‘Rebecca’ – at 80 …

Posted on March 3, 2018. Filed under: Books |

From The Wire – Once dismissed as a mere ‘love story’, Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece is a novel that has haunted and enchanted generations of readers.

Her boat had been found with its queer prophetic name, Je Reviens, but I was free of her forever.

The name of Rebecca de Winter’s boat – Je Reviens (“I will return”) is a chilling promise that lies at the heart of Daphne du Maurier’s bestselling novel – and, despite the narrator’s bold claim, neither du Maurier herself nor the reading public has ever been free of Rebecca. Celebrating its 80th anniversary year with a new edition published by Virago, Rebecca is a novel that has haunted and enchanted generations of readers, who find themselves drawn to return to Manderley again and again.

Recently voted the nation’s favourite book  of the past 225 years and repeatedly adapted for stage and screen – most famously by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940 – why does Rebecca retain its power to captivate and challenge readers, 80 years on?

Rebecca’s famous opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, sets the scene for a novel in which dreams become nightmares, obsessions take root in the mind – and a lost house of secrets feels as real as any of its inhabitants, living or dead. Nothing is at it seems in this novel in which du Maurier, the consummate plotter, is always one step ahead, pulling the strings and surprising us time after time.

Famous for its rich evocation of the secretive mansion Manderley and its first mistress, the effervescent and treacherous Rebecca, the novel beguiles and deceives by turns as we are compelled to delve beneath the surface glamour that skilfully veils what du Maurier’s biographer Tatiana de Rosnay  calls its “muted violence and suppressed sexuality”.

“Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca”, laments the second Mrs de Winter, the shy, gauche creature who is repeatedly overshadowed by her glorious and vibrant predecessor. But then she muses: “Perhaps I haunted her as she haunted me”, betraying that spark of nerve that hovers at the edge of her narration. The young, impressionable girl who cowers before the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, and shrinks in the face of her responsibilities as mistress of Manderley, is in fact the controlling voice of the story.

She might begin by telling us that “there would be no resurrection … For Manderley was ours no longer. Manderley was no more”. But it is by the power of her feverish and intense imagination that the house rises up before us and we risk losing ourselves down its serpentine drive, overcome by the monstrous blood-red rhododendrons, but drawn on by an uncontrollable desire to know what is hidden in du Maurier’s “house of secrets”.

Menabily in Fowey, Cornwall: the house that inspired Rebecca. Credit: Wikipedia

The narrator’s passion for Manderley was inspired by du Maurier’s own longing for the Cornish house, Menabilly, that she had discovered abandoned “like the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale”, waiting to be awakened by an intrepid trespasser such as herself. She began writing the novel in the sticky heat of Alexandria, Egypt, where she had accompanied her husband, Frederick Browning, on a military posting, leaving her beloved Cornwall behind but remaining “possessed” by the house – “even as a mistress holds her lover”.

Five years after Rebecca was published, du Maurier realised her dream of living at Menabilly, after convincing the owners to lease it to her, but the entailed house would never be hers and indeed she was heartbroken to have to move out in 1969. Like Manderley itself, Menabilly represented both love and loss, a house which possessed its tenant but to which she could never, ultimately, return.

Du Maurier described Rebecca as a “study in jealousy” – and that jealousy snakes its way into the heart, not just of Mrs de Winter, but of Mrs Danvers and Maxim de Winter as well.

Maxim the Menace

A favourite codeword in du Maurier’s secret language among friends and family was the term “menace”, used for an attractive individual. But “menaces” like Rebecca de Winter often attract and repel in equal measure – and they need to be controlled. Just after the narrator has agreed to Maxim’s most unromantic of proposals in Monte Carlo: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” – she comes upon a book inscribed with Rebecca’s distinctive handwriting. Emboldened by the thought of her marriage, she not only neatly excises the offending page and tears it into pieces, she sets it on fire and watches, with satisfaction, as the curling R crumbles to dust. Such flashes of power are easily missed in the novel but when Mrs de Winter returns to Manderley, Rebecca’s presence is not so easily extinguished.

Much of Rebecca’s “menace” derives from the housekeeper Mrs Danvers’ obsession with her former mistress, whose room and possessions she devotedly preserves, stroking Rebecca’s furs and delicate nightgowns, and conjuring up an irresistible image of a seductive and rebellious woman whose presence in the house is inescapable. “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?”, Mrs Danvers asks. “Sometimes I wonder if she comes back here to Manderley and watches you and Mr de Winter together.”

A still from the 1940 Hitchcock film: Rebecca. Credit: 20th Century Fox

But it is Maxim himself, patriarch of the aptly named Manderley, who is the most dangerous character in this novel, not the supposedly vampiric and deviant Rebecca. Even the sepulchral Mrs Danvers, who tempts Mrs de Winter into oblivion at an open window, has to take second place to Maxim. In the context of the #MeToo movement, his treatment of his first wife – who had the audacity not merely to betray him but to laugh at him – triggers a stomach-churning recognition of misogyny that modern readers are chilled to find that the second Mrs de Winter cheerfully ignores. Maxim de Winter is far more menacing than the ghost of his first wife.

Rebecca is a novel that has haunted du Maurier’s literary reputation, for both good and ill. Wrongly promoted by her publisher Victor Gollancz as an “exquisite love story”, du Maurier’s critical standing has been hampered by her misrepresentation as a “romantic” novelist and Rebecca’s popularity has often been an excuse for snobbery and dismissal by the critics.

The ConversationBut when we return to the novel, 80 years on, and step into the vivid and dangerous dreamworld of Manderley, “secretive and silent as it had always been”, du Maurier’s creative power cannot be in doubt. We will never be free from Rebecca – nor would we want to be.

Laura Varnam, Lecturer in English Literature, University of Oxford

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Another Viet Nam Regret …

Posted on January 18, 2018. Filed under: Books |

The Truth Behind “A Bright Shining Lie” By Patrick Sauer a writer in Brooklyn.

More than 58,000 United States soldiers died in the Vietnam War, but in the world of letters, the death of a single American civilian came to represent the entire jungle quagmire. John Paul Vann went down in a helicopter crash on June 9, 1972. Four presidential administrations and a societal shift in recognizing Vietnam veterans later, Vann, a former lieutenant colonel and the first “civilian general” to lead American troops in combat, was memorialized in Neil Sheehan’s masterpiece, “A Bright Shining Lie.”

Thirty years on, Sheehan’s book hasn’t lost any of its astonishing power. At a September screening of the Burns-Novick documentary “The Vietnam War,” John Kerry told the audience he never understood the full extent of the anger against the war until he read “A Bright Shining Lie,” which showed him that all the way up the chain of command “people were just putting in gobbledygook information, and lives were being lost based on those lies and those distortions.”

What makes the book particularly compelling is that it is both a broad look at the folly of the war and an intimate portrait of a chillingly Shakespearean character. Sheehan spent five years researching Vann’s life, interviewing seemingly anyone who ever met him, and nine more writing.

The years it took to complete “A Bright Shining Lie” consumed Sheehan. It was extremely hard on his wife, Susan, and their daughters; the girls were barely in elementary school when he started, and out of the house by the time he finished, with no family vacations to speak of along the way.
“I set out to write a normal-length book in a few years time, but Vann turned out to be the most extraordinarily complicated man I ever met,” Mr. Sheehan, 81, said from his Washington home. “I never thought I wouldn’t finish the book, but it was extremely draining.”

A poor Irish farm boy from Holyoke, Mass., Mr. Sheehan first went to Vietnam in 1962 for United Press International. He soon befriended Vann, a distinguished veteran of the Korean War serving as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Army.

Although he was a gung-ho warrior type and always believed the Vietnam War was winnable, Vann came to realize the attrition strategy was a failure, the constant bombing of the countryside was helping Vietcong recruitment, and the rampant corruption in the Saigon leadership, funded through American dollars, was devastating to the cause. He fought back through the news media, leaking information sometimes through Mr. Sheehan, who eventually was hired by The New York Times, some of which directly contradicted what was coming out Washington.

To Mr. Sheehan and other reporters in Vietnam, Vann’s version of what was going on rang truer than the sunny propaganda emanating from the White House. In April 1963, Vann left Vietnam, and it seemed to all the world that the Pentagon was punishing him for speaking out when he resigned from the Army that July. As the years went on, Mr. Sheehan increasingly regarded Vann as the personification of America’s long, painful war effort. But it took his death for the book idea to coalesce.

“A Bright Shining Lie” opens with an incredible scene, Vann’s funeral, full of Washington power: Senator Edward Kennedy and the Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg were in the pews; pallbearers included the former commander of United States forces in Vietnam, William Westmoreland, and a future head of the C.I.A., William Colby. Seated up front were Vann’s widow, Mary Jane, and his four sons. (Their lone daughter had just given birth.) Mr. Sheehan found himself standing in the back of the chapel. The bird’s-eye view of the high-profile crowd gave him his opening line: “It was a funeral to which they all came.”

“I was watching all these important people coming in one after another, like a class reunion,” Mr. Sheehan told me. “I talked to Susan that night and she said it sounds like this is a book.”

(“Had I known how long the book was going to take, I would’ve committed hari-kari,” Susan Sheehan said with a laugh. “I ended up writing a piece for The New York Times Magazine, ‘When Will the Book Be Done?’” )
Mr. Sheehan himself makes a smart tactical decision by letting readers get to know Vann as a soldier first. He’s a compelling figure: tough, brash, energetic, hard-headed, and with enough charisma for a dozen Audie Murphy movies. His idealism and bravery shone through after he returned to Vietnam in 1965 as a civilian pacification officer for the Agency for International Development. In 1971, Vann was made a senior adviser for the Central Highlands in charge of all military personnel, effectively a major general in the Army.

The following spring, the North Vietnamese Army launched the Easter offensive, surrounding and attacking the provincial capital Kontum with three enemy divisions. Vann was instrumental in leading the ARVN’s defense of Kontum, which prevented South Vietnam from being bisected, but as protests mounted back home, the feat barely made a ripple. The day after Kontum was secured, Vann perished in the mountains. A week later, at his Washington memorial service, Vann’s family felt that he wasn’t getting the respect he deserved.

“We all felt a pride in dad for standing up for his beliefs, because he was having a wonderful military career that was cut short,” says his eldest son, John Allen Vann, now 69.

John Allen led the family in refusing to stand at the end of the service for several dignitaries, including Secretary of State William Rogers. However, there were limits to the Vann family rebellion. Following the burial in Arlington National Cemetery, other members of the family talked middle son Jess out of handing President Richard Nixon half of his draft card, which he’d torn up in advance of an Oval Office photo op.
“At Dad’s funeral, I had long hair, but I was never a radical. I didn’t march and always respected the military, but I think my father’s career has an empty all-for-nothing feeling to it, like the Vietnam War itself,” said Jess Vann, 67.

It was, indeed, a “funeral to which they all came,” (credit Susan Sheehan for astutely changing “everyone” to “they all”), because of Vann’s stature as a military strategist and a civilian warrior. What nobody knew at the time, Mr. Sheehan included, was how much more there was to the story. John Paul Vann had secrets, including the reason he left the military.

Vann was never going to be made a general not because of his rebellions against the Pentagon, but because in 1959 he’d been charged with the statutory rape of a 15-year-old babysitter for the Vann children. As Mr. Sheehan notes, Vann “turned himself into an amateur specialist on the polygraph,” passed a lie detector test, and beat the rap, but he went to Vietnam knowing his career was already lost.

The depths of Vann’s sexual compulsions are thoroughly examined in “A Bright Shining Lie,” and they were overwhelming. Even in a world of macho libertine behavior, Vann stood out, bedding women everywhere he lived, traveled and worked, often multiple times a day. He had two longstanding mistresses in Vietnam; one he forced to get an abortion, the other had a child. Women were to be conquered. He certainly never took the feelings of his wife, Mary Jane, into consideration.

Although they eventually separated, Mary Jane stood by her man for years, even though he didn’t care if she suffered. After the statutory rape charges were dropped, she asked if he’d learned his lesson. He replied that next time he’d make “goddamn sure they’re old enough.”
“As the oldest, I knew a lot of what went on. Neil dug up a lot more and unfortunately, it’s all true,” John Allen Vann said. “In retrospect, Neil was actually kind to my father and didn’t plumb the depths of what was there. When my father wasn’t serving overseas, ours was a household of violent abuse.”

Remarkably, even with the rampant womanizing and misogyny, Mr. Sheehan is able to create empathy for John Paul Vann through his diligent reporting. He went to Vann’s home of Norfolk, Va., and found out the boy was born out of wedlock to a prostitute whose clients were upper-class men who preferred not to visit the brothel. It wasn’t out of desperation either – she was a hard-drinking partier who kept all her earnings for herself. John Paul, his stepbrother and two stepsisters were raised by Frank Vann, a decent, passive man who was intermittently employed and took the brunt of her cruelty.

Things would get worse for John Paul when he came under the wing of a young Methodist pastor, Garland Hopkins. At 14, Vann unburdened himself to Hopkins, who persuaded him to join his Boy Scout troop. Hopkins was a pedophile, and Mr. Sheehan writes there is no doubt he molested Vann. Years later, a few weeks before returning to Vietnam, Vann was staying with Hopkins. By now, the pastor had been left by his wife and child, dismissed by his church, and was facing prosecution for his continued pedophilia. Hopkins drank rat poison with strychnine, knowing Vann would find his body.

A half-century later, the hurt Vann caused the family lingers. John Allen Vann, who went on to have a successful investment banking career, spent many years in therapy to break the cycle of violence. Yet the combination of the abuse at home and the absenteeism of a military father caused rifts. John Allen avoids contact with his sister and one of his brothers. Jess Vann talks to everyone now and again, and believes the family isn’t close because of lack of proximity and the demands of modern existence, but he’s also spent most of his life alone in the mountains, working as an ecologist in Colorado.

The Vann family realities are murky. What is clear is that both sons separate their father from the soldier.

“John Paul Vann had a horrific upbringing, but during wartime, he had focused energy and was a great strategist and tactician, which is rare in an officer. Usually the military teaches its officers strategy and its noncoms tactics,” John Allen says. “Back home, for my father, was close to being captured. He became a starved shark whose only goal was to trash and conquer blindly.”

“A Bright Shining Lie” forced the Vanns to publicly reckon with their father’s failings, but at least for John Allen and Jess, there is no ill will for the author. Their mother, Mary Jane, 90, has never read it, but they both love the book and have warm memories of getting to know the Sheehans.

Mr. Sheehan took a leave from The Times to write his book, but he never returned. By 1988, the family was $295,000 in debt to his publisher, Random House, and The New Yorker, for which he wrote regularly and which had loaned him money (as magazines did back in those days), keeping afloat through fellowships, teaching gigs and Susan Sheehan’s freelance work. The longer the book took, the worse his anxiety, insomnia and stress became, but the passage of time gave his 861-page masterpiece the breathing room to become a hit.

When it finally came out, the political climate in America surrounding the war had changed immensely. The reconciliation and reflection that started with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, and helped “Platoon” win the Academy Award for best picture in 1986, opened up the public conversation surrounding America’s first losing war.

“A Bright Shining Lie” was published to great acclaim. It won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, a special achievement award from the Vietnam Veterans of America, and in 1989, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights Book Award. It sold 165,00 copies worldwide, which wiped out the debt and righted the family’s financial ship.

Perhaps the most appropriate tribute was detailed in a 1988 Washington Post profile by William Prochnau. He wrote that the Sheehans’ 21-year-old daughter, Maria, a Wellesley graduate by this point, wore a T-shirt saying, “Daddy’s Book Is Done.”

“A Bright Shining Lie” lives on as a lasting work of scholarship, and a staple of high school and college history and literature course syllabuses. Neil Sheehan has Parkinson’s, and his career has slowed down, but he is still writing about Vietnam and was most recently seen in “The Vietnam War.” His dapper appearance and the Irish lilt in his voice offered a fitting tribute to his writing life.

“They filmed Neil in 2011 and he looks great,” says Susan Sheehan, a Pulitzer Prize winner for her 1982 book about schizophrenia, “Is There No Place on Earth for Me?” “It’s lovely that our grandsons get to see him strong and healthy, not the man who needs a walker.”

Although he did not follow through with his threat to never write another book after “A Bright Shining Lie — he wrote two — Mr. Sheehan is most proud of the work for which he, and John Paul Vann, will always be remembered.
“I was enormously gratified to have written the book; it felt like I’d truly accomplished something,” he said. “When the splendid reviews came out, and even more when I heard from friends in the military who liked it, I was thrilled. I hope it endures as a piece of history to be read again and again. All I can say in my later days, I am deeply satisfied.”
“A Bright Shining Lie” opens with a funeral to which they all came. It ends with “John Vann was not meant to flee to a ship at sea, and he did not miss his exit. He died believing he had won his war.” So too, will Neil Sheehan.

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Ho Chi Minh Trail …

Posted on December 13, 2017. Filed under: Books, Guide Posts |

Bicycling the Blood Road By Rebecca Rusch

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was called the Blood Road because so many people lost their lives there. My father, Stephen Rusch, was one of them. He was the weapons system officer in an F-4 Phantom fighter jet. On March 7, 1972, he was flying a strike mission over Laos to bomb trucks spotted along the trail. His plane was struck by ground fire and crashed to the jungle floor. He didn’t make it home.

In 2015, I set out on the most important bike ride of my life. I went to ride the entire length of the trail and to search for the place where Dad’s plane went down. I had no idea what I would find, if I could even get there or what the riding would be like. I started the expedition with so many questions, but now I can look back and see that my choices have always been preparing me for and leading me to this ride. My path as a professional endurance athlete has always been unpredictable, but something was always calling me to the remote jungles of Southeast Asia: a magnetic pull toward the map coordinates in an Air Force crash report.
The complicated network of paths that form the Ho Chi Minh Trail runs from the former North Vietnam, through the jungles of Laos and Cambodia, then re-enters Vietnam near Ho Chi Minh City. The trail, parts of which are still maintained today, was the main supply route for soldiers, supplies and ammunition as the North Vietnamese moved to take over the South during the Vietnam War. By shielding the route under thick jungle canopy, often pushing bicycles loaded with supplies, the North Vietnamese were able to evade American air strikes.

Forty-five years later, the bike is still the most efficient way to travel over there. Being on two wheels allowed me to cover distance and also be nimble enough to thread through the dense forest, dodge muddy trenches and cross rivers where bridges had washed away. In the most remote areas, locals had never seen a tourist or a carbon bicycle, and certainly never an American woman.

We stared at each other with wide-eyed wonder, greeting each other with a smile and palms pressed together, head bowed. Sitting in wooden huts, harvesting rice, raising children: This is the peaceful life they live now. But the scars of the devastation are everywhere. Bomb craters still mark the landscape like Swiss cheese, scrap metal from planes and bomb casings are repurposed as planters, buckets and roofs. There are even unexploded bombs that still threaten their daily lives.

My history is intertwined with theirs through shared loss and bloodshed. Even though my father was one of the pilots raining bombs on them, they opened their homes and hearts to me. Without words, they understood my journey.

After many demanding days on the trail, I finally arrived in Ta Oy, Laos, a small village near my father’s crash site. I felt as if the villagers there had been expecting me for a long time. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his home, Mr. Airh, the village chief, told me the story of how his father had buried mine. Despite the fact that my Dad was dropping bombs on their village, Mr. Airh’s father respectfully laid the bodies of the two American airmen under a beautiful, ancient tree.

The tree was still there waiting for me. When I saw it in a small clearing in the jungle, I could feel my Dad’s presence. Though investigators had found just two of his teeth and a bone fragment at the site, finding plane debris reassured me that this was really the place. For the first time in my life as a professional athlete I was able to stop, pause and not think about what was next. I had finally reached a finish line I never knew I was striving toward.

I was three years old when Dad disappeared, and I don’t remember him. But under that tree, I finally had a chance to talk to him. “Hi Dad, I’m here.” I also spoke to Mr. Airh in the only Lao words I knew: “Khàwp jai lãi lãi” (Thank you.) He held my hands and we cried together as he whispered “Baw pen nyãng” (It’s OK.) He also told me that if his father had died that way, he would have come searching too. As foreign as we may seem to each other, in that moment we discovered a deep kinship.

My athletic career has spanned more than two decades. I’ve racked up countless wins and world championship medals. I’ve also learned that some medals are not worn around your neck, but instead are imprinted on your soul. As I neared the finish line of this 1,200-mile ride down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I felt a sense of contentment and clarity that I had never experienced before. This ride wasn’t about death, destruction and closure, but instead it was about healing, forgiveness and discovery. To me, Blood Road no longer represents a trail stained red, but instead a path toward finding our family and shared connection in the most unexpected places.

Rebecca Rusch is a professional cyclist. “Blood Road,” a documentary about her trip along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, is airing for free on Red Bull TV. Click here to watch it.

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Macaulay’s Best …

Posted on October 25, 2017. Filed under: Books, Great Writing, Personalities, The English |

Lays of Ancient Rome, a series of very popular poems about heroic episodes in Roman history which Macaulay composed in India and published in 1842.

The most famous of them, Horatius, concerns the heroism of Horatius Cocles. It contains the oft-quoted lines:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?”

PS As a rival you might enjoy

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Great Books, Life, Closure and …

Posted on October 25, 2017. Filed under: Books, From Russia with Love, Personalities |

By Benjamin Shull

I read Tolstoy this year to plug a literary gap unbefitting a book -review editor. Getting started was no easy task. His two pre-eminent novels, “War and Peace” and “ Anna Karenina, ”clock in at more than 1,200 and 800 pages respectively, the former so massive that Henry James called it a “loose, baggy monster.”
Count me a fan of monsters.

Published in 1869, “War and Peace” nominally centers on Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, but it more broadly surveys the effects of Europe’s early-19th-century conflicts on several Russian families.

Its scenes shift from the landed estates of Moscow and St. Petersburg to the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino. Its main characters include Pierre Bezukhov, by turns an illegitimate son, Freemason and Napoleon’s would-be-slayer; Andrei Bolkonsky, the sardonic and military-minded prince; Natasha Rostova, the young woman who comes to love both; and of course, Bonaparte, le petit caporal himself.

“Anna Karenina” came eight years later. It relates the trials of its title heroine, a strong-willed woman who has an affair with the charming Count Vronsky, bearing his child and the wrath of Russian society in turn.

“Anna Karenina” has its own cast of unforgettable characters — “Stiva” Arkadyich Oblonsky, Anna’s jaunty, epicurean brother; and Konstantin Dmitrich Levin, the idealistic landowner (and Tolstoy’s self-modeled proxy).

Like Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna,” the settings and people that populate these two books have conquered my mind. It’s a common experience for readers of great literature.

In last year’s “Books for Living,” Will Schwalbe recounts how he sobbed after he’d read “David Copperfield” for the first time, distraught that he’d miss the characters so much. Later in life, when asked if writing a book about his late mother would give him closure, Mr. Schwalbe remembered reading Dickens as a teenager and realized that closure wasn’t necessary when you could continue to talk with the deceased and the fictional alike.

“Just because someone is gone,” Mr. Schwalbe observes, “doesn’t mean that person exits your life. I remember vividly the day during that hot summer when I finished David Copperfield. But my engagement with David and Little Emily and Steerforth and Dora . . . had just begun.” So it is with Pierre and Prince Andrei and Anna and Stiva.

Though there’s plenty of heartbreak in “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” each is also enormously life-affirming. Before Anna’s tragic fate crescendos, we find Levin and his wife, Kitty, at the bedside of his dying brother, Nikolai. Levin dreads death, but his remarkably poised wife helps him face it with courage.

As Nikolai drifts away, Levin (in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation) manages to keep his gloom at bay:

“In spite of death, he felt the necessity to live and to love. He felt that love saved him from despair and that under the threat of despair this love was becoming still stronger and purer.”

Nary a paragraph later, Nikolai since passed, Kitty learns she is pregnant, as one mystery of life supplants another. Thinking about this scene has been a comfort for me since.

Both works are in every way “books for living,” rife with guiding principles for life. Themes of magnanimity and forgiveness figure prominently in each.

In “War and Peace” there is a remarkable scene toward the end of the book in which Prince Andrei is wounded at Borodino. At the field hospital he finds the also-wounded Anatole Kuragin, whose attempt to seduce Andrei’s fiancée, Natasha, had led her to break off the engagement.

Andrei had wanted revenge, but in the blood-soaked camaraderie wrought by war—Anatole ultimately has his leg amputated — Andrei feels nothing but love for his former enemy and fellow man.

Though Tolstoy colorfully renders the battle scenes of “War and Peace,” he still manages to make war seem insignificant.

The book notably departs from its narrative at times to showcase its author’s meditation on history and the course of human affairs. Tolstoy’s conception of a historical process driven not by great figures but by the interplay of countless interconnected phenomena has influenced my own convictions about the world.

Because the forward march of history is so incomprehensibly beyond our grasp, in Tolstoy’s telling, it seems to throw our own freedom into doubt. He writes in his epilogue (again, courtesy of Mr. Pevear and Ms. Volokhonsky): “For history, freedom is only the expression of the unknown remainder of what we know about the laws of human life.”

That’s a humbling thing to read after spending 1,000 pages living with these iconic literary figures.

These books may well change the way you look at the world. The characters, settings and messages will stay with you for as long as you want them to.

Mr. Schwalbe must have had Tolstoy in mind when he wrote that books “are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life.”

It’s on that note that this humble editor recommends you read “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.”

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Clinton on Grant …

Posted on October 15, 2017. Filed under: Books |

GRANT By Ron Chernow – reviewed by Bill Clinton.

This is a good time for Ron Chernow’s fine biography of Ulysses S. Grant to appear – as we live with the reality of Faulkner’s declaration, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.”

We are now several years into revisiting the issues that shaped Grant’s service in the Civil War and the White House, from the rise of white supremacy groups to successful attacks on the right of eligible citizens to vote to the economic inequalities of the Gilded Age. In so many ways “Grant” comes to us now as much a mirror as a history lesson.

As history, it is remarkable, full of fascinating details sure to make it interesting both to those with the most cursory knowledge of Grant’s life and to those who have read his memoirs or any of several previous biographies.

It tells well the story of a country boy’s unlikely path to leadership, his peculiarities, strengths, blind spots and uncanny powers of concentration and courage during battle. It covers Grant’s amazing feats on horseback at West Point, where in jumping hurdles “he exceeded all rivals,” clearing the bar a foot higher than other cadets.

His mediocre grades have long obscured his interests and abilities: He was president of the literary society, had a talent for drawing and was trusted by classmates to mediate disputes.

His service in the Mexican War is covered briefly, but it contributes to our understanding of his later military and political life. Grant’s often harrowing experiences and extreme efforts to care for the wounded still on the battlefield taught him both about the conduct of war and about war’s political implications.

He believed that the victory over Mexico, with its huge territorial gains, intensified disputes over slavery and led directly to the Civil War.

The major encounters of the Civil War are deftly included, as are the business failures and bouts of drunkenness — never proved to have happened during major military campaigns, despite what his enemies often asserted.

Chernow, the author of “Alexander Hamilton” and other biographies, judiciously quotes from Grant’s own memoirs, and he also shows how they were a miracle of sorts, produced by a dying man racked with pain from throat cancer, in a final effort to leave his family some amount of financial stability. “Somehow,” Chernow writes, “in agony, he had produced 336,000 splendid words in the span of a year.”

“The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant” ends shortly after the surrender at Appomattox Court House, and as Chernow states in his introduction, many biographies of Grant skip over his presidency as an “embarrassing coda” dominated by multiple scandals.

As Chernow puts it, “It is sadly ironic that Grant’s presidency became synonymous with corruption, since he himself was impeccably honest.”

For all its scholarly and literary strengths, this book’s greatest service is to remind us of Grant’s significant achievements at the end of the war and after, which have too long been overlooked and are too important today to be left in the dark.

Considered by many detractors to be, as a general, little more than a stoic butcher, Grant, in the written terms of surrender at Appomattox, showed the empathy he felt toward the defeated and downtrodden — conditions he knew from harsh personal experience.

The terms presented to Robert E. Lee carried “no tinge of malice” and “breathed a spirit of charity reminiscent of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.”

He notably allowed the exhausted and starving Confederate regulars to keep their mules and horses, knowing from the rough experience of his failed Missouri farm (Grant presciently named its log cabin “Hardscrabble”) that only by putting in a crop as soon as they returned home would these destitute farmers — and their families — have a chance to survive the coming winter.

Grant also knew that if the country had any chance of being brought back together, it needed something other than a harsh peace. In making national healing a priority, he — like Lincoln — took the long view.

Grant’s tendency toward empathy with the downtrodden and defeated would return again and again, and not always to his advantage or credit.

He didn’t hesitate to appoint family and friends far above their abilities, and to remember even the smallest favor done on his behalf while he was a struggling civilian.

There’s a wonderful exchange in the book when Grant as president offers a political appointment to a friend from his prewar days in St. Louis, when he was broke and dependent on his slave-owning (and openly contemptuous) father-in-law. Grant reminded the friend that “when I was standing on a street corner … by a wagon loaded with wood, you approached and said: ‘Captain, haven’t you been able to sell your wood?’ I answered: ‘No.’ Then you said: ‘I’ll buy it; and whenever you haul a load of wood to the city and can’t sell it, just take it around to my residence … and I’ll pay you for it.’ I haven’t forgotten it.”

After Appomattox, and the assassination of Lincoln, Grant moved to what he then called Washington City to lead the Army through the war’s aftermath. Chernow notes that, as a general, Grant had nearly always fought on unfamiliar ground, which required a kind of concentration that could support a state of continuous reassessment.

Washington was also unfamiliar ground, and continuous reassessment was just as vital to political success as it had been to victory on the field. Grant proved a quick study, even after he had professed to be “no politician.

For example, he saw early on that the new president, Andrew Johnson, who many feared would be much harsher on the South than Lincoln would have been, had begun to lean hard — and dangerously — in the opposite direction.

“Mr. Johnson,” Grant writes in his memoirs, “after a complete revolution of sentiment, seemed to regard the South not only as an oppressed people, but as the people best entitled to consideration of any of our citizens.”

Needless for Grant to say, this favor of Johnson’s fell to white Southerners only. He began to bring the weight of the presidency down on the side of those who championed what became the infamous Black Codes, designed to force freed slaves to continue to work on plantations in conditions much like those before emancipation.

As Grant’s and Johnson’s political differences grew wider, Grant, as General of the Army and immensely popular, began to suffer the ire of the increasingly besieged Johnson, who demanded fealty and, when frustrated and convinced of disloyalties real or imagined, tended to lash out.

“It grated on Johnson that Grant,” Chernow says, “a mere subordinate, had been endowed with … godlike powers over Reconstruction.”

Contrary to Johnson’s claim, the power Grant had to oversee the fate of the postwar South was hardly godlike. A former social club named for the Greek word kuklos, or circle, the Ku Klux Klan had begun “to shade into a quasi-military organization, recruiting Nathan Bedford Forrest as a leader” — and vowing “to ‘support a white man’s government’ and carry weapons at all times.”

By the time of Grant’s election as president in 1868, the Klan was targeting black voters and their supporters with “murders and mutilations in a grotesque spirit of sadistic mockery.” The Union that Grant had been instrumental in saving as a general was splintering anew even before he took his oath of office.

As Chernow writes, “If there were many small things Grant didn’t know about the presidency, he knew one big thing: His main mission was to settle unfinished business from the war by preserving the Union and safeguarding the freed slaves.”

And there was a very real chance Grant, and with him the country, would fail.

For that new mission, Grant needed cabinet members, staff and advisers every bit as masterful as his wartime lieutenants. His choices were notably hit-and-miss, but his very first appointee from a Confederate state proved to be one of his best. Amos T. Akerman of Georgia, Grant’s second attorney general, was “honest and incorruptible” and “devoted to the rule of law.”

When Congress created the Department of Justice the same week as his appointment, the attorney general became overnight the head of “an active department with a substantial array of new powers.”

Those powers were sorely needed to fight the Klan and what Chernow appropriately calls “the worst outbreak of domestic terrorism in American history.”

Grant signed three bills, collectively known as the Enforcement Acts, to strengthen federal powers in combating Klan terrorism, which had already claimed thousands of lives – the vast majority of them black. After the laws were in force, “federal grand juries, many interracial, brought 3,384 indictments against the K.K.K., resulting in 1,143 convictions.”

Almost as important as the convictions was the message they sent. As Akerman told his district attorneys, “If you cannot convict, you, at least, can expose, and ultimately such exposures will make the community ashamed of shielding the crime.”

By the end of his first term, scandals had begun to take their toll, but at the same time the Klan — at least in its original incarnation — had been essentially destroyed.

“Peace has come to many places as never before,” declared Frederick Douglass, an ally and admirer of Grant’s. “The scourging and slaughter of our people have so far ceased.”

However short-lived, it was an important victory not only for an enlightened version of Reconstruction but also for the beneficial use of the powers of the federal government to promote the general welfare and safety of all Americans – not just some.

As president, Grant appointed a record number of African-Americans to government positions all across the board, including the first black diplomat. Douglass once noted “in one department at Washington I found 249” black appointees, “and many more holding important positions in its service in different parts of the country.”

Early in his presidency and at the height of his popularity, Grant had also been a booster of the 15th Amendment, giving former slaves the vote, and many believe his support was key to its ratification by the states, which was far from guaranteed.

Grant himself minced no words in describing the magnitude of the amendment’s passage, saying in a message to Congress upon its ratification, “The adoption of the 15th Amendment … constitutes the most important event that has occurred, since the nation came into life.”

He knew the right to vote is the heart of democracy and did not hesitate to defend it, a legacy today’s Supreme Court and Republicans in Washington and across the country should embrace, not abandon.

Chernow shows a fine balance in exposing Grant’s flaws and missteps as president, and the ill-fated turn that Reconstruction took after a promising start, while making it clear that Grant’s contributions after Appomattox were as consequential to the survival of our democracy as any that came before.

As Americans continue the struggle to defend justice and equality in our tumultuous and divisive era, we need to know what Grant did when our country’s very existence hung in the balance.

If we still believe in forming a more perfect union, his steady and courageous example is more valuable than ever.

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Corbusier’s Chandigarh Man …

Posted on September 8, 2017. Filed under: Books, Personalities |

Mukul Bansal – “Lakhon mein intikhwab ke kaabil bana diya, Jis dil ko tumne dekh liya, dil bana diya — Anonymous (You’ve changed me into such a noble person I’ve become one in a million. You touch one’s personality in such a way, he starts feeling one with the whole of humanity)

When I started researching the late Aditya Prakash, a former Principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture, I discerned a common appreciation of his multi-faceted personality among his friends, admirers and students along the lines of the Urdu couplet I’ve quoted above.

Prakash lived in his life the thought behind this couplet that endeared him in a very special way to those who came into contact with him.He was a man of many parts in the true sense of the term and was considered to be a Renaissance man by his friends and admirers.

Prakash was born in Muzaffarnagar, UP and over his decades of stay in Chandigarh, he distinguished himself as an architect, painter, academic and author, and above all, as a friend, philosopher and guide.

He began studying architecture in August 1947 in London. Briefly, he studied art at the Glasgow School of Art, before joining the Chandigarh Capital Project as Junior Architect under Le Corbusier on November 1, 1952.

Remarkably, Prakash could come up with his own observations, which written accounts of those times tell us, were welcomed by Corbusier.
In an interesting conversation between Prakash and one of his students, Rajneesh Wattas, who later became Principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture, the latter asked him whether he (Prakash) would call Corbusier “dictatorial” or “arrogant”.

Prakash’s reply was, “I would put it this way. He had struggled all his life to have his ideas accepted and this acceptance came to him only after the Second World War. So when the opportunity came, he was anxious to implement his ideas without discussing them; therefore, one has to make allowances for a man of genius.”

Prakash was picked up to be the Principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture for his deep interest in academics and research. He joined the college on December 13, 1967, and retired on March 31, 1982. His students, were fond of him for his focused involvement in whatever he took up.

In one of his writings in the early 1980s, Prakash outlined his manifesto as an architect: “I like to think that ‘architecture’ is an attitude of life. Undoubtedly one becomes an architect to earn a livelihood. But in the absence of a cultivated way of looking at life, the practice of profession becomes mechanical.”

In 1983, Prakash’s booklet “Reflections on Chandigarh” was published in verse with an “Afterword” by Mulk Raj Anand in which Anand writes, “You accept the main plan of Le Corbusier for what has come to be called the ‘City Beautiful’, based on the order of ‘Working’, ‘Care’, ‘Living’, and ‘Circulation of Man’.

He goes on to say, “You are quite right when you say that what was supposed to be a ‘pedestrian’s paradise,’ has become a motorcar city.”

There is a pencil sketch of Corbusier at the beginning of the booklet which is captioned, “The most Profound ARCHITECT of the Industrial Era.”

Wattas, architect, author and landscape designer was a former student of Prakash. “I’m very lucky. I was associated with Prakash in three different ways – as student, as faculty in the Chandigarh College of Architecture and with him as my mentor and an inspirational role model. His clarity of thought and knowledge left a deep impression on me”.

Prakash worked on the design of the College of Art and the Chandigarh College of Architecture. The mural in the porch of the Chandigarh College of Architecture was made by him.

Virendra Mehndiratta, Hindi short-story writer, who was a very close friend of Prakash for 50 years, likes to use a Punjabi expression to describe their friendship, “Humne is dosti ka sukh manaya” (we lived our friendship to the full).

Prakash was a sincere and genuine person who while living life on his own terms was constantly involved in doing hard work. By his association with Le Corbusier, he had realised early enough in life the concept of saadgi mein sundarta (beauty in simplicity).

He was all praise for the creative endeavours of his friends and treated their work with warmth and offered praise freely. Prakash worked in the Chandigarh Capital Project from 1952 to 1963. During this time, he designed several public buildings in Chandigarh including the District Courts Building, The Tagore Theatre, the Chandigarh College of Architecture, The Central Craft Institute besides Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana.

He died in harness, in the true sense of the word, on August 12, 2008, on a train in Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh. He was on his way to Mumbai to perform, ironically, in a play, “Zindagi Retire Nahi Hoti”.

Paying tribute to Prakash, Mehndiratta said, “He brought together enlightened scholars, writers and artistes of all hues and formed a discussion group, which is now known as the Aditya Prakash discussion group. It’s still active.When a person like Prakash departs, our life force too diminishes. We do not realise how much we lose when such sincere and honest people pass away,”

In the afterword to Aditya Prakash’s booklet “Reflections on Chandigarh”, published in 1983, Mulk Raj Anand writes, “You accept the main plan of Le Corbusier for what has come to be called the ‘City Beautiful’, based on the order of ‘Working’, ‘Care’, ‘Living’ and ‘Circulation of Man’”.

PS What was supposed to be a pedestrian’s paradise has become a nightmare of a motorable city.

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Vijay Mallya – the irrepressible King Fisher …

Posted on September 8, 2017. Filed under: Books, Personalities |

In Kingfizzer: The Rise and Fall of Vijay Mallya, Kingshuk Nag tries to shed light on Mallya’s personality and the role it played in his decline.

Without a doubt, it is Mallya’s personality – larger than life, (he is an unashamed and reckless sybarite) – that makes this story sizzle. For a young man who took charge of the Mallya empire in his 20s after the unexpected death of his father, the image of a playboy can be forgiven.

But Mallya continued to revel in this image as he aged – the yachts got bigger, the parties wilder and so on. Even a Rajya Sabha seat didn’t tame the “king of the good times”.

Former journalist M.J. Akbar, now a Union minister in the Narendra Modi government, wrote this about Mallya in 2005: “The fundamental fact of his personality is that he is a romantic. He has the romance of an adventurer. He is the kind of man who could give finance chiefs ulcers. I have seen Vijay fail but not defeated.”

Apart from being reckless, many thought Mallya was cocky and arrogant. In the end, it was this perception that worked against him. As Nag writes: “His lifestyle was his addiction. Although his airline sank, he continued to live the good life.”

This built up public opinion against the loan defaulter. In his defence, Mallya argues his bad debts are much smaller than many other notables in India Inc – and he’s right.

But instead of lying low as the Kingfisher story exploded, Mallya gave the opposite impression – people thought he was funding his other lifestyle businesses, from Formula One racing to football from the loans meant for Kingfisher. That put pressure on the banks to go after him.

Nag tries to shed light on Mallya’s personality and the role it played in his decline. This is where the book adds value. The only son of a workaholic father, Mallya was no doubt a pampered child. Unlike his father, he became a spendthrift.

But the irony is that he is a deeply religious man, and “also moderately conservative”. Apart from planning his life by astronomy, Mallya is heavily influenced by godman Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

The problem, Nag argues, is that the public looked down on people in the liquor business – his diversifications then were an attempt to “gain respectability” in society. The book argues that Mallya lost all sense of proportion while justifying these actions for the sake of his business.

And what of the future? Legal experts agree that it is going to be tough to get Mallya back into India in a hurry.

At the same time, Mallya is a fugitive in the UK and has lost most of his businesses. Pressure is going to build up on his remaining Indian beer business.

In that sense, it’s going to be a long walk home.

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Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw: The Man and His Times by Brigadier Behram M. Panthaki and Zenobia Panthaki

Posted on April 1, 2017. Filed under: Books, Pakistan |

Review by Hamid Hussein.

This book by the husband and wife team provides a window to the personality of an officer and gentleman Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.  The authors had a life long association with Sam and his family and this gave them a unique vantage point.  They have done an excellent job of introducing the readers to the human side of Sam.

Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw remains the most popular soldier of India.  He passed out from Indian Military Academy (IMA) at Dehra Dun in 1934 and commissioned in elite 4th Battalion of 12th Frontier Force Regiment (4/12 FFR).  This battalion went through various reorganizations through its one hundred and fifty years history.

It started as 4th Sikh Local Infantry after First Sikh War in 1846.  In 1901, it became 4th Sikh Infantry and in 1903 became 54th Sikhs. In 1922 reorganization, it became 4th Battalion of 12th Frontier Force Regiment.  In 1947, on partition of India, battalion was assigned to Pakistan and in 1957 reorganization became  6th Frontier Force (FF) Regiment of Pakistan army.   Battalion is nick named ‘Charwanjah’ referring to its old number 54.

The Battalion has the unique honor that an Indian and a Pakistan army chief belonged to this battalion. Eighth Chief of Army Staff of Indian army Sam Manekshaw (1969-1973) and fifteenth Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan army General ® Raheel Sharif (2013-2016) of Pakistan army were commissioned incharwanjah.

In Second World War, Sam then a captain was leading Sikh company of 4/12 FFR in Burma.  A small group of Japanese soldiers surprised the troops and sneaked into the perimeter of the battalion at night.  This caused a panic and a number of soldiers bolted.  Sam’s Sikhs firmly stayed in their positions.  Sam had threatened them that he would personally distribute ‘bangles’ if any of them moved from their position.

Later, in an attack on a Japanese position, Sam was severely wounded when seven bullets of a Japanese machine gun hit him in his stomach.  His orderly Sher Singh put Sam on his back and evacuated him to Regimental Aid Post where (RMO) Captain G. M. Diwan tended to him.  Sam was awarded an on the spot MC by none other than the GOC.

Sam had a special affection for the battalion despite it being allotted to Pakistan.  In 1950s, his battalion mate Brigadier (later Lieutenant General) Atiq ur Rahman nick named ‘Turk’ (4/12 FFR) was commanding a brigade in Kohat that was brought to Lahore for internal security duties.  Turk and another PIFFER Brigadier (later Lieutenant General) Bakhtiar Rana (commissioned in 6/13 Frontier Force Rifles and now 1 FF of Pakistan army) went to Ferozpur to visit Sam who was commanding 167th Brigade.

Old PIFFERS had a great time together reminiscing about their days together.  In 1965, Sam was GOC-in-Chief of eastern command and he had another interesting meeting with his paltan mate Major General Fazal Muqeem Khan (4/12 FFR) who was GOC of Dacca based 14th Division. After 1965 war, a meeting was arranged for the two commanders.  Sam landed at Dacca and after a warm and brief welcome told Fazal ‘let’s go home to meet the Begum Sahiba’.  Sam and Fazal left leaving their bewildered staff officers to sort out all the mundane tasks of the meeting.

When Sam was army chief, there was a standing order to all the staff, guards and sentries that whenever an ex-serviceman of 4/12 FFR came to Army headquarters, he should be brought to the chief no matter what the chief was doing.

In 1971 War when he was Indian army chief, he kept an eye on performance of 4/12 FFR (now 6 FF) which was fighting from Pakistan’s side.  His staff would notice a certain pride in his eyes when the briefing officer would give some account of 4/12 FFR.  He commented to his military assistant ‘I should like to see one of my 8th Gorkha battalions fighting the 4/12 Frontier Force.  When Major Shabbir Sharif of 6 FF got the highest gallantry award of Nishan-e-Haider,, Sam wrote to one of his old British Commanding Officer (CO) of 4/12 FFR in England that he was so proud that an officer of ‘his battalion’ got the honor although Sam’s forces were fighting against Pakistan.

Another sign of his association was his love for the local footwear of North West Frontier Province; Peshawari chaplis.   Long after he left the frontier, he preferred Peshawari chaplis when wearing casual dress.  He also named one of his dogs PIFFER.

This Book provides details about Sam’s family and personal life in addition to highlights of his professional career.  A large number of photographs from family albums never published before make it a wonderful pictorial catalogue of evolution of a young cadet through various stages of his life.

While looking at the photographs, one cannot ignore one thing and that is whenever Sam is with other people, everyone is laughing.  Sam had a great sense of humor and in most of these photographs, he is in his usual jovial and naughty mood.

This book is a timely reminder to young officers of Indian and Pakistan armies about a generation of officers of a bygone era. It is a welcome addition to the work done about Indian army officers. This work is different as it provides a window to the human side of Sam. It should be in the library of anyone interested in the Indian army.

Other notable Reviews

Rostum K. Nanavatty, Lieutenant General (Retired)  — For the storyteller this book serves as a reference point. It authenticates conversations and incidents; and destroys myths. Importantly, the book offers the discerning reader fascinating insights into the Field Marshal’s personal and professional conduct.

Fali S. Nariman Former Solicitor and Attorney General —– But for an ADC to write so felicitously and so touchingly about his mentor is, for me, a fascinating revelation.–



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Circa 637 AD Letters of the Islamic Caliph and the Persian Emperor …

Posted on March 25, 2017. Filed under: Books, Personalities |

Historic Letters (British Museum) from The Islamic Caliph to the Persian Emperor and the latters’ response.

From: Omar ibn Al-Khattab (Islamic Caliph) To: Yazdegerd III Sassanid (Persian Emperor)

Bismillah, al-Rahman, al-Rahim.

I do not foresee a good future for you and your nation, save your acceptance of my terms and your submission to me. There was a time when your country ruled half the world, but now see how your sun has set.

On all fronts your armies have been defeated and your nation is condemned to extinction. I point out to you the path whereby you may escape this fate. Namely, that you begin worshipping the one god, the unique deity, the only god who created all that is. I bring you his message; order your nation to cease the false worship of fire and to join us, that they may join the truth.

Worship Allah the creator of the world. Worship Allah and accept Islam as the path of salvation.

End now your polytheistic ways and become Muslims, so that you may accept Allah-u-Akbar as your saviour. This is the only way of securing your own survival and the peace of your Persians.

You will do this if you know what is good for you and for your Persians. Submission is your only option.


Islamic Caliph, Omar ibn Al-Khattab.


From: Yazdegerd III Sassanid (Persian Emperor) To: Omar ibn Al-Khattab (Islamic Caliph)

In the name of Ahura Mazda, the creator of life and wisdom.

In your letter you summon us Persians to your god whom you call Allah-u-Akbar; and because of your barbarity and ignorance, without knowing who we are and whom we worship, you demand that we seek out your god and become worshippers of Allah-u-Akbar.

How strange that you occupy the seat of the Arab caliph but are as ignorant as any desert roaming Arab. You admonish me to become monotheistic in faith. Ignorant man, for thousands of years we Persians have, in this land of culture and art, been monotheistic and five times a day have we offered prayers to god’s throne of oneness. While we laid the foundations of philanthropy, righteousness, and kindness in this world, and held high the ensign of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, you and your ancestors were desert wanderers who ate snakes and lizards, and buried your innocent daughters alive.

You Arabs who have no regard for god’s creatures, who mercilessly put people to the sword, who mistreat your women, who attack caravans and are highway robbers, who commit murder, who kidnap women and spouses; how dare you presume to teach us, who are above these evils, to worship God?

You tell me to cease the worship of fire and to worship god instead. To us Persians the light of fire is reminiscent of the light of god. The radiance and the sunlike warmth of fire exuberates our hearts, and the pleasant warmth of it brings our hearts and spirits closer together, that we may be philanthropic, kind, considerate, and that gentleness and forgiveness may become our way of life, and that thereby the light of god may keep shining in our hearts.

Our god is the great Ahura Mazda. Strange is this, that you too have now decided to give god a name, and you call God by the name of Allah-u-Akbar.

But we are nothing like you. We, in the name of Ahura Mazda, practice compassion, love, goodness, righteousness, forgiveness, and care for the dispossessed and the unfortunate; but you, in the name of your Allah-u-Akbar commit murder, create misery, and subject others to suffering. Tell me truly who is to blame for your misdeeds? Your god who orders genocide, plunder, and destruction, or you who do these things in god’s name; or both?

You, who have spent all your days in brutality and barbarity, have now come out of your desolate deserts, and are resolved to teach by the blade and conquest, the worship of god to a people who have for thousands of years been civilised, and have relied on culture, knowledge, and art as mighty edifices.

What have you, in the name of your Allah-u-Akbar taught these armies of Islam besides destruction, pillage, and murder, that you now presume to summon others to your god?

Today, my people’s fortunes have changed. Their armies, who were once subjects of Ahura Mazda, have now been defeated by the Arab armies of Allah-u-Akbar; and they are being forced, at the point of the sword, to convert to the god by the name of Allah-u-Akbar, and are forced to offer prayers five times a day but now in Arabic, since apparently your Allah-u-Akbar only understands Arabic.

I advise you to return to your lizard infested deserts. Do not let loose upon our cities your cruel and barbarous Arabs who are like rabid animals. Refrain from the murder of my people. Refrain from pillaging my people. Refrain from kidnapping our daughters in the name of your Allah-u-Akbar. Refrain from these crimes and evils.

We Persians are a forgiving people, a kind and well meaning people. Wherever we go, we sow the seeds of goodness, amity, and righteousness; and this is why we have the capacity to overlook the crimes and the misdeeds of your Arabs.

Stay in your desert with your Allah-u-Akbar, and do not approach our cities; for horrid is your belief and brutish is your conduct.

Persian Emperor,

Yazdegerd III Sassanid.

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