Beersheba, by Paul Daley

This was originally posted two years ago.

I thought it was worth reposting to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the event covered in the book.

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BeershebaOn 31st October 1917, the Australian Light Horse played a significant role in the capture of Beersheba from Turkish Ottoman control. Paul Daley looks at a variety of views of the Beersheba battle and the Light Horse charge in his book Beersheba. The book’s subtitle “A journey through Australia’s forgotten war”, reflects the general national ignorance of this part of Australian military history.

The final assault leading to the capture of the small town and its wells was an unorthodox horseback charge across open ground towards the Turkish defensive trenches. A charge of that type was not the usual Light Horse tactic. They generally acted as horse born infantry, riding to a battleground, where they dismounted, leaving their horses in the care of a designated handler, and then acted as infantry on foot.

In the charge at Beersheba they remained mounted, and relied on their horses to get them to the trenches where they would engage the enemy in brutal hand to hand combat.

The_Lighthorsemen_DVDThe 1987 film The Lighthorsemen, based on the charge at Beersheba, shows the Turkish troops being thrown into confusion by the audacity of the Light Horsemens’ action. Expecting them to dismount as usual, the Turks were taken by surprise, making it difficult to set the range of their artillery and rifle sights.

Daley is a journalist, not a historian, so he takes a much more personal approach to his subject, visiting the sites associated with the battle and combining his own experience of the place with his historical research as well as investigating how others today have been influenced by the events of almost a century ago.

Those other people include:
Joe Hockey, the treasurer in the current Australian government, whose Armenian grandfather had the task of rebuilding Beersheba after the war.

Businessman Richard Pratt who financed the Park of the Australian Soldier outside of modern Beersheba to commemorate the Anzac role in the battle.

And Kelvin Crombie who at the time of Daley’s book was an Australian long-time resident of Israel. Crombie has a strong belief that the battle of Beersheba and the subsequent Anzac involvement that removed Palestine from centuries of Ottoman rule was part of a Divine plan that led to the re-establishment of Israel as a nation 30 years later. He notes that the victory was won on the same day that the Balfour Declaration was announced, promising Jews a homeland in Palestine.

Apart from the Beersheba battle itself, Daley also uncovers a less glorious aspect of Anzac history, a post war revenge attack on an Arab village in which many of the male villagers were murdered as a reprisal for the killing of a New Zealand soldier by an Arab in the nearby military camp.

Beersheba was a turning point and was followed by a chain of victories that led on to the surrender of Jerusalem to British forces, then on to Damascus in Syria and the eventual, overall surrender of the Ottoman Turks at the end of October 1918. Less than two weeks later, four years of war ended with the armistice declared on 11 November.

Australian Light Horsemen, and the view from the Mount of Olives

Australian Light Horsemen, and the view from the Mount of Olives

Nadeem Aslam: The Golden Legend

Nadeem Aslam is at the top of the list of my favourite authors. This interview has just been posted on the ABC Radio website.

“If you don’t like my books, you won’t like me. I am my books”.
Nadeem Aslam on his latest novel The Golden Legend, inspired by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.


 

Nadeem Aslam on blasphemy laws in Pakistan:

If you go to the police and say, this person who lives next to me, or a friend of mine, or just this stranger has said something rude about Mohammed. You’re not allowed to repeat what it was. Because then you too would have committed blasphemy. This is such a Kafkaesque situation.

So the people are on death row and nobody’s allowed to say what they actually did.

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Interview is from here:
http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/booksandarts/nadeem-aslams-the-golden-legend/8472170

Too Many to Jail, by Mark Bradley

At the beginning of February I finished reading Too Many to Jail by Mark Bradley, a book about the growth of Christianity in Iran. I thought I’d written a “review”,  however, I couldn’t find it and suspect my memory was of an email I sent to a friend at the time.

The book tells of growth in the underground church in Iran, and suggests that Iran’s history and culture has prepared the country for the gospel of Jesus Christ

In recent decades, the Islamic government of Ayatollah Khomeini , followed later by the Khomeini inspired Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency, caused a lot of disillusionment among Iranian Muslims who couldn’t reconcile the words and actions of “Allah’s representatives” with their own idea of what God was like.

Bradley writes of aspects of Iranian society that helped make Iranians look favourably upon Jesus and how some had been primed to respond to the gospel through dreams, visions and miracles before being led to someone who could share the truth with them.

After around 100 years of mission work leading up to Khomeini coming to power, traditional churches in Iran could only count around 500 believers – now motivated by home-grown house churches, the number of believers is thought to be in the 100s of thousands, a number causing problems to a government trying to crack down on Christian activity. As the title suggests,  the increasing numbers means there are far Too Many to Jail.

In the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord

burqasIn the Land of the Blue Burqas by Kate McCord gives a fascinating insight into the people of Afghanistan, particularly the women, and how Islam affects their lives and relationships.

While Islam and Christianity embrace very different views of God, McCord makes use of a few common areas of belief to build a bridge to share the gospel.

McCord writes of how “Afghans almost universally believe in the concept of kismet, fate. Whatever happens happens because Allah wills it, no matter whose hand has accomplished the thing”.

She addresses this with a group of Afghan women while discussing a deadly car bombing in Kabul that destroyed a bus and killed many including a young mother:

“God told us not to kill. We cannot disobey God in the name of God. That is a lie. God told us to love Him with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our strength. Then He told us to love our neighbours. If a man kills his neighbour, he is disobeying God. This man who blew up the bus and killed that mother did not do the will of God. He did the work of Satan. God will judge him”

One woman in the room responded by sharing another story.

“Our town was at peace. We didn’t know war. We were happy. One day my cousins and aunts were gathered in the house preparing [food] for a wedding party. A bomb fell. We found pieces of dough, bundles of meat, hair ties, scarves, and scraps of bloody fabric. Even the part of the ceiling that didn’t fall was covered with blood and pieces of bodies”

… we all looked at the swirling red carpet . Each woman muttered “Tobah” repent.

After a long pause I restated what I absolutely believe to be the truth: “That was not the will of God, either”
“No,” the women agreed. “That is not the will of God.”

McCord gives the Christian reader a lot of food for thought.
She writes:

“For many Westerners, the question of who God is and what He wants for and from us is simply not relevant. We are, after all, wealthy and busy. For Afghans, it may be the most important question of all.”

And she confesses to something that I think affects most western Christians to one degree or another:

“Sometimes I forget to differentiate between what I believe as an American woman and what I believe the Bible teaches. America is my culture, and Jesus is my Saviour and Lord. Sometimes it’s hard to untangle the two. Afghans challenged me to try.

McCord compares various aspects of her Christians beliefs with those of her Afghan neighbours to show how the vastly different cultural beliefs affect Afghan views of God and as a result their society.

One example she describes is the Afghan view of temptation and sin.

I learned that in Afghanistan, the influences that cause or encourage a person to do what the society defines as wrong are the real sin, not the person who actually does the wrong. People are weak and must be protected. The society provides that protection. Any influence that tempts a member of the community must be eradicated, silenced, or walled out.

McCord also found that her time in Afghanistan gave her a new perspective on some very familiar parts of scripture.

Afghans helped me understand the teachings of Jesus more completely. The culture of Afghanistan today is much more similar to the first century Judea of Jesus’ day than my own Western culture is…

As an example of this, she writes:

I was often amazed when an Afghan heard a Jesus story for the first time and then told me what it means. Jesus spoke to a woman at a well, a woman who had had several husbands and was not married to her current partner. My Afghan women friends immediately saw the woman’s shame. No woman in Afghanistan can arrange her own marriage. The woman at the well had been used by five men, and the last didn’t even have the decency to marry her.

I found the book to be a an effective eye-opener, not only to an unbelievably foreign culture and religion, but also to the unbelievably naïve view that Western Christians have developed concerning the life and teachings of Jesus and how we’ve been taught to view them.

When Michael Met Mina, by Randa Abdel-Fattah

xwhen-michael-met-mina_jpg_pagespeed_ic_zjJ5EpJVBN

Humour, poignancy, foreboding, joy.

Just a few relevant words that come to mind to describe this book.

I could also add complex, but I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression that its a difficult, confusing reading experience. The complexity relates to the issues explored, where face-value judgements are never helpful and people don’t always live up to stereotypes.

It is highly entertaining but is much more than mere entertainment; hopefully testing the reader’s preconceptions and biases.

There is a tiny hint of Romeo and Juliet in the story of Michael and Mina. They come from opposite sides of a political/racial divide. One is an Afghan refugee, a “boat person”; the other is the son of politically active parents who established the Aussie Values party devoted to “stopping the boats” and keeping Australia free of the taint of multiculturalism.

Michael first sees Mina on the opposing side during a confrontation between “Aussie Values” and an anti-racist group at a protest gathering. The kind of protest that is becoming increasingly familiar on Australian news programs. There’s no way he can realise how that brief glimpse of a Muslim girl will change his life.

Chapters alternate between the viewpoints of the title characters, starting with Michael, then moving on to Mina. Each chapter helps build up their stories to show us what has shaped their lives and current situations, and also how their developing relationship brings change.

I found the book very relevant in an Australia obsessed with “border control” where election results can be turned upon glib, three word slogans of exclusion. It has relevance when fear and racism can win votes.

It was one of those un-put-downable novels that  was a pleasure to read.

 

Author’s website: http://www.randaabdelfattah.com/

Publisher’s website: http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/9781743534977

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

golden ageI read this over two days during my Christmas break and I’d love to write something that could express how much I enjoyed it. But I wouldn’t want my own expressive shortcomings to diminish anyone’s impression of the book through any “review” I wrote.

The story is set in the early 1970s during the civil war that led to Bangladesh winning independence from Pakistan. A brief glimpse of that time and its human cost is given through the experiences of the Haque family (mother, daughter and son) and their neighbours.
It’s a period of history that I knew nothing about before reading this book, apart from remembering that George Harrison had arranged a benefit concert and album on behalf of Bangladesh when I was a young teen.

I found the book had a slight similarity to the work of Nadeem Aslam, one of my favourite writers, exploring political ambiguities and occasional brutality in a vividly poetic way through an intimate human story.

My disappointment at coming to the end of the book and leaving the lives of the Haques has been tempered by the knowledge that the family story continues in another book The Good Moslem.

The final part of what I’ve heard is intended to be a trilogy has yet to be released.

Beersheba, by Paul Daley

BeershebaOn 31st October 1917, the Australian Light Horse played a significant role in the capture of Beersheba from Turkish Ottoman control. Paul Daley looks at a variety of views of the Beersheba battle and the Light Horse charge in his book Beersheba. The book’s subtitle “A journey through Australia’s forgotten war”, reflects the general national ignorance of this part of Australian military history.

The final assault leading to the capture of the small town and its wells was an unorthodox horseback charge across open ground towards the Turkish defensive trenches. A charge of that type was not the usual Light Horse tactic. They generally acted as horse born infantry, riding to a battleground, where they dismounted, leaving their horses in the care of a designated handler, and then acted as infantry on foot.

In the charge at Beersheba they remained mounted, and relied on their horses to get them to the trenches where they would engage the enemy in brutal hand to hand combat.

The_Lighthorsemen_DVDThe 1987 film The Lighthorsemen, based on the charge at Beersheba, shows the Turkish troops being thrown into confusion by the audacity of the Light Horsemens’ action. Expecting them to dismount as usual, the Turks were taken by surprise, making it difficult to set the range of their artillery and rifle sights.

Daley is a journalist, not a historian, so he takes a much more personal approach to his subject, visiting the sites associated with the battle and combining his own experience of the place with his historical research as well as investigating how others today have been influenced by the events of almost a century ago.

Those other people include:
Joe Hockey, the treasurer in the current Australian government, whose Armenian grandfather had the task of rebuilding Beersheba after the war.

Businessman Richard Pratt who financed the Park of the Australian Soldier outside of modern Beersheba to commemorate the Anzac role in the battle.

And Kelvin Crombie who at the time of Daley’s book was an Australian long-time resident of Israel. Crombie has a strong belief that the battle of Beersheba and the subsequent Anzac involvement that removed Palestine from centuries of Ottoman rule was part of a Divine plan that led to the re-establishment of Israel as a nation 30 years later. He notes that the victory was won on the same day that the Balfour Declaration was announced, promising Jews a homeland in Palestine.

Apart from the Beersheba battle itself, Daley also uncovers a less glorious aspect of Anzac history, a post war revenge attack on an Arab village in which many of the male villagers were murdered as a reprisal for the killing of a New Zealand soldier by an Arab in the nearby military camp.

Beersheba was a turning point and was followed by a chain of victories that led on to the surrender of Jerusalem to British forces, then on to Damascus in Syria and the eventual, overall surrender of the Ottoman Turks at the end of October 1918. Less than two weeks later, four years of war ended with the armistice declared on 11 November.

Australian Light Horsemen, and the view from the Mount of Olives

Australian Light Horsemen, and the view from the Mount of Olives

Flight Command by John Oddie

flight-command I first saw John Oddie in a documentary about official war artist Ben Quilty. Oddie was sitting for a series of portraits that are currently part of the After Afghanistan exhibition at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.*

The paintings of Oddie are haunting.  In Oddie’s words Quilty had “not only captured the worn-out air commodore… he had somehow seen and exposed the burden I was carrying and had yet to understand.”

When I knew that Oddie had written this autobiography, I added the book to my reading list, wanting to know more about the man and the “burden”  Quilty had revealed in his paintings.john oddie

After a short introduction into his family background, Oddie moves on to the difficult technicalities of learning to fly various types of aircraft. He covers both fixed wing and helicopters as he progresses through his training and into operational flying. Some of that went completely over my head but in doing so I was left in no doubt about the skill and determination needed to become an accomplished pilot, especially one flying under difficult and dangerous conditions.

As the pilot of a Chinook, one of those familiar, large double rotored helicopters, Oddie had the opportunity to be seconded to an RAF unit in Europe and during this time became part of Britain’s involvement with the first gulf war. One of my favourite anecdotes in the book relates to this period when the RAF (Oddie included) mislaid 14 Chinook helicopters.chinook

Later in the book Oddie moves on to the management side of his experience, as he progressed through the ranks and had to deal more with the bureaucratic aspects of the military. One thing seems clear, that he was intent on improving the way things were done to help his crews increase their efficiency and their safety.

One of Oddie’s more significant roles was overseeing the first response to the 2004 tsunami that devastated so many communities around the Indian Ocean. Oddie’s role was taking aid into Aceh, the worst hit region where around 160,000 lost their lives. Working 22 hour days, Oddie  organised the the aerial delivery of supplies and evacuation of survivors while acting as diplomat alongside the Indonesian military and other aid agencies (many of whom were determined to do things their own way despite the wishes of the local authorities).  I found this to be one of the more interesting parts of the book,  contrasting the earlier technical and bureaucratic elements with the emotional cost of a major disaster. Here is the first glimpse of the “burden” captured in Quilty’s portraits.

Oddie’s final operational military role was overseeing Australian involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a time of many challenges when several Australian servicemen lost their lives.  He writes:

In the eight months I was Deputy Commander JTF633, eight of our people were killed, and I reflect sadly on that price and the eight families damaged as a result…

…By the time I sat down to write this book, Australia had lost forty of its finest sons and over 250 had been injured. In total, including those with lasting emotional or mental damage, well over 300 families will be affected.

Flight Command gives an overview of a military career from recruitment to retirement; from the technical aspects of operating military hardware to dealing with personnel and reducing the risks they face in a high risk occupation. It also shows the emotional cost that is felt most keenly when constant pressure is removed.

What I initially thought was exhaustion from eight months of work in a stressful environment, I later felt was some emotional damage. This increasingly surfaced as the demands of being an active and present military leader faded.

For me the strong points of this book were the parts showing the more human aspects of Oddie’s military service, how people were affected by what they saw and what they did. And also the effects of knowing they couldn’t do enough when a need was too large or a bad situation was unpreventable.

It was the portrait of a haunted man that brought me to this book. While its intensity may not match the painting (for me there was too much technical information I couldn’t follow), we do get quite a bit of insight into the emotional cost of Oddie’s experiences and responsibilities.

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* Ben Quilty’s After Afghanistan Exhibition:  http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/quilty/

The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam

wasted vigilI’m writing this before I’ve finished the book, because Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil is book that I don’t want to end. I want to write something about it now before I face the disappointment of reaching the last page.

 There have been books I’ve read recently that I haven’t wanted to put down, that I read at every opportunity until I finished them. This one is different. It isn’t a gripping page-turner to be consumed like fast food, it’s something I want to savour – and enjoy for as long as possible.

 Two years ago my wife took me to lunch on my birthday. We ate at a cafe attached to a commercial art gallery. Both of us ordered vegetable lasagne, and were initially disappointed when the meal was served. It seemed tiny in comparison to our expectations – and apart from a small quenelle of pesto on top, a small rectangle of lasagne was all that was on the plate. There wasn’t even a token garnish of lettuce leaves.

But as soon as we had the first taste,  all disappointment vanished. Every mouthful was rich with the flavours of roasted capsicum, eggplant, zucchini and sun dried tomato, with an occasional burst of pesto…

…but this is not about food. I mentioned that because reading this book gives me the same kind of rich experience, full of different flavours.

quote 1 Set in Afghanistan some time after George W Bush made it the focus of his war on terror, the book sweeps across the country’s turbulent history, throughout which  local war lords and foreign invaders have preyed on the population.  Only the source of oppression or hardship changes: warlords, Russians, The Taliban/Al Qaeda and the United States all have the same kind of  effect on the people, creating fear through the threat of death, disability or even hell’s fire.

The main characters in the book are representative of the major powers of recent Afghan history. All of them are brought together for various reasons in the house of an English doctor who moved to Afghanistan decades before after falling in love with (and marrying) an Afghan woman, also a doctor.

 There’s a Russian woman searching for information about her brother who went missing after trying to defect while he was part of the Russian occupying force in the 80s; a former CIA agent who was part of US involvement with Afghan warlords opposing the Russian occupiers; and then there’s a young man devoted to the Taliban and Al Qaeda who needs to take refuge (hiding his true identity) when he is mistakenly seen to be a traitor by his fellow terrorists.

 This strange collection of “housemates” allows the author to give a vivid and disturbing look at the plight of average Afghan people and the ongoing suffering under several regimes and the various conflicts waged around them.

quote 2The author gets into the minds of each character so that the reader can “understand” what motivates them. The young terrorist is a particularly interesting example, as we are shown how his corrupted world view has been shaped by religiously motivated misinformation to create a hatred for anyone not taking the extreme path that has been instilled into him from childhood.  (Did you know that the Americans have always hated Islam so much that they even assassinated their Moslem President” Ibraheem Lankan”?)

The book presents many heartbreakingly cruel and violent incidents that the western mind would find hard to understand: especially that such things could be officially sanctioned, or at least tolerated, not only by the Taliban, but also, when politically expedient, by the Russians and Americans. But although very disturbing to the reader, those incidents are not treated graphically or gratuitously. Its not the physical horror being highlighted, but the human cost.

 It is a beautifully written, intellectually stimulating book with a compelling story, vivid in imagery and touching multiple senses while stirring the conscience. It ought to be read by every politician potentially in the position of committing troops to conflicts in foreign place.

 

 

 

Bravo Two Zero, Andy McNab

BravoBravo Two Zero isn’t a book I would have chosen to read. A work colleague told me that he never read books until he came across Andy McNab’s stories, and he lent me this autobiographical account of McNab’s involvement in the first gulf war.

The prominent thing I see in the book is how little life is valued in war and how men can be uncompromisingly brutal, committing unthinkable atrocities against “the enemy”.

Most of the book gives graphic detail of the obscene treatment of McNab by his Iraqi captors during his time as a prisoner of war. I had to wonder whether that kind of treatment of prisoners by their Iraqi captors was the norm and if so what does it reveal about their national character?
And then I recalled the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by their US captors a decade later during the second gulf war and I saw that the capability of inhumanity is within us all, ready to be exposed when faced with the “right” circumstances.

McNab’s experience also shows another side of human nature. After an extended period of brutal bashing, threats of death, being kept in the filthiest of conditions and being denied adequate food and water, McNab reveals:

“For fifteen minutes one night I found God…and I had a little discussion with him.
“’Come and help me now,’ I pleaded. ‘If you help me now, I’ll be your best mate forever. If you’re there, f***ing do something about this. We need your help now – all of us. If you’re there, do it, and I’ll be putting pennies in your pot every day.’

“I said as much of the Lord’s Prayer as I could remember from school, but nothing happened. God did not exist”

I think the above quote (sadly) reveals more about mankind than the obscene inhumanity demonstrated in the killing and torturing described throughout the rest of the book. In fact the sentiment revealed in that quote exposes why such inhumanity is possible. It is the literal belittling of God: reducing Him to a being required to jump to our service when we finally see fit to turn to Him.

Thinking that He can be won over by the promise of mateship, or the offer of daily “pennies”. Expecting Him to act the second we call out – despite having ignored and dismissed Him throughout the rest of our lives.

Looking at Him like a lamp-bound genie, whose existence is disproved when he doesn’t immediately appear at our command to grant our wishes