The Butcher of Polis

I was rummaging through some old items the other day and dug up this postcard I bought while travelling through Cyprus in the summer of 2001.

It’s one of my favourites.

The back of the card reads: “Moustachio’d Simos, the butcher of Polis.”

The epithet reads like the sort given to war criminals. But soon after buying the card, I ran into Simos in a back-alley in the village of Polis (a seaside community on the border of Northern Cyprus). He was as gentle and disarming as he is in this photo.

Icelandic Manners

A cover of the books, Names for the Sea, by Sarah Moss, a book about IcelandI’ve just finished reading Names for the Sea, a travelogue by writer Sarah Moss. The book chronicles her difficulties living and working as a teacher in Iceland, with her husband and kids in tow.

Although it’s less action-packed than I like my travel lit to be, the book contains more than a few brilliant gems of cross-cultural observation. Moss, who’s a Brit, has a very hard time assimilating into Icelandic culture, which, as it turns out, is sometimes hugely at odds with her own – but in extraordinarily subtle ways.

I’ve already written here that one of the great boons of travel to places far removed from one’s own is that it can provide deep insight into other ways of being, other mental sets – in contrast to one’s own, and thus, ultimately, providing insight into one’s own. Struggling to move through other cultures challenges our assumptions, which become mechanized and set according to our more predictable norms. Moss, explores this dynamic more than a few times in her book:

“Iceland has complexities so subtle that their existence is invisible to the inattentive foreigner. One of the Icelandic clichés about Icelanders is that, by foreign standards (as if ‘foreigners’ had one standard), they are rude. There is no word for ‘please’ in Icelandic. ‘Thank you’ and ‘sorry’ are used much less than in British and American English. Nevertheless, it has been clear to me from the beginning that Iceland is a place where the most intricate and important things are unarticulated, partly because intricacy doesn’t need to be spelt out in a place where everyone has always known how things are done, and partly because it is unIcelandic to explain yourself. Self-explanation suggests some entitlement on the part of your audience to know your interior life. Icelandic drivers don’t indicate, Pétur once old me, because they don’t see why anyone else needs to know where they’re going.”

Sarah’s friend Pétur, who, decades earlier, moved to Iceland from the U.K., goes on to tell her:

“There were manners of course, but the manners were sometimes not to say anything. So I’d say, ‘Excuse me, but please would you pass the potatoes.’ They’d pass them and I’d say, ‘Thank you.’ And they’d look at me, because you don’t say thank you when someone gives you a potato. That’s why you’re there, and why the potatoes are there, so you can eat them, and you know that and they know that you know that so why would you say thank you? There’s not very much of that kind of thing in Icelandic, it’s at a lower level in the same way that the flowers in the fields and the trees on the hills are at a lower level. They’re smaller and more subtle and they make more sense.”

Essay on the Works of Idries Shah

The Los Angeles Review of Books just ran an essay I wrote about contemporary Sufism and the works of Idries Shah. The write-up argues his books are a counterpoint to our growing culture of fanaticism.

When the Virtual Upstages the Real

Social media has become the main conduit for airing our gripes – both for the general public and those working in socio-political fields. When done right it can be an effective method for disseminating a message and bringing about change.

But like all new technologies that have arisen throughout human history, the Internet is also a double-edged sword. It’s changed how we engage with life, exacting a sort of Faustian “price” which we pay in exchange for its conferred benefits. One of those costs is that we spend large parts of our days entranced by screens, rendered somewhat impotent by them, cut off from others. This led to a thought: I wonder if by increasingly taking our concerns online, we are pre-empting or robbing the real world of other more direct forms of action we could be taking. And not just by virtue of the time we spend online. Could it be that when we campaign, lobby or complain in the virtual world we are in fact discharging the impulse to act in the real, physical world? We feel less compelled to act because we’ve gotten that hit of satisfaction that comes with feeling that we’ve done our bit.

If so, the consequences for the future will be considerable. Yet another of those costs that we didn’t quite bargain for.

Adventures in Uyghur Cuisine

Uyghur cuisine - roast lamb and pilau.One doesn’t come across Uyghur food all too often. As a culturally persecuted Muslim minority living in a far-flung and landlocked area of western China, their regional cuisine doesn’t get a whole lot of play either within, or outside, that country.

So when I discovered a Uyghur eatery while in Vancouver a few months back, I made a beeline to its door.

The place was called Efendi Uyghur Restaurant (“was” because it has since closed down). Eating there was a bit of a revelation. Although the Uyghurs live in China their cuisine is not at all Chinese in the way we know Chinese food to be. It is most akin, in my opinion, to Afghan food featuring staples like grilled kebab, roast lamb and pilau. The Uyghurs, being a Turkic race with strong links to the Middle East and Central Asia (via Islam and the ancient Silk Road), also show traces of Arab, Persian and Turkish influences in their cooking. Cumin, parsley, and sumac were evident in some of the above dishes we tried. The noodle and dumpling dishes were taken out of the Chinese playbook.

If you’ve visited even just a few countries along the old Silk Road route, then eating Uyghur cuisine can be a nostalgic journey through one’s past travels. All the different layers of subtle flavouring speak directly to other places.

Uyghur food - an order of lamb filled dumplings. My partner and I asked for an order of steamed dumplings filled with spiced lamb. They looked like something you’d get at a dim-sum restaurant. Sampling them was one of the stranger culinary experiences of my life.

Quick back story: my dad’s family come from a Silk Road town in eastern Turkey near the Syrian border called Mardin. There is a local dish there among the Arabized Christians called kobeibat – a typical Middle Eastern kibbe ball, made of bulgar, that is steamed (not fried) and filled with spiced meat that’s heavily infused with parsley.

The meat filling in the Uyghur dumpling tasted exactly like that of Mardin’s kobeibat, a culinary connection of several thousand kilometres. It was uncanny. In spite of the distance I intuitively knew that the recipes were linked, and that I had experienced cross-cultural mingling from the distant past tied directly to my own lineage.

Here’s a link to a Globe & Mail review by Alexandra Gill about the erstwhile Effendi Uyghur Restaurant. It serves as a good guide and starting point to exploring the Uyghur cuisine. The writing’s also great.

Opening Lines in CanLit

I was at the Toronto Reference Library recently doing a bit of work. I decided to take a break from my writing and got up from my laptop to poke around the nearby Canadian Literature (CanLit) section.

For a bit of fun I came up with the idea of pulling books at random from the shelves, and reading just the opening line. At first the idea popped into my mind as a kind of game. But then I realized that examining how novelists kick off their books might reveal something about Canada’s literary culture – and its culture in general.

So, I decided to pick just 12 books.

Here are the first lines of each of those novels:

1. Early morning sunlight warm against the thin, smooth contour of one cheek, Karen sat in the breakfast-room and thought about suicide.

2. God and whiskey have got me where I am. Too little of the one, too much of the other.

3. In a small room off a banquet hall in Montreal, Lily Kramer sat in silence with her new husband.

4. It was bad enough working in the kitchen of a doughnut shop for minimum wage, but having to wear a hairnet was even worse.

5. Home is never home anymore.

6. George Bullay finished his soft-boiled egg and one slice of buttered wholewheat toast.

7. By the time we left Calais, I thought perhaps I hated Dottie Forsyth.

8. My mother died on the same day as Marilyn Monroe, August 4th 1963, and just like the movie star her body would not be discovered until the following day.

9. It’s a funny thing, to know the exact date of your death.

10. There’s a condition called Tinnitus where you hear a ringing that isn’t there.

11. I’m tired of the end of the world.

12. She’s thirty-five minutes late and for the past hour I’ve been pacing the fifteen feet between my bathroom and the window, repeating like a mantra: ‘This place is so pathetic, this place is so pathetic.’


The above is obviously just a tiny sample – a thin slice of a thin slice. And any other combination of books would have yielded different results. But looking at these opening lines, I’m struck by a singular tone that runs through them all – a sense of banal melodrama and forced sentimentality.

We’ve all heard that old refrain about how Canadian literature can often be ‘dull’ or ‘boring.’ You’ll sometimes come across the same complaint levelled at Canadian films and television shows. Just the other day someone quipped to me that trying to read the works of certain Canadian authors is like “reading elevator music.” To apply that stereotype across the board would obviously be unjust – there are lots of excellent writers in Canada.

Though it’s subjective, I wonder if there still isn’t something to the claim. It does seem at times that the themes and conflicts at the centre of our stories, more often than not tend to focus on social ill and dysfunction in interpersonal relationships. A kind of controlled, polite, existential angst and rumination that trumps an emphasis on action in our writing. This is probably the source of that complaint that CanLit is ‘boring.’

Could it be that that we are preoccupied with these sorts of themes because, to some degree, they are the only significant life experiences that many of us can draw from for our stories?

We’re a more or less stable and prosperous country. The majority of us live relatively easy lives compared to people in the rest of the world (the down-and-out and many First Nations people notwithstanding). Canada is still largely free of the earth-shattering conflicts and daily life-and-death struggles that have embroiled other nations on and off for centuries. As a result, our greatest, most epic struggles seem to be with our neuroses. So quite a few of our stories tend to centre around that. Moreover, they are told in the measured, polite and parochial way commensurate with our collective temperament.

I wonder if big exciting plots, characters, ideas and insights – a kind of universalism in literature – are more often forged by the kind of deeper struggles that most of us haven’t been exposed to in this culture?

Mount Shasta

There is something deeply alluring about a white-capped, mystical volcano set in the middle of the Northern California wilderness – even from its map.

Mount Mt Shasta Northern California Trails Cascade Range


The Problem With Paradigms

story of the elephant and the blind menA paradigm is a theoretical formulation made up of a set of propositions – a model or template – that we use to explain our complex world.

In the study of international relations, for instance, the paradigm of “realism” sees all global politics boiling down to state actors pursuing power. “Marxist” and “critical” paradigms point to the primacy of economic and material concerns above all other things in world politics. There are scores of other paradigms that are used across many academic and intellectual disciplines. These are just a few classic examples.

A paradigm can be a very useful tool indeed. It is a lens, which can highlight or identify a recurring pattern or circumstance of human behaviour, where applicable.

But as with most tools, they come with limits.

One is that paradigms are static, whereas the world is nebulous, fluid, and constantly changing. Reality has numerous facets, which combine and overlap with one another. Exceptions to the rule abound. There can seldom be just one explanation to things. As a result our paradigms can be over-simplistic, incomplete or inaccurate – removing the complexity from the world which is actually one of its defining qualities.

The other issue is that humans are not particularly flexible when it comes to using their paradigms. Deep down we are creatures of habit and sometimes obsession. We cling to our powerful (and empowering) paradigms, adopting them as more or less permanent lenses on the world. We become emotionally, materially and politically vested in those lenses and so we refuse to take them off (also a form of laziness – who wants to expend all that extra energy judging the specifics of each circumstance to see if it really matches?). So like the ancient tale of the old woman who captures an eagle and changes its appearance to look like a pigeon (what a bird should look like to her) – we tend to reshape our perception of reality to fit our paradigms when they may not quite fit.

Contrary to the intention behind them, paradigms can be an obstacle to seeing things for what they really are.

The Safety Culture

A married couple I know who have a nine year-old son recently told me that the elementary school their boy attends has a rule forbidding students from picking up snow in their hands during recess – to prevent the kids from making snowballs and/or throwing the white stuff at each other.

Ponder this: the kids who attend this school are not allowed to play with snow.

How Trees Make Rain

If you’ve taken high school geography you probably remember learning the basics of weather. For instance, that coastal regions tend to bear the brunt of rain blowing in from the ocean. And that those systems gradually dissipate as they move further inland until the clouds get rained out. That’s why a lot of interior landlocked regions of continents tend to be drier, seeing far less precipitation.

I’ve been reading Peter Wohllben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. The book is an exposé of the little-known, and even less seen, living processes of trees. The “hows” and the “whys” of all things tree-related. One remarkable nugget of information in the book (which I never learned in school) is that trees and forests are additionally important because they help extend the reach of rainfall coming off the sea into the interior. I’ll let him explain how this works, below:

“Of all the plants, trees have the largest surface area covered in leaves. For every square yard of forest, 27 square yards of leaves and needles blanket the crowns. Part of every rainfall is intercepted in the canopy and immediately evaporates again. In addition, each summer, trees use up to 8,500 cubic yards of water per square mile, which they release into the air through transpiration. This water vapour creates new clouds that travel farther inland and release their rain. As the cycle continues, water reaches even the most remote areas. This water pump works so well that the downpours in some large areas of the world, such as the Amazon Basin, are almost as heavy thousands of miles inland as they are on the coast.”

transpiration evapotranspiration trees forests British Columbia deforestation
Photo © John Zada

Wohllben goes on to say that in order for this water transference phenomenon, this hopscotching of rain, to take place there needs to be a forest – including a coastal forest to kick off the process. If coastal forests are cut down by humans the chain reaction collapses.

With this knowledge one can start to see how large-scale deforestation, such as that happening on Canada’s West Coast, should not just be the concern of environmentalists and activists – but perhaps everyone. Including those with no vested interest in ecology or wilderness protection. People living in the landlocked outer edge of forest ecosystems, especially farmers, and those who eat their food, even if they don’t identify with such issues, are inextricably bound to them.