Friday, September 9, 2011

Kai Donner: Among the Samoyed in Siberia


Something before I get to A Carpet Ride to Khiva: I found a first edition from 1915 of Kai Donner's "Siperian Samojedien keskuudessa" in the City Library a few days ago and had it with me on a trip to Central Europe. Kai Donner was a Finnish explorer and anthropologist from a notable academic family. He was also an activist for the independence movement in Finland. Donner's father was the first Finnish professor of Sanskrit, but the best known family member nowadays is Kai's son Jörn Donner, who is a movie maker and has in recent years publicized his fathers research in Finland.

The book covers Donner's expedition to northern Siberia in 1911-1913, where he set out to study the language and culture of the Samoyeds, a small people spread over vast areas in the Siberian tundra. The Samoyed language is a distant relative of Finnish, which explains the interest of linguists and anthropologists in them here. Donner's travels take him to the area between the rivers Ob and Jenisei where he lives with the local people studying the language with several "language masters". He also makes observations of everyday life without prejudice. This sets Donner's book apart from the religious bigotry of Wrede. Donner is a true humanist and can appreciate the culture of different people's without judging them too harshly.

Donner describes the difficult life the Samoyeds live in this unforgiving country, where winter temperatures may plummet to -60 C. He gets to know hordes of mosquitoes and hungry bears in the summer and the perils of travelling in the winter, when he almost loses his limbs to frostbite and is in danger of starving with a whole caravan of reindeer herders lost on the tundra. The Samoyed's fate (and for that matter culture), reminds me a bit of American Indians. Liquor, obtained from Russian traders at extortionate prices, is the downfall of many Samojed.

In addition to his anthropological observations, Donner also tells about the terrible fate of the numerous people exiled to Siberia. He meets Russians and Finns, that for different reasons have been banished to this periphery of the empire.

Reading this book I am once again humbled by the courage of early explorers. Today it would be inconceivable that someone would set out into the Siberian wild, alone with just a sleigh pulled by a couple of reindeers, all in the name of science.

The book in itself is entertaining on two levels. It describes the life of a people little known, but it's also a story of one man's struggle against inhospitable nature. For sure, this is not a book that everybody will enjoy. It's not a literary masterpiece, but if you're into explorer's histories, or interested in anthropology, or just some other kind of nutcase this is very entertaining. I did like it, a lot.

EDIT: I just found out that Donner's book has been translated into English and is available from Amazon. The title of this post was changed to reflect the title of the translation.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid


Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist who has written exhaustively about Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida. He has been active in different intergovernmental bodies dealing with the problems of the area and definitely has authority on subjects around South and Central Asia (you can find more on the author's own webpage here).

Rashid's book Descent into Chaos: Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Threat to Global Security is not an easy read. It's packed with information about people, politics, terrorists and more. It tells the story of Hamid Karzai, President of Afghanistan and Pervez Musharraf the Pakistani leader as well as the United States' failure to secure Afghanistan after the invasion following the September 11th attacks in America. Rashid has a personal connection to many of the leaders described in the book, and is able to shed light into the decisions they make, probably better than anybody else. The book is packed with personal accounts of Afghan warlords, Heads of states, Taliban leaders as well as common people. This is where Rashid shines; he has profound knowledge and decades long experience in the area. He writes at length about developments in the US and Europe as well, but lacks the same depth of knowledge there. His scathing criticisms of the Bush government actions after 9/11 feel a little over the top.

The picture emerging of the power politics in the area is a scary one. Rashid exposes Pakistan's intelligence service's role in supporting the Taliban and al-Qaida, while trying to secure financial aid from the United States and supplying the US with intelligence about the groups. He describes how Taliban and al-Qaida regrouped after fleeing to Pakistan when US air strikes and US backed Northern Alliance offensives against them started. The main question that arises is: What would the situation in Afghanistan be today, had the US and the international community really committed to nation building after the US ousting of the Taliban from power?

I had trouble finishing this book. There is no denying the huge amount of research that went into Rashid's book, but it is heavy reading.The story has so many individuals, it's difficult to keep track of them, even if the author supplies a partial glossary of names. Abbreviations are also abundant, sometimes comically so; ISI, NWFP, NA, FATA, JUI, UN etc. litter the pages and one needs to frequently skip back to find the actual definition for these. I think Rashid could have kept it more concise by contentrating just on the Pakistan-Afghanistan issue alone, leaving American policies and actions in other parts of the world for another volume. Shortly: informative and at times exciting, but too rich in content for the casual reader. Great for someone who needs to get up-to-date with the previous decade's issues in the area. Not so great for the average Joe like me, who picks it up at the airport book stall for reading on the flight.