From Ancient Persia to Modern Day Middle East

The Middle East isn’t necessarily going to be a popular topic in America today, at least not to everyone, but somehow it has come up more than once in my reading recently. I found that there are many rich cultures and traditions in that part of the world that have somehow been overlooked in my westernized approach to learning about anything and everything. I’ll gladly tell you that I’m working on learning more and I hope you try out these books and consider learning more yourself.

Last year for summer reading’s mythology and fairy tales theme I wanted to do a week with the Phoenix. The Phoenix is something many of us have a basic understanding of, a bird made of fire who, after a certain amount of time burns herself up, only to be born again from the ashes. But I learned last year that in Russian folklore the Phoenix’s golden tail feathers can grant wishes. And then I found this book:

This is one amazing book! Not only do we learn about the Simorgh of ancient Persia, but we find out that her feathers can summon her help, and she is the one that shook the seeds from the tree of all seeds, creating life on Earth. In this story, we learn how she rescued and raised Prince Zal, a major figure in Persian legends. But wait, there’s more! This isn’t a book that you listen to me read. No. This is a book with a QR code that takes you into <a href="http://<div style="font-size: 10px; color: #cccccc;line-break: anywhere;word-break: normal;overflow: hidden;white-space: nowrap;text-overflow: ellipsis; font-family: Interstate,Lucida Grande,Lucida Sans Unicode,Lucida Sans,Garuda,Verdana,Tahoma,sans-serif;font-weight: 100;"><a href="; title="Tiny Owl" target="_blank" style="color: #cccccc; text-decoration: none;">Tiny Owl</a> · <a href="; title="The Phoenix of Persia" target="_blank" style="color: #cccccc; text-decoration: none;">The Phoenix of Persia</a>

SoundCloud so that you might listen to the author tell the story in Persian style. That means music accompanies the whole story, complete with an instrument representing each character (like Peter and the Wolf).

The kids were enthralled by the artwork and then after telling me they could tell what they instruments were, I blew their minds by showing them the middle eastern instruments that actually made the music. I had to explain all of them, from the one similar to a flute, to one similar to a guitar, one like a harp, one like a “naked piano” and the drum. They loved it! This story took them to a new corner of the world without them even realizing it, a corner that some of them might have balked at if they had realized where it was.

The other instance the Middle East came up in my reading was with my daughter. She is taking AP Lit this fall and was having a hard time getting started on her assigned book, The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, so I offered to read it along with her. She’s still working on it, but I was done in less than a week (could not put it down).

The Kite Runner isn’t for the faint of heart. It has some graphic scenes and a lot of violence. But if you can get past that, it also has a story that follows a country goes from one extreme to another. (I apologize in advance if my understanding of the history of Afghanistan is wrong. I’ve learned what I could, but I didn’t live it, I wasn’t there.) The people of Afghanistan were essentially free in the middle of the 21st century. Under their last king, they had many freedoms. Women were allowed to dress as they chose, anyone could get an education and the country was prospering. A coup happened in 1973, where the king was deposed by his nephew peacefully. But then, communist Russia sent troops in and took control later that year. Still, even under the Russian thumb, the country didn’t seem to be too bad off compared to what was to come. Sadly, a terrible drought and the beginning of Jihad against the Russians sapped the resources and energy of the Afghani people. Many of the remaining young men fought against the Russians and eventually they forced them out. The Afghani people legitimately thought things were going to get better. Sadly for some, the fundamentalist rule that replaced the Russians was far worse. Women lost all rights. Domestic violence was ignored. Orphaned children were left to their own devices. Ethnic minorities were slaughtered in their homes. It was not until the Al-Qaeda was overthrown that some semblance of the old way of life returned to this beautiful land. They are still rebuilding, and I have a newfound respect for these strong, enduring people.

Khaled Hosseini‘s books, aren’t all the same. The Kite Runner is told by Amir, a wealthy Afghan boy who is able to escape his troubled past and start a new life in America, only to return to his homeland to make up for those past transgressions. A Thousand Splendid Suns follows two women who come from different backgrounds but find themselves in an uneasy alliance against their abusive husband in a world where they have essentially no freedoms of their own. This book was heartbreaking while still beautiful and uplifting. And the Mountains Echoed is a bit of a different style. In this book, the story starts with Abdullah and his baby sister Pari. The story shifts in sections to other people, the next being their step-mother and then step-uncle Nabi. From Nabi the story shifts Idris, a young doctor coming back to Afghanistan to reclaim his family’s property after growing up in America — Idris has ties to both Nabi and Abdullah. I’m only 2/3 of the way through the book, and the story has shifted back to Pari and her life in France. I have a feeling that Hosseini will bring the story full circle. I have hopes that Abdullah and Pari will finish the story together, reunited after all of the turmoil life brought to them and their home country.

The only one of Hosseini’s books that I haven’t read yet is Sea Prayer. This is actually a picture book, and it’s next on the list.

Khaled Hosseini responds to the heartbreak of the current refugee crisis with this beautifully illustrated short work of fiction for people of all ages, all over the world.

I can’t make you open to the idea of reading about a villainized part of the world. I had someone ask for a book suggestion and then turn me down flat at the name Afghanistan. Okay, I get it. But the war is not the people. The people are just like you and I, struggling to do the best with what they have–some have more, some have less. Some of us are very lucky to be where we are in the world and in life. Others are looking to find that dream too, and I see no reason to look down upon them for having a dream to fight for. If you can gain anything from these amazing stories, it’s that love is the strongest bond we have. We can choose to share that love with anyone we want, and we’ll never run out. Helping others in whatever way we can won’t hurt us. Maybe I’ve helped by sharing my newfound appreciation and knowledge of the amazing Afghan people. Maybe someday my knowledge will help me to help others in another way. I don’t know, but I’m open to the idea.