Reading Notes: People of the Book

My boyfriend purchased the new Geraldine Brooks novel for my mom’s birthday. And it started a discussion about how much my mother loved People of the Book so I borrowed it. It was actually my surprise last-read of 2015.

Brooks wrote Bosnia convincingly. She was there during the war as a journalist covering what was going on. She managed to capture both the magic of the city and the fear that the war created. It was comforting to read accurate descriptions of home, words like ‘rakija’ (a popular alcohol) and ‘fildzan’ (coffee cup) were sprinkled within the text.

I have some pretty disjointed thoughts, less about the book itself and more about what it reminded me of.

The wide avenues of Austro-Hungarian Sarajevo had gradually given way to the narrow, cobbled footpaths of the Ottoman town, where you could stretch out your arms and almost touch buildings on opposite sides of the way. The buildings were small scale, as if built for halflings, and pressed together so tightly that they reminded me of tipsy friends, holding each other upright on the way home from the pub. Large parts of this area had been out of range of the Serb guns, so the damage here was much less evident than in the modern city. From a minaret, the khoja called the faithful to aksham, the evening prayer. It was a sound I associated with hot places – Cairo, Damascus – not a place where frost crunched underfoot and pockets of unmelted snow gathered in the crotch between the mosque’s dome and its stone palisade. I had to remind myself that Islam had once swept north as far as the gates of Vienna; that when the haggadah had been made, the Muslims’ vast empire was the bright light of the Dark Ages, the one place where science and poetry still flourished, where Jews, tortured and killed by Christians, could find a measure of peace.

The khoja of this small mosque was an old man, but his voice carried, unwavering and beautiful on the cold night air. Only a handful of other old men answered; shuffling across the cobbled courtyard, dutifully washing their hands and faces in the icy water of the fountain. I stopped for a moment to watch them. Karaman was ahead of me, but he turned back, and followed my gaze. “There they are,” he said. “The fierce Muslim terrorists of the Serb imagination.” – page 27

There’s this homey feeling to being in the old part of Sarajevo that she perfectly captures. It made me recall the first time I saw Sarajevo, when I went back to Bosnia (I lived there until age 7 but not in Sarajevo).

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There’s a brief reference in the book about ‘Sniper Alley’ now being safe to walk through. Sarajevo is surrounded by hills, a perfect place for snipers to set up shop. There’s a Bosnian-made film, black humour, that uses Nike to frame the Sniper Alley narrative. That only someone quick and fast (with funding) could have actually made it across and back during the war. Getting through that alley was one of the few ways to get food and supplies – run or perish.

“I’ve always kind of admired Sarajevans for being so surprised by the war,” I said. It had seemed the rational response to me. Who wouldn’t be in a state of denial when your next-door neighbor suddenly starts shooting at you, casually and without remorse, like you’re some kind of unwanted introduced species, the way the farmers at home eradicate rabbits.

“It’s true,” he said. “Years ago, we watched Lebanon fall apart and said, ‘That’s the Middle East, they’re primitive over there.’ Then we saw Dubrovnik in flames, and we said, ‘We’re different in Sarajevo.’ That’s what we all thought. How could you possible have an ethnic war here, in this city, when every second person is the product of a mixed marriage? How to have a religious war in a city where no one ever goes to church? For me, the mosque, it’s like a museum, quaint thing to do with grandparents. Picturesque, you know. Once a year, maybe, we’d go and see the zikr, when the dervishes dance, and was like theatre – like, what do you call it? A pantomime. – page 28

I didn’t know about the Siege in Dubrovnik until I was in my 20s. I researched the war, but never what happened before it. It’s easy to say that the signs were there, that hindsight is 20/20. That’s how my parents describe it. Having the character reference it here hurt, the truth of the words stung.

He told the group that he couldn’t wait to get back there, to Eretz Israel. “I am jealous of every sunrise I am not there to see the white stones of the Jordan Valley turn to gold.” – page 49

(This passage was just pretty.)

The rich aroma made Lola’s mouth water. She stared around her. She had never seen so many books. The apartment’s walls were lined with them. It wasn’t a large apartment, but everything it it had an easy grace, as if it had always been there. Low wooden tables, inlaid with mother-of-pearl in the Turkish style, had yet more books open upon them. Celims in muted colors warmed the gleaming waxed floors. The mangala was very old, the copper burnished, the hemispherical cover decorated with crescents and stars.

Stela turned and handed Lola a delicate porcelain fildzan, also with a crescent and star glazed into the bottom of the cup. – page 54

I remember walking through the shop where the fildzan sets are made. The shop feels like a small closet that you have to take a step down to enter. It’s been family owned for as long as anyone can remember. And it’s been a shop that makes just those fildzan sets for as long as anyone can remember.

On the last trip I took with my parents to Bosnia, some long-time friends of the family went with us. They spent more time in Sarajevo, in Bascarsija, prowling through the tiny shops than we did. At the end of the trip, they gifted my parents with a hand-hammered copper crescent-inlaid fildzan set.

Who would have thought that a single suicide – or a double suicide, more properly – could put an entire city in a sour temper? Vienna valued its suicides, especially those that were dramatic, conducted with some flourish – like the young woman who had decked herself in full bridal regalia before flinging herself from a speeding train, or the circus artist who, in the midst of his performance, had cast away his pole and leaped from the high wire to his death. The audience had applauded, because he jumped with such verve that all believed it was part of his art. – page 112

The way this was phrased felt a bit… uncomfortable. It reminded me of an equally uncomfortable cover of Life magazine. A photographer captured Evelyn McHale, who committed suicide by jumping from the Empire State Building and landed on a car. The photographer said she looked beautiful, like she was sleeping. Taking a photo of someone in that manner, calling it beautiful, glorified the suicide. The words that frame the photo were, as expected, ‘tragic,’ ‘melancholy.’ And yet it still felt uncomfortable.

The conventional thing in Arabic is to say, “May all your sorrows now be behind you.” But I didn’t have a clue what Bosnian Muslims said to each other to express condolences. – page 270

The proper thing to say, in all of Bosnia is ‘primite moje saučešće.’ It isn’t exclusive to one ethnic group or another. We all mourn the same way.

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