Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Few Photos of Arizona

 After the writers’ conference at San Diego, I went to Arizona. (Most of the east coast of the USA was having really bad weather.) In Phoenix, the Capitol, I went to the few museums they have in the center of town – there aren’t that many. One museum, the Arizona Science Center, had the display “Bodyworks”, by Gunther von Hagens, which consists of preserved plasticized human corpses which are opened up, so you can see all the internal organs. It’s very strange to look at what once were real people. Is it morbid? Yes, sort of, but is it any different to looking at an ancient Egyptian mummy? Maybe not. The Heard Museum has displays of Native American crafts and artifacts

Phoenix is full of cactus plants and red scoria gravel where other cities have grass. I guess they just have to fit in with their climate.

A friend of a friend was good enough to drive me to Sedona, a town built in the middle of canyons that show the layers of rocks very clearly. We also saw “Rawhide,” a reconstructed Wild West town, complete with acted shootouts etc. I’ve included some photos below. I imagine the first settlers found this very inhospitable countryside to visit. It’s a wonder they didn’t pack up and go home. Still, America was founded with that spirit of exploration and setting off into possibly adverse conditions – kind of like the first explorers in Australia who crossed the Great Dividing Range that’s a couple of hundred miles in from the east coast of Australia. When they got to the other side and saw the harsh conditions, it surprising they didn’t go, “Hey I’m out of here.” Wills and Bourke, two of our most famous explorers, died because they miscalculated how far you had to travel before you’d find water. There are parallels. Anyway, some  pictures are below.

Near Sedona (1)

Guess why not many people live out here?


Yours truly with some rocks in the background.

The rock formations are just beautiful.

Abandoned. It's hard to imagine someone lived here once.

Side view of Scorpion Gulch

Quite spectacular rock formations.

also near Sedona

Playing Sherrif at Rawhide

Entrance to rawhide

Didn't know there were puple cacti.

Horse riding competition at rawhide

On the road out of Sedona

Elizabeth who drove me around - thanks!

On the Edge of the Lake (scroll down for life on the lake.)

Here are some more pictures of people who live on Tonle Sap lake, in Cambodia, at the end of the lake  near Siem Reap
Houses on the edge of the lake. When the lake fills, the water will come almost to floor level. On the opposite side of the house (where you can't see) steps lead down to the road level.

Housing on the edge of the lake.

In the midst of poverty, a mobile phone tower.

Some Photos of the Floating Village in Cambodia

 Some new photos: In Cambodia there is a whole community that lives in boats, flaoting houses built of floors of thick bamboo, and deconstructable houses on stilts in the middle of the Tonle Sap lake. These people fish, and also keep live stock (in cages, on floors of floating bamboo) on the lake. Here are some photos. At the height of the rany season, some of them dismantle their houses and move them to land.

In the rainy season this house can be dismantled.


The school


Pigs in floating cage

Me on boat in Tonle Sap

An Interesting Site About Amish and ex-Amish

Withing 12 hours of posting the book review below I got a comment from a guy who runs this website, about people who disagree with Amish and support people who leave the church. The issue of people confusing  culture with religious rules is so similar to what crops up in Hirsi Ali’s and Ishad Manji’s books about what’s Islam and what’s North African or what’s Arabic culture. Take a look at his site. Whether you’re Christian or not, it’s intersting. (See the link below.) There is a six-part BBC documentary about a couple of families that leave/get expelled from the Amish. One of the critical issues is that they are reading the Bible in English! Most Amish are given Bibles in Old German, which they can’t understand. But of course, information is power, and restricting the ability of the ordinary Amish to understand what’s in the Bible helps the elders to maintain power over the flock.

And I Always Thought the Amish were Just Cute and Cuddly

I have just finished reading “Crossing Over” by Ruth “Irene” Garrett (Harper 2003.) I had always pictured the Amish as those cute folksy old guys with their horse and buggies, just living their 1600s lifestyle in the 20th century. Well, cute they may be, until you try to leave them.

The picture Garret  paints of life in the Amish is of a very joyless existence, with an overbearing father, dominance of the men over the women, psychological manipulation, a religion fixated on hell, and a desire on her part not to end up with the diminished life her mother has lead. In this she reminds me of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her description of her Somali Muslim family (see elsewhere in this blog).

Amish are bought up for childhood to believe that the “English” (read non-Amish) world is full of sin and depravity, only the Amish will be saved, and anyone who leaves the Amish church must be shunned (unless perhaps you leave for the closely related Mennonite church – see Wikipedia for an explanation of Mennonite and Amish). In practical terms, your family won’t speak to you (except for the purpose of telling you that your soul is going to hell and you need to repent and come back.) Irene Garret made the mistake of falling in love with the “English” mini-bus driver the family employed when they needed to go longer distances than the horse and buggy are good for. But Irene marries the driver (“Ottie”) and is excommunicated from the church.

Amish horse and buggy

When she tries to visit her family, she must do it by surprise in order to avoid a group of the (male) elders ganging up on her and turning the visit into some psychological browbeating session. (Compare Hirsi Ali’s description of the clan conference called when her relatives find out where she is in Holland.)

The family’s letters to Irene after she leaves consist of little more than manipulative repetitions of the pain her leaving has caused everyone, how ‘empty” the home is without her, and how unless she returns she will go to hell. An organised boycott of Ottie’s calendars (which contain photos of Amish buggies) and of his published directory of Amish families lead to his forced sale of the business at a loss. Not nice, eh?

Why do some religions behave like this?

Once you have a group that believes it and it alone hold the pathway to heaven, it provides a justification for limiting members’ contacts with the outside world. If you meet enough people of other beliefs you might just discover that they are in most cases morally no better nor worse than you and your kin. And then what would happen to in-group conformity?

Shunning is a cruel form of emotional blackmail to keep members in line.

And the dominance of men over women? Leaves me puzzled. Like Amish, like Islam like the Roman Catholic church. Do these guys realise how much they have in common?

 Church members  are not taught to think independently and question, and this in turn again makes Garrets experience of the Amish similar to Hirsi Ali’s experience of Islam. If women were taught to think for themselves, argue and debate, who knows what might happen to the existing power structures. But that’s not likely to happen in the Amish church anytime soon.

Film: “The King’s Speech”

I just saw Colin Firth, playing Prince Albert (“Bertie” to his family,  later to become King George VI), Geoffrey Rush as Speech Therapist Lionel Logue , and Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth, the former queen Mother, in The King’s Speech. Colin Firth’s acting is superb as the stuttering prince.

How are we made to feel sympathy for the main character? We see Bertie trying to cope with the embarrassment of his stutter, and we see other people turn their heads to avoid looking at him as he makes public speeches. We learn that was made to change at the age of five or thereabouts from being left handed to being right handed, and bound into splints to stop him from being “knock kneed.” (See * below for Wikipedia on knock knees.)  He and his brother were taken to their parents for the “daily viewing”, and the nanny would pinch him before they went in to make him cry. The nanny would then leave him without food. He was terrified of  his father. His father shouts at him to get his words out, then tells him to relax. Later Bertie tells Logue that his father once said “I was afraid of my father and my children will be bloody well be afraid of me.” It’s little wonder that he grew up to be described by Logue as “afraid of his own shadow.” “Bertie” makes progress with his speech, but this comes undone when his older brother mocks him.

At the beginning of the film the power-play between Bertie, his wife  and the therapist is cleverly done. Logue insists on seeing the prince at his own rooms, not at the palace, and tells him that it’s “my castle” and they play according to “my rules.” Desperate for a solution to their problem, the royals give in.

The sense of conflict or tension in the film comes from (i) Bertie trying to overcome his stammer (ii) the impending crisis as his older brother, the King, wants to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, (iii) Bertie’s reluctance to assume the throne, (iv) Bertie’s feeling that Logue has become ‘too familiar’ at points, and breaks of the relationship temporarily, and (vi) Bertie’s fear, even after he takes the throne, that, because his brother is still alive, the brother may attempt a comeback.

The audience is made unsympathetic to Wallis Simpson when Bertie and his wife arrive at Balmoral or Sandringham (I can’t remember which) and Simpson refers to it as “ ‘our’ country shack.” The presumptuousness built into this line is wonderful.

I’d recommend this film as five-star material. Go see it.


* I confess I had to look “knock knees” up in Wikipedia where it is defined as: Genu Valgum, commonly called “knock-knees”, is a condition where the knees angle in and touch one another when the legs are straightened. Individuals with severe valgus deformities are typically unable to touch their feet together while simultaneously straightening the legs.

What I’m Reading: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I’ve recently finished  reading “Gilead” (2004) by Marilynne Robinson. Her first novel, “Housekeeping” (1981) got a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and Gilead got a Pulitzer Prize. It is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. The book is essentially a letter from a father (John Ames) in his seventies to his young son, who is seven years old. The father has some illness – he refers to heart disease on page 4 – and knows he will die soon. He recounts the family history back to the time of his own grandfather’s involvement in the American Civil War. Most of the action takes place in the town of Gilead, Iowa, where the main character, his father, and grandfather have all been Congregationalist Ministers. The narrator is writing in 1956, although this did not become clear to me until he states in one passage that he will vote for Eisenhower in this current presidential election, if he lives long enough (p.107).

The book doesn’t really have a plot in the conventional sense. There is an antagonist: the son of the narrator’s best friend. The son was named John Ames (“Jack”) Boughton after the narrator. The narrator baptised the Jack Boughton, the son of his best friend, and did not know until the baptism that the parents had decided to name the child after him. He didn’t like it.  Throughout the book the author drops hints that Jack Boughton is untrustworthy and deceitful, and we know that Jack Boughton has left home in some sort of disgrace.

Eventually (p.257) we learn that Jack Boughton has a coloured de-facto wife (named Della) and a child in Tennessee, where marriage between blacks and whites is illegal. The wife was a school teacher. The woman’s father does not approve of the relationship, and Jack’s own father doesn’t know of it.

The author is clever in the way she drops references to Jack Boughton’s character through the book.

Jack Boughton talks about going to tent revival meetings because there is no alcohol there (implying that he is an alcoholic) and he refers to working as a shoe salesman, saying  “there’s very little money in it, but you don’t get arrested for it, either.” (p.256).

During this conversation Jack Boughton refers to the narrator’s marriage containing such an age difference.  (I think there is a 20 or 30 year age difference between them but cannot locate  the passage which tells us this.) Consider this passage in which Jack Boughton is telling the narrator about his marriage:

“…’You know a little about being the object of scandal. Unequally yoked and so on. Of course, Della is an educated woman.’ Those were his very words.

Now that was just like him. That meanness. And his remark was not even to the point. And I never felt there was anything the least bit scandalous about my marriage. In her own way, your mother is a woman of great refinement “ (p.262)

Eventually Amis manages to bless jack, and Jack leaves the town, expecting never to come back. (p.276).

I’m surprised that this book managed to hold my attention for as long as it took to finish it. I normally go for fairly tight actioned thrillers, and this is as far away from that genre as it’s possible to get.

Aayan Hirsi Ali’s “The Caged Virgin”

This isn’t so much a book review as a few thoughts sparked off by Aayan Hirsi Ali’s “The Caged Virgin.” The book is a collection of essays, but Hirsi Ali sums up some of her positions in the preface to the book.

In regard to Islam she says:

(first)  “… a Muslims relationship with God is one of fear.” (p.x)

(second) “… Islam only knows one moral source: the Prophet Muhammad.”  (p.xi)

(third) “…Islam is strongly dominated by a sexual morality derived from Arab values dating from the time the Prophet received his instructions from Allah, a culture in which women were the property of their fathers, brothers uncles , grandfathers or guardians. The essence of a woman is reduced to her hymen…. A man’s reputation and honor depend entirely on the respectable, obedient behaviour of the female members of his family.” (p.xi)

In the opening essay, “Why Can’t We Take a Critical Look at Ourselves?” she says “…we Muslims have religion inculcated in us from birth, and this is one of the very reasons for our falling behind the West in technology finance and health.” (p.7).

Hirsi Ali repeatedly points out the unequal, and sometimes appalling treatment of women in Muslim countries: girls who have been raped getting flogged in addition (p.72), and an alleged 5,000 “honour killings” of girls every year in Muslim countries. (p.12.)

She returns at various points to the claim that Muslim society has fallen behind the west. I do not recall the page, but at some point she makes the claim that the big advances of the last 100 years have come from the west. She does not explicitly name them, but she might be thinking of things like air travel, immunisation, television, organ transplants, the internet, or many other technological advances. (One might add that some of the blights on modern society like fast food, and the processed manufactured gunk that a lot of us eat also came from the west.)

She refers to a United Nations report (Arab Human Development Report, 2002)  (P.45 of her book) in which twenty-two Muslim countries are examined and which comes to the conclusion that “the (Arab)  region  … is plagued by three key deficits that can be considered defining features: a lack of freedom; disempowerment of women; and a lack of capabilities or knowledge.”

Thinking about this set me searching for Muslim responses to Hirsi Ali on the internet. It was hard to find them at first, because the search engines initially throw up Hirsi Ali herself, including many videos of her interviews.

One site I came across was  maintained by a Pakistani woman. This site is not specifically related to Hirsi Ali, but it contains examples of honor killings by Christians and murder by Christians in Ghana who burned a woman to death for being a witch. The site also quotes the old testament verses about raped women becoming the wives of their rapists. The Old Testament contains some very violent passages.

See  but  you need to scroll down through 6-8 entries.

Another site that does specifically discuss Hirsi Ali’s “Infidel” is

It’s hard to summarize his views, but he states that “The drama, deceit, and sensationalism kept me hooked, I guess.” He makes a legitimate point, I think when he points out that Ali never refers to Christian fundamentalists in the US:  “I am not sure where and when she educated herself about Judaism and Christianity, but she seems to have completely overlooked each of these religion’s fundamentalist strains.”

I also found a site that discusses Christian witch hunts in Africa and Papua New Guinea and Hindu witch killings in India:

What I’m Reading: I am Nujood, Aged 10, Divorced.

Book review: I Am Nujood, Aged 10, Divorced.

I don’t know where or how I bought this book. Perhaps, having read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s account of growing up in Somalia, I was attracted by the title, wondering what life was like for other women in the middle-eastern world. At any rate, the title certainly gets your attention. Since Nujood is only 10 years old, the book is co-authored (or should I say ghost written?) by French journalist Delphine Minoui.

In a nutshell, Nujood grows up in rural Yemen: I confess I had to look it up on a map to discover that it is the country south of Saudi Arabia. If you wanted to go from the Indian Ocean up the red sea to the Suez canal, to the Mediterranean, Yemen would be the first country you passed on your right hand side. Although the legal age of marriage in Yemen is fifteen, her father marries her off at the age of ten. His reasons? That two of her sisters have been kidnapped and that, the family being poor, the marriage of Nujood will mean one les mouth to feed. The husband is about thirty, and takes her virginity on their wedding night, despite having promised to wait until she reached puberty.

The book touches, perhaps unconsciously, on themes that Hirsi Ali deals with, in particular, the way women are taught to be submissive:

“In Khardji, the village where I was born, women are not taught how to make choices.” (p.23)

“Since forever,” writes Nujood, “I have learned to say yes to everything.” (p.18)

After a trip back to her family, she tries to get help from her immediate family, but no one has any advice except her father’s second wife, Dowla, who lives separately to the rest of the family, and who first suggests that she go to court, seek a divorce, and gives her some money to help with the trip. In the court room, after she had told her story to a judge, she attracts the attention of a prominent female lawyer, Shada Nasser.

So what has become of Nujood now? She states: “ I recently left my uncle’s house and returned to live with my parents, because in my country, there are no shelters for girls who are the victims of family violence.” (p.130). The royalties from the book will pay for an education, but Nujood is currently only in second grade. Journalists still come to visit her, and her brother doesn’t like the “shame” all the publicity has brought on the family. I wonder where she’ll be in five years time.

It’s a well written book, and gives an insight into a life most of in the west have no idea about.

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