Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Becoming Plural (a Book Review)

(Editor's Note: This is a book review I wrote for about a great work by Richard Boggs on the current history of the country that used to be Sudan. Now the nation has split into a north and south. Although Richard's well-written and well-researched book is not a political treatise by any means, he provides much insight into an interesting corner of Africa.)
                 BECOMING PLURAL by Richard Boggs (reviewed by David Shea, October, 2013)

    There is an urban myth that dates to the early 1990s. It suggests that if two countries have a McDonald’s franchise, they will never go to war with each other.
    This odd maxim came to mind as I finished Becoming Plural: A Tale of Two Sudans by Richard Boggs, an informative book that is well-researched and readable. It is also an absolute anti-Kindle work, the author’s own photography invites the reader back to luxuriate over the pages again and again. (Here I refer to the big, bulky hardback that demands attention and deserves it).
   Indeed, my first reading was dutifully sequential but after I followed the traveler through his 220-page tour de force, I took to tangential browsing and then actually read a big chunk of the final section backwards, to appreciate the photographs more fully.
   I had read Richard’s insightful The Lost World of Socotra (Stacey International, 2009) so was keen to read this work. Becoming Plural does not disappoint. It is a gem, not only for the issues raised but for the very humanity the author celebrates.
    Having worked in this country during the 80s as a volunteer language teacher, the author revisits Khartoum. This was where he first learned Arabic, not as a scholar but in its streets and marketplace when he saw the country being transformed, in his words: “There was a conscious Arabization and Islamization, so that Arabic alone became the medium of instruction and there was a much greater assertion of things Islamic, especially in the ‘jihad’ against the South.”
    But the book certainly does not bash at this corner of the Arab world. Rather, it revels in its customs just as it marvels at the ways of South Sudan’s people. We are taken to Juba, Nyala and beyond, with considerable insights into the people who have survived and carry on after decades of war and strife:  “Was there anything, apart from conflict, that united Khartoum and Juba? The two cities were poles apart, but were similar in that they were both extreme.”
   Photos of amazing shade trees with impossible, exposed root structures give way to humor in this book, too.  Richard chronicles the perils of a roaming Irishman who finds people so keen to preach about the “troubles” in his homeland: “Given the millions dead from the  ‘jihad’ against the South, the millions displaced from the current conflict in Darfur and the breakaway of the South as an independent country, this did seem a little rich. The Sudanese do love to talk about Ireland, however, usually referring to that famous film of Irish rebellion, Braveheart.”
    Getting back to the McDonald’s quip, the book also delves into questions of not only Islamization but also oil interests and foreign aid. We meet humble, hardworking John Mark and his family. The medical assistant student builds South Sudan’s future while waiting tables where “expats (are) doing development on their laptops.”
    The author also questions his own EFL instruction work with scrutiny: “I was in a sense working on the frontier between the indigenous and the global, participating in the inexorable spread of the English language and the McCulture that is enshrined in the course books with their US icons and vacant celebrities and burgers to the detriment of what is indigenous and diverse.”  
    Despite all odds and cynicism, the book remains hopeful in a complex world. “As the South celebrated its first day of independence, the BBC had focused on the amount of land that had been signed over to multinationals. But when it comes to the grassroots, when you see those children leave some dire mud hut for school in the morning, sent out in immaculate uniforms by their mothers, you have to hope that people like these will not be betrayed.”
    I recommend this book to anyone interested in African politics and in the development of the Sudan both in the north and south. The author makes references to the late Ryzard Kapusinsky and I got the sense that Richard Boggs aptly traipses in the Polish journalist’s footsteps.

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