Snow Flower & the Secret Fan by Lisa See :
This book is set in 19th century China and depicts the stories of two women who were bound together at age 7 as “loatong” or “old sames” (in my words, bound together as sisters who were not related by blood). The story describes their custom, cultures and lives from age 7 until Lily (Snow Flower’s old same) passes away in her 90’s. This book provides a unique look into the custom and cultures of China and specifically Hunan county. This book illustrates how the Chinese women would have their feet bound usually at the age of six or seven so their feet would remain small and grow no bigger than three inches. It was also not unusual for many of them to be promised in an arrange marriage at that age as well. Many times their lives were spent around the other women of the family and the community. They would be available to serve and accomodate their men whether it was for feeding, making clothes, keeping house, having marital relations. Their position and status in life increased by the number of sons they had. These women also communicated with one another through a special secret language, “nu shu” which they created. They would pass their secret nu shu messages back and forth many times written inside the folds of their fans. Footbinding would typically start between ages 6 and 7. Mothers would prepare special foods which were believed to soften the bones in the foot and in the toes and feed these to their daughters prior to beginning the foot binding so the bones would break and crush more easily. Footbinding would start with the toes being pushed behind and under the sole of the foot. Then the feet would be tightly wrapped in bandages to prevent further growth. This was an excruitiating painful process which could take up to a year with a young girl being made to wear smaller and smaller shoes, bandages changed routinely and bound more tightly as well as the girl having to walk greater distances to heal her feet quickly. Many young girls would die during this process or develop serious infections or become crippled. But for those who successfully survived the foot binding and came out of it with 3 inch feet were considered more beautiful and thereby more marriagable.
By comparison, the Saudi women continue to have arranged marriages. In some cases it can be that the marriages are arranged between families when a girl is still as young as 6 or 7 but typically the girl is now at least 17 or usually older. While thankfully the Saudi women have never experienced foot binding, they have their own unique experience mandated by the traditional custom of Saudi Arabia. They will wear the abaya and hijjab, choosing to cover and conceal their body and face. But by comparison, this is a much kinder act and tradition where one does not need to fear death such as with foot binding. It is also very much the man’s world in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi women while they do not have nu shu, they will gather in a majlis (ladies room or ladies lounge) and here they have their discussions never meant for a man’s ears. They also have their special bonds of friendship with other women which is typical of living in a society with much segregation. Sons are also raised with deference but I wish to note that having a daughter is not viewed with the same disdain as it has been in China. The Saudi culture and society is very generous and loving towards children, boys and girls alike. Although as the boys and girls become men and women there are very defined roles and expectations for each. I very much enjoyed reading Lisa See’s book, especially while I am living in another Eastern Culture with its own unique traditions. See’s book made me reflect on the cultures and traditions of Saudi and while there may be aspects of the Saudi culture which I may respect but not agree with, it also made me appreciate that the Saudi culture is more kind and tolerant of women than other Eastern cultures have been.
Theree Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson :
Three Cups of Tea is a must-read for anyone having an interest in Northwestern Pakistan and Afghanistan. This book tells the story of Greg Mortenson, a former climber, who by taking the wrong fork in the trail while coming down from an aborted attempt to peak Pakistan’s K2, finds the direction of his life irrevocably changed. Three Cups of Tea illustrates the perseverance and determination of Greg Mortenson to help the people of Pakistan and particulary the young girls, to build schools in some of the most remote areas. He candidly shares his experience and challenges faced to get the necessary funds to keep his promise and build that first school. Little did he know that by fulfilling that original promise he was embarking on a lifelong journey which would ultimately lead to the formation of the Central Asia Institute and take him into Afghanistan to continue building schools. Read how Greg Mortenson not only learns the customs, cultures and languages of Northwestern Pakistan and Afghanistan but how he becomes trusted, loved and revered by the tribal people as well. The story will bring one to tears in reading the graphic descriptions of set-backs and deaths but also put a ready smile on the face when reading about the accomplishments and achievements against huge odds. One will also shake his or her head in wonder when reading about the two fatwas issued against Mortenson as well as his experience in getting kidnapped in lawless Waziristan. And best yet, one comes away with a profound appreciation for Mortenson and CAI’s efforts which are making signficant inroads in the “War against Terror” and uprise in jihadism by promoting peace through building schools and educating the children…one school at a time.
Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia by Pamela Constable:
Pamela Constable is a renowned journalist from the Washington Post who has spent many years covering South Asia. In “Fragments of Grace” she shares her own personal reflections what it was like and what it meant to be a reporter covering the strife of war in Afghanistan, continually facing those born into poverty and hunger in India, building sources and getting the story during volatile times in Pakistan. Pamela not only sensitizes the reader to the newsworthy events of South Asia but further personalizes the events with candidly sharing of herself and her feelings and experiences in the quest for the next story.
The Places In Between by Rory Stewart:
In “The “Places in Between” is the true account of Rory Stewart, a former British diplomat, who walks across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul in a post 9/11 world. His book is an incredible story of trust, endurance, patience interspersed with frustration, humor and lots of compassion. This book also has a segment with photographs documenting his journey across the rugged and harsh terrain of Afghanistan. Stewart also compares his journey to that of Babur, the first Emperor of Mughal, India. This book is a definite must-read for anyone having an interest in a post 9/11 Afghanistan.