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Reading Blog - February 2023

Tags: books

As explained earlier, I've been trying to finish two of these books for a while. The one newbie (and a quick, fascinating read) is the Greenland book. A random person asked me about it at the airport!

An African in Greenland (Tété-Michel Kpomassie, 1977 (English: 1981))

As a teenager in Togo, Kpomassie happened upon a book about Greenland, the furthest possible point from his problems (an ominous situation with a witch doctor). That journey would take him from 1958–1965. During this journey he met family members and at one point was repatriated to Togo, so he was not 'on the run' really, but his initial quest was re-invigorated by his independence and mission running up to Greenland.

In Greenland, the author takes particular note of how children are catered to in the home and at school. There is a mix of disgust and fascination for raw meat and blubber, work-release, and fluid relationships. On this last point, I was reminded of Peter Freuchen's Vagrant Viking (~50 years earlier) where Greenlanders open their homes like so to travelers.

After flitting from place to place (including some familiar spots, Nuuk and Kangerlussuaq), things get more serious while wintering in a remote village. The one Danish guy thinks that he can tell everyone what to do, a destitute family is shunned despite the old book's claims of the Inuit being one communal culture, etc. Some of the facts of Arctic life include butchering animals, alcoholism, and domestic abuse, so I'd warn that this book is not all dogsledding and catching seals.

Two things which stick with me:

At the end of this book, Kpomassie lists some cultural learnings, contemplates living in Greenland forever, but then pledges to bring his stories home.
After a little research, I see in 1983, he was living with his wife and kid in Paris.
In February 2022, he announced plans to return to Greenland for the rest of his life. If he does retire in modern-day Nuuk, I am sure he will find his way back to a smaller Inuit village.

Nomads: The Wanderers Who Shaped Our World (Anthony Sattin, 2022)

Nomads is a 'big history' book which follows nomadic societies through all of humanity. I heard this travel writer's interview on the Asian Review of Books Twitter + podcast and had to pick it up. From a middle chapter, I think Sattin sees his role as akin to Ibn Khaldun, who wrote a world history and sociology text while living with settled and nomadic peoples in present-day Tunisia and Algeria.

In this sweeping view, the stories of Cain and Abel, Osiris and Set, Gilgamesh… are all allegories for the shift to a settled, agricultural population. ~6,000 years ago, domesticated horses made it possible to keep moving with larger grazing herds. Later, camels crossed the Bering Strait, reached the Sahara, and changed trade and the status of Arab peoples there.

In a nomad history, the Hyksos who occupied Egypt, Scythians and Huns who quarreled with the Romans, the Xiongnu who took over China, and multiple Arab and Islamic groups get meaningful coverage in the book. Not only are these groups neglected by historians, but those recorded names (often words for 'barbarian') come from settled peoples' confusion about these confederacies and tribes. Lingusitic propaganda continues today with a recent Twitter thread dissecting how historians' dux was translated to 'Duke' for Europeans and 'chief' for Mongols.
Over time the Chinese formed a trading advantage with supplies that the Xiongnu could not make on the run, and this built up the Silk Road. But Sattin also found records of older trade spanning the Asian steppe. So it's more like the Silk Road was the funded and government-sanctioned long-distance trading program?

I'm learning a thing or two from the science of the book, since what I've Googled has checked out.

Related content:

Finding W. D. Fard: Unveiling the Identity of the Founder of the Nation of Islam (John Andrew Morrow, 2019)

In Nation of Islam tradition, W. D. Fard was born in Mecca, founded the religion to reconnect Black America to Islam, and was a prophet (or perhaps God, in some versions). If you believe the government and police records, Fard was a white con-man who used religion to sell Muslim names door-to-door. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI would work for decades after Fard's disappearance, trying to prove that side of the story and get articles published in mainstream and Black newspapers.

While de-mystifying Fard, this book walks a delicate line between history and challenging a religious group. It begins with endorsements of Morrow's scholarship and investigation, and ends with ~100 pages of scanned or re-typed documents and references.
I also will note that Black Muslims traveled with the first conquistadors and were known among enslaved people (Smithsonian + Library of Congress), so there are deep connections in Islam, race, and American identity beyond NOI.

In a section collecting rumors about Fard's origins, the whole world map seems to be open. Census and marriage records place Fard in Oregon and California before his arrival in Detroit. He's recorded as white on the Census, draft cards, and police records (though in a time and place where mixed-race people would often choose to identify as white, or be labeled by Census-takers). Records hint at birthplaces in New Zealand, Afghanistan, or Spain. News articles and personal stories add more: Chechnya, India, Kurdistan, Turkey, Hawai'i, Jamaica, Harlem as a metaphorical 'Mecca', or how about a Greek community in New Zealand…
Some clues are his teachings' similarities with Twelver Shīʿa Islam, giving names which sound like towns in Afghanistan. Morrow combs through statistics and local pockets of immigration by country - these are a fascinating survey of immigration around 1900, but unhelpful. For Fard's roots, there needs to be only one man or one parent who made the journey.
We don't have a definitive answer, but it's doubtful that 1930s Detroit would accept Fard's claims of mixed parents if there was nothing to go on. One possibility was that he was the son of a British soldier during the Afghan war or colonization of India / Pakistan. There are no examples of longform Arabic writing by Fard to check for Persian or Urdu roots. The author's last sections follow a South Asian community (last name of Khan, but unrelated) who found jobs as tamale vendors in Oregon, including one immigrant who traveled from Karachi and Hong Kong, and was later identified as "Fred Dad / Walli Dad" in the Salem newspaper.

The author credits Fard for being well-read, making theological references to Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Moorish Temple, Ahmadiyya teachings [evangelical Muslims, who currently describe Fard as a wayward preacher]. Then there are views on reincarnation, Jesus's birth and death [in Kashmir?], an imam spoke to Moses through the burning bush, life on Mars. Morrow is a little snarky about how NOI leaders have been invited to speak in Iran, where these beliefs are likely considered blasphemy.
At the time, many immigrants picked up "folk Islam" from their neighbors. Or Fard may have listened to preachers in San Quentin during his imprisonment. This path, secondhand retellings, and perhaps Fard's own inventions make it difficult to trace his known beliefs to a specific origin.

Also mysterious is what happened after Fard disappeared in 1934. There was a community in Oakland who believed that their Fijian-Indian imam was Fard, a newspaper interview with an ex-wife who believed that he returned to New Zealand, rumors that he lived and died in Chicago, or got murdered by a follower.
The mystery haunted Louis Farrakhan, who is described searching for records in Mecca and Azerbaijan, and questioning the Oakland imam. It'd be interesting to hear about this journey from the perspective of a believer.

Some of the wilder claims in this book, dropped in so I'm not sure how much the author believes them:

Updates to Previous Reads

Re: Prions, Alzheimer's, and retractions, the Stanford Daily reports on falsified research by Tessier-Lavigne before he became President of Stanford:

I'm listening to the City of the Rails podcast, where a journalist interviews train-hopping hobos and conductors after her daughter sets out. The host mentions that Supreme Court Justice William Douglas rode the rails in his day. From a biography which I read in 2021, Wild Bill, I wondered if I'd missed something, or if this was a myth.
In 1970, the New York Times was on board with the story:

[Douglas] hopped a freight east, stopping at hobo jungles along the way

The podcast host replied to me on Twitter:

If it's a myth, it's one Douglas created. There's a lot of stuff in the first volume of his autobiography describing how to hop a train and the people he met.

Maybe I should also read this straight from the source. In 2020 the author of Wild Bill was confidently dismissive of the hobo story:

Early in his research, [Murphy] tried to confirm the facts in the stories and anecdotes, but he couldn't really do it. For instance, Douglas did not have polio as a child, and he didn't ride the rails like a hobo to get to law school. Those memoirs, Murphy says, should be thought of more as novels.