The Children of Aleppo’s Struggle to Survive

40199729 We have seen the heartrending images of babies crying on missile-shelled streets, heard the furor of debate over desperate people seeking shelter from a war-torn country, but rare is the on-the-scene tale in English that gives us a window to feel it all up close. This coming-of-age story starts with a 13-year-old Syrian boy running for his life through a battle zone to no safety at all.

The narrative then slams backward, to a place any young person will recognize: the classroom and a tedious lesson. The teacher is driving home the message of what Assad’s presidency has meant to the people of Syria. Zaid’s classmate Ahmed is one who, echoing his father, presumes Assad is a great man who helped the economy.

Readers who have not grown up in dictatorships may find it strange that school lessons include whimsical “leader” stories given on a daily basis. Such propaganda is a reality that children in free societies are spared.

Zaid’s life seems normal in the sense that families get up, go to work or school, and come home to eat and sleep, but his 13-year-old neighbor and classmate, Fatima, notices that nine students are absent.

The Heart of Aleppo is a courageous and versatile account of young Zaid, who discovers the “heart” of his home city even as it is destroyed. His life moves from some semblance of normality living over his rug merchant father’s shop to learning how to survive with Fatima and her brother Salman as adults die around them. Zaid comes to question every notion or tradition which structured his life before chaos. Prefabricated ideas of who and what represent safety fall away as government soldiers and rebels fire through civilians to dominate each other. There is no safety.

Ammar Habib is a prolific young American author who manages to make a 7,000-year-old city under onslaught come to life. Readers will feel they are running in the rubble and understand what it must mean when there is no way to stay out of a fight—not when it has engulfed an entire country.8442873


How to Write your Research Essay in One Day!

If you follow these instructions, you will be able to finish your research paper in one day. (You might have to go to a library for peace. Add half a day if you have done no research yet. Some teachers provide example papers. I know I do!  When using a library database, try to restrict yourself to newspapers and magazines because they are easier to digest.)placement thesis

* Put the prompt at the top of the paper while you are working on it.

* Make sure you have a working thesis statement to begin with (that addresses the prompt at the top of the paper).

* Each paragraph following the introduction should (theoretically) have a topic sentence (the first sentence) that will introduce an idea that supports the working thesis (which can be your definitive thesis statement if you are happy with it).

Ways to get ideas for body paragraphs:

  1. Give background of issue or individuals or groups
  2. Define (explain) terms or issues
  3. Talk about why your thesis is correct
  4. Give the opposing point of view and then explain why it is incorrect or not viable (argument strategy).
  5. If your issue depends on historical chronology, try to stick to it so you do not confuse a reader who has never read about this problem before.

6. Itemize the reasons for or the problems brought on by the issue you are discussion (cause/effect strategy).

7. Enumerate the subsections of the issue you have to write about (classification strategy).

Ways to find more ideas to develop the research essay:

  1. From your text book readings, if that is where the prompt comes from and you are allowed to use that reading as a source, find a line (quote) that you like. Take it as the main idea of a paragraph, introducing it with your own observation (try not to begin a paragraph with a quotation from someone as it is much better to state a problem and follow with the writer’s observation). Then you can enlarge upon what the author said, making it relevant to the modern reader.
  2. Look at example papers (In my classes, I provide examples from students in previous semesters). If you like something someone said, you can use the idea so long as you do not steal it word for word. Look at that writer’s sources and if he or she is directly referring to a newspaper or magazine article, find it and look at it. You might discover a new idea or another line you want to quote that can enrich your essay.
  3. Read what you have out loud to yourself or someone else or a tape recorder. Read slowly. If you record it, don’t listen to it immediately. Go take a walk or have lunch to clear your head.
  4. Last but not least: the more articles you read (newspapers or popular magazines are easiest to comprehend!), the more ideas you will get.
  5. Write about what you understand best. Don’t worry about the parts you don’t understand if you feel you have tried very hard to understand. Some of us feel most comfortable writing about armaments, some about political personalities, government, foreign policy, and so on. Write about what you understand!
  6. You have the right to talk about mistakes of people or governments that no one has talked about. For instance, one student mentioned to me yesterday that she felt very disappointed the Benazir Bhutto did not use a bulletproof shield when she went into the street on the day she was killed. What a great observation! The student felt that Bhutto’s courage was eclipsed by her foolhardiness. Students have the right to make those observations! We teachers love that. : )


The last edit:

* The last edit is always reserved for spelling and punctuation.

* Don’t use “you.”

* I allow my writers to use first person, “I” or “we.”  In other classes, you must consult your teacher first about whether first person is allowed.

* Look for vague words like “it,” “this” and “that” in your research essay. If you have printed the paper out (a really good idea), circle each “it,” “this” and “that” and then make sure it is clear. Try reading those parts to someone else and then ask the listener, “What did I mean by ‘it’?”

“That” is sometimes used to begin a clause. Sometimes you can take “that” out and the sentence still reads fine. Try it. Here is an example: “I told him that I could not come today.” Revised: “I told him I could not come today.” (That is invisibly still there!)

* Concrete nouns work so much better than vague words.

* Double check your possessive pronouns (his, her, their) to make sure they correspond with the word they are referring to. (“If a child is sick, take him or her to the doctor” (not “If a child is sick, take them to the doctor.”)

* Double check your pronouns in general (he, she, they) to make sure they correspond in number to the word they are referring to.

*On that subject, remember that a country is a collective noun, usually referred to in the singular: “Mexico refused to sell its territories” and “The United States had its own interests at heart.” Yes, even the United States is generally thought of as singular when we write about it.  It takes action as a collective unit.

* Collective nouns become plural ONLY when they have to for the sake of logic: “The jury have put on their coats and gotten in their cars to go home.”

* If you have an apostrophe addiction, make sure every single ‘s in your paper is for a possessive: The president’s idea (the idea belonged to the president). We do not create plural words with ‘s. Americans, when referring to the people living on the American continent or the USA, is written without an apostrophe.

* At the end of the paper, click on insert>page break so that your Works Cited is on its own page.

* Make sure all the entries on your Works Cited page are in alphabetical order.

* Block all your entries on the Works Cited page and then click on Home> paragraph (go to the lower right hand box and click on that, and it will open up another box)>indent (choose “hanging”).


Hate Those who Sell our Freedom

facebookThe two greatest values in life are health and freedom. Ask anyone who has managed to safeguard his or her health while living under totalitarian rule, and that person will say that without freedom, health diminishes.

My health diminished while I lived under totalitarian rule for 17 years.

Decline of health is a reality for family members of abusive, totalitarian people.

For the years I lived under totalitarian rule, I thought of the USA as a free country because it is a democracy. A democracy is a state in which the people have the right to vote and speak freely, where they have equal rights, being created equal by God. In a democracy, the people make the rules by which they respect one another’s rights to health and freedom.

Foreign powers are not part of that decision-making process, or at least they had not been, until the emergence of international social platforms like Facebook could sell the rights of a free people away to outside elements, so that our elections were not our own.

I am sickened by Facebook’s willingness to give democracy away for money. Perhaps that group of people who have control over these international social platforms (here is the definition of an oligarchy) do now own and control us.

Then we are no longer a democracy and no longer free.

And you know what’s next if we don’t try to get our right to freedom back.


The Lady Loves of Edgar Allen Poe

Having zipped through Peter Ackroyd’s Poe: A Life Cut Short, I am wading through the last pages, sad to find myself near the end. Edgar Allen Poe was a very confused individual, but he certainly romanced quite a few women. They are here in order:


Edgar Allen Poe married his cousin, Virginia, pictured above immediately after death. She married him when she was 13 and he, 26. No one knows for sure if this marriage was ever consummated. She died of tuberculosis. He infamously traduced her memory after her death. On her deathbed, Virginia claimed that Ellet, pictured below, had killed her.

300px-Elizabeth_Ellet_croppedElizabeth Ellet wrote romantic poetry as well as The Women of the American Revolution, published in 1845. She was involved in a romantic scandal involving herself, Edgar Allen Poe, and a Bostonian poet named Frances Sargent Osgood, pictured below:

Frances Osgood

For some reason, Virginia Clemm Poe had no objection to Frances Osgood, whom she invited many times to their home. After Virginia died, Edgar Allen Poe fell in love simultaneously with two women (again): Annie Richmond, who was married, and Sarah Helen Whitman, who was a widow. He courted them in two different incarnations of himself, Eddie for Annie (the first), and Edgar for Sarah (in a hat, under Annie):

Annie Richmond

Sarah Helen Whitman

Helen Whitman took care of her aged mother, who seemed to see through Edgar’s continual hysterics. When the marriage to Helen and the romance with Annie fell through, Edgar managed to pull himself together. In the last year of his life, he wrote “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee” and refound a childhood sweetheart,  Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, shown as a girl and then a grown woman:


Elmira Shelton

He would have liked to marry Mrs. Shelton, but her children opposed the match and “her dead husband had bequeathed the estate to her on condition that she did not remarry” (Ackroyd). While waxing poetic for Mrs. Shelton, he nursed his poor broken heart over Annie Richmond. Apparently Mrs. Shelton was willing to consider throwing everything to the winds for Poe. If not for his strange death, there might really have been a marriage (?) between Edgar and some poor new woman whom he could torment.


Did this Man forge Joseph Conrad?

Joseph-Conrad_7284 Edward Garnett was something that no longer exists–a publisher’s “reader” (as opposed to an editor, a higher-ranking role back in the 19th century). Author Helen Smith has achieved an in-depth, nuanced study of this brilliant man in An Uncommon Reader, recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, (no slouch of a publishing house itself). In that study, she presents a relationship between Joseph Conrad and Edward Garnett that argues for Conrad’s literary prowess existing in large part thanks to the shepherding and nurturing (literary hand holding and spiritual therapy) of Garnett.

We are inclined to remember Joseph Conrad as the great writer whose works spun out into Apocalypse Now and 23 other cinematic works, as the man of whom other writers have been painfully jealous. F. Scott Fitzgerland, for instance, proclaimed that he would rather have written Nostromo than any of his own works.

Did this same man from the Ukraine, who wrote in his third language and abandoned the sea because of poor health, actually depend on the publisher’s reader, Garnett, to tell him to go forth and write? Garnett slogged through, by his own estimation, roughly 700 manuscripts a year, for sundry publishers, evaluating and writing them up in terms of literary merits and financial promise (for publishers).

According to Smith,  it was Edward Garnett who convinced Conrad not to go back to sea. While admittedly Garnett knew his stuff, coming from a long line of book lovers (both father and grandfather worked at the British Museum,  in the manuscripts/books department), was he the one who shaped Conrad, giving him the courage and editorial advice necessary to write books to inspire the ages?

Conrad declared his dependency on Garnett more than once. Most shocking is the revelation of Conrad’s moodiness, which he blasted in Garnett’s direction by letter, and the attentive therapy required of Garnett to simply get Conrad to finish his second novel, An Outcast of the Islands. Not long after, Garnett met Conrad’s much younger fiancee, a woman who had no affinity for literature, after which Conrad embarked on a stillborn project titled The Sisters.

After a period of no communication with Garnett, his letters reveal the most contrite spirit turned in supplication to the man of letters. Conrad started “The Rescuer,” and wrote to Garnett, “I am ready to cut, slash, erase, destroy; spit, trample, jump, wipe my feet on that MS at a word from you. Only say where, how, when.” If Garnett did not answer that letter, it was because he had typhoid.

There can be little doubt that Edward Garnett was not paid for all the encouragment he sent to Conrad for The Rescuer, which he praised as “rather a new style for you–so crisp, so admirably firm . . . It is really extraordinary how real, how wonderfully actual and vivid your characters are in the midst of your poetry, your exquisite poetry . . .”.

Conrad would become needier still, complaining of “futile agony,” saying he had no ideas, having forgotten how to think or write.  The Rescuer–later The Rescue–proved a difficult book for Conrad to write, taking over 20 years.

Readers of Conrad know the names of the great titles that followed. The relationship between Garnett and Conrad is one that many a writer will envy. Is this the true formula for literary greatness? A self-sacrificing reader who believes, edits, and encourages? #AnUncommonReader#NetGalley

A strong response to encounters with the extraordinary!

The LightAfter reading Cheeking My Meds and The Lady on the Rooftops by this same author, I did my utmost to connect for the simple reason that Francis Coco has the strongest literary voice I have come across in a long, long time. I would go so far as to say that the strength of her literary voice for me equals favorites discovered in the course of reviewing books put out by Virago, Faber & Faber and Farrar, Straus & Giroux for newspapers in the Saudi press while I lived in Saudi Arabia (almost 20 years).

To find an independently published author with such clear, strong messages and such an individual (engaging & entertaining) manner of narrating her stories has marked a happy moment in my literary life. I find her diligence in believing in herself and putting out her amazing books remarkable and admirable, an inspiration to other committed writers. She stands as a symbol of meaning in this new age of independent publishing–proof that talent will not stay silent.

Having spoken with the author several times, I am aware that the story presented in this book is based on a real occurrence. Coco (her pen name–she is in real life also a painter named Penni Goode Evans whose work can be found at artpickle dot com) has done a fine job of fashioning three characters with their own fictitious backgrounds and grafting what happened to her own family onto them.

The Light falls under “true encounters with UFOs” although the author at no time in her story nor in her conversations with me has ever implied that she believes the light was an alien. Even today she cannot say for sure what it was, but one thing is for sure: it stays with her.

The effect of the paranormal on human beings is strong, for when we get some sort of physical proof that there is a world of the unseen, it throws us, particularly as Western civilization takes the unseen so little into account on a day-to-day basis. I personally have no trouble at all believing in the author’s encounter because of my own life in Saudi Arabia (Muslims believe in angels and jinn, the latter which may be good or evil, just like humans). I do not think I would want to experience what the character Max does, and what those with him also have the unnerving opportunities to encounter.

Coco’s voice is every bit as strong in The Light as it is in the stunning Cheeking My Meds or The Lady on the Rooftops (also based on real encounters), the first, a memoir and the second, a book for older children (and inquisitive adults). The difference in The Light is pages spent on metaphysical musing, of making the connection between the experience of a phenomenon in relation to everything one has known and lived through before. If we are put here on Earth by a Creator, and if most of us never encounter someone or something from another dimension, then what does it mean when someone does have that experience? That he or she will be laughed at and disbelieved goes without saying. That such blessed or unfortunate individuals would seek out each others’ company is as natural as joining a book club because you like to read.

The narrator, Paige, hangs out with Max and Angela. It is Max who seems to specifically have the gift of seeing what others don’t, but Angela and Paige, who are with him, see the Light as he does. Paige even sees the black dog. They, however, do not have the dreams. The impact on all three is major, but as varied as the individuals.

Anyone who has ever experienced something inexplicable will want to read this book, if only to rest assured that he or she is not alone.

Footprints in Time by Fahim Munshi

footprints in timeHow can we be happy and know our purpose? Fahim Munshi has here assembled a collection of anecdotes and discoveries that offer nourishment to the spirit and inspiration to do good on earth. Footprints in Time offers anecdotes from the Islamic past and present, some of which I was familiar with, and others which I had never read before. The stories range from tales of the prophet Moses, Solomon, David and Muhammad, upon whom be peace, as well as “guided” caliphs, to 18th century Tipu Sultan, the sultan of Mysore, who ordered a 21-round gun salute to celebrate the United States’ 7th anniversary of independence. Particularly delightful is the retold story of Hana Ali, daughter of prizefighter Muhammad Ali as well as of the strange friendship between killer Mark Stroman and Rais Bhulyan.  On a shooting rampage of Muslims right after 9-11, Stroman shot Rais Bhulyan and blinded him in one eye. Many of these stories left me in tears. Fahim Munshi is clearly a contemplative writer and has read widely; I would venture to guess he is at times a mystic who cares so much about his fellow man that he has created this gift to the world. Shorts verses from the Quran, quotes from the likes of Malcolm X and bits of knowledge, like the discovery of an ancient city, weave together a book that will help the curious understand why Westerners have been attracted to Sufism and will help fellow Muslims remember the road to true and lasting happiness. Hint: forgiveness and doing good to others, no matter the creed, gender or ethnicity, offer the widest door. If one were to seek out a simple book offering the gems of Islamic wisdom, one would need to look no further than Footprints in Time.fahim munshi (Fahim Munshi is a four-time recipient of the ABCI award presented by the Association of Business Communicators of India. He also won the American Graphic Design GD-USA Magazine Award in 2013 for his portfolio “My Work is My Signature.”)