January 29, 2012

Stephen Kinzer's "All The Shah's Men" - Documents the 'Folly of Attacking Iran'?

I have my brother to thank for suggesting and then buying me this very informative and entertaining read by Stephen Kinzer, titled All the Shah’s Men.  My brother and I had been discussing how Iran seemed to be making headlines in US media of late, and that is when he mentioned “All the Shah’s Men".  He recommended I read it to better understand Iran’s wariness of the United States Government in the current stand off between Iran and the nuclear member nations regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program;  the countries alleging that Iran was but a step away from producing a nuclear weapon. Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, the ever illusive statesman that he is, is only adding fuel to fire by not providing any clear answers, and the stand off continues with member nations of the nuclear club waiting with bated breath wanting to know, “Does Iran have a nuclear weapon?”

It was in the back drop of this current stand off that I started reading Kinzer’s book, the title of which is a take on Nixon’s Watergate scandal made famous by the movie titled “All the Presidents Men”.  Kinzer’s “All the Shah’s Men” is no less of a Watergate as it is based on findings from CIA documents that were released to the public in 2001.  These documents revealed how the CIA conspired with the British government to oust the Mossadegh Government in Iran during the 1950s. Mossadegh, was a popular nationalist who believed, "The Iranian himself is the best person to manage his house" and thus became a thorn in the side of the British who according to Mossadegh were 'bleeding Iran dry through the Anglo Iran Oil Company".  The book reveals how much money, time, and effort were put in to get rid of Mossadegh who by then was a world icon having made it on the cover of "Time" magazine. The British called it "Operation Boot' and the US termed it Operation Ajax, but regardless of its name, the operation is a real eye opener to what and how much the CIA can do, even on foreign soil! The key figure in the operation was CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt.  Roosevelt planned and implemented Operation Ajax which involved bribing influential figures, planting false reports in newspapers and provoking street violence that had some 300 people dead on the streets of Tehran in less than three hours.  Operation Ajax was basically about masterminding a coup that would overthrow Iran’s elected Prime Minister, Mossadegh, who having nationalized Iran’s oil industry, had angered the British Government which had until then owned and run Iran’s oil production.  Roosevelt’s coup in 1953 did bring an end to Mossadegh and also diffused the tension of Britain attacking Iran which to the Americans was a bigger threat as it would threaten to bring Soviet Russia into the picture. With Mossadegh gone, the British could heave a sigh of relief and keep their control over the Anglo Iran Oil, and that would eliminate all possibility of communist Russia taking over Iran’s oil wells in case the British were to leave. Operation Ajax definitively put Anglo Iran Oil back into the hands of a consortium of nations that included the British, the Americans, the Dutch, and the French.  In addition, it ushered in a quarter-century of relatively calmer dictatorial rule under a young and insecure Shah who depended largely on US funding and resources.  Kinzer claims that Operation Ajax lead to a politically weak and desperate period  for Iran which brought in heightened Islamic militancy in Iran and that eventually became a mainstay of the region.
All the Shah’s Men is a very engrossing read that rivetingly tells of a CIA driven foreign coup to ‘control Iranian oil fields, over concerns of Iran coming under control of Soviet Russia’. It provides the reader with once classified information about Operation Ajax which is ‘now regarded as a mistake that has compromised U.S.'s ability to defend democracy around the world’, which certainly makes this book a very relevant read!  The Preface titled “The Folly of Attacking Iran” is a delectable read by itself! "As militants in Washington urge a second American attack on Iran, the story of the first one becomes more urgently relevant than ever," Kinzer writes in his new essay. "It shows the folly of using violence to try to reshape Iran."

January 21, 2012

Nostalgia - A Magical Quicksand?

Is nostalgia becoming a modern day epidemic? Nostalgia for... a place that once was, a country one left behind,  a people we once were, a lifestyle that once was, the person you once were, the friends you once had; the list is endless! If indeed nostalgia has taken such mammoth proportions, one wonders why that is so, and what it will lead to.
Mohsin Hamid a  renowned writer of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" fame claims, "we live in a world that is changing more and more rapidly, and the desire to look back with longing is growing more and more strong. But we can't return to the past and it is dangerous to try."  Nostalgia, as suggested by Hamid, may be a result of the rapidly changing world that we now inhabit.  A world that is shrinking every minute because distances have ceased to matter. The instant and super-fast connectivity of the internet and the i-phone have certainly resulted in virtual proximity, but then why the nostalgia? Hamid's answer is because " I liked my new existence, but I'd liked my old one too, and I imagined places where the two could come together."  Which points to the very ephemeral nature of our modern day existence; we barely get our hands on our present, and it is gone or has evolved into something smarter or more complex. Given the transient nature of our present, we are compelled to go back to it in order to fathom it and enjoy it.  That going back is nostalgic,  and it is invariably colored by that which we are seeking at that moment in our lives. Nostalgia thus becomes that utopia which we frequently inhabit to feel in control of our fast paced and fast changing lives; nostalgia allows us to 'spin our straw into gold' as Sandra Cisneros would have said.

Much as I love immigrant literature, I have to admit that it is usually born out of nostalgia, whether it's Lahiri, Jelloun, Allende, or Cisneros.  They all write about the indomitable human spirit that will not give up even when rooted out of its natural environment and coerced  to adapt and assimilate in foreign soil.  However, there exists a monotony of theme and thought in these writings because, "Nostalgia, as always, had wiped away bad memories and magnified the good ones. No one was safe from its onslaught."  (Gabriel Garcia Marquez.). The Mohammad's and the Willie Loman's of  Literature are tragic heroes no doubt but are losers in real life because they too indulge in nostalgia which spells their doom. Nostalgia implies a disconnect with the present because we are embedded in a magical past, and it will never let go, thus killing any likelihood of a future that might have been. A dangerous predicament for sure, especially in a world that's 'full of care, and we have no time to stand and stare'  into the magical quicksand of nostalgia.

January 09, 2012

Lac Su's "I Love Yous Are For White People" - A Gripping Immigrant Memoir

Having read several autobiographies and memoirs of journeys undertaken by immigrants to come and settle in United States of America, and eventually making their American dream happen,  I was not really gung ho about reading yet another immigrant memoir.  In fact, I had Lac Su sitting on my to-read list for quite a while. It was only because I had nothing better to read today, did I pick up “I LoveYous Are for White People"; needless to say, my expectations were at the very minimal.  I simply wanted a read that would lull me into daytime slumber despite the unrelenting war waged on me by viral rhinitis.  Lac Su’s novel did anything but lull me to sleep; however, it did sideline the viral war, as I forgot my pains and aches, even my sniffling was significantly less during the two and a half hours I was reading the novel.

Lac Su provides a very graphic, yet teasing account of how he and his family escaped Communist Vietnam in 1979.  The only other such novel that evoked a similar response was Laila Lalami’s “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits”.  Lac Su’s novel’s opening is a jump start that breathes interest and excitement in the reader which Su is able to sustain for the major part of the memoir which is divided into fourteen chapters.  Each chapter is given an intriguing title which forces the reader to go that next chapter before putting the book down; that is how I read it in one sitting. Given that the title of the memoir is so catchy, the anecdotal chapters had to follow suit; so in the memoir, there are chapter titles like ‘heavy Javi’, “A is for boy and B is for cat”, “the naked truth” etc.  Having said that, I must add that some chapters are not as succulent as the others, especially the ones dealing with the gang wars in Hollywood.  The overall impression though is of a gripping memoir that is heartfelt and true, and must have been cathartic for the writer as he admits to in one of his interviews.

A parting note:  As soon as I finished that last chapter, I looked at the date of publication of this novel because the content and some of the underlying themes have an Amy Chua taste to them.  Amy Chua the “TigerMom” had the western world in disbelief as she unraveled unique parenting styles adopted by many Chinese families in her January 2011 article titled Why Chinese Mothers are Superior. Apparently Ms.Chua wasn’t as much of a maverick in parenting as we imagined her to be; Lac Su had a head start on her since his memoir "I Love Yous are For White People" published in 2009, gives the reader an insightful account of Asian parenting, Vietnamese style.  

January 02, 2012

"A Palace in the Old Village" by Tahar Ben Jelloun Explores Immigrant Dreams in North Africa

Tahar Ben Jaloun’s ‘a palace in the old village’ is about the dream of Mohammad, an ordinary Moroccan, to bring his children back together under one roof in his old village. Despite being a migrant worker in France for forty years, Mohammad believes “La France is good for the French not for us…nothing of France had found a place in his heart or his soul.” A decent man and a good father and husband, Mohammad believes "he is a Muslim before being a Moroccan, and before becoming an immigrant. ”  For him Islam is a refuge that “calms him and brings him peace”, even as his children with “their Arab features and gestures” are now ‘assimilated’ French and European, and want nothing to do with his preposterous dream of wanting to bring the family together in their old Moroccan village. Jelloun’s Mohammad is much like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman and Joe Keller. Mohammad, like Miller’s protagonists, is a modern day tragic hero who is delusional and lives in a happier past that often makes him forget the realm of today, and this predicament and his handling of it arouses reader sympathy.
Tahar Ben Jelloun in ‘a palace in the old village’ is being the ‘witness’ he claims every writer is…. “He bears witness to his time—he tells stories, and in so doing comments on his society and the world.”  In this novel, Jelloun highlights the plight of immigrants in North Africa to show that "emigration is no longer a solution; it's a defeat. People are risking death, drowning every day, but they're knocking on doors that are not open. My hope is that countries like Morocco will have investment to create work, so people don't have to leave."