Readers Of The World: Iraq

Hello everybody, it’s that time of the fortnight again where we whisk you around the world and continue our round-the-world trip, discovering fascinating reading-related facts and all kinds of assorted and amazing stories and pursuits of literature from the whole world over. If you missed the last installment click here. Now it’s over to our former communications intern Mike Butler to tell us all about Iraq (hope you enjoy).

 ‘Iraq is steeped in history.

It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham.

Tread lightly there.

You will see things that no man could pay to see

— and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis.

You will be embarrassed by their hospitality even though they have nothing.’

Colonel Tim Collins, 19 March 2003

For someone my age, growing up in the 90’s and 2000’s, it’s hard to think of Iraq as anything other than a desperate, war-torn country, but Tim Collins managed to do so on in a speech to his battalion on the eve of the invasion of the country in 2003, when he acknowledged the history and mythology of its people. Much of the rest of his speech is coloured by the belligerent rhetoric and delusional self-justification that dominated newspapers and airwaves for several years following the attacks of September 11th 2001, but here was a rare glimpse of the human face behind the panorama of destruction.

Iraq is part of Mesopotamia, which is widely considered to be the birthplace of recorded history and writing itself, in the form of cuneiform script. The name of the region means ‘the land between two rivers’, and it is the civilisations that emerged around the Tigris and Euphrates, including the Sumerian and Babylonian empires, which have led to Mesopotamia being frequently identified as the cradle of civilisation. Although events since then might suggest that human civilisation wasn’t such a great idea after all, there is no doubt that the region around modern-day Iraq exerts a profound and lasting influence on human history.

The region produced one of the first works of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which describes the titular king of Uruk’s adventures with his companion Enkidu and his quest for immortality. The poem predates Homer’s Odyssey, and its creation and flood myths are believed to be the origin of those found in the Bible, underlining its influence on Western culture. Some of the tales from One Thousand and One Nights are derived from Mesopotamian folklore and literature, emphasising the richness of the region’s storytelling tradition.

In modern times, some of the world’s most powerful figures have similarly devoted themselves to making up fantastical stories about Iraq, with disastrous consequences. We’re left to wonder what kind of stories the people of Iraq are telling each other today, and how they explain to themselves the various disasters that have befallen their country.

Readers Of The World: USA

Hello everybody, it’s that time of the fortnight again were we whisk you around the world and continue our reading round-the-world trip, discovering all about literary cultural customs, fascinating reading-related facts and all kinds of assorted and quite amazing stories of all kinds of pursuits in literature from the whole world over. If you missed the last installment click here. Now it’s over to one of our Wirral based project workers Lynn Elsdon for the latest installment (hope you enjoy hearing all about the USA):

Alice Ozma of Millville, New Jersey, on the US east coast, found in books a deep and lasting form of communication between herself and her father. When she was nine years old, they set themselves a reading challenge – he would read to her every day for 100 days. This so captured Alice that when they had achieved this, she suggested that they read for 1,000 nights. This grew into a reading relationship that they came to call ‘The Streak’. It lasted nearly nine full years, right up until Alice left home for college.

They both found that ‘The Streak’ helped them to stay connected in the midst of family fracturing: her parent’s divorce and mother’s departure, her father’s management of single parenting, her sister leaving home. Alice remembers one book that they shared about a brother and sister who are abandoned by their mother (Journey by Patricia MacLachlan), that provided a parallel world for father and daughter to navigate together, safely.

This is a lovely example of how sharing reading strengthens families. As Alice puts it in an interview with The Guardian, ‘I can’t imagine what our relationship would have been like without it. It gave us something to talk about, because there isn’t always something to talk about – we’re 40 years apart. We have quotes in our vocabulary that are from books that we use without even thinking. It’s become our shared language’.

At The Reader Organisation, as we read with children and young people every day in groups and one to one in their homes, we are watching our young people find increased confidence, resilience, broader horizons, and better relationships through shared reading. Alice Ozma felt so strongly about the importance of reading for pleasure between children and their carers that she has written a memoir of her experience in The Promise, which she hopes will inspire its readers to begin their own reading ‘Streak’ with the children they care for. She says, ‘It would mean a lot to me if parents would at least give this a try’. Here are some of the reasons we are with Alice on that one:

  • Shared reading transports the child to many different worlds. Some are imaginary, but others are real places that exist outside the child’s perception of life – thus expanding their horizons.
  • Sharing reading introduces the child to difficult experiences – they can learn from the ways that characters in books handle difficult situations and use this as a model for their own behaviour.
  • Issues dealt with in the story can often quell fears; seeing characters in a book having similar experiences to them can often reassure that it is ‘normal’ and ‘ok’; that they are not the only ones.
  • Reading can act as a support; it can help a child to feel better if they are having a bad time. It is relaxing and allows you to slip into a story different from the reality of your own life. In this way, the book can often take the role of a comfort blanket.
  • Reading together can act as a starting point for discussion between child and adult. Sometimes this discussion can be simple, other times it indirectly addresses issues that have been bothering the child in a way that makes them feel safe and able to confide.
  • Shared reading is quality time spent together, a bonding experience that fosters one-to-one communication between adult and child.
  • Reading with a child helps to reassure them that they are important to you and that you enjoy spending time with them.
  • Studies have shown that children whose parents / carers have been involved with their reading development show greater emotional and social development (Allen & Daly, 2002). This includes having a greater resilience to stress, greater life satisfaction, more self-control, greater social adjustment, greater mental health, more supportive relationships, greater social competence, more positive peer relations, more tolerance, more successful marriages, and fewer delinquent behaviours (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003).

Readers of the World: Czech Republic

We’re continuing our reading round-the-world trip, discovering all about literary cultural customs, fascinating reading-related facts and all kinds of assorted and quite amazing stories of all kinds of pursuits in literature from the whole world over.

A fortnight ago, Niall started our worldwide literature journey off by taking us all the way to Brazil; now we’ll jump from South America over to Central Europe, as I’ll be your tour guide for exploring the literary sights of the Czech Republic.

Before it became a popular stag and hen party hotspot, Prague – the capital city of the Czech Republic – was regarded for two quite famous literary exports. The first, a person: the author of many of the 20th century’s most notable novels and short stories, Franz Kafka, who was born in the city in 1883 (when it was still a part of pre WWI Austria-Hungary). The second, a book: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, written in 1984 by Milan Kundera. The novel immortalises Prague in the midst of what was one of the most difficult and significant times in the Czech Republic’s history – the Prague Spring of 1968, an attempt to reform Czech communism, of which Kundera himself was involved. Despite its title, the book may be considered anything but ‘light’ in its subject matter; dealing with the fate of the individual and suggesting that in the end, such a fate is meaningless as in an infinite universe the life of one person is insignificant – or as Kundera would put it, unbearably light.

The Strahov Monastery Library

Given this cheery philosophical outlook, it might be worth considering how best to spend an ultimately futile existence. Surely a pretty good way of going about things would be to soak up the contents of as many books as possible, as does one of the novel’s main characters, Franz (perhaps named after Kafka? Seems like a handy coincidence). Franzes both of the fictional and the Kafka variety would certainly be happy that they lived in a city containing such a historic, intricate and well-stocked library as the Strahov Monastery Library. Part of the Strahov Monastery, the library is 868 years old and has withstood such perils as fire and army invasion to hold over 16,000 books alongside 110,000 volumes of monastic writings – one of the oldest collections in the Czech Republic. With its beautiful and incredibly ornate Baroque interior and several special library rooms, the Strahov Monastery Library is as much of a tourist attraction as a library. Unfortunately given the rare and ancient quality of many of the books housed there, so much as a human breath would be likely to adversely affect their preservation; therefore most of the library is strictly off-limits to up close and personal inspection. You can however go on a virtual 360 degree tour of the library (also handy if you can’t afford the air fare to Prague).

Something that allows much wider access to literature for the Czech Republic’s readers – and those beyond – is the Libraries For All project. The Multicultural Center Prague is a partner in the project, which has the goal of upgrading local public libraries in the city (as well as also operating in Austria, Sweden and Germany) to ensure that they fully serve the needs of the Czech Republic’s migrant community. Libraries For All is working to make libraries in the Czech Republic truly multicultural, involving, diverse and democratic – an aim that Kundera with all his political activism would surely be proud of.

Readers of the World: Brazil

Welcome to the first in a fortnightly, worldwide, literature love-in. Basically, what’s happening here is staff members of The Reader Organisation will be taking turns to release their creative juices and unveil some things which YOU a lover of reading may not have known about literature in other countries this can be ANY country in the world and can be about anything literary. Imagine the possibilities: famous stories, famous writers, libraries in the country, the government’s approach to reading, mythology. Anything…

Well, now I have your attention, so let us start with our first country or as they say in Brazil: numero um.

I’m going to try to do this without explaining Spanish colonialism in Southern America. So let’s see how that works out. Brazil is the 6th largest country in the world with a population of over 192 million people; it’s the largest country in South America and the fifth largest country in the world! It’s even got nice weather.

The culture of Brazil and its people is very mixed – a bit like our own. It involves mainly Portuguese, African and Native Indian ideas and customs mixed into the melting pot of European and Western values.  Which I think makes it a beautiful country…

On to the main event: in Brazil there is a mythological creature called Saci who is widely regarded as the most popular figure in Brazilian folklore – folklore being something I have always been interested in, probably because they were the first stories told around the campfire to keep the children from being naughty and well let’s be honest they were quite imaginative and entertaining. Saci is a little prankster with dark skin, a magical red hat, holes in his palms and the smoker of a pipe – I forgot to mention he only has one leg and at one time was on the receiving end of most of the blame for the country’s small problems e.g. ‘who threw that egg?’ ‘Saci’ ‘who soured the milk?’ ‘Saci’ ‘who smashed the pottery?’ ‘Saci.’ This little prankster was probably like a mini god-send for all mischievous Brazilian children – and adults.

Still want to know more about him? How’s about this:

He can make himself invisible, transform into a bird called a Matitaperê, he will lose his powers if he runs across a stream and if you leave him some tobacco he will be appeased for a while (sounds like some people I know).

I hope that you have enjoyed reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

Same place, two weeks time, to hear all about the Czech Republic.