Random Discovery from the City Lights, San Francisco

Having heard about the City Lights bookstore for a while, finally I got an idle afternoon to check out this cultural place. It was impressive that how the store encouraged people to read -- signs saying "have a seat + read a book" were everywhere.

I went to the poetry room and found a seat in the corner. The room was very quite in the afternoon with a ray of sunshine coming in through the window. Everything was just perfect to have a seat and read. So I picked a book randomly and started to read. I was expecting to read a poetry book but it turned out that the book was actually about Afghanistan -- stories about Afghanistan behind a collection of lansays. The name of the book was I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan.

I was more interested in reading and feeling the stories. To be honest, I only had limited knowledge of the middle east (or the West Asia), in spite of a fortunate trip to Israel this summer. When thinking about Afghanistan, my reactions were the American-Taliban war, withdrawal of American armies from Afghanistan, and some pieces of memories on the sharp contrast of Afghanistan in 50 years ago v.s. today. The book records some real stories in Afghanistan -- sex, rape, slave, war, marriage, family, exchange, education. Some brutal stories happened simply because people had no other choice. A vivid example is women's roles in a family. In the early days, women were responsible for bringing drinkable water to the family, and at that time they used containers like jugs to carry water from rivers to their houses. Recently, some families started to dig deep well to extract water directly from the underground so women no longer had to go out and carry water back. The interesting part was that because of the risk of rape and kidnap, women were not allowed to go out if not necessary, then it became hard for young girls to meet young boys. As a result, young people had fewer chances to meet each other. This side effect makes it harder to judge whether that technology improvement was good or bad; however, the wide applications of Internet (e.g. facebook) have significantly and positively impacted people's lives, as this lansay shows.


Then marriage. In my generation, it is rarely the case that marriages are purely arranged by their families. Most people at least have the freedom to choose someone they do not hate though their families are still providing matching advice. In contrast, marriages in Afghanistan convey more economic meanings -- family links, exchanges, and simply reproduction. Males have irreplaceable roles in the war, and there are many widows and children left unavoidably. It is very hard to re-marry someone else, either in Afghanistan today or in China a century ago. People have to weigh economic factors more in uncertainty and poverty. A piece of lansay tells such story. A girl was arranged to marry a boy, but unfortunately the boy died during the war. According to the custom (or two families' agreement), the girl could either marry the boy's older brother or younger brother instead. However, both of them repelled the girl because the girl's father had no money to pay the dowry. Another lansay also reflects similar idea.

"When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.

When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others."

There are some remarkable statistics behind. During the Afghanistan Civil War (90s of last century), about 1/4 of the population (equivalent to 1.5M) fled to Pakistan, and thousands of women were raped on the way. There is a research paper saying that readers response more strongly to single pictures than numbers from massive statistics, and apparently we can tell how true it is from the way that media report Syrian refugees.

IMG_3324The name of the book comes from a poet in the book.

"In my dream, I am the president.

When I awake, I am the beggar of the world."

It tells a story of a married woman. In the day her husband has to go out to feed the family, and the woman stays at home like a beggar; at night, they could have some warm foods together and stay together in the bed. That's the only warm that leads to a good dream.

I also find this lansay touching.

IMG_3326I could have tasted death for a taste of your tongue

watching you eat ice cream when we were young.

Without the picture on the left I could not link this to my memories about the country from 50 years ago v.s. today. In the past, people lived a happy life with a lot of freedom and smiles; however, today they only have debris of the old city left. It reminds me of the past changes in China. In the past 30 years, China had significant improvements on all aspects and life qualities have always been increasing. It is very hard for me to imagine how it feels when everything is ruined and goes back to decades ago. In addition to Afghanistan, many other middle eastern countries have experienced similar transitions, say, Iraq, Syria, Egypt. I find myself speechless in front of the refugee topic. On one side, China is so far away from the Middle East, and China's role seems unique (from people's comments when I was in Israel, they hope China can mediate other political parties because there is less direct conflict of interest), and also there are almost no refugee coming to China to cause any issues. On the other side, even though I have lived in Europe and am living in the U.S. now, I am not from these areas and it is hard for me to think on behalf of the local people and understand their concerns. The only thing I can say is that, there is definitely no Pareto improvement to make all sides happy. It is impossible for the refugees to adapt to  European communities immediately and peacefully. I don't feel it is a unique issue caused by religions or ethic groups though. Certain conditions have to be satisfied to reach an equilibrium, and once there is an external shock, the equilibrium might be broken and hence we see some severe issues like sexual assaults in some European countries.

After all, it was nice to read a book and learn some real stories. It was also a precious opportunity for me to spend a whole afternoon reading a random book and thinking about life. I used to do it a lot when I was in Shanghai, but no so often since I moved to the bay area. However, my arty cells are woken up and it is time to enjoy the power of thinking.


2016.1.9 At City Lights and Brioche Bakery & Cafe, San Francisco.

One thought on “Random Discovery from the City Lights, San Francisco

  1. gepcel



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