19. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms, by Gerard Russell

x1080-v0qYou might have heard of the Yazidis—they’ve been having some trouble, these past few years, from IS militiamen. You might even have heard of Zoroastrians, whose traditional burial rites involve leaving their dead in “sky towers” to be devoured by vultures (neither earth nor fire may be used to dispose of a body). But the Kalasha, or the Kam? The Copts of Egypt? The Samaritans? Ever heard of any of those? If not, don’t fret: Gerard Russell’s fantastically accessible and engaging book on minor religious traditions of the Middle East will tell you all about them. Russell is a former diplomat who has worked in Kabul, Cairo, Baghdad, and Jeddah, amongst other places; he doesn’t make many appearances in his own book, so that the impression the reader receives is of a pleasant, somewhat diffident man. (A photo of him partaking of local drinks with some Kalasha men seems to bear this image out.) Although each chapter involves him visiting an area of the Middle East where the religion in question is still practiced—the book therefore constituting a travelogue as well as a theology and history text—Russell’s personal experiences are rarely foregrounded. Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms is about the heirs of its title, the men, women and children who still practice arcane, even archaic, religious observances, and about what their lives are like.

Inevitably, Russell must discuss diasporas, and the relative ease or difficulty of maintaining the practice of a very small religion outside of its native land. Several of the belief systems he discusses are characterised by their secrecy. Only priests or elite members of the religious hierarchy of the Druze, for instance, are allowed to know what the whole thing is actually about: their followers are not required to read holy books or to keep any particular form of observance in dress, diet, abstinence, or really any other way. What is required of a lay Druze is the willingness to say “I am a Druze”, and to accept that the full meaning of that allegiance will probably remain forever closed to you. One woman recalls moving to America as a child and trying to explain her suspiciously lax religion to her teacher, who assumed she was lying. Only when her mother was asked, and confirmed that indeed their faith required absolutely nothing of them, did the teacher (apparently, though I’m sure she still didn’t really) believe her. But, as Russell notes, this also means it’s very hard to maintain a community of Druze outside of Lebanon. How do you protect and cultivate an identity which has no identity markers?

Some of the oldest of these religions are dead ends of Christianity or Islam, versions of those religions that stayed put when the majority of believers moved on to different, centralised, or officially sanctioned forms of worship. The creed of the modern-day Mandaeans, for instance, bears a strong resemblance to that of the early Christian sect the Marcionites, as well as to the beliefs of the highly popular and influential Manichaeans (Saint Augustine was one, before becoming a Christian). To an extent, these likenesses seem unremarkable: all of these versions of belief were developing around the same times, and around the same places. It should not strain our credulity that the two opposing forces of good and evil, light and darkness, appear in multiple different belief systems. But the idea that watching a Mandaean rite gets you closer to the experiences of Christ’s early followers than going to Mass does is an extremely enticing one. Moreover, it clarifies just how much major world religions have changed over the centuries, or millennia, of their existences. It’s hard to believe in the immutability of doctrine after reading Heirs To Forgotten Kingdoms.

#6Degrees of Separation: The Slap

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

6632916

First up: The Slap, a book I didn’t read when it came out but which made a lot of waves. I gather the controversy derives from the book’s opening chapter, in which an adult man slaps a child who isn’t his own at a barbeque. This is something I have frequently been tempted to do (though never done), which leads us to…

Sarah Hall’s incredible novel The Electric Michelangelo, about an early twentieth-century tattoo artist and his love affair with one of his customers, a woman who asks him to cover her entire body in tattooed eyes. (I’ve been batting around the idea of a tat for years, and not yet committed. But I wanna.)

The tattoo of an eye is the distinguishing mark of the major villain, Count Olaf, in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. The series also features three siblings named Violet (a gifted inventor), Klaus (a voracious reader with a photographic memory), and Sunny (who likes biting, and, eventually, cookery).

One of Snicket’s authorial gimmicks involves expanding a young reader’s vocabulary by defining tricky words within the context of the story. The only other book I’ve read with an eye to its vocabulary was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which we read in school and for which we were required to make word lists. I learned “lugubrious”, “catarrh” and “unctuous” this way.

I’d actually encountered “unctuous” the previous summer, when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out. It’s the word Rowling uses to describe Igor Karkaroff, headmaster of Durmstrang, the Eastern European magic school whose students come to participate in the Triwizard Tournament at Hogwarts.

Where do you go from Harry Potter? Everywhere, or nowhere: it’s curiously self-contained, but influences all children’s literature that comes after it. But I have one out: I met J.K. Rowling in February 2014, and at the time, I was reading This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited, by Justin Cartwright. It’s part of a commissioned series called Writers and the City, and I identified with the city’s psychic resonance in Cartwright’s life, long after he’s finished his degree and moved away.

C’est tout! Next month the chain starts with Shopgirl, by Steve Martin.