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On the Road "The purpose of life lies at the intersection of the heart's deepest desires, the mind's keenest talents, and the world's greatest needs."

When all you want to do is curl up with a good book

TAJIKISTAN | Tuesday, 26 August 2008 | Views [2310] | Comments [1]

An ancient book, part of a collection that the owner is hoping to turn into a regional museum

An ancient book, part of a collection that the owner is hoping to turn into a regional museum

Packing for an 8-month+ stint in Central Asia was a rather befuddling task. I blindly deciphered what clothing to bring for both work and play in weather ranging from -50 (with rationed electricity) to +50 degrees, but what to do about those little luxuries from home that are rumoured to not even exist in Tajikistan (think peanut butter, contact lens solution, and English reading material)? Packing the lightest of the five interns here has often come in handy, but it has also occasionally backfired. I have admittedly had to borrow a few items of clothing for nights out on the town (though I don’t even own anything comparable in Canada, so that goes without saying for me). I’m going to have to ask Dad to send me a fresh supply of contacts and solution, since for some reason I didn’t anticipate playing sports a few times a week. However, I at least had the foresight to pack a lot of one particular item that I knew I could not live without: books.

Whenever I find myself in one place for more than a few weeks at a time, I always seem to have a stack of books at my bedside. Perhaps it’s because it invokes a feeling of nostalgic comfort (I grew up borrowing at least 10 a week from the Sarnia library); perhaps it’s the satisfying feeling of having such a wealth of information and worldly perspectives at my fingertips. My collection at home ranges from autobiographies and animal encyclopaedias to banned works of the Beat Generation and far-flung accounts of explorers and cultural ethnographers. I can go for months without watching TV or movies, but it’s near impossible to keep me away from the written word…

Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” ~ Jean Rhys

Deciding what to bring with me to Tajikistan took some careful consideration. The day before leaving, I was literally sitting in the middle of dozens of books on my parents’ basement floor; I stared begrudgingly across the room at my lone suitcase, willing it to be bottomless (and Air Canada to overlook weight restrictions). There was SO much I wanted to learn about Central Asian politics, history, and culture, but I also knew that I would eventually want/need a mental escape from reality. I doubted I could ever make the right combination of choices – which book(s) would I be cursing myself for not bringing six months from then?

I slowly but surely whittled it down to the following small collection:

Lonely Planet: Central Asia

Say what you want about the faltering accuracy of Lonely Planet research, but this volume has been an invaluable source of insight, excitement, and reassurance about a region that I knew absolutely nothing about a mere six months ago.

SAS Survival Guide (John Wiseman)

Thanks, Uncle Tom  : )

Russian Coursebook: The Basics

Though Tajik is the mother tongue of the vast majority of people in Tajikistan, Russian is generally the second (and then there’s Uzbek, Shugni, Wakhi, etc. etc. etc.). Plus, Russian is a UN language and would be pretty cool to learn – think of all the old action movies I could watch without having to read the subtitles!

The Dust of Empire: The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland (Karl E. Meyer)

The first paragraph of the back cover reads: “When Charles de Gaulle learned that France’s former colonies in Africa had chosen independence, the great general shrugged, ‘They are the dust of empire’. But as Americans have learned, particles of dust from remote and seemingly medieval countries can, at great cost, jam the gears of a superpower.”I got this instead of Peter Hopkirk’s mammoth “The Great Game” for a more brief but necessary introduction to the past, present, and future of the five Central Asian republics, the Caspian and the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia.

Understanding Islam: An Introduction to the Muslim World (Thomas W. Lippman)

Ignorance breeds fear, and fear breeds hatred – no further explanation necessary.

Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West (Benazir Bhutto)

Her last tome penned before her 2007 assassination in Pakistan, this is an incredible woman’s take on a highly relevant tension in our world today.

The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)

I know, I know – I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet either… but it will be that much more meaningful now that I’m more intimately aware of and interested in Afghan culture and history.(Nb: this is Heidi’s copy; there was no point in us both bringing one)

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time (Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin)


Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and the Story of a Return (Marjane Satrapi)

A soon-to-be contemporary classic that is taking the French world by storm, this graphic novel details the Iranian Revolution from a young girl’s perspective. Jonas gave it to me last year on the condition that I would pass it on to another person who will benefit from it. Not only do I want to re-read it in a country that suffered a civil war a mere 10 years ago, but I also have a feeling that I will find its next owner throughout my travels here.

If This Is Your Land, Where are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground (J. Edward Chamberlin)

About the power and meaning of stories, in everything from creation myths and traditional folklore to national anthems and scientific theories. It’s also a small effort to keep the pulse going in my not-so-secret fascination with indigenous peoples (of which discussion here in Central Asia is slightly less hopping than in southern Africa).

Siddhartha (Hermann Hesse)

A classic work of self-discovery and journeys set against a backdrop of ancient Indian philosophy.

A Traveller’s Life (Eric Newby)

I picked up this little gem at a second-hand store in Ottawa. I don’t really know what it’s going to be about, other than the accounts of a wandering soul, but I do know that the cover depicts a man sitting in an old-school bath basin with a typewriter while a servant stands next to him, balancing a bottle of cognac on a tray. Plus, the dedication is, “To my fellow traveller”. How can a book that starts off like that be anything short of amazing?

The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)

My pint-size bible. Take the time to read it if you haven’t – you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


In the next couple of weeks, I’ll post pictures and stories about my jaunt around Badakhshan  : )



Carolyn will love seeing your book reviews Holly. wonderful! love, mom

  Janet Shrumm Aug 29, 2008 2:39 PM

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