Asne Seierstad’s Two Sisters

May 6, 2018

The Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad has carved out a niche for herself depicting war zones and political extremism. The author Luke Harding has described Seierstad as “the supreme non-fiction writer of her generation”.  I mentioned her in a previous post, where I looked at her 2013 book One of Us, the tale of Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who killed 77 people in Oslo on Friday July 22nd, 2011. One of Breivik’s principal motivations was his outrage at the presence of Muslims in Norway. Now, in her latest book, Two Sisters, Seierstad looks at the other side of the coin, Islamist extremism. The two sisters, in the book given the pseudonyms Ayan and Leila, left Norway to join ISIS. How could these girls just up and leave Norway and go to war-torn Syria and marry ISIS fighters?

At the heart of the story is the Juma family. Their father, Sadiq, had been a child soldier in Somalia. He was on the winning side, but things didn’t work out for him. So he ended up in Norway, where one year later he would bring his wife, Sara and their five children.

In general they were well integrated, but the mother never learnt the language and was unable to fully adjust to Norwegian life. As her children were growing up, she became increasingly worried that her children were becoming too Norwegian. She went to her local mosque, where they recommended they receive religious instruction from a Koran teacher. And so, a number of parents clubbed together to pay for the services of Mustafa, a respected and sought-after teacher, who was not yet 20. The reality is that Mustafa imparted a doctrine of hatred, with an unhealthy obsession with death and martyrdom. This is when, at least according to Sadiq, their nightmare began.

At first, the mother was pleased the two girls began to become more observant. But then they began the slide into extremism. Ayan became deeply involved with the extremist Muslim youth organisation Islam Net. The sisters even started wearing the full niqab, which incidentally is not a Somali tradition. What seems to have happened is that Ayan was the first one who radicalised and she in turn influenced her younger sister, Leila. The book is full of telling vignettes. This one is about Leila.;

On another occasion a boy who had forgotten his pencil case asked to borrow a pen. She said, “All right, but then I can’t ever use it again.”

He did not quite understand. Before she tossed it to him, she said, “Just keep it. I can’t touch anything you’ve handled.”

This is just one example of the retrograde ideas that the sisters would adopt. It did not happen overnight. Both their parents, the more liberal father and the more traditional mother failed to see the dangers. This failure was shared by the school, who automatically assumed that it was the parents who were radicalising their children.

It was on October 17, 2013 that the girls would leave for Syria. They explained it all in an e-mail. After wishing “Peace, God’s mercy and blessings upon their parents in Somali. The text continued in Norwegian:

We love you both sooo much and you have given us everything in life. We are eternally grateful for everything ♥.

We ask your forgiveness for all the pain we have caused you. We love you both sooo much, would do anything for you, and would never do anything to purposely hurt you, and is it not then fair and proper that we do everything for ALLAH swt’s [Subhanahu wa ta’ala, Arabic for “May He be glorified and exalted”] sake and are grateful for what he has given us by following his rules, laws, and commands.

Muslims are under attack from all quarters, and we need to do something. We want so much to help Muslims, and the only way we can really do that is by being with them in both suffering and joy. Sitting home and sending money is no longer enough. With this in mind we have decided to travel to Syria and help out down there as best we can. We know this sounds absurd but it is haqq and we must go. We fear what ALLAH swt will say to us on the day of judgement.

Just three days after the girls’ escape, Sadiq got himself the to the Turkish-Syrian border. With the help of a middleman, he managed to get into Syria. Somehow he tracked down the girls. He was allowed to spend five minutes with Ayan. It did not turn out as he had expected. He was not able to persuade her to come back with him; she had married to an ISIS fighter and had no intention of accompanying him.  It got worse – he was put in prison, where his jailers interrogated and tortured him. He saw cellmate after cellmate being taken away and killed, but he was finally released. However, he has not seen either of his daughters since.

To bring the story up to date, we do not know where they are. It is nearly five years since they left Norway. They became mothers.  Her parents do not even know if they are alive. The situation of ISIS in Syria is much worse now. They control only a few slivers of territory. They have been from Raqqa, where the cities were. If they are still alive, their prospects look rather grim.

What lessons can we learn from this? Seierstad provides a riveting account of what happened, but there are no definitive answers.  The sisters played no part in the book. They refused to give their side of the story, which undoubtedly does raise important ethical questions. Is it ethical to focus on the lives of two girls who have not given their consent?

I do agree with Seierstad that we are not talking about brainwashing. That is a lazy way of thinking. They do not start out as evil. Their radicalisation is a gradual process. One factor is how important is identity. Islamism gave them an identity they valued. And religion itself played a key role. For example, I would question the role of the mosque and the Koran teacher. There are certain governments in the Middle East who promote Wahabbism, an Islamic doctrine and religious movement founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. It is a hate-filled creed that should have no place in the modern world. I do not know what became of Mustafa, but the tragedy is that it was the parents themselves who brought him in. However, the girls’ brother, Ismael attended the same classes and was not radicalised. Indeed, after seeing the transformation his sisters underwent, he has become an atheist.

Although Seierstad offers no definitive answers, her book is so hard to put down. I do like her novelistic non-fiction. What’s more it seems to be meticulously researched. Ultimately her goal is to report. Two Sisters is a fascinating, but harrowing read, essential for these times .


Famous put-downs #3

April 29, 2018

After my previous posts – Famous put-downs #1 and Famous put-downs #2, as well as Scorn and More Scorn – here is another selection of put-downs:


There’s one area where Donald’s experience could be invaluable, and that’s closing Guantánamo. Because Trump knows a thing or two about running waterfront properties into the ground. Barack Obama


James Franco: acting, teaching, directing, writing, producing, photography, soundtracks, editing; is there anything you can do? Actress and comedian Natasha Leggero on The Disaster Artist star.


So boring, you fall asleep halfway through her name Alan Bennett on Arianna Stassinopoulos


Hey buddy you ought to save your breath. You’ll need it later to blow up your inflatable date. Comedian Rodney Dangerfield to heckler


David Beckham sent the people of Scotland an open letter. An open letter – because he couldn’t work out how to get it into envelope.” Comedian Frankie Boyle during the Scottish independence referendum


The 4th Earl of Sandwich: ‘Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox’

John Wilkes: ‘That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress’


If Kim wants us to see a part of her we’ve never seen, she’s gonna have to swallow the camera. Bette Midler


Why don’t you go into that corner and finish evolving?  Comedian Russell Kane to heckler


The worst person at controlling a party since Michael Barrymore.  Frankie Boyle on Theresa May


Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands and all you can do is scratch it Sir Thomas Beecham to a cellist


Look, it’s all right to donate your brain to science but shouldn’t you have waited till you died? Comedian Arthur Smith to heckler


If ignorance ever goes to $40 a barrel, I want drilling rights on George Bush’s head. Commentator Jim Hightower on George HW Bush


I’m sorry, I don’t speak Orc. Comedian Brendan Dodds to heckler


People say that Steve Jobs died too soon. But I think it was a fitting metaphor for his company’s attitude to battery life. Comedian Frankie Boyle

30 Language bar jokes

April 22, 2018

I am sucker for language nerd jokes. See my previous post, Language humour. I saw a collection of language bar jokes in the staffroom. I thought I would feature them, as well as some others I found online. Here is my selection:

  1. A run-on sentence walks into a bar it starts flirting. With a cute little sentence fragment.
  2. A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.
  3. A dangling participle walks into a bar. After finishing a drink, the bartender asks it to leave.
  4. A misplaced modifier walks into a bar owned by a man with a glass eye named Ralph.
  5. Two possessive apostrophes walk into the bar as if they owned the place.
  6. An antecedent walked into a bar, and they ordered a drink.
  7. A non sequitur walks into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.
  8. A synonym strolls into a tavern.
  9. An allusion walks into a bar, despite the fact that alcohol is its Achilles’ heel.
  10. Bartender asks a woman what she wants. “An entendre,” she says. “Make it a double.” So he gives it to her.
  11. A subject and a verb have a disagreement in a bar, and one of them pull out a pistol.
  12. A malapropism walks into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.
  13. An alliteration traipsed into a tavern, where it tangled tempestuously with an insistent, illiterate intern.
  14. A mixed metaphor walks into a bar, seeing the handwriting on the wall but hoping to nip it in the bud.
  15. A pun, a play on words, and a limerick walk into a bar. No joke.
  16. At the end of the day, a cliché walks into a bar — fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack.
  17. Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.
  18. An interjection walked in to a bar. OUCH!
  19. A heedless homonym walks into a bar. You think he wood of scene it write in front of him.
  20. A hyphenated word and a non-hyphenated word walk into a bar and the bartender nearly chokes on the irony.
  21. A typo wakled into a bar.
  22. A dyslexic walks into a bra.
  23. An Oxford comma walks into a bar. Orders a gin, and tonic.
  24. A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to forget.
  25. A simile walks into a bar, as parched as a desert.
  26. Papyrus and Comic Sans walk into a war. The bartender says, “Get out — we don’t serve your type.”
  27. An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.
  28. Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They converse. They depart.
  29. A verb walks into a bar, sees a beautiful noun, and suggests they conjugate. The noun declines.
  30. A figure of speech literally walks into a bar and ends up getting figuratively hammered.

















Ten years in the blogosphere

April 15, 2018

It’s typical of me to forget an anniversary – just ask my long-suffering wife. On April 4th 2008 I did my first post, In Praise of Wikipedia. Now 940 posts later I’m still standing. I really had no idea that it would last a decade. I had planned to commemorate it, but it just slipped my mind.

The 8th year of the 3rd millennium began on a Tuesday. It was the International Year of Languages, Planet Earth, Sanitation and the Potato. The GFC was still in its infancy. George W. Bush was still president and would be succeeded by Barrack Obama, who defeated John McCain in November. It was a year of bailouts, especially after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The financial may have been bad more long-term damage was done by The Sex and the City film. It was the year that Spain would win their first European Championship on colour TV.

It’s been good fun. The most difficult thing has been finding the time. I remember when I started I used to do four posts a week. Now I tend to do one or two a week. Nevertheless, I still love doing it and I hope to continue to share my view of the world.

Witty book titles

April 15, 2018

Don’t judge a book by its cover – judge it by its title instead. There are some really clever book titles out there. They often involve puns or allusions to other books. Here are some of my favourites:

The Origins of the Specious, Patricia T. O’Conner33 Revolutions  Per Minute, Dorian LynskeyHere’s Looking at Euclid, Alex BellosMoby-Duck, Donovan HohnYoung Winstone, Ray WinstoneThe Missionary Position, Christopher HitchensA Very British Coop: Pigeon Racing From Blackpool To Sun City, Mark CollingsKill Two Birds & Get Stoned, Kinky FriedmanGone with the Windsors, Laurie GrahamPies and Prejudice: In Search of the North, Stuart MaconieSleeping Dogs Don’t Lay: Practical Advice For The Grammatically Challenged, Richard Lederer

The dark arts of the restaurant critic

April 8, 2018

We are all critics now. Thanks to the smartphones we carry around in our pockets and websites such as Yelp, Instagram and food blogs, restaurant reviews have become crowd-sourced. For example, statistics show 2015 Bottega Louie had 10,398 reviews and over 13,000 photos on Yelp. This popular involvement may be considered more democratic. Now we the citizens can decide whether a restaurant is good or not. It is not enough to satisfy the sophisticated palate of the professional food critic, who they may well recognise and who will only visit once. But with the citizen reviewers they will have to be consistently on their toes.

What does this mean for the professional critic? One I heard complaining that they enjoyed influence, but not power. Restaurant critics have been around longer than you may think. In a previous post I looked at the rise of the Michelin Guide, which was first produced in 1900. Food guides go back even further, to the beginning of the 19th century. Then we have newspapers. The second half of that century was a golden age for them. Anjd they started to write about restaurants. It is difficult to know when the first ever restaurant review was. One early example appears to be the anonymous How We Dine column that ran for the first time in The New York Times on 1 January 1859. The critics remit was to “Dine somewhere else today and somewhere else tomorrow. I wish you to dine everywhere. From the Astor House Restaurant to the smallest description of dining salon in the city, in order that you may furnish an account of all these places. The cashier will pay your expenses

One of the places they would visit was the prestigious Delmonico’s, which I first heard about in Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. The critic provides a glowing review of the establishment:

No nobleman of England — no Marquis of the ancienne nobless — was ever better served or waited on in greater style that you will be in a private room at Delmonico’s. The lights will be brilliant, the waiters will be curled and perfumed and gloved, the dishes will be strictly en règle and the wines will come with precision of clock-work that has been duly wound up. If you “pay your money like a gentleman,” you will be fed like a gentleman, and no mistake… The cookery, however, will be superb, and the attendance will be good. If you make the ordinary mistakes of a untraveled man, and call for dishes in unusual progression, the waiter will perhaps sneer almost imperceptibly, but he will go no further, if you don’t try his feelings too harshly, or put your knife into your mouth.”

However, what we all really enjoy is the schadenfreude of a scathing review. A master of this was the late AA Gill. He once described pre-Kitchen Nightmares Gordon Ramsay as “a failed sportsman who acts like an 11-year-old”, which led to his being kicked out of Ramsay’s Aubergine restaurant. Another recipient of his barbs said that the critic owed him £500,000 for closing down his restaurant:

You closed down my restaurant. Your review was malicious, you did it through spite, for the sake of a funny line and because it’s easier to write horrid things.” Gill didn’t hold back in his reply:

“Do you know the reason your restaurant failed is that it was an unbelievably shitty restaurant, the food was disgusting!’

In Tour De Gall his takedown of L’Ami Louis in Paris is work of art itself:

Twenty minutes later, possibly under their own steam, the snails arrive. Vesuvian, they bubble and smoke in a magma of astringent garlic butter and parsley. We grasp them with the spring-loaded specula and gingerly unwind the dark gastropods, curling like dinosaur boogers. They go on and on, expanding onto the plate as if they were alien. We have to cut them in half, which is just wrong. The rule with snails is: Don’t eat one you couldn’t get up your nose.”

He continues:

“What you actually find when you arrive at L’Ami Louis is singularly unprepossessing. It’s a long, dark corridor with luggage racks stretching the length of the room. It gives you the feeling of being in a second-class railway carriage in the Balkans. It’s painted a shiny, distressed dung brown. The cramped tables are set with labially pink cloths, which give it a colonic appeal and the awkward sense that you might be a suppository. In the middle of the room is a stubby stove that also looks vaguely proctological..”   

Here are a few more of my favourite negative reviews:

Gino D’Acampo: My Restaurant at London’s Euston station

The risotto with scallops is where hope goes to die. Jay Rayner

Le Cinq, Paris

If I work hard, with luck, one day I may be able to forget. Jay Rayner

Leon De Bruxelles, London

The meat inside the shells is small and shrivelled and dry; each shell contains what looks like the retracted scrotum of a hairless cat. Jay Rayner

Razes Le Relais, Paris

For the “secret sauce”, a mustard-based crime against humanity (of course they keep it secret—if they published the recipe, Hans Blix would be out of retirement in five minutes), …”  Matthew Norman

Roy‘s, New York

If clowns had a cuisine, this would be it. The food at Roy’s is foolish, a parade of exotic ingredients, confused and overpowering sauces, and ideas piled one on top of the other until the recipes simply collapse under their own weight. Almost every dish is sweet — so sweet that the desserts seem like palate cleansers. William Grimes

Kobe Club, New York

If Akira Kurosawa hired the Marquis de Sade as an interior decorator, he might end up with a gloomy rec room like this. Will the last samurai to leave please turn on the lights? Frank Bruni

Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, New York

Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde? Pete Wells

 Why are such reviews so enjoyable? “The vocabulary of the bad is just that much more entertaining. When it comes to restaurant reviews, the saying – if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all – doesn’t seem to apply to restaurant reviews.

The wonderful world of public information films

March 25, 2018

There is a wonderful new podcast on the BBC. It’s called Boring Talks. I featured the show’s presenter, James Ward, in a post I did a couple of years ago when I reviewed his book Adventures in Stationery. As I pointed out Ward was also the man behind the Boring Conference, which the website defines as “a one-day celebration of the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked”. Now the BBC has brought these talks to world of podcasts. Topics so far have included book-pricing algorithms wooden pallets and the Argos catalogue. As the BBC website explains: “Behind every boring subject is another layer of boringness you could have never imagined.” The podcast I’m going to talk about came out about two weeks ago.

Long before The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge, 1864, and The Legacy, Danish directors were making films for international audiences. Between 1935 and 1965 the government funded hundreds of short films in many languages, with topics from brick making to the dangers of riding motorbikes. Boring Talks #08 – Danish Public Information Films is given by Dr Claire Thomson, an academic from the UCL School of European Languages, Culture and Society, a world authority on these years, known as the golden age of Danish public information films. If this subject has tickled your fancy, Thomson has just published a new book. The Edinburgh University Press hardback of Short Films from a Small Nation: Danish Informational Cinema 1935-1965. It is available for £75 from Amazon in the United Kingdom. But you need to hurry up – there are only three in stock.

The problem with the podcast is that you have to imagine them. What I hadn’t expected was that it would be difficult to find these gems online. We tend to think that everything is on the internet, but alas there are many things you just cannot find. I have searched far and wide for How a Brick Comes into Being, Here are the Railways or a musical short about the history of the potato, but I failed in my mission. but we do have this talk by Thomson, where we can see clips of some of these films:

In Britain it was the Central Office of Information, COI which was responsible for these films. The COI has produced a wide range of information campaigns designed to inform the public on a huge range of issues which affect their daily lives, such as health, safety, rights, education and what to do in a nuclear war. These films have been educating, persuading and above all warning us about hidden dangers for more than seventy years.

I remember some of them when I was growing up. One of the most memorable was the famous clunk-click. What we didn’t know was that Jimmy Savile, the public face of the campaign would turn out to be a predatory sex offender.

There were a couple of iconic AIDS films in the mid-1980s:

But I really enjoy the black and white ones. Here is one from 1948 about sneezing in public:

This 1948 short is about the coming National Health Service:

In America they are known as the public service announcements. What I like to explore are those films which reflect different mores of those years. We have this film about being on the lookout for homosexuals:

And know I know how to spot a communist:

I thought I would finish with a parody of these educational films, Jamie Donahue’s 2004 short, Billy’s Dad is a Fudge-Packer. Her ten-minute film is satirises the wholesome image of the traditional 1950s family and is a naughty version of the Carry On films full of nudge-nudge, wink-wink sexual innuendos and obscene visual gags. Enjoy!