Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Quote of the Day

Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it's the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. ...Science fiction is central to everything we've ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don't know what they're talking about. ― Ray Bradbury


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Traveler's Tales

For James

We were told that our flight would be delayed for another hour. As we sat there I watched my fellow travelers who gathered at the gate. Some were quite angry, others seemed to have given up completely. We were stranded and there was nothing much we could do.

First, it was the engine, then the weather. I wondered what the excuse would be an hour from now. But at this point it did not matter anymore. I would never be able to make my connection in DC. So why get mad? 

I opened my book and begun reading when a guy sitting next to me woke up. He must have been very tired. Or sick. To be true, he looked like crap and you couldn't even tell how old he was. He must have been in an accident or something. Bruises everywhere.

"Traveler's Tales" - he read the title aloud and asked me if the book was any good. I just started reading it and had not yet formed any opinion about it. It was an anthology of some obscure stories told by people who traveled to strange places. I love traveling, but I am not brave enough to hitch hike in Yemen or Cambodia. Besides, I was always curious to find out what motivated people to chose a thousands' stars "hotel" over a warm bath and a king size bed at the Ritz. 

He looked at me with his blood shot eyes and said that he used to love adventures, but his current experience changed him forever. It would be a while before he leaves the country again. I could empathize. I never forgot the nightmare of arriving in Turkey without my luggage...

I wanted to go back to my reading, but he asked me if I wanted to hear a real traveler's story. I hesitated. Oh, actually why not, I thought, and let him tell me his tale. 

He was a student from Berkley, CA. When the Arab Spring begun last year he decided to go to Somalia and help the protesters organize against those in power, just like his father did in California when they protested against the Vietnam war in the 60s. 

Oh my God! - I thought, but let him go on. He joined the Marxist outfit "United We Stand" and just like his father was ashamed of America and regarded himself as a proud citizen of the world. He despised the military, hated the rich, and wanted to abolish the Republican party. He hated the American way of life and hoped that the change would come as promised by the president. A new era of social justice and equality. A real new world order!

I was quite appalled at what I heard and wanted to confront him. I knew that not all was right in the country, but most Americans could really be proud of being American. But before I could say a word, he continued. 

Short after his arrival in Mogadishu he was snatched from the street by some masked men. He was beaten up and thrown into a dark cave-like cell. The stench was unbearable. 

There were two other Americans in the cell and they had the same story to tell. One of them was businessman from Ohio. He could speak some Arabic. His mother was a second generation Lebanese who married his Irish father. Somalia was supposed to be a paradise. But before he could even meet his business partners, he was snatched from the street. Just around the corner from his hotel! 

The other guy was a Boston doctor who joined the Doctors Without Borders organization. He made great money as a plastic surgeon in a private clinic, but decided that his life had no meaning. He was disgusted by the vanity of Boston socialites who were unhappy with their noses or droopy eyelids. He wanted to follow two friends who came here last year, but just like the other man, he was snatched from the street before he could even meet the others. 

What followed was a story of pain and fear. The cell was dark and dirty. There was no toilet and they had to sleep on a cold, dirty floor. They were hardly given any food. And all of them were tortured. 

Their captors would vanish for days and return only to abuse them even more. One day, however, each of them was taken upstairs, given a copy of a Herald Tribune to hold in front of the chest. They were told that they would be free if the ransom was paid. Each of them was put in front of a video camera and had to read a text. Name, nationality, and a plea for a quick payment. They also had to read out what would happen to them if money wasn't paid on time.

This was a story you usually read about in the papers. But here, next to me, was a man who actually went through an unimaginable hell. 

He took a sip of water and continued. Two days later his cell mates were released and he never saw them again. It must have been a week when he saw his captors again. He was beaten again and thrown back to another cell. In the darkness he made out a silhouette of a Chinese man sitting in the corner. That man spent almost a month in captivity and gave up any hope of returning to his family. He was expandable. Besides, no one knew where he was...

An announcement was made at the gate. Our airplane was in approach. Everyone was relieved! The boarding would begin within the next forty five minutes or so. 

There wasn't much time left and I wanted to call home, but the young man resumed his story. His captors told him that the American Consulate could not do anything for him because they claimed he wasn't an American citizen. But if ransom wasn't paid, he would have to pay with his life for this "insult". 

This was more than horrible. He was Robert C. Johnson of Berkley, California. His parents could confirm his identity at any time. The Consulate must have been able to access some record of his existence. His passport was issued only weeks before he came to Somalia. But instead, they claimed that no one, not even his parents ever heard of him. He should stop pretending that he was an American citizen.

Never before in his entire life he would insist on being an American, but there, in that hopeless black hole things looked much different. If only someone could confirm his citizenship, he would be free. He not only felt like a character copied from Kafka, he felt like Doctor Faustus! When he was a freshman, he seriously considered giving up his nationality, so insisting that he was indeed an American felt like selling his soul to the devil.

As days went on, he gave up his hope just like that Chinese man in the corner, although in his delirium he would sometimes imagine a US Marine squad raiding the compound and liberating him from the fangs of these savages. But to be true, on most days he thought of ending his own life. And yet, here he was. Free and grateful. On his way back to the United States. Proudly holding his American passport. Never happier to return home. To freedom.

"So, what happened? How did you get out?" I asked. "Oh. That's another long story," he said.

By Dominique Allmon


Creative Commons License
Traveler's Tales by Dominique Allmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Reading Chinese Fiction

Chinese civilization has always fascinated me. The uniqueness of the Chinese mind, the aesthetics, the creativity of the Chinese people over the centuries exercised enormous fascination on my curious mind.  

Early on I discovered Chinese literature. I love Chinese classics and have read all the great historical novels of the Ming and Qing Dynasties that were translated to English and German. Although years ago I studied Mandarin and could even read hundreds of Chinese characters, I was never able to master that language to such a degree that I could pick up a Chinese novel and read it in original. Like many readers in the West I had to rely on translations.

I first went to China in 1988 - only ten years after Deng Xiaoping introduced serious economic reforms and opened China to the West. Anyone visiting the Middle Kingdom at that time experienced a culture shock. I still remember my first trip to Beijing. I could stand in the corner and watch with an opened mouth what transpired in front of me. The contrast between the ancient, the Maoist and the clumsily emerging post-Maoist new China was so evident that one could only wonder how this Asian giant was ever going to make it. And look at China today and you are going to experience a culture shock of another kind.

China fascinates. Its culture and history became a very popular subject since the opening of China in the early 1980s. More and more people visit the country and more and more people study Chinese culture and language at the academic level. But the more we are comfortable with the modern China the more we look for the long gone exotic past.

Every year dozens of books are translated from Chinese or published in English to satisfy the thirst for the mysterious China that is no more. Authors venture into vast history of the imperial China with all the court intrigues and wars, but they also explore the difficult era of emerging Modernity and the battle between the old and the new. Many write about the darkest period in modern Chinese history - the Cultural Revolution that left China weak, bleeding and isolated. Others explore the new emotional freedom that came after the economic reforms started producing results. The freedom of expression in China is a project in the making and might take a few more decades before it is fully realized, but writers, artists and movie makers enjoy more freedom than they ever did before.

The Chinese are not the only people who love to write about China. Marco Polo was probably the first one, but Pearl Buck opened the door to a new genre in the world literature. To this day the Westerners and writers of Chinese origin living all over the Western world, pick up their pens to create mesmerizing fictions that are often highly prized by the critics and really worth reading.

By Dominique Allmon


13 Hours - A Book Every Voting American Should Read

It is probably a bit unusual to start a new blog with a review of a very serious, political book, but I wish to invite my readers to reflection on this Sunday, September 11, 2016. This day not only marks the anniversary of the Benghazi events, it is the 15th anniversary of the most horrific attack on American soil perpetrated by al Qaeda terrorists.

"A bloodthirsty mob bore down on the United States' poorly defended post in Benghazi, Libya. Besieged American envoys and staffers withdrew to a locked room as fires set by the attackers drew closer. The Americans prayed and appealed for rescue, calling home to Washington and to nearby allies. If no help came, they feared one of three fates: They'd be killed by the invaders, suffocate from smoke, or be roasted alive. In meantime, they'd fight. The date was June 5, 1967." 

This quote comes form the prologue to the book "13 Hours" written by Mitchell Zuckoff and the Annex Security Team of Benghazi. 

Although the geopolitical context differed from that of 1967, the history repeated itself on September 11, 2012. Once again, poorly protected US State Department Special Mission Compound in Benghazi was attacked, this time by terrorists. Four people were killed, including the American ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. 

The book is a heartrending firsthand account of events that transpired in Benghazi on the night of September 11 into the morning hours of the next day. 

For most Americans "Benghazi" is a foreign word since the mainstream media carefully under-reported the tragedy that occurred so close to the presidential elections. It seemed to protect their preferred candidate and the Secretary of State whose decision not to act cost four people their lives. The general public showed no interest in the events, and to this day is puzzled about the Senate investigation of Hilary Clinton to whom it makes no difference who killed Americans in Benghazi, and why. 

To this day no one was found responsible for the tragedy except for one unlucky film maker who was incarcerated for allegedly making a YouTube video that supposedly offended Muslims around the world and directly lead to the attack on the American diplomatic facilities. Interestingly, former Secretary of State who openly lied about the events and never took responsibility for her actions, is now running for the White House. 

The book is a must-read every voting American, but be warned, it is not an easy read. "It is not about what officials in the United States knew, said, or did after the attack (...). It is about what happened on the ground, in the streets, and on the rooftops of Benghazi - when bullets flew, buildings burned, and mortars rained. When lives were saved, lost, and forever changed." 

This book is dedicated to the four men who unnecessarily lost their lives on the 11th anniversary of Septeber 11, 2001 terrorist attack in the United States. 

By Dominique Allmon
Dominique Allmon©2016