Monday, 28 October 2013

Geography: Culture & Worldview

Perhaps no knowledge is more delightful than such an intimacy with the earth's surface, region by region, as should enable the map of any region to unfold a panorama of delight, disclosing not only mountains, rivers, frontiers, the great features we know as 'Geography,' but associations, occupations, some parts of the past and much of the present, of every part of this beautiful earth.

I love Charlotte Mason's view of teaching Geography and the quote above from Volume 6 of her wonderful book, A Philosophy of Education.
My memories of high school geography are very vague, probably due to the fact that I didn't turn up to the lessons most of the time. I didn't find anything about the subject remotely interesting and from what I observed my teacher seemed to feel the same way.
I couldn't wait to be old enough to leave school, travel and learn what I thought was real geography. I have travelled a fair bit overseas since then and have lived in most states in Australia but I've also learnt how to choose good books that make geography come alive. Books that have given my children and me the opportunity to travel with their minds to places they might never have the opportunity of visiting, to get a glimpse into a completely different culture through the eyes of someone who has their own unique perspective coursing through their veins; books that open up a panorama of places and cultures that are now no more. 

I love the idea of 'associations.' A couple of years ago two newly arrived Iranian sisters walked into our church's free English classes and with their faltering English we heard about their culture seen through their nominal Muslim eyes: young girls growing up under a culture that was not originally theirs, imposed from the outside.
This encounter with these two young women opened my heart to learn about their homeland.
Fast forward a year: our family had the privilege of hearing Dr. Daniel Shayesteh speak and we were so impressed and touched by his story which he wrote about in his book, The House I Left Behind.

The House I left Behind gives a unique insight into the life of a practicing Muslim through the lens of a man raised in an Iranian (Persian) culture dominated by fundamentalist Islam (historically Iran has not always been Muslim and defended its Persian heritage for many years despite Arabic invasions).
It's the story of a man who desired democracy and economic justice for his country and believed the Iranian Revolution which deposed the Shah of Iran and opened the door for the rule of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 would be the means of accomplishing this.

Was it ever stated that the purpose of the Revolution was a religious one and one that would empower the Ayatollah Khomeini with authority to apply Shari'a law in Iran? Never. The intention was supposedly a socio-political revolution that would ensure the equal and just distribution of wealth among Iranians by the vote of the people. Why would a righteous Islamic leader change his mind and betray his nation? He did it obviously to gratify his lust for power even at the cost of his fellow Muslims and countrymen, aligning himself with the political philosophy of Islam. Khomeini's manipulations were so subtle and clever that it never occurred to the people that he was deceiving them and the enforcement of Shari'a established his absolute supremacy over every individual and power in Iran.

The book looks at Persian culture and it's origins - the reigns of the great kings of old, Cyrus and Darius, the Indo-European roots of their language, their love of music and poetry and their customs and then tells the author's story:

Daniel Shayesteh was born on the Western side of the Caspian Sea in Northern Iran, which was formerly the kingdom of Persia, in the village of Talesh, in 1954. While studying in Tehran he became involved while a student in the Iranian Revolution and later in politics and saw the ousting of the Shah of Iran and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

We never knew the mullahs would start with pro-democratic attitudes but demand absolute allegiance in the name of Islam later. We just did not see it coming. We did not know that they would hate Iranian culture and would enforce ancient Saudi Arabian culture to dominate the lives of Iranians.  

Daniel's hopes for justice and social, political and economic reform in his homeland were dashed and both he and his fellow students and revolutionaries were betrayed by the false promises of Khomeini and the mullahs.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has built many doors between Iranian parents and their children. The doors get closed to all if just one member of a family opposes government. For this reason, millions of doors are closed now between the children of Iran and their parents. The Islamic government has left a lot of parents mourning for their lost and fugitive children.

Falling out of favour with Khomeini's political group, he was kidnapped and sentenced to death but after a miraculous release he went into hiding and escaped to Turkey. It was here, after being betrayed by his business partner that he went to a group of Christians for help in trying to recover his money, and came to know Jesus Christ. Eventually his wife and their three daughters were able to join him in Turkey but eventually they even had to escape from there after threats on their lives.

This is a heart felt book written by a man who loves his heritage and his homeland and who still grieves for the relationships he had to sever when he left Iran. It is the best book I've ever read on Islamic culture. My grandfather (my mother's stepfather) was a nominal Muslim originally from Pakistan. I had that association when I was a child so I thought I had some insight into the Muslim worldview but Daniel Shayesteh's book opened up a whole new dimension for me, as well as presenting a diverse panorama of Persian culture.

I read this book aloud and even my 7 year old at the time kept asking for more. I did do some minor editing for her sake as some of the incidents he documents weren't suitable for her.
It was hard to choose what to quote from his book  - there was so much that was worth sharing but also if read in isolation his words may sound harsh. I was fortunate to hear him speak before I read his book and I found him to be very gentle, forgiving and very family minded. His story made me weep when I heard it from his own lips.

Is there any democratic Islamic country in the world which has developed an egalitarian  system and tolerated human rights, freedom of speech and religion? If yes, why has every Islamic country, even the most moderate one among them, made the proselytising of Muslims illegal? Why can Muslims build their mosques and schools in Islamic countries, but non-Muslims are not allowed to have similar rights in Islamic countries?

The mosque is also vital for establishing Muslims as sovereign over non- Muslims in a non-Islamic society. Building a mosque in a non-Islamic society or country symbolises Islam's claim over that society or country, even with a non-Muslim majority.

James A. Garfield once said that the two eyes of History are Geography and Chronology. Daniel Shayesteh's book presents a story that looks with both eyes and unfolds a sweeping narrative of a little known culture and a mostly misunderstood worldview.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Wednesday with Words

I was listening to an audio book of Sarah's Cottage by D.S. Stevenson. I liked the author's style but the story itself was rather pedestrian. I kept waiting for something to happen - not much did - but two incidents grabbed my attention. The first was when one of the characters explained to Sarah (sort of the main protagonist) why they'd named their son Beric. Apparently the parents had read the story of Beric the Briton by G.A. Henty in their youth and loved the book (we did too) and so named their son after Henty's hero.
The second was when Sarah's Grandma was ill and Sarah anxiously went up to her room to check on her. Her Grandma asked her if she knew Cardinal John Newman's Prayer for a Holy Rest, to which the answer was yes, and her Grandma asked her to say it:

O Lord support us all the day long
Until the evening comes,
The shadows lengthen and the busy world is hushed, 
The fever of life is over and our work is done.

Then Lord in your Mercy,
Give us a safe lodging,
A Holy rest and peace at the last.

Sarah's Grandma knew that her work was not yet done; she wasn't free to go to her holy rest...yet.

Last week I went to visit a friend in hospital. She has cancer and has previously undergone surgery, chemotherapy and radiation and now a second round of surgery and this time it was radical. She was talking about the amount of time, effort and money from the public purse that went into her last lot of surgery and whether it was worth it all - she doesn't know yet what her prognosis will be, although her progress post operatively has been much quicker than anyone expected. She's a Christian and isn't worried about her future as such but she had struggled with these thoughts.  Although these weren't her words, in a sense it was a struggle over whether her work is done.
I prayed for her before I left and Psalm 139:16 came into my prayer:

All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be.

I don't know what the outcome will be for my friend but I know that God knows and He knows whether or not her work is done and He determined before she was even formed the number of days ordained for her and not even cancer can interfere with His timing.


Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Wednesday with Words

We memorised Psalm 19 many years ago and we when were reviewing our memory work during the week my little girl asked, "Can we do the one about the bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion?" We all laughed because she is very excited about being a flower girl at her big sister's wedding next week and then at her big brother's wedding early next year but there's something very beautiful and splendid about those words and also the rest of the Psalm.

It was the Glory of God that I saw in nature one day in my late teens that revealed Him to me for the first time. I didn't understand it as such at the time but the natural beauty that reached into my heart that day prepared me for the day about five months later when I committed my life to the One who created the beauty I beheld.

Many years later, a couple of months ago in fact, my husband and I were driving to Adelaide airport returning home after my dad's funeral with all the emotion and weariness that occasioned, when after a light shower a rainbow broke through the clouds and I just sensed God's presence in a very tangible way. I read these words later:

Nature to a saint is sacramental. 
If we are children of God, we have a tremendous treasure in Nature. 
In every wind that blows, in every night and day of the year, 
in every sign of the sky, 
in every blossoming and in every withering of the earth, 
there is a real coming of God to us if we simply use our starved imagination to realise it.

Oswald Chambers 

 And Nature, the old nurse, took
  The child upon her knee,
Saying: "Here is a story-book
  Thy Father has written for thee."

"Come, wander with me," she said,
  "Into regions yet untrod;
And read what is still unread
  In the manuscripts of God."

And he wandered away and away
  With Nature, the dear old nurse,
Who sang to him night and day
The rhymes of the universe.


Psalm 19 is a reminder not to take the 'manuscripts of God' for granted. I lived for three years in another state and went back for a visit a couple of decades later. I was really surprised to find that the spot was a beautiful place. I hadn't seen the loveliness when I lived there as I was focusing on my problems and they veiled the beauty that proclaimed His presence.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Scottish Highland Dancing

Scottish Highland dancing is a very aerobic dance form (which is also recognised as a sport) and is best described as a mix of folk and ballet. It has similar feet and arm positions to ballet, in comparison to Irish dancing, which is a bit more like tap dancing. It's not as well known (in Australia) as Irish dancing which came to the fore with advent of Riverdance but it's gaining in popularity here and we got to see the dancers perform at both visits of the Edinburgh Military Tatoo held in Sydney in 2005 and 2010.

Everything in highland dance is related to Scottish culture and history, for example the Seann Truibhas, which means "ragged trousers". This is a reference to the time in history just after the ban on the kilt was revoked. It contains many kicking or shaking motions of the legs, representing the kicking off of the trousers.

The Ghillie Callum or Sword Dance is a traditional battle dance. The Highland Fling is a dance of victory. The Barracks Johnnie was a traditional recruitment dance performed to the tune 'Scotland the Brave'. 

The dance form can be quite versatile with a mix of contemporary and highland forms.
Two of my daughters, 20 years old and 8 years old, are highland dancers and have classes together. The older girl has been dancing for about 8 years and the youngest started a year ago after a couple of years of learning ballet.

This video of the Edinburgh Military Tatoo shows a mix of traditional and contemporary forms of Highland Dance.

This video gives an idea of what highland dancing involves.

This one is more traditional and shows a dancing competition. Dancers may choose to compete and/or do examinations which can lead to a teaching qualification. The Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association has more information here.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Hymn Study: Glorious Day

The words to this hymn were written around 1908 by J. Wilbur Chapman (1859-1918). The version below has the original words to this hymn with some added lines and with music written by Casting Crowns in 2009.

One day when Heaven was filled with His praises,
One day when sin was as black as could be,
Jesus came forth to be born of a virgin,
Dwelt among men, my Example is He!

Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me;
Buried, He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely forever;
One day He’s coming—O glorious day!

One day they led Him up Calvary’s mountain,
One day they nailed Him to die on the tree;
Suffering anguish, despised and rejected:
Bearing our sins, my Redeemer is He!

Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me;
Buried, He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely forever;
One day He’s coming—O glorious day!

One day they left Him alone in the garden,
One day He rested, from suffering free;
Angels came down o’er His tomb to keep vigil;
Hope of the hopeless, my Savior is He!

Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me;
Buried, He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely forever;
One day He’s coming—O glorious day!

One day the grave could conceal Him no longer,
One day the stone rolled away from the door;
Then He arose, over death He had conquered;
Now is ascended, my Lord evermore!

Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me;
Buried, He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely forever;
One day He’s coming—O glorious day!

One day the trumpet will sound for His coming,
One day the skies with His glories will shine;
Wonderful day, my beloved ones bringing;
Glorious Savior, this Jesus is mine!

Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me;
Buried, He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely forever;
One day He’s coming—O glorious day!

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Folksong: Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?

This is one of my favourite Scottish folksongs I remember growing up with. I always knew it as Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go but it's also called Wild Mountain Thyme and Blooming Heather.
I like the first video because it has a lovely folky feel and uses the double bass, violin & cellos as an accompaniment but the singer is a pom! I thought I should add a Scottish version which happens to be more upbeat and not such a folky feel, but I still like it.

Oh the summertime is coming
And the trees are sweetly blooming
And the wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie go?

And we'll all go together
To pluck wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie go?

I will build my love a bower
Near yon' pure crystal fountain
And on it I will build
All the flowers of the mountain
Will ye go, Lassie go?

And we'll all go together
To pluck wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie go?

If my true love she were gone
I would surely find another
To pluck wild mountain thyme
Grows around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie go?

And we'll all go together
To pluck wild mountain thyme
All around the blooming heather
Will ye go, Lassie go?

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Year of the Russian Novels

This has been my year of the Russian novel. Mind you, I've only read three but the first two, The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment both by Fydor Dostoevsky were epics - not just because of the length of the books themselves but also due to the rambling narrative and the confusion of keeping track of the Russian character's names and derivatives.

I made the mistake of starting with The Brothers K. It was the most difficult of the three to follow and there were a few times when I wondered why on earth I was reading it but I plodded on as I really wanted to find out where it was going. I couldn't for the life of me begin to explain what it was about, except that it involved the Karamazov brothers, their father and a broad sweep of moral and philosophical arguments and ramifications.
Even though it was a struggle to read, my overall opinion is that it is a significant, thought provoking book and the overarching theme is one of redemption.
The impact and significance of the book doesn't lie in the story line of the book but in the themes that lie beneath its content.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the third of the Russian novels that I've read this year, was a pleasant surprise in contrast by being so much more readable, not to mention shorter, at only 143 pages.

Both Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn wrote out of their own personal experiences. Dostoevsky faced a firing squad in 1849 for his involvement with an illegal group but had a last minute reprieve of his sentence and was sent instead to a Siberian labour camp, while Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in a labour camp for making depreciating comments about Stalin in 1945.

Ivan Denisovich Shukov is the main character in Solzhenitsyn's story and is serving time in a Soviet prison camp during the 1950's due to the fact he was captured by the Germans during the war and subsequently is falsely accused of being a spy. The story describes one day of Ivan's (he is generally referred to in the story by the name of Shukov) life in the camp with an engrossing narrative. I was waiting for something awful to happen at the end of Ivan's day but it didn't occur. Instead as Ivan gets into his bunk at the end of a long, weary and eventful day he says...

'Glory be to Thee, O Lord. Another day over. Thank you I'm not spending tonight in the cells. Here it's still bearable.'

He lay head to the window, but Alyosha, who slept next to him on the same level, across a low wooden railing, lay the opposite way, to catch the light. He was reading his Bible again......Alyosha heard Shukov's whispered prayer, and turning to him:

'There you are, Ivan Denisovich, your soul is begging to pray. Why, then, don't you give it it's freedom?'

Shukov stole a look at him. Alyosha's eyes glowed like two candles.

'Well, Alyosha,' he said with a sigh, 'it's this way. Prayers are like those appeals of ours. Either they don't get through or they're returned with "rejected" scrawled across 'em......'

'But Ivan Denisovich, it's because you pray too rarely, and badly at that. Without really trying. That's why your prayers stay unanswered. One must never stop praying...'

This was a brilliant little book and a good introduction to Solzhenitsyn in particular and Russian novels in general.
In retrospect it would have been good to start with this book. I think Crime and Punishment would be a better introduction to Dostoevsky for a first timer but I think both books are rich, reflective and fascinating works.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is scheduled in Free Reads, Ambleside Online Year 11