ba,” Ammi continued. “It was built by the Prophet Ibrahim thousands of years ago. I forget the name of that space, but it’s said that if you pray there, it’s as if you’d prayed inside the Ka’ba. It was peaceful there that night. No one else was in the area. Imagine: millions of people wearing the same thing and chanting the same thing — Labbayk Allahumma Labbayk — all around us, and a mother and son just all alone with the Ka’ba. It was beautiful.”

Beyji interrupted again: “Don’t forget! Mecca was founded by a mother and son, too. At Allah’s instruction, Hajira and baby Ismail were left there by the Prophet Ibrahim. They had no water, so Hajira put Ismail down in the sand to go and find something to drink. While she was gone, little Ismail kicked his feet and the Zamzam spring sprouted from the desert sand. A town was built there when some nomads discovered the spring.”

Ammi nodded and continued: “I had you stand next to me and we made a pair of nafal prayers together. I asked Allah to place Islamic knowledge in your heart and make you a true servant of Islam. Then I removed your clothes, lifted you up, and rubbed your bare chest against the ancient wall — back and forth a few times.”

As I listened to the women, my heart beat fast and my face became warm. I felt connected to this distant place that I didn’t remember. The reverence it elicited in my mother and great-grandmother poured into me.

“Then later, when I was resting,” Ammi continued, “your Pops took you with him. He went to rub your chest against the heavenly Black Stone at one corner of the Ka’ba. He wasn’t able to get to it because it’s always so crowded with people trying to kiss it, but he pressed you against the bare walls of the Ka’ba itself. He made the same prayer I did, about you serving Islam.”

“Subhanallah,” Beyji said and put her hand on my heart. “One day you should go back to Mecca and kiss the Black Stone. It will absorb all your sins. But not yet. Go when you are older. Right now you are sinless.”

I nodded eagerly.

“So,” Ammi said. “Do you believe you are special now?”

I felt as if the entire universe was listening to my answer. God. The angels. Even the parris.

“Yes. I believe you. I believe that I’m special.”

“By the way, did you know that when the Black Stone first came down from heaven it was white?” Ammi said.

“What happened to it?” I asked.

“People touched it and it became dirty,” she said.

I imagined billions of hands touching a large, egg-shaped crystal over thousands of years and gradually making it black. Suddenly I pulled away from Beyji and stood up in the center of the room, feeling proud and powerful.

“I will take a towel and make it white again!”

Beyji kissed my hand and told me that I would be Islam’s most glorious servant.

***

The above is an excerpt from the book Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan by Ali Eteraz. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2009 Ali Eteraz, author of Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan

Author Bio
Ali Eteraz, author of Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan, was born in Pakistan and has lived in the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the United States. A graduate of Emory University and Temple Law School, he was selected for the Outstanding Scholar’s Program at the United States Department of Justice and later worked in corporate litigation in Manhattan. He is a regular contributor to True/Slant; has published articles about Islam and Pakistani politics in Dissent, Foreign Policy, AlterNet, and altMuslim; and is a regular contributor to The Guardian UK and Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest English-language daily. His blog in the Islamosphere received nearly two million views as well as a Brass Crescent award for originality. Eteraz has spoken publicly about the situation inside Pakistan, Islamic reform, and Muslim immigration. He currently divides his time between Princeton, New Jersey, and the Middle East, and is working on a novel.

For more information please visit www.alieteraz.com.

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