Excerpts – A Lesson Before Dying


By Ernest J. Gaines

A black man in the South of the (not-so-united) States of America finds himself in the middle of a shootout in a store that leaves one white man (store owner) and two black men dead. His own defense describes him as a ‘hog’ to the jury who sentence him to death by execution. The story is of another black man, an ‘educated’ black man, a teacher – who is tasked with turning the convicted into a ‘man’.

A book about deeply rooted injustices, but also about seeking and reclaiming dignity, love, resistance and triumph.

A few excerpts that stood out to me – and some deeper analysis, if that’s what you’re looking for.


We must live with our own conscience. Each and every one of us must live with his own conscience.

Do I know what a man is? Do I know how a man is supposed to die? I’m still trying to find out how a man should live. Am I supposed to tell someone how to die who has never lived?

I tried to decide just how I should respond to them. Whether I should act like the teacher that I was, or like the nigger that I was supposed to be. To show too much intelligence would have been an insult to them. To show a lack of intelligence would have been a greater insult to me.

And besides looking at hands, now he began inspecting teeth. Open wide, say “Ahhh”—and he would have the poor children spreading out their lips as far as they could while he peered into their mouths. At the university I had read about slave masters who had done the same when buying new slaves, and I had read of cattlemen doing it when purchasing horses and cattle. At least Dr. Joseph had graduated to the level where he let the children spread out their own lips, rather than using some kind of crude metal instrument. I appreciated his humanitarianism.”

His eyes did most of the turning. He looked at her as though he did not know who she was, or what she was doing there. Then he looked at me. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? his eyes said.  They were big brown eyes, the whites too reddish. You know, don’t you? his eyes said again. I looked back at him. My eyes would not dare answer him. But his eyes knew what my eyes knew.

No matter how educated a man was (he meant me, though he didn’t call my name), he to, was locked in a cold, dark cell of ignorance if he did not know God in the pardon of his sins.

How do people come up with a date and a time to take life from another man? Who made them God?

They sentence you to death because you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime other than being there when it happened. Yet six months later they come and unlock your cage and tell you, We, us, white folks all, have decided it’s time for you to die, because this is a convenient date and time.

We black men have failed to protect our women since the time of slavery. We stay here in the South and are broken, or we run away and leave them alone to look after the children and themselves. So each time a male child is born, they hope he will be the one to change this vicious circle-which he never does. Because even though he wants to change it, it is too heavy a burden because of all the others who have run away and left their burdens behind. So he, too, must run away if he is to hold on to his sanity and have a life of his own.

These old people, you know—all music except church music is sinning music.

It was the kind of “here” your mother or your big sister or your great-aunt or your grandmother would have said. It was the kind of “here” that let you know this was hard-earned money but, also, that you needed it more than she did, and the kind of “here” that said she wished you had it and didn’t have to borrow it from her, but since you did not have it, and she did, then “here” it was, with a kind of love. It was the kind of “here” that asked the question, When will all this end? When will a man not have to struggle to have money to get what he needs “here”? When will a man be able to live without having to kill another man “here”?”

I took the money without looking at her. I didn’t say thanks. I knew she didn’t want to hear it.

Do you know what a myth is, Jefferson?” I asked him. “A myth is an old lie that people believe in. White people believe that they’re better than anyone else on earth – and that’s a myth. The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand they’re safe. They’re safe with me. They’re safe with Reverend Ambrose. I don’t want them to feel safe with you anymore.

I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be. To them you’re nothing but another nigger–no dignity, no heart, no love for your people. You can prove them wrong. You can do more than I can ever do. I have always done what they wanted me to do, teach reading, writing and arithmetic. Nothing else – nothing about dignity, nothing about identity, nothing about loving and caring. They never thought we were capable of learning these things. ‘Teach those niggers how to print their names and how to figure on their fingers.’ And I went along, but hating myself all the time for doing so.

Since emancipation, almost a hundred years ago, they would do any kind of work they could find to keep from working side by side in the field with the niggers…Anything not to work alongside the niggers. Dumb as hell, but prejudiced as hell. They had no other place to go to do their drinking—they would not dare go to any of the white clubs—so they would come here and bring their prejudiced attitude with them.

‘You think you educated?’
‘I went to college.’
‘But what did you learn?’
‘To teach reading, writing and arithmetic, Reverend.’
‘What did you learn about your own people? What did you learn about her—her ‘round here?’ he said gesturing toward the other room and trying to keep his voice down.
I didn’t answer him.
‘No, you not educated, boy.’ He said shaking his head. ‘You far from being educated. You learning your reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, but you don’t know nothing. You don’t even know yourself.’

‘Don’t you turn your back on me, boy.’
‘My name is Grant,’ I said.
‘When you act educated, I’ll call you Grant. I’ll even call you Mr. Grant, when you act like a man.
‘You think a man can’t kneel and stand?’

‘You think you educated, but you not. You think you the only person ever had to lie?’

Yes, you know. You know, all right. That’s why you look down on me, because you know I lie. At wakes, at funerals, at weddings–yes, I lie. I lie at wakes and funerals to relieve pain. ‘Cause reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic is not enough. You think that’s all they sent you to school for? They sent you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt—and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie. You lie and you lie and you lie. When you tell yourself you feeling god when you sick, you lying. When you tell other people you feeling well when you feeling sick, you lying. You tell them that ‘cause they have pain too, and you don’t want to ad yours—and you lie. She been lying every day of her life, your aunt in there. That’s how you got through that university—cheating herself here, cheating herself there, but always telling you she’s all right. I’ve seen her hands bled from picking cotton. I’ve seen the blisters from the hoe and the cane knife. At that church, crying on her knees. You ever looked at the scabs on her knees, boy? Course you never. ‘Cause she never wanted you to see it.

And that’s the difference between me and you, boy; that make me the educated one, and you the gump. I know my people. I know what they gone through. I know they done cheated themself, lied to themself—hoping that one they all love and trust can come back and help relieve the pain.”

‘Reverend Ambrose say I have to give up what’s down here.’
‘He meant possessions, Jefferson. Cars, money, clothes—things like that.’
‘You ever seen me with a car…with more than a dollar in my pocket…more than two pairs of shoes…then what on earth I got to give up, Mr. Wiggins?
‘You’ve never had any possessions to give up, Jefferson. But there is something greater than possessions –and that is love…’

‘Walk like a man. Meet her up there.’
‘Y’all asking a lot, Mr. Wiggins, from a poor old nigger who never had nothing.’

Yes, I’m youman, Mr. Wiggins. But nobody didn’t know that ‘fore now. Cuss for nothing. Beat for nothing. Work for nothing. Grinned to get by. Everybody thought that’s how it was s’pose to be. You to, Mr. Wiggins. You never thought I was nothing else. I didn’t neither. Thought I was doing what the Lord had put me on this earth to do…Now all y’all want me to be better than ever’body else. How, Mr. Wiggins? You tell me.’

‘And like Reverend Ambrose say, then I’l have to give up this old earth. But ain’t that where I’m going, Mr. Wiggins, back in the earth?’

My head down, I didn’t answer him.

Don’t tell me to believe. Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? Was Harry Williams there? Was Farrell Jarreau? Was my aunt? Was Vivian? No, his peers did not judge him— and I will not believe.

Yet they must believe. They must believe, if only to free the mind, if not the body. Only when the mind is free has the body the chance to be free. Yes, they must believe, they must believe. Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.

‘He was the strongest man in that crowded room…He was the strongest man there…We all had each other to lean on. When Vincent asked him if he had any last words, he looked at the preacher and said, ‘Tell Nannan I walked’. And straight he walked, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I’m a witness. Straight he walked.


Excerpts: And the Mountains Echoed

and-the-mountains-echoedKhaled Hosseini doesn’t disappoint with his third book – ‘And the Mountains Echoed’. He has to be one of my favorite authors, and I look forward to reading his next novel. While some say it seems like he writes about the same thing in all his novels, it takes a very talented writer to capture so many different and engaging personalities, stories and vantage points using very similar geographical and historical settings/context that he sets for his stories. Here are a few excerpts of the conversations, observations and reflections in the book that stood out to me–including the acknowledgement to his wife Roya “without [whom] this book would have died somewhere in the first paragraph of page one.”



By Khaled Hosseini

…country has been sufficiently chronicled…I can sum it up in one word: war.  Or, rather, wars. Not one, not two, but many wars, both big and small, just and unjust, warms with shifting casts of supposed heroes and villains, each new hero making one increasingly nostalgic for the old villain. The names changed, as did the faces, and I spit on them equally of all the  petty feuds, the snipers, the land mines, bombing raids, the rockets, the looting and raping and killing. Ah, enough!

‘Which are you calling me, deaf or lazy?’
‘No need to pick, I’m calling you both!’
‘You have some gall calling me lazy for someone who lies in bed all day.’

Now I was free to do as I wished, but I found the freedom illusory, for what I wished for the most had been taken from me.

They say, find a purpose in your life and live it. But sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind.

The word senseless springs to mind, and Idris thwarts it. It’s what people always say. A senseless act of violence.  A  senseless murder.  As if you could commit sensible murder.

I see the creative process as a necessarily thievish undertaking. Dig beneath a beautiful piece of writing … and you will find all manner of dishonor.  Creating means vandalizing the lives of other people, turning them into unwilling and unwitting participants. You steal their desires, their dreams, pocket their flaws, their suffering. You take what does not belong to you. You do this knowingly.

I was told I could have died. Perhaps I should have. Dying can be quite the career move for a young poet.

..if an avalanche buries you and you’re lying there underneath all that snow, you can’t tell which way is up or down. You want to dig yourself out, but pick the wrong way, and you dig yourself to your own demise.

In my experience, men who understand women as well as you seem to rarely want to have anything to do with them.

I have a theory about marriage… its nearly always you will know within two weeks if it’s going to work. It’s astonishing how many people remain shackled for years, decades even, in a protracted and mutual state of self-delusion and false hope when in fact they had their answer in those first two weeks.

She is furious with herself for her own stupidity. Opening herself up like this, voluntarily, to a lifetime of worry and anguish. It was madness. Sheer lunacy. A spectacularly foolish and baseless faith,  against enormous odds, that a world you do not control will not take from you the one thing you cannot bear to lose. Faith that the world will not destroy you…at that moment, she cannot think of a more reckless, irrational thing than choosing to become a parent.

‘…you  dig a little and you find they’re all the same, give or take. Some are more polished, granted. They may come with a bit of charm—or a lot—and that can fool you. But really they’re all unhappily little boys slothing around in their own rage. They feel wronged. They haven’t been given their due. No one loved them enough. Of course they expect you to love them. They want to be held, rocked, reassured. But it’s a mistake to give it to them. They can’t accept it. They can’t accept the very thing they’re needing.  They end up hating you for it. And it never ends because they can’t hate you enough. It never ends—the misery, the apologies, the promises, the reneging, the wretchedness of it all. My first husband was like that. ‘

The rope that pulls you from the flood can become a noose around your neck.

Markos wants to walk the earth and capture it with his lens.

He had a frozen, wide-eyed look to his face, I remember, the way some old people do, like they are perpetually started by the monstrous surprise that is old age…

The world didn’t see the inside of you..it didn’t care a whit about the hopes and dreams, and sorrows, that lay masked by skin and bone. It was as simple, as absurd, and as cruel as that.

‘James Parkinson. George Huntington. Robert Graves. John Down. Now this Lou Gehrig fellow of mine. How did men come to monopolize disease names too?’

When I was a little girl, my father and I had a nightly ritual. After I’d said my twenty-one Bismillahs and he had tucked me into bed, he would sit at my side and pluck bad dreams from my head with his thumb and forefinger.

..the badly framed poster of the Afghan girl from National Geographic, the one with the eyes—like they had passed an ordinance that every single Afghan restaurant had to have her eyes staring back from the wall.

If what had been done to her was like a wave that had crashed far from shore, then it was the backwash of that wave now pooling around my ankles, then receding from my feet.

…I knew my father was a wounded person, that his love for me was as true, vast, and permanent as the sky, and that it would always bear down upon me. It was the kind of love that, sooner or later, cornered you into a choice: either you tore free or you stayed and withstood its rigor even as it squeezed you into something smaller than yourself.

‘But time is like a charm, you never have as much as you think.’

..she had also very deep sadness. All my life, she gave to me a shovel and said, Fill these holes inside of me, Pari.’

I used to picture us as two leaves, blowing miles apart in the wind yet bound by the deep tangled roots of the tree from which we had both fallen.

They tell me I must wade into waters, where I will soon drown. Before I march in, I leave this on the shore for you. I pray you find it, sister, so you will know what was in my heart as I went under.

Acknowledgements –  Without you, Roya, this book would have died somewhere in the first paragraph of page one. I love you.

Excerpts from Personality Plus

Excerpts from Personality Plus
By Florence Littauer

‘God made each one of us different, so we could function in our own roles. He made some of us to be feet—to move, administer, to accomplish, like Powerful Choleric. He made some of us to be minds—to think deeply, to feel, to write, like Perfect Melancholy. He made some of us to be hands—to serve, to smooth, to soothe, like Peaceful Phlegmatic. He made some of us to be mouths—to talk, to teach, to encourage, like Popular Sanguine.’

I had never even heard about the four different personalities/temperaments until a colleague handed me this book and told me I must read it.

Although it’s one of those things that you always digest with some salt, I nevertheless found a lot of interesting truths and patterns. I was able to see myself and others reflected so clearly in these temperaments. It’s most definitely worth reading more about these personalities, even if you don’t subscribe to them. I think it’s at the very least much more valuable than astrological signs that people seem to swear by. I’m sure it will help people better understand and appreciate themselves first and foremost and then each other; parents with regards to their children, spouses to each other, teachers with their students and even colleagues; and consequently it has the potential to mend many relationships. Understanding our own and each other’s temperaments will enable us to capitalize on our own strengths, minimize our weaknesses and better complement each other.

Below are a few excerpts from the book that stood out to me:

P35 Popular Sanguines are emotional and demonstrative people…They move, jump, wave and giggle. A Popular Sanguine pastor I know often gets so excited over his sermon that he feels encumbered with one hand holding the Bible and only one free for waving, so he rises up and down on his toes and makes emphatic points with a kick of one foot.

P40 Only a Popular Sanguine could spend two weeks doing nothing and be the only one to receive a commendation for having done it.

P57 The typical Popular Sanguine mother can be talking joyfully on the phone when her child falls off a chair. She screams, “He’s killed himself!” and drops the phone. She grabs the child up and runs through the house, screaming along with him, looking for Band-Aids. The doorbell rings, and it’s the pastor who’s come to call. She lets him in, rushes the child to his crib, throws him a towel to mop up the blood and says, “Don’t you dare cry; that’s the pastor.” She sweeps into the living room with a smile and says sweetly, “Isn’t it a beautiful day!”

P60 As Popular Sanguine and Perfect Melancholy can fill in what’s missing in each other, so will Powerful Choleric and Peaceful Phlegmatic be complementary when they begin to understand and accept each other’s temperaments.

To learn you must want to be taught. (Proverbs 12:1)

P61 Powerful Choleric is the dynamic person who dreams the impossible dream and aims to reach the unreachable star. He feels, like Robert Browning, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s heaven for?”

P67 Powerful Cholerics naturally see the practical answers to life’s problems and can’t imagine why no one else has come up with the right idea.

I asked one Powerful Choleric lady to be a committee chairwoman, and she replied, “I’d be glad to be chairwoman if I don’t have to have a committee. Those women get in the way.”

P69 ..so many mothers ignore the potential labor force they have free in their home, because it’s too much work to set up a simple system to delegate responsibilities.

If Powerful Sanguines set out to accomplish a task, and someone says it can’t be done, they thank the person profusely—and quit. Perfect Melancholies regret the time they’ve spent in planning and analyzing the situation, and Peaceful Phlegmatics are grateful it can’t be done, because it sounded too much like work in the first place. But tell Powerful Cholerics it’s impossible, and it just whets their appetite.

P71 …all the lights abruptly went out…my mind immediately went into high gear…lines came to me such as “I’ve gotten to the age now where I look best in dim corners.” “With nothing to look at, you’ll have to listen.”

P75 Six years later she said in Peaceful Phlegmatic dry humor, “The reason I didn’t leave was it was just too much work to pack.”

P76 I asked a young boy about his Peaceful Phlegmatic girlfriend, “What do you like best about her?” He thought for a minute and said, “I guess all of her, because nothing much stands out.” This simple statement sums up Peaceful Phlegmatics; there’s nothing that really stands out, but they are such comfortable, well-rounded people to be with.

P79 Peaceful Phlegmatic doesn’t expect sunshine every day, or a pot of gold at the end of each rainbow, so when rain falls on the Peaceful Phlegmatic’s parade, he can keep on marching.

P81 As the other three temperaments strain and strike, Peaceful Phlegmatic tries to keep peace in the ranks. As men struggle on choppy waters, Peaceful Phlegmatic lifts his head and calms the seas.

P92 Only a Popular Sanguine could spend twenty minutes describing in detail a trip she had never taken on a boat she’d never boarded.

P102 Maturity does not depend on age, it depends on our willingness to face our responsibilities and make realistic plans to meet them.

P106 “I’d rather have phony joy than genuine depression.” Realize no one likes gloomy people. Even if you have every reason in the world to go hang yourself, no-one wants to hear about it.

“My husband is so negative, if we go to see a bad movie, he makes me feel like I produced it.”

P113 “I have never done one thing since we got married that my Perfect Melancholy husband didn’t correct. When I die I’ll have to come back and do it over again, because I’ll never get it right the first time.”

P114 I shared with her that while the Perfect Melancholy felt having everything “just so” was normal, this kind of constant pressure was enough to drive a Popular Sanguine child wild…As she understood this she said, “I thought he was a mental case.” “He will be if you keep this up,” I replied.

P117 “..I would never get impatient if everybody would do what I told them to when I told them to do it!”….and in words only a Powerful Choleric can say with a straight face, he concluded, “Impatience is not a weakness in me; it is a fault in others.”

P121 It’s only logical that we Powerful Cholerics make a business of our pleasure and hire someone to find fun for us!

P122 Because Powerful Choleric values strength in himself, he looks down with little mercy on weaknesses in others. He can’t tolerate sick people and as one friend told me of her Powerful Choleric husband, “When I’m sick he puts me in bed. He says, ‘Come out when you’re well’ and shuts the door.”

P130 In the Powerful Choleric, the tragic flaw is his inability to see that he has any. If only the Powerful Choleric would open his mind to examine his weaknesses and admit he had a few, he could become the perfect person he thinks he is.

P136 Sharon’s mind is like a game of pool. The colorful balls only rolled around when pushed, and had for years clustered cozily in a mesh bag, hanging securely in the corner.

P139 Peaceful Phlegmatic’s problem with making decisions is not that he is incompetent, but that he has made one great decision never to make any decisions. After all, if you don’t make the decision, you’re not held accountable for the outcome.

P151 Understanding our own and other’s temperaments gives us the ability to deal with situations in the future the way we do now in retrospect. As we learn an individual’s temperament, we can anticipate his reactions to different situations and have the available tools on hand to repair the damage before it starts.

We can’t get over something we don’t accept as a problem.

P172 Perfect Melancholies can’t understand that anyone would open their mouths without knowing what they are going to say. Popular Sanguines open their mouths to find out what they are saying…One Popular Sanguine told me, “My husband says my mind is like a gumball machine—all bright colored thoughts rolling around in no particular order and when you press a button, they come pouring out by the handful.

P174 It’s unfortunate for Popular Sanguines that they cry “Wolf!” too often. One lady told me she leaned over a gas burner and her sleeve caught on fire. She screamed to her husband in the other room, “Help! Help! I’m on fire!” and he called back, “You sure are, honey. You’re hot stuff!”

P180 A Powerful Choleric child observed his Powerful Choleric father yell at his Peaceful Phlegmatic mother. Even though he didn’t know the personality differences, he comforted his mother by stating, “When he yells at you, you just yell right back!”

P186 If you use the Peaceful Phlegmatic for a wastebasket today, you may have a basket case on your hands tomorrow.

And be not conformed to this world…(Romans 12:2)
Each one should judge his own conduct… (Galatians 6:4)
Put yourself to the test and judge yourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5)

P191 God made each one of us different, so we could function in our own role. He made some of us to be feet—to move, administer, to accomplish, like Powerful Choleric. He made some of us to be minds—to think deeply, to feel, to write, like Perfect Melancholy. He made some of us to be hands—to serve, to smooth, to soothe, like Peaceful Phlegmatic. He made some of us to be mouths—to talk, to teach, to encourage, like Popular Sanguine.

Excerpts from The Brethren of Ng’ondu

Excerpts from The Brethren of Ng’ondu
Martin Njaga

Applause rang out-either in appreciation of the talk…or in celebration of the end of an ordeal.

..underlining that it was better to be married to an alcoholic than to be a widow.

..she was captivating. It took Kimando few seconds to realize that it was because of her posture-erect and confident, and her bold, engaging eyes. She had the air of one who understood both her strengths and failings, and was proud of herself anyway.

“God never neglects his dedicated servants.”

“I do more than just drink,” growled Kimando.
Waweru grinned even more broadly. “I know. There are other things you do…like smoke bhangi, and when time allows, you chase village girls who won’t talk to you.”

“You, my friend, live in a most complicated world…You meet a girl for the first time and the first thought that comes to your mind is that she could be a liar!”

“You think you are smarter than us..You think that just because you come from the city you can come and sit on our heads?”
“On the contrary, it is you who thinks you know everything. That’s why you dismiss anything you don’t understand.”

“Lucy killed herself because of a mere insult?”
“Insults mean more when they come from someone close to us. Imagine if I called you a prostitute?”
“I would not hang myself. Maybe I’d hang you!”

“They hated me from the beginning. You just gave them an excuse to do something about it…Mureithi is a bad person. Someone must stand up to him otherwise he will walk over people’s heads with his arrogance.”

Mukami was furious at men like Mureithi and Ngendo’s father who demanded perfection from everyone except themselves.

How tragic, thought Mukami, that this poor girl thought abortion was just a matter of removing an unwanted lump from her belly.

In other words, thought Mukami bitterly, even the devil has his uses..

“Nowadays I attend church more often than the Vicar himself! One of these days I might just become one.”

It was not difficult to find Chege, Kimando’s abortionist….Mukami wondered how many desperate girls fleeing the wrath of an unforgiving village had intercepted him on the same dusty spot before.

All is from Allah … and a little from Abdullah

#1 in the forthcoming Ramadan Series…RAMADAN KAREEM! May we make the most of every minute of every day during this blessed month, for we know not if we will live to see another one… may we maintain the good behaviours we adopt during this holy month throughout the years..may we also practice humility and empathy and as we fast, may we be mindful of the millions who don’t have the option of breaking their fasts as the sun sets…

All is from Allah … and a little from Abdullah
Excerpted from “The Inner Journey” essay by Carol Ring.

Kullu min Allah… u’shwaya min Abdullah. (All is from Allah… and a little from Abdullah.)

The first part of this saying is frequently spoken by elder Bedouin, usually in cases of misfortune, and is accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders. All is from Allah: fortune and adversity, joy and suffering, life and death. All is determined, all is written. There is an Intelligence at work that keeps this vast universe in order and determines the role and path of each particle of its infinitude. Like the cells in a body, we live and die in service of something incomparably larger.

And yet, we have become an odd type of cell that believes unshakably in its own existence as apart from the whole. Today, the “Kullu min Allah” view seems quaintly fatalistic and a disclaimer of personal responsibility. We have come to value above all else our power and our right to determine, if not the outcome of what we do, at least the direction and content of our lives. We believe firmly that we form our own fate. If things seem to go contrary to our wishes, it is because we have not been vocal enough in asserting them, or strong enough to conquer obstacles.

We are not ones to trust in blind forces, and certainly not in any divine representatives of those forces.
If “Kullu min Allah” were the whole story-and until about the end of the Middle Ages it seemed to be the whole story-the only empowerment that could manifest in our lives would come through the all-powerful One, and, on a lesser scale, through His representatives on earth: kings, priests, and other beings high in the hierarchy. When these were true representatives and their moral influence spread throughout society, the earth flourished, and presumably humankind’s suffering was alleviated (although a large part of our suffering seems to be inevitable, no matter how well the earth is yielding). But slowly humanity removed the crown from the hierarchy and placed it on its own head, giving consummate authority first to human will, and then eventually to human impulses, unhampered by either reason or conscience. And so, from the old belief in fate and invisible forces, we have swung around to a belief in ourselves as the sole force at work in the universe.

Throughout the ages the debate on fate versus free will has been ongoing, and each tradition has had its say on the way things work. Most have struck a wise compromise, giving the individual a chance to improve his or her lot by doing good while leaving fate in place for the big questions. But the compromise suggested by “and a little bit from Abdullah”-an addition uttered after an appropriate pause, and in a lower voice, generally by younger Bedouin-is particularly apt for all of us. First of all, it gets the relationship right. Everything is from Allah–not most things, not only the important things or the good things, but Everything. The grandeur and omnipotence of the Invisible retain their priority: we are under the influence of forces that we neither control nor see, but we have our place as an integral part of the whole. But though everything is still determined from above and perfect submission is our role, there is the addition of “a little bit” that is our own theater of action. It is as if the Everything expands just a little and makes room for a personal effort, which still remains part of the All. The exact nature of the little bit is not specified; each can project his own understanding.

And who does this little bit? Abdullah. The name is a joining of two words, “abd” and “Allah,” and means “servant of God.” It is not just any one of the myriad personages that inhabit our bodies who is called upon to contribute his share, but the part of us that truly tries to serve something higher.

It is difficult to know whether or not our lives have been determined in advance, whether it is foretold where and when we will be born, when and how we will die, and what we will do in the interim. Some believe, some guess, and some ignore the question. It is even more difficult to stand at one of life’s many crossroads, or even one of the little alleyways that are always running across our paths, and wait one second before turning left or right. Is there someone steering the course? Is it the winds of fate or only a momentary impulse? Perhaps it is Abdullah who holds the compass.

Carol Ring has a doctorate in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives and works in the hills of Galilee.

Excerpts from Kite Runner

the kite runnerby Khaled Hosseini

Even in birth, Hassan was true to his nature: He was incapable of hurting anyone. A few grunts, a couple of pushes, and out Hassan came. Out he came smiling.

..though he never translated the words for us, he did stress, sometimes with the help of a stripped willow branch, that we had to pronounce the Arabic words correctly so God would hear us better.

“…there is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft…when you kill a man, you steal a life…you steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness…there is no act more wretched than stealing…a man who takes what’s not his to take, be it a life or a loaf of naan…I spit on such a man. And if I ever cross paths with him, God help him…”

“Real men didn’t read poetry—and God forbid they should ever write it! Real men—real boys—played soccer just as Baba had done when he had been young…”

“Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them in with your favorite colors…”

“A boy who won’t stand up for himself becomes a man who can’t stand up for anything.”

The shootings and explosions had lasted less than an hour, but they had frightened us badly, because none of us had ever heard gunshots in the streets. They were foreign sounds to us then. The generation of Afghan children whose ears would know nothing but the sounds of bombs and gunfire was not yet born.

The Hindi kid would soon learn what the British learned earlier in the century, and what the Russians would eventually learn by the late 1980’s: that Afghans are an independent people. Afghans cherish custom but abhor rules.

To this day, I find it hard to gaze directly at people like Hassan, people who mean every word they say….And that’s the thing about people who mean everything they say. They think everyone else does too.

“It hurts to say that..but better to get hurt by the truth than comforted with a lie.”

Hassan couldn’t read a first-grade textbook but he’d read me plenty.

You couldn’t trust anyone in Kabul anymore–for a fee or under threat, people told on each other, neighbor on neighbor, child on parent, brother on brother, servant on master, friend on friend…The rafiqs, the comrades…split Kabul into two groups: those who eavesdropped and those who didn’t. The tricky part was that no one knew who belonged to which.

“He says this is war. There is no shame in war.”
“Tell him he’s wrong. War doesn’t negate decency. It demands it, even more than in times of peace.”

Not a word passes between us, not because we have nothing to say, but because we don’t have to say anything–that’s how it is between people who are each other’s first memories..

Baba loved the idea of America. It was living in America that gave him an ulcer.

“He’s not fit to run this country. It’s like putting a boy who can’t ride a bike behind the wheel of a brand new Cadillac.”

..in Kabul, we snapped a tree branch and used it as a credit card. He’d carve notches..one notch for each loaf of naan..At the end of the month, my father paid him for the number of notches on the stick. That was it. No questions. No ID.

America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past…If for nothing else, for that, I embraced America.

The only thing that flowed more than tea in those aisles was Afghan gossip.

Sometimes I think the only thing he loved as much as his late wife was Afghanistan, his late country.

Khala Jamila made no secret of how much she adored me. For one thing, I listened to her impressive list of maladies..ever since her mother’s stroke, every flutter in her chest was a heart attack, every aching joint of the eye another stroke…
“Your khala’s medical charts are like works of Rumi: They come in volumes.”

I had relieved her of the greatest fear of every Afghan mother: that no honorable khastegar would ask for her daughter’s hand. That her daughter would age alone, husbandless, childless. Every woman needed a husband. Even if he did silence the song in her.

“..time can be a greedy thing—sometimes it steals all the details for itself.”

“The streets are full enough already of hungry orphans and every day I thank Allah that I am alive, not because I fear death, but because my wife has a husband and my son is not an orphan.”

“Children are fragile, Amir jan. Kabul is already full of broken children and I don’t want Sohrab to become another.”

“All that a man had back then, all that he was, was his honor, his name, and if people talked…”

“Khar khara mishnassah..takes a donkey to know a donkey”

“Forgive us, Amir agha…since childhood, my brother’s mouth has been two steps ahead of his head.”

After all these years, I was home again, standing on the soil of my ancestors. This was the soil on which my great-grandfather had married his third wife a year before dying in the cholera epidemic that hit Kabul in 1915…it was on this soil that my grandfather had gone on a hunting trip with King Nadir Shah and shot a deer. My mother had died on this soil. And on this soil, I had fought for my father’s love…The kinship I felt suddenly for the old land…it surprised me. I’d been gone long enough to forget and be forgotten. I had a home in a land that might as well be in another galaxy to the people sleeping on the other side of the wall I leaned against. I thought I had forgotten about this land. But I hadn’t. And, under the bony glow of a half-moon, I sensed Afghanistan humming under my feet. Maybe Afghanistan hadn’t forgotten me either.

And something else I hadn’t noticed right away: Hardly any of them sat with an adult male—the wars had made fathers a rare commodity in Afghanistan.

A sadness came over me. Returning to Kabul was like running into an old, forgotten friend and seeing that life hadn’t been too good for him, that he’s become homeless and destitute.

This was the first time I saw the Taliban. I’d seen them on TV, on the Internet, on the cover of magazines, and in newspapers. But here I was now, less than fifty feet from them, telling myself that the sudden taste in my mouth wasn’t unadulterated, naked fear. Telling myself my flesh hadn’t suddenly shrunk against my bones and my heart wasn’t battering. Here they came. In all their glory.

“Don’t ever stare at them! Do you understand me? Never!….you might as well poke a rabid dog with a stick…..they drive around looking. Looking and hoping that someone will provoke them. Sooner or later, someone always obliges. Then the dogs feast and the day’s boredom is broken at last and everyone says “Allah-u-akbar!” And on those days when no-one offends, well, there is always random violence, isn’t there?…Keep your eyes on your feet when the Taliban are near….”

“The children were moved from here to Karteh-seh after the rockets hit the old orphanage. Which is like saving someone from the lion’s cage and throwing them in the tiger’s.”

But like the poet says: ‘How seamless seemed love and then came trouble!’

‘The desert weed lives on, but the flower of spring blooms and wilts.’ Such grace, such dignity, such a tragedy.”

“I’m so afraid…Because I’m profoundly happy…Happiness like this is frightening…They only let you be this happy if they’re preparing to take something from you…”

Walking back from the truck, neither of us commented about what most non-Afghans would have seen as an improbable coincidence, that a beggar on the street would happen to know my mother. Because we both knew that in Afghanistan, and particularly in Kabul, such absurdity was commonplace. Baba used to say, “Take two Afghans who’ve never met, put them in a room for ten minutes, and they’ll figure out how they’re related.”

“There is very little shelter here, almost no food, no clothes, no clean water. What I have in ample supply here is children who’ve lost their childhood. But the tragedy is that these are the lucky ones…”

He charged me $75, an unthinkable price given the run-down appearance of the place, but I didn’t mind. Exploitation to finance a beach house in Hawaii was one thing. Doing it to feed your kids was another.

“Agha, did you hear what Mullah Nasruddin did when his daughter came home and complained that her husband had beaten her?…He beat her too, then sent her back to tell the husband that the Mullah was no fool: if the bastard was going to beat his daughter, then Mullah would beat his wife in return.”

“Did you hear about the time Mullah had placed a heavy bag on his shoulders and was riding his donkey?…Someone on the street said why don’t you put the bag on the donkey? And he said, ‘That would be cruel, I’m heavy enough for the poor thing.’”

“Piss on the beards of all those self-righteous monkeys. They do nothing but thumb their rosaries and recite a book written in a language they don’t even understand. God help us all if Afghanistan ever falls in their hands.”

“Public justice is the greatest kind of show, my brother. Drama. Suspense. And, best of all, education en masse.”

“You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘liberating’ until you’ve done that, stood in a roomful of targets, let the bullets fly, free of guilt and remorse, knowing you are virtuous, good, and decent. Knowing you’re doing God’s work. It’s breathtaking.” He kissed his prayer beads…

One of the guards pressed a button and Pashtu music filled the room. Tabla, harmonium, the whine of a dil-roba. I guessed music wasn’t sinful as long as it played to Taliban ears. The three men began to clap.

There are a lot of children in Afghanistan, but little childhood.

A kinship exists between people who’ve fed from the same breast.

“I grew up in the US, Amir. If America taught me anything, it’s that quitting is right up there with pissing in the Girl Scout’s lemonade jar.”

Then I realized something: That last thought had brought no sting with it…I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.

It would be erroneous to say Sohrab was quiet. Quiet is peace. Tranquility. Quiet is turning down the VOLUME knob on life. Silence is pushing the OFF button. Shutting it down. All of it. Sohrab’s silence wasn’t self-imposed silence of those with convictions, of protesters who seek to speak their cause by not speaking at all. It was the silence of one who has taken cover in a dark place, curled up all the edges and tucked them under. He didn’t so much live with us as occupy space. And precious little of it…he walked like he was afraid to leave behind footprints. He moved as if not to stir the air around him…

…soon after we arrived in the US, Baba started grumbling about American flies. He’d sit at the kitchen table with his fly-swatter, watch the flies darting from wall to wall, buzzing here, buzzing there, harried and rushed. “In this country, even flies are pressed for time,” he’d groan.

It was only a smile, nothing more. It didn’t make everything all right. It didn’t make anything all right. Only a smile. A tiny thing. A leaf in the woods, shaking in the wake of a startled bird’s flight. But I’ll take it. With open arms. Because when spring comes, it melts the snow one flake at a time, and maybe I just witnessed the first flake melting.

Excerpts from Sweetness in the Belly

Excerpts from Sweetness in the Belly (Camilla Gibb)

P149 But each of us is guilty in someone else’s eyes. If you are an Amhara you are guilty of supporting a brutal dictatorship; if you are Oromo you are guilty of counter-revolutionary sentiment; if you are Hareri you are guilty of harbouring wealth and exploiting peasants. If you are a refugee you are guilty of the worst crimes of all: deserting your homeland and abandoning those you love. In every case. It’s a matter of perception: in the last case, self-perception, the most damning of all.

P164 Its not simply what one remembers, but why. There are sites of amputation where the past is severed from the body of the present. Remembering only encourages the growth of phantom limbs. And it is not simply what one remembers, or why, but what to do with what one remembers, which of the scattered pieces to carry forward, what to protect and preserve, what to leave behind.

P227 …I’d been discovering that nothing was quite as it first appeared. But the, this is where we begin in every new world: first we read the manual. We practice the laws as they are laid out, and it is only when we become literate through living them that we find the contradictions, the subtext, the spaces in between.

P228 You don’t want to stay on the tree for too long..Eventually you will lose your grip, drop to the ground, splatter, go rotten. No one wants to eat the fruit that has fallen—that is for the beggars and the birds. They will only want to step on you.

P267 How is it that disappointment arrives as soon as what you have desired for so long steps over the threshold? It’s like finding the end of your wedding train dragging behind the mud.

P296 Without marriage, a father would not recognize children as his own. Because paternity…was everything. Your liberation, your death sentence, your legitimacy or lack thereof in the world.

P314 I think true discipline comes through exercising moderation. I see the rules as simply guidelines for those times when we lack the strength or wisdom to decide for ourselves…but that must take such courage…It is harder in many ways to live in the middle than at the edges. Much harder to interpret as you see fit, because then you have no assurance you are doing right in the eyes of God, no confidence you will be rewarded in the afterlife. There’s something uncharitable about having your own plate, something wrong about stabbing your food with a piece of metal. Food tastes right from the hand.

P347 Believing that all has been ordained by God can lead to fatalism, but fatalism is not the same thing as belief. It’s a cheat: an abdication of responsibility. Believers take action…

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