“Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here” by Karima Bennoune

“The struggle waged in Muslim majority societies against extremism is one of the most important – and overlooked – human rights struggles in the world.” This book explores the nuances of Islamic extremism, and amplifies hitherto unheard voices from remote corners of the globe – men and women living under fundamentalist threats, victims of violence, martyrs and survivors. Bennoune managed to interview 286 Muslims across 26 countries.

“Muslims did not get hit on the head one day, then wake up and don niqabs, grow beards and become fundamentalists. A conscious political process fostered these developments…” Iran exported its brand of religious revolution ever since the mullahs came to power in 1979. Britain supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Saudi Arabia spends colossal amounts to propagate its ultra-conservative ideology – and its US ally shamelessly shields it. The US funded Pakistan’s dictatorship and the Afghan mujahideen in order to counter Russian communist influence. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a secular dictatorship, but US intervention turned it into a hotbed of Islamic terrorism.

In the author’s birthplace, Algeria, 200,000 innocents disappeared during the ‘dark decade’ of the 1990s. Tahar Djaout had uttered a dark prophesy before his assassination in 1993: “If you speak out, they will kill you. If you keep silent, they will kill you. So speak out, and die.”

The Quran states that the killing of an innocent person is killing the whole of humanity. Chechnya-born Moscow journalist, Said Bitsoev, avers, “Suicide is a very grave sin in Islam, but these radicals brought in the idea that you can blow yourself up to celebrate Islam.”

Speaking of the economic causes of the rise of fundamentalism in Niger, Aminatou Daouda Hainikoye says, “In the beginning they offer you money to adhere to their version of religion, to wear the burqa, the hijab, the niqab. They give out money, food, bags of rice, cooking oil. Even if you are not convinced in your heart, you accept so as not to die of hunger.” She adds, “They want to take Niger back to the days of the Prophet, PBUH.” Bennoune points out that even Fiji in the Pacific has seen a marked rise in number of veiled women.

Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, during his Afghanistan sojourn, declared, “You only have to stretch your leg in Herat to kick a poet.” Five centuries later, in 2001, Taliban supremo Mullah Omar ordered all pre-Islamic art destroyed. The Talibs raided the National Museum and vandalized over 2750 statues.

In Pakistan in 2007, Zil-e Huma Usman, Punjab minister for Social Welfare, was shot dead, and the assassin said she was not properly covered in her salwar-kameez. In 2012 it was Malala Yousafzai for daring to advocate girls’ education. Asia Bibi was sentenced to death for ‘insulting the Prophet’. Punjab governor Salman Taseer was gunned down for tweeting his opposition to the blasphemy law. During Zia ul Haq’s regime, the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz was forced into exile. (Today in India his 1979 composition ‘hum dekhenge’ has become a rallying cry for people opposing the far right and the Citizenship Amendment Act.)

When the Prophet captured Mecca, there was much rejoicing, with men and women singing, dancing, clapping and playing the duff. Today the fundamentalists say music is haraam. In 2010, Al Shabaab forbade music broadcasts in Somalia. In March 2012 the northern part of Mali, roughly 60% of the territory, fell to an affiliate of Al Qaeda. The Ansar Dine banned music, sports, smoking and drinking. They desecrated the tombs of Sufi saints in Timbuktu, and torched the library, destroying at least 2000 ancient manuscripts.

Shirwa Ahmed became the first US citizen suicide bomber when he blew himself up in Somalia on 29th October, 2009, killing thirty innocents. Ahmed apparently had been radicalized in his hometown in Minnesota, where Al Shabaab had begun recruitment in 2006. By 2008, twenty Somali boys had disappeared.

In Kabul in 2011, fifty women took out a procession carrying banners with the words, “I have the right to walk freely in my city,” and “Street harassment is against Islam.” The Prophet Muhammad said nobody but those who are inferior in character will disrespect women. But the fundamentalists say women ought to be chaste, then they abduct and gang rape them.

Though Iran is a Shi’a country, it has contributed to the radicalization of Sunni religious authorities as well. In a 1963 fatwa Ayatollah Khomeini had declared that women’s political participation was tantamount to prostitution.

In the holy city of Mecca in 2002, when girl students tied to escape a burning school building the religious police blocked their exit saying they were not properly covered. Fifteen girls died in the blaze.

Asma Al Ghoul, a journalist from the Gaza border town of Rafah, stopped wearing the headscarf in 2006. In 2010 she cycled along the Gaza coastline to defy the Hamas ban on women riding bikes. In post-Saddam Iraq, Yanar Mohammed was photographed burning a hijab, for a magazine cover seen around the world. (Later, Yanar had to flee the country.)

“Subordinating women – in the family, in the street, in the bedroom – is central to most fundamentalist visions for society around the world.” Worldwide some 140 million women have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM). Fundamentalists use the false alibi of religion to perpetuate such horrific pre-Islamic practices. The Quran does not say that women must be excised.

“The Left has often downplayed the threat of extremism,” Bennoune laments. She asks how the influential left-wing radio show Democracy Now could glorify Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood founder, who openly disapproves of homosexuality, feminism, and secular Muslims. The book argues that instead of fighting terrorism we need to fight fundamentalism, because as long as there are universities and communities where children are indoctrinated, terrorist groups will never lack fresh recruits.

Bennoune reminds us of the Quranic saying, “Unto you your religion and unto me mine.” She also quotes Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra’s statement, “What we have to prove to the world, we must prove with work, talent and ambition.”

I read the book with my heart in my mouth. Very often I googled the names of the people mentioned – just to make sure they are still alive.

Overall assessment: Must read.

Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here
Author: Karima Bennoune
Publisher: WW Norton & Company Inc.
Publication Date: December 2014

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34” by Manini Chatterjee

Do and Die

19th April 1930. “The Government regrets to have to announce that the railway and police armouries at Chittagong were attacked on the night of 18th-19th April by a body of insurgents, estimated at about 100, and were gutted. Details are not yet fully known. Telegraphic communications were interfered with but are being restored. A train was also derailed on the night of April 18th….”

This book gives a minute by minute account of what the British called the ‘Chittagong Armoury Raid.’ Surjya Sen, reverently called ‘Masterda,’ was the elusive, enigmatic mastermind behind this daring act. Ambika Chakravati and Ananta Singh were among his closest associates.

In October 1924, the Bengal government arrested many revolutionaries for “suspected terror links,” among them Subhash Chandra Bose. Surjya Sen was jailed for two years from October 1926 and released two years later along with several others from Chittagong. They forged a group, generating funds, procuring arms and preparing for combat. Officially, they were all members of the Congress party.

In February 1929, Surjya Sen was elected secretary of the Chittagong District Congress Committee. He virtually lived in the party office, recruiting and training youngsters for an armed revolt. On 15th September, there was a massive demonstration when Jatin Das died in Lahore jail after a 63 day hunger strike. On 15th October, the Chittagong revolutionaries adopted the ‘Death Program’ – to do and die. They called themselves the Indian Republican Army and vowed to re-enact the Easter Rising that had occurred three years ago in Dublin, Ireland.

On 18th April 1930, the IRA carried out their action plan with 64 revolutionaries. The youngest was only 14 years old. They got the arms but not the ammunition. Without ammunition there was no way they could hold the positions they had captured. So they retreated after setting the armoury on fire. Himangshu Sen, badly burned in the process was safely evacuated but died a few days later.

The fugitives were hunted down and on 22nd April at the Battle of Jalalabad, 10 youngsters died fighting. Harigopal Bal, the first to fall, called out to his brother Lokenath Bal, “I’m on my way, you carry on.” Later the British would throw the bodies in a heap, pour petrol over them and set them alight. Two days later, Ardhendhu Dastidar and Matilal Kanungo died of wounds sustained in the battle.

Gandhi did not speak of these martyrs. The author wryly remarks that, “Even martyrdom lies in the ideology of the bestower”.

42 survivors melted way into the surrounding villages, splitting into two groups, one led by Masterda and Nirmal Sen, the other by Lokenath Bal. The army undertook combing operations, motor launches searched the river, and aircraft made aerial surveys but the boys could not be traced. Amarendra Nandi, who had been sent on a reconnaissance mission to Chittagong town died in a police encounter on 24th April.

Masterda soon ordered his group to disperse. Those who were unknown to the police were advised to return home. Masterda told the young Subodh Roy that if he was tortured by the police he should not divulge any names. “Remember at the time the martyrs who gave you their lives in the Jalalabad Hill,” he said. Subodh remembered the leader’s words when days later he was mercilessly beaten by the police.

There were other encounters, other martyrs. On June 28th, Ananta Singh, one of the most charismatic ring-leaders, surrendered. Soon after his arrival in jail the few youngsters who had given confessional statements retracted them one by one. The government could not find a single approver. Sarat Chandra Bose, elder brother of Subhash Chandra Bose, stepped up to represent Ananta Singh at the trial.

On 25th August in Calcutta a bid to assassinate Police Commissioner, Charles Tegart, misfired. A few were injured, and Anuja Sengupta died in the blast. Four days later Bengal’s Inspector General of Police, Lowman was shot in Dacca and died of his injuries. The shooter escaped.

On 2nd September the British discovered that a few of the absconders were being sheltered at the French enclave of Chandernagore. They attacked the hideout, and Jiban Goshal (Makhan) was killed. Lokenath Bal, Ganesh Ghosh and Ananda Gupta were captured. Makhan was accorded an emotional farewell as the entire populace paid respects to the martyr. The people of the settlement passed a resolution condemning the British action on French soil.

Ramkrishna Biswas was hanged on 4th August 1931 for attempting to assassinate Lowman’s successor on 1st December 1930. Kalipada Chakravarty was awarded transportation for life.

Pritilata Wadedar led the Pahartali Raid and died a martyr on 24th September 1932. It was a classic case of a woman leading men in action. A leaflet issued after the Pahartali raid read, “….the Indian Republican Army plunges today in this bloody revenge and lets the British rulers know that however weak and helpless, India will never tolerate these sorts of wanton barbarity with equanimity and silence.” There were no arrests.

All this and more are an integral part of India’s independence struggle. The Dynamite Conspiracy case, the Dhalghat encounter that claimed the lives of Nirmal Sen and Apurba (Bhola) Sen, the Gohira encounter and a variety of other events come alive in the pages of this book.

Masterda was finally captured in February 1933, while Kalpana Dutta and others survived the encounter only to be arrested a month later in a shootout at Gohira. When the Special Tribunal announced its verdict in August 1933, it was death for Masterda and Tarakeshwar Dastidar. Kalpana was got a reduced sentence – transportation for life – in view of the fact that she was only 19 years old and a woman.

Surjya Sen and Tarakeshwar Dastidar were hanged in secret on 12th January 1934 and their bodies dumped in the Bay of Bengal. When Independence came in 1947, new generations were led to believe that the ‘transfer of power’ was the result of non-violent struggle.

Overall assessment: Must read.

Do and Die: The Chittagong Uprising 1930-34

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President” by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

This Child Will Be Great

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was Africa’s first woman president and this book is her memoir. She recounts how she came to power in her native Liberia and the tremendous odds she had to overcome to get there. Sworn in as President in January 2006 at the end of a fourteen year long civil war, she remained at the helm for 12 years and oversaw a peaceful transition. Liberia went to the polls in October 2017 to elect a new leader.

The book reveals the complexities of Liberia’s links with the New World and its long and painful history. While the slave trade saw Africans shipped from West Africa to the Americas to undergo forced labour, there was a reverse flow of freed slaves to these shores in the early 19th century. Monrovia, the capital of Liberia is named after US President James Munroe and the country’s flag resembles the American flag. The settlers thought they were somehow superior to the indigenous peoples and the seeds of conflict were sown. Liberia’s first President was a man born in Virginia.

Ellen’s paternal grandfather has eight wives and god knows how many children. Her maternal grandfather, a German trader, had married a local woman and the couple had one daughter. At the start of World War I, Liberia expelled all Germans, to demonstrate its loyalty to the US. The grandfather returned to Germany and was never heard of again.
Ellen’s father was the first indigenous man to be elected to the legislature. He suffered a paralytic stroke while in his early forties and soon the family fortunes nose-dived.

At 17, Ellen fell in love and married James “Doc” Sirleaf, who had just returned from college in Alabama. They both found jobs and had four children in quick succession. When James moved to Madison, Wisconsin to study further, Ellen went too, leaving the grandmothers to care for the little ones. She studied at the Madison Business college, and worked part time, sweeping floors and waiting tables.

“In Madison I was so cold I sometimes feared my tears would freeze.” James was alcoholic and abusive and Ellen had to learn to cope. “Doc always did enough to hurt but not enough to maim or kill. Just enough to keep me in a state of fear.” Twice he put a gun to her head but did not shoot. She knew that if she walked away, or even if her husband did, she would lose custody of the children. When they returned to Liberia, James did, in fact, take away the children from her. Following their divorce, he remarried and moved to Florida with the youngest child.

Ellen had a government job and soon she had an opportunity to study at Boulder, Colorado and Harvard. She had already created ripples in government circles by criticizing the powers that be. Her American education, work experience and contacts stood her in good stead as she returned to Liberia and slowly but surely worked her way up the political ladder. When the President of Liberia died in 1971 and a new President came to power, Ellen was offered a new job- that of Deputy Minister of Finance. Eight years later there was a coup. Ellen left the country and took up a position with the World Bank.

Liberia had enjoyed political stability for century but glaring economic disparities threatened the delicate equilibrium and the insensitivity of the men in power brought things to ahead. The Rice Riots saw police fire upon a crowd of demonstrators killing at least 41. Soon thereafter at a conference of the OAU (Organization of African Unity – now African Union) in July 1979, President Tolbert remarked that the most pressing problem of the continent was apartheid in South Africa. The following month Ellen was made the first female Finance Minister in the nation’s history. A year later there was a coup and president Tolbert was killed. Only four ministers were spared – and Ellen was one of them.

The United States bolstered the new government and Liberia soon became the CIA’s main station in Africa. Ellen went back to the World Bank and later worked for Citibank. By then three of her sons were studying in the US.

Ellen never ceased political activity. She was arrested and sentenced to 10 years of hard labour for speaking out against the government. But she was offered clemency due to intense pressure from Citibank and elsewhere. One of the messages passed to her in prison had read, “We’d rather have a live ant than a dead elephant.” Of her subsequent flight from her homeland Ellen writes, “As much as I wanted to stay in Liberia, I wanted even more to stay alive. It was time to go.”

In 1990 civil war erupted and there were massacres in Monrovia followed by a massive exodus to neighbouring countries and total internal displacement of indigenous peoples. A Boston Globe reporter was told by a local, “The dogs ate the dead, and we ate the dogs.”

The book is one long politico-historical story that almost eclipses the personal. But there are interesting insights too, not entirely about Africa. For instance, the Confederate general Robert E Lee freed most of his slaves before the Civil War and offered to pay for their passage to Liberia. Wow! Do you think his statues ought to stay?

Overall assessment: Good read.

This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa’s First Woman President
Author: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Publisher: Harper Collins
Year of Publication: 2010

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War” by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara


This is a book about the Cuban Revolution by one of its legendary heroes. It was compiled in 1963, four years after the triumph of the guerrilla war that brought Fidel Castro to power on 1st January 1959. Argentine doctor-turned-guerrilla fighter Ernesto Guevara de la Serna had fought shoulder to shoulder with his Cuban comrades to overthrow the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. A universal symbol of resistance to oppression and injustice, Che believed that revolutionary uprising was the only path to liberation of oppressed peoples.

Talking of his harrowing experiences in the first few days after the small band of warriors landed in Cuba on 2nd December 1956, and all but 20 of the 82 men died in combat, Che writes, “I immediately began to think of the best way to die, since in that minute all seemed lost. I remembered an old Jack London story in which the hero, aware that he is about to freeze to death in Alaskan ice, leans against a tree and prepares to die with dignity. That was the only thing that came to my mind.”

The innocence of youth is striking. “As a trophy from the Battle of La Plata, I had taken a helmet from one of Batista’s corporals, and I wore it with great pride.” The helplessness of the invalid is apparent. “My asthma was somewhat aggravated and the lack of medicine meant I was almost as immobile as the wounded.”

The mind of the quintessential revolutionary is evident. “The people in the Sierra Maestra grow like wild flowers, untended and without care, and they wear themselves out rapidly, working without reward. We began to feel in our bones the need for a definitive change in the life of the people.”

The sensitive humanist also surfaces from time to time. “Blind and unrewarded sacrifices also made the revolution. Those of us who today see its achievements have the responsibility to remember those who fell along the way, and to work for a future where there will be fewer stragglers.”

Che describes his efforts at dentistry with characteristic humour. “Besides the meagerness of my skill, we had no anaesthetic, so I frequently used ‘psychological anaesthesia’ – a few harsh epithets when my patients complained too much about the work going on in their mouths.” When Batista’s forces leave behind a trail of destruction after failing to find the guerrillas, Che observes: “In the midst of the smoking ruins we found nothing but some cats and a pig; they had escaped the destructive fury of the invaders only to fall into our gullets.”

Che recounts his meeting with Fidel Castro in Mexico City in 1955, tells us how they both landed in jail, how they bribed their way out and how they made the dangerous sea crossing to land on Cuban shores after running out of food, water and fuel. “It was a shipwreck rather than a landing,” he writes. He describes how they ate raw crabs, horse meat and anything they could lay their hands on, how they drew water from holes in the rocks using hollowed out sticks, and how they dealt ruthlessly with traitors and informers.

There is deep pathos in his references to fallen comrades. “We must make time to weep for our fallen companeros while we sharpen our machetes.”

If Che Guevara hadn’t become a guerrilla commander he could have been a best-selling author. He was such a prolific writer – and he had so much to say.

Overall Assessment: Must read.

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2006 (first published in Spanish in 1963)

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Somalian born Ayaan Hirsi Ali is undoubtedly one of the most powerful liberal voices of the present century. She puts forth powerful arguments in order to prove that Islamic extremism is rooted in Islam itself. As the Muslim world struggles to come to terms with the challenges of modernity, believers have no option but to reconsider their stance on crucial concepts such as jihad, polygamy, talaq, inheritance rights, and a host of other issues. The attempt to adapt 7th century teachings to 21st century aspirations is causing much heartburn. The Arab Spring and Islamic State are manifestations of the soul-searching that is happening within the Muslim world.

“The UN estimated in November 2014 that some 15000 foreign fighters from at least eighty nations have travelled to Syria to join the radical jihadists,” she points out. The threat posed by terrorist groups is very real and the need to tackle the root causes is urgent.

“The call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam,” the author opines. Her reasoning is not unsound. Demonstrating the power of indoctrination, she writes of her own intolerant past self, “When Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran called for the writer Salman Rushdie to die after he published The Satanic Verses, I didn’t ask if this was right…….Everyone in my community believed that Rushdie had to die; after all he has insulted the Prophet. My friends said it, my religious teachers said it, the Qur’an said it, and I said it and believed it, too.”

Ayaan focuses on five areas that need re-thinking: (1) Muhammad’s infallible status (2) the Sharia (3) the glorification of the afterlife (4) the call to wage holy war (5) the practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law. “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah; and Muhammad is His messenger.” The author notes that today the Shahada is not merely the Muslim profession of faith but the banner of IS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram. She says, “We must reject the notion that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islam is inherently ‘racist’”.

The author expresses the hope that the movement for reform is already under way. She recounts certain events that give room for hope. On New Year’s Day 2015, the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, gave an astonishing speech at Al-Azhar University. He asked, “Is it possible that 1.6 billion people (Muslims) should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible!” He went on to say: “I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move…..because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”

Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood once said: “If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment, Islam would not exist today. Islam would have ended with the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”

I can’t help thinking Ayaan ought to have visited India, especially Kerala, where peace-loving Muslims are in a massive majority. Or Indonesia. Or Malaysia. Perhaps she might modify some of the harsher postulates based on her own experience of militant Islam in Africa and Arabia. Moreover, she would realize that Hindus comprise only 15% of the world population, and they too indulge in honour killings and inhuman punishments.

Overall Assessment: To describe this book as thought-provoking and path-breaking would be an understatement. But I suggest you read “Infidel” first.


Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The Story of Che Guevara” by Lucia Álvarez de Toledo

The Story of Che Guevara

Among the innumerable authorized and unauthorized biographies of the legendary Che, this one – by an Argentine author – surely stands out.

Che Guevara is the ultimate symbol of rebellion and idealism. He rejected the trappings of power and embraced the hard life of the guerrilla fighter. He was born in Argentina and had Cuban citizenship conferred on him, but his outlook was global and his spirit truly Latin American. He condemned the United States at the UN General Assembly in 1964. The following year he criticized the Soviet Union at an international conference in Algeria. He was not one to toe anybody’s line. Even Fidel Castro let him do as he pleased.

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, a chronic asthmatic, decided early in life that he would overcome. He practised swimming, sports, riding, and shooting and enjoyed the outdoors. In 1947 he evaded military service by having a cold shower before turning up at the barracks for his medical examination, knowing full well that it would trigger a severe asthmatic attack. As a consequence, he was declared medically unfit. He qualified as a doctor in 1953.

Ernesto’s paternal grandmother Ana Lynch was born in San Francisco and came to Argentina at the age of 12. His parents were unconventional people.

In 1950 Ernesto’s 4700 km bicycle trip was featured on the cover of a sports magazine. Besides, he met Chinchina Ferreyra and fell in love. In 1951 he worked as a male nurse on a merchant ship that took him to Brazil, Trinidad, Curacao, British Guyana and Venezuela. En route he wrote a short story titled ‘Anguish – the only Certainty’ wherein he interspersed his own philosophical musings with quotes from Sartre, Nehru and others. Realizing that sailing was not his destiny, he returned home and sought out Chinchina. The immensely rich Ferreyra family did not favour Ernesto’s marriage-plus-travel proposal.

Then began the famed motorcycle trip with Alberto Granada in December 1951. In July 1952, their paths diverged, Alberto landing a job in Venezuela and Ernesto ending up in Miami with one dollar in his pocket. A month later Ernesto returned home in a cargo plane, and in July 1953 set off again, this time with Calica (Carlos Ferrer). They meant to go to Venezuela but ended up in Bolivia. One day, while having coffee at a cafe in La Paz, they noticed a family seated alongside them and eating sandwiches. Their Indian maid was sitting on the floor beside them and the children were throwing crumbs to her as if she were a dog. Calica’s diary recounts how this incident shocked them to the core.

Ernesto then made his way to Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador and eventually Guatemala, where he meet Hilda Gadea, a Peruvian revolutionary who would later become his wife. Guatemala had plenty of left-wing exiles from right-wing Latin American dictatorships. Che met some Cuban exiles who had been part of the Moncada Barracks attack in July 1953 and were biding their time until Fidel Castro would be freed from prison. Nico Lopez became his first Cuban friend- and nicknamed him Che.

Che was in Guatemala when the government of Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in a US-backed coup. He took refuge in the Argentine embassy and obtained safe passage to Mexico. In mid 1955 in Mexico City Che and Hilda became a couple. Che met Raul Castro in June and Fidel Castro in July. The bonding was instantaneous. Soon they established a guerrilla training hideout and ended up spending two months in jail when it was discovered. In a letter to his mother in September Che expressed his thoughts about the fall of the Peron government and informed her of his marriage to Hilda. In February 1956 his daughter Hilda Beatriz was born. In November he sailed to Cuba to fight a long drawn out guerrilla war to oust Fulgencio Batista. In the Sierra Maestra during the long campaign Che picked up the habit of smoking Havana cigars, which soon became his trademark.

In a 1958 radio interview to Jorge Ricardo Masetti, Che was asked why he was fighting for Cuba. He replied, “In the first place I consider my country not only Argentina, but the whole of America. When asked whether Castro was a communist, he said, “Fidel is not a communist. Politically one can call him a revolutionary nationalist.”

When the Revolution triumphed Che became head of the National Bank of Cuba. There is an amusing story relating to his appointment. During a core group meeting Castro enquired whether any of the attendees were economists. Che raised his hand. Castro remarked, “I didn’t know were an economist.” Che replied, “Oh, I thought you said ‘communist.’” And that’s how he landed the job. Later he became Minister for Industry.

Aleida March had joined Che’s group towards the end of 1958. On 2nd June 1959 he divorced his first wife and married Aleida on the same day. They had four children together.

Che did a lot of diplomatic networking, leading Cuban delegations to Europe, Africa and Asia. He visited the Taj Mahal and Hiroshima. In 1965 Che went on a secret mission to the Congo with 150 black Cuban volunteers to foment revolution. Seven months later he had to beat a retreat. When Che wrote about his Congo campaign he began with the words, “This is the story of a failure…”

Che’s Bolivian mission in 1966-67 was doomed from the start. The Bolivian communists failed to support and the peasants did not enlist, so the rag-tag band of outsiders didn’t stand a chance. Che was wounded and captured on 8th October 1967 and executed the following day, presumably under orders from Washington.

Che Guevara had all the qualities of a true revolutionary – fearlessness, intelligence, ideology, passion and ruthlessness. To say that the story of his life is fascinating would be a gross understatement.

Overall assessment: Meticulously researched. Must read.

The Story of Che Guevara
AUTHOR: Lucia Alvarez de Toledo

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army” by Swati Chaturvedi


Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “the leader of the world’s largest democracy follows and felicitates trolls.” Shocked? Well no, not really. Everyone knows he’s the most Twitter-friendly person on the planet. I’ve no idea whether journalist Swati Chaturvedi is lying or telling the truth, but what she has to say in this book is definitely worth serious consideration. At least some of the information she passes on can be easily verified by a tech savvy person. While many of us do suspect that trolling is not a random harmless activity of stray individuals but a targeted intervention by well organized groups having a definite (often political) agenda, we rarely have evidence to back our beliefs. This book makes an attempt to bring out certain home-truths about trolling, fake news and false propaganda.

Describing internet trolls as “the goons of the online world,” the author goes on to share her own experiences of online stalking and sexual harassment and her disappointment at the inaction of the Delhi Police (which incidentally is controlled by the BJP-led Central Government). Referring to the “use of lies by verified Twitter users to generate communal hatred” she states that, “It’s akin to giving them the equivalent of a megaphone and a primetime TV slot.”

The book is full of revelations. “In a Right to Information petition, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said that the PM’s handles, @Narendramodi and @PMO, are run by the PM himself.” Modi follows 1375 people on Twitter, and his own followers number 21.6 million. (The numbers have since risen to 1640 and 26.3 million. I checked!) Of the people he follows, “twenty-six accounts routinely sexually harass, make death threats and abuse politicians from other parties and journalists, with special attention being given to women, minorities and Dalits.” The author names many of them and provides screen-shots of some of their most offensive tweets. Honestly, I wonder how Twitter puts up with the stuff!

Pictures of Burhan Wani’s funeral procession in Kashmir were tweeted by @ggiittiikkaa with the crude comment, “20k attended funeral of terrorist Burhan. Should have dropped a bomb and given permanent Azadi to these 20k pigs.” The author points out that this was retweeted 1184 times and liked 1086 times. Priti Gandhi (@MrsGandhi), self proclaimed ‘huge fan of Nathuram Godse’, who was “thrown out of the BJP when she tweeted a fake endorsement of Mr. Modi by Julian Assange of Wikileaks before the 2014 general election,” is currently a national executive member of the BJP Mahila Morcha. Tinu Jain, who is ‘followed by the PM’, was arrested in Gwalior in September 2106 for running a sex racket.

Every day the BJP’s IT cell sets the tweet agenda for the day. Synchronized tweeting, trending hastags, bots (algorithms acting in social networks to appear as real users), the ‘hit list’ of leading journos – all activities are controlled and coordinated by 11 Ashoka Road, New Delhi. Sadhavi Khosla’s account of the modus operandi is very interesting. The book also profiles a few trolls whom the author met and interviewed. Tweeting and trolling are becoming paid occupations, the evidence suggests. And online hate often results in offline violence.

Ankit Lal, social media chief of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) informed the author that Twitter handles in remote locations in Thailand are regularly tweeting BJP-created Modi hastags. Has the BJP hired a marketing agency in Thailand to do their trolling? Or are they using virtual private networks (VPN) to hide their location and identity? Is their online support base diminishing? Ankit Lal’s report which forms part of the Appendix is worth scrutinizing.

The book attributes Modi’s spectacular 2014 election victory to the effectiveness of his social media campaign. Further, the author notes that the PM, in his 2016 Independence Day speech, lied about the electrification of a village in Uttar Pradesh and used the PMO twitter handle to tweet the speech. Power Minister Piyush Goyal tweeted pictures of Nagla Fatela villagers watching the PM’s speech on TV. The gram panchayat immediately contradicted the claim and maintained that they still had no electricity. The tweets were hastily withdrawn.

The author here is taking a major risk, considering the outpouring of hate messages and violent threats that customarily follow any attempts to malign any of the sacred cows in our political firmament. At the same time, one realizes that what she has exposed is barely the tip of the iceberg. The rest is yet to come – for not all voices can be silenced by online intimidation.

(I did some quick reality checks before publishing this review and found that some of named Twitter handles are definitely interconnected. Their tweets are vitriolic, hate-filled, and illogical, they encapsulate lies and half-truths rather than verified facts, and furiously tweeting and retweeting seems to be the main occupation of the persons involved. And yes, NaMo does follow them!)

Overall Assessment: The author has opened a Pandora’s box.

I am a Troll- Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army
AUTHOR: Swati Chaturvedi
PUBLISHER: Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, India

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep” by Siba Shakib

Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep

This book by an Iran-born author and documentary film-maker paints a grim picture of life in Afghanistan. The Russian invasion. The haphazard resistance. The growth of the Taliban. Violence, oppression, opium addiction and human helplessness are woven into the fine threads of this fascinating story. The characters are powerful and convincing. It is a sordid tale of suffering and endurance, hope and determination.

Shirin-Gol, the lead female character, is a woman of substance. Though unleterred, she taught herself to read ‘three and a half books.’ The plight of women in this war-ravaged country is deeply disturbing. Where girls cannot study, where women cannot work, where the veil is all-pervading, an Afghanistan that god and the world forgot. The reader feels a numbing pain that is beyond tears. Shock, disbelief, sorrow, and a train of inexplicable emotions.

The author has an uncanny knack of saying so much using so few words. “In all likelihood Shirin-Gol’s mother, like all mothers in the world, suffered terrible pains at the birth of her fourth daughter, her ninth child, and in all likelihood she wondered at that moment how she would feed another child with her already weakened body and her empty breasts. And she was probably glad when she pulled the child from her body and saw that it was only a girl, because if Shirin-Gol had been a boy, that boy would have needed even more milk, even more attention. His mother would have had to carry him more often in her arms, they would have had to give a party to celebrate his birth and slaughter a sheep, rustle up some money for his circumcision and send him to the mullah to learn the Koran.”

The cycle of poverty, repression and hopelessness is self-perpetuating — it moves across generations with a cold tenacity. Shirin-Gol goes through multiple deprivations in childhood, is married at a young age, has several children, and lives life at a sub-human subsistence level, yet her spirit soars high above the mundane level. She stands out without being spectacular, and her never-say-die attitude inspires respect.

The book informs, educates, enlightens. It also entertains and tugs at your heart-strings. Amidst the pathos, there is a dark humour. Don’t miss any page, not even the acknowledgments, gracefully titled, ‘Thanks’. There are gems even there. “I thank Malalai and her brother who saved my life. I thank Rahmat, who protected me from stepping on a mine.”

Overall Assessment: Mind-blowing. Siba Shakib is undoubtedly a writer of substance. BTW, ‘Samira and Samir’ is another interesting book.

Afghanistan, Where God Only Comes to Weep
AUTHOR: Siba Shakib
Date of Publication: 2002

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and The Sino-Indian War” by Bruce Riedel

JFK's Forgotten Crisis

In 1950, Mao claimed he had ‘liberated’ Tibet. The monks at Lhasa were powerless, the Dalai Lama was 15 years old, and the world ignored the event. Nehru, at the time, had friendly relations with China. The US was understandably nervous about China. Moreover, a subtle power struggle had commenced between Russia and China leaving everyone confused.

The CIA sprang into action, setting up a surveillance operation near Dhaka (in the erstwhile East Pakistan) and flying U2 spy planes over Tibet in the late fifties. They had been doing this from Lahore and Peshawar earlier – until one of their planes was shot down by the Russians. Soon they discovered the Lop Nor nuclear testing facility – and Mao found out about the spy planes. Perhaps he suspected Nehru of complicity as the planes had to cross Indian air space.

The Dalai Lama’s escape in 1959 and the Tibetan resistance were masterminded by the CIA. India gave him asylum and accommodated him at Dharamsala. Meanwhile in Pakistan Ayub Khan came to power in a military coup. India soon discovered that China had built a major highway across the Aksai Chin region which was a part of Kashmir. Nehru demanded China’s withdrawal but Mao stood his ground. From then on, relations between the two countries deteriorated. Nehru’s Forward Policy of pushing forward military outposts in disputed territories in Aksai Chin and the northeast sparked off violent incidents.

In January 1961, John F Kennedy assumed office as President of the United States. He chose John Kenneth Galbraith as Ambassador to India. In time, both men would prove themselves to be true friends of India in her hour of need.

On 17th August 1962, the USSR and India signed a treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. China invaded India on 20th October 1962. At that precise moment, JFK was grappling with the Cuban missile crisis as the world came to the brink of nuclear war. Khrushchev was too busy to worry about India. Mao reportedly told him about his plans to attack India and the Russian didn’t bother to warn Nehru. (The treaty and his personal rapport with Nehru mattered little.) Khrushchev played a game with Fidel Castro as well, assuring Kennedy he would withdraw the nuclear warheads from Cuba, without consulting or informing Castro. It’s almost certain that Khrushchev had not told Mao about the nuclear missiles he had positioned in Cuba. Looks like he managed to fool everyone – except Kennedy.

Well, China grabbed Aksai Chin. And on 27th October, the hostilities ceased. The following day Khrushchev made a deal with Kennedy agreeing to remove the missiles from Cuba. The world breathed a sigh of relief. Nehru, however, had to eat humble pie, abandon his policy of nonalignment and send an SOS to Kennedy.

Washington’s response was swift and decisive. Besides Galbraith, the British and Canadian ambassadors in New Delhi appealed to their respective governments to join the effort to defend India. On 1st November, the USAF and RAF began airlifting arms and ammunition. Kennedy dispatched a high-level delegation to India. Ayub Khan demanded a slice of Kashmir as an inducement for staying out of the conflict. Kennedy, egged on by Galbraith, told him ‘don’t you dare’.

China attacked again on 16th November. The Indian army was completely routed on the north-eastern front and the narrow Siliguri corridor linking Assam, Nagaland Manipur and Tripura with the rest of India was on the verge of capture. India suffered heavy casualties. Thousands were taken prisoner, including Brigadier J P Dalvi who later wrote “Himalayan Blunder” castigating Nehru, Defence Minister Krishna Menon and Army Chief B M Kaul for their multiple follies. Indian politicians stayed away from the war zone. Indira Gandhi visited Tezpur near the Chinese frontline on 19th and 20th November. On 1st December China unilaterally withdrew from the occupied territories in India’s north-eastern sector. However, the Chinese held on to Aksai Chin. The war ended as abruptly as it had started.

Did Kennedy call up Mao and issue an ultimatum? Or was Mao dissuaded by the American response? It was revealed later had Mao had been making preparations for this assault for several years, building roads, infrastructure, and even POW camps along the border. Kennedy’s intervention undoubtedly saved India from dismemberment. His statesmanship during the Cuban missile crisis saved the world from Armageddon.

The following year the young president was assassinated in Dallas. Six months later Nehru died. In 1965 Pakistan attacked India and after 23 days of intense fighting, agreed to a ceasefire. Mao did not help Ayub Khan and his Defence Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who made several visits to China to seek help. During the 1971 Indo–Pak war that culminated in the liberation of Bangladesh, China remained aloof, despite some prodding by Nixon and Kissinger. Senator Edward Kennedy on the other hand visited India in August 1971, toured the refugee camps in Bengal and deplored that American weapons had facilitated the massacre in East Pakistan. By the time the Kargil conflict erupted in 1999, India’s nuclear capability was no secret – and naturally China refused to get involved.

Bruce Reidel has done a decent job of analyzing data from various sources and drawing plausible conclusions. The book leaves us wondering if the fate of Asia would have been different if Kennedy had lived just a while longer.

Overall Assessment: Eminently readable – and historically valuable.

JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA, and The Sino-Indian War
PUBLISHER: Bookings Institution Press.  (HarperCollins India in 2016)

Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Castro’s Secrets- Cuban Intelligence, the CIA and the Assassination of John F Kennedy” by Brian Latell

Castro's Secrets

Did Fidel Castro mastermind the assassination of John F Kennedy? This book by a CIA veteran throws new light on the mystery. The author gives details about the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, his adoration of Castro, his failed attempt to migrate to Cuba, his brief sojourn in the Soviet Union, and a host of other clues that serve to deepen the mystery rather than provide open-and-shut answers.

In June 1987 when Florentino Aspillaga Lombard sought asylum at the American embassy in Vienna, his spectacular revelations about Cuba’s clandestine operations sent shock waves through American intelligence circles. How terribly the CIA had underestimated this impoverished Caribbean island! Lombard was no ordinary spy. He had in July 1979 played a crucial role in ensuring of the victory of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He had been in Angola where Castro had engineered a Marxist revolutionary takeover. He provided the CIA with a goldmine of information. Cuban intelligence had knowledge about the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. No wonder it turned out to be such a disaster! It comes as no surprise that the head of Cuban intelligence was Fidel himself.

Through the book, we get a rare glimpse of Castro’s spectacular intelligence network. We also glean interesting details of the now well-known Armageddon Letter of 1963 where Castro urged Nikita Khrushchev to launch a nuclear attack on the USA, the role played by Cubans in fomenting revolution elsewhere in the Americas, and the impressive scale of training and indoctrination provided to wannabe revolutionaries. Latell opines that Che Guevara’s Bolivian venture was a suicidal mission. As he puts it, “Fidel always thought strategically, many moves ahead, like a grand master moving pieces on a giant chess board. Venezuela was an opponent’s queen, Bolivia a pawn. …..If by some fluke, Guevara were to win, he, Fidel, could take credit for sponsoring and masterminding the victory. And if the roving Argentine incendiary were to die in the quest, that would reverberate even more enduringly. Cuba would have a martyred patron saint.”

Latell also suggests the possibility that Hugo Chavez or his elder brother, Adan, could have been spotted and recruited by Cuban intelligence long before the former won power in Venezuela. How else could a career military officer become an adoring disciple of the leader of another country?

Overall Assessment: Must read! History, politics and intrigue make a deadly cocktail!

TITLE: Castro’s Secrets- Cuban Intelligence, the CIA and the Assassination of John F Kennedy
AUTHOR: Brian Latell

Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The South African Gandhi – Stretcher Bearer of Empire” by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed

The South African Gandhi

Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa practicing law. They called him the ‘coolie barrister.’ And he called the indigenous people ‘kaffirs.’ The scantily clad man Indians recognize as the ‘father of the nation’ had an image makeover on the eve of his departure from South Africa in 1914. Gone was the coat-suit ensemble. In came the oh-so-humble dhoti. This meticulously researched book by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed (South African professors of Indian origin) unravels many facets of the saint-in-the-making. Quoting extensively from ‘The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi’ as well as newspaper publications including ‘Indian Opinion’ of which Gandhi himself was co-founder, they paint an unfamiliar portrait of a familiar global icon, leaving the reader shocked and saddened.

Here’s a sample of Gandhi’s pronouncements during his South African sojourn:

  • We believe also that the white race in South Africa should be the predominating race. (1903)
  • We have never asked for political equality. We do not hope to get that…I have never asked for the vote. (1914)
  • About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population….(In a 1904 letter to the Medical Health Officer of Johannesburg, he demanded that Kaffirs be withdrawn from a residential area peopled predominantly by Indians.)
  • Should they (Indians) be assigned a permanent part in the Militia, there will remain no ground for the European complaint that Europeans alone have to bear the brunt of Colonial defence. (1906)

The saddest part is that Gandhi failed to acknowledge African suffering. During the Boer war, he served the Empire as stretcher bearer. In 1906 when the Zulus in Natal revolted he seized the opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to the British Crown. He wrote in Indian Opinion on 14th April 1906, “It is not for me to say whether the revolt is justified or not. We are in Natal by virtue of British power. Our very existence depends upon it. It is therefore our duty to render help….” In stark contrast, the ‘arch-imperialist’ Winston Churchill condemned the ‘disgusting butchery’ and referred to ‘this wretched colony’ as ‘the hooligan of the British Empire.”

Gandhi’s associates from outside the Indian community were all whites. He remained aloof from the blacks. The authors suggest that “Gandhi’s Anglophilia possibly played a role in developing his theory of satyagraha.” They point out that he conveniently forgot the principles of non-violence and satyagraha whenever the Empire was at risk. His strategy was one of whining, petitioning, lobbying, negotiating, compromising and surrendering. At the same time he was a great publicity agent. He had Joseph J Doke write his biography in 1909. It was published with the assistance of N M Cooper in England. Gandhi purchased all 600 copies and had them distributed in Britain, Rangoon, Madras and South Africa. Ironically, the Introduction to the book was written by Lord Ampthill who sat in the House of Lords from 1909 to 1935 and opposed every move in the direction of Indian self-governance.

In 1906, Gandhi announced his vow of celibacy. Authors such as Kathryn Tidrick have suggested that it was possibly in South Africa that Gandhi commenced the practice of sleeping with nubile nymphs ostensibly to ‘test’ his self control. Gandhi hailed as his ‘soul-mate’ a German Jew, Hermann Kallenbach. They met in 1903, shared a house from 1907/1908 to 1910 and wrote inexplicably intimate letters to each other ever after. (The letters were purchased for $1.3million by the Government of India in 2012 and the contents remain under wraps.) In May 1910 Kallenbach purchased an 1100 acre farm near Johannesburg for Gandhi’s use. It was named Tolstoy Farm. Residents were compelled to practice celibacy and vegetarianism.

Gandhi’s Indian benefactors financed his activities in South Africa. Among them were the Maharajas of Bikaner and Mysore and the Nizam of Hyderabad. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Gandhi’s mentor, visited South Africa in 1912 and helped revive his sagging political fortunes. In October 1913, Gandhi failed to get majority support within the Natal Indian Congress and he formed another outfit called Natal Indian Association. The 1913 strike by Indians workers across the mining and plantation sectors underlined the futility of passive resistance. In a letter to Marshall Campbell on 23rd December 1913, the future Mahatma wrote: “We were endeavouring to confine the strike area to the collieries only. Whilst I was in Newcastle I was asked by my co-workers in Durban what answer to give the coastal Indians who wanted to join the movement, and I emphatically told them that the time was not ripe for them to do so….(but) after my arrest….the movement became not only spontaneous but it assumed gigantic proportions.”

On 20th December 1913, following his release from prison, Gandhi appeared at a public meeting at Durban wearing dhoti and kurta. He no longer had a moustache. In July 1914, he announced he was returning to India for good.

Historians and history buffs are wondering what to make of the book. It is too compelling to be wished away.

Overall Assessment: Deeply disturbing. A must read for every Indian.


Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“MOSSAD – The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service” by Michael Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal


Iran had been threatening to wipe out Israel from the face of the earth. What would the Israelis have done without the Mossad, their secret service network that seems to have no parallel anywhere in the world? Israel has more hostile neighbours than any other country. And Jerusalem has, for thousands of years, been the most disputed territory on earth. Now this does not justify or rationalize the Mossad’s undercover activities, and yet……it certainly makes you ponder!

This book gives an account of the Mossad’s multifarious activities, some of them benign and humanistic like the transfer of thousands of Ethiopian Jews through Sudan to Israel, and others deadly and diabolic like the cold-blooded elimination of those identified as enemies of Israel. One develops a grudging respect for spies in general and the ‘art’ of espionage in particular. And one begins to wonder whether there is anything that the Mossad doesn’t know!

The authors provide many thrills, among them:

1) A spine-chilling account of the Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann’s detection and capture in Argentina and his hush-hush transfer to Israel to stand trial.

2) Inside information of the systematic sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program, not to mention similar ventures in Syria and Iraq.

3) A vivid description of the daring assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, a Hamas kingpin in Dubai in January 2010. This operation was carried out in the full glare of CCTV cameras. Within 6 hours of the man’s arrival in Dubai he was dead. The Mossad’s 27 member hit team was out of the country within hours of the assassination. The comings and goings were watched worldwide on YouTube.

Some of the ultra fascinating chapters include: The Quest for the Red Prince, I want a MiG 21, Saddam’s Supergun and “Oh that? It’s Khrushchev’s Speech…!” On second thoughts, every page is mind-blowing. It’s hard to pinpoint the best parts.

I can’t help wondering what Mossad is doing about ISIS right now. I guess that will remain under wraps for a few decades more – until someone writes another tell-all book.

Overall assessment: Sure to make your hair stand on end. No wonder they say ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’


Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus”edited by Layla Al-Zubaidi and Matthew Cassel


This book contains first person accounts by activists and authors from eight different countries in the year of the Arab Spring. From Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the voices of four women and four men tell us things we never heard from the international media.

Tripoli-born London resident Mohamed Mesrati describes his childhood in Gaddafi’s Libya. ‘On my first day my teacher slapped me because I couldn’t memorize a small verse of the Quran. I remember her telling me, “You are a donkey!” and to this day, whenever anyone uses that word I am reminded of my introduction to the world of learning.’ Egyptian Yasmine El Rashidi says, ‘I watched people fall to the ground, gasping their last breaths. I fell to the ground myself, choking on tear gas. We dodged bullets and ran from armed men.’ Algerian human rights activist Ghania Muffouk speaks of people who resort to self-immolation or ocean-crossing to escape their misery. ‘When Mohammed Bouazizi set fire to his body it was the drop that made the cup run over,’ says Tunisian student leader Malek Sghiri, recounting the event that triggered the Arab Spring. He avers that self-immolation was a common occurrence in Tunisia as well. Sghiri was imprisoned and tortured by the Ben Ali regime at the height of the Jasmine Revolution, just days before the dictator fled the country. When an interrogator told him he had interrogated his father in the same building in 1991, the young man replied, ‘I hope God grants you a long life that you might get to interrogate my son as well.’

‘Words were my weapons’, writes Jamal Jubran from Yemen where the dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh stifled all sections of society. Son of an Eritrean mother and a Yemeni father, Jubran describes painful childhood experiences of racism and discrimination, and recollects how an Indian film inspired him when the hero demolished a multitude of villains with one masterstroke. Growing up to become a teacher and writer, he passionately clamoured for change. He was hit by a truck attempting to bump him off, but survived with cuts and bruises. He does not mince words when he refers to Saleh’s poor language skills. ‘As I listened to him speak, I would ask myself in amazement how an idiot like this could end up ruling a country as large as Yemen.’

Kwala Duniya says Syria reached the breaking point when a group of schoolchildren in Deraa were arrested and tortured for scribbling on the walls of the school the popular slogan of the Arab Spring: “The people demand the fall of the regime.” Safa al Alhmadi, a Saudi woman, writes, ‘The entire Arab world was engaged in a collective uprising for its freedom and dignity, and my countrymen and women were begging for scraps.’ She continues, ‘What do we want? Women to drive. What do we get? Prison sentences and lashes, followed by patriarchal pardons.’ Summing up the citizen’s dilemma she says, ‘Even though no one wanted the status quo, few wanted to pay the price for revolt.’

Bahrain born Ali Aldairy, now living in exile, recounts how he had tweeted from the scene of disaster, ‘Here at Salmaniya Hospital, the medical teams are confused, the protestors are confused, and the wounded are left waiting. Only the martyrs are confused no longer. They are perfectly at peace.’ Remembering a phone call from the father of a young martyr, he writes, ‘He was thanking me for setting down his son’s obituary in ink; I wanted to thank him for giving us a son who wrote the future of this country with his blood, but I could not summon even these words…’

Piecing together the first person accounts in this book, the reader experiences horror and hope, mingled with disgust and admiration, joy and pathos. The Arab Spring is obviously a work in progress. Long live the revolution!

Diaries of an Unfinished Revolution: Voices from Tunis to Damascus
Editors: Layla Al-Zubaidi, Matthew Cassel
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: December 2013

Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.