Better late than never (filial piety and research into family history)

The hardcover version of Ariel Sabar’s 2008 book My Father’s Paradise is subtitled “A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq,” to which could be appended, “Jerusalem, Yale, and UCLA.”  (The paperback shortened the subtitle to “A Son’s Search for His Family’s Past.”)  The subtitular father, Yona Sabar, was born Yona Beh Sabagha in Zakho, a town in the middle of Kurdistan. Since Kurdistan is not a country, Zakho is in Iraq close to the border with Turkey.
After Israel defeated various Arab armies attempting to obliterate it in 1950, Jews across dar-al-Islam (the abode of Islam) were persecuted and many driven out. In Iraq, Kurds were second-class citizens to the ruling Sunni Arabs, and the officials in Baghdad socially doubly stigmatized Kurdish Jews, and the Jews of Zakho left between 1948 and 1950. Though not yet old enough for it, Yona was the last person bar-mitzvahed in Zakho.

The émigrés from Kurdistan (and other Jews from  other Muslim countries who were “ingathered” by mounting pressure) were treated as inferior to Ashkenazi Jews (from  northern/eastern Europe), Yona’s father’s heart was broken by the “return” (after 27 centuries) to Israel. Yona worked very hard, and got a scholarship to Yale, to be trained at analyzing his native language, Aramaic, once the lingua franca of the Middle East, including Nazareth (yes, “the language of Jesus”).

Arabic (a related, Semitic language) replaced Aramaic as a lingua franca roughly seven centuries ago, but the language continued to be the language of the isolated Kurdish Jews. With the “ingathering,” Aramaic became a dying language, with Hebrew-revived after not being spoken for two millennia-the language of the state of Israel.

Ariel Sabar does not mention that by 1962 Chomskyan dogma that was dominating American linguistics particularly glorified native speaker judgments of grammaticality. Maybe that is not all that relevant for Semitic philology, but Yona Sabar was also able to understand the stories he elicited and convey cultural background. This is not in any way to detract from his analytical abilities, but he was the kind of native analyst who should  -and was – nurtured to explicate as well as salvage a dying language. (Yona Sabar compiled a dictionary of Neo-Aramaic and has published widely on folklore as well as linguistic analysis of his mother tongue.)

In adulthood, after being embarrassed by his foreign father through childhood and especially adolescence, Ariel came to appreciate the very high regard in which his father was held in academia and in the remnants of the Speaking-speaking ghettoes of Israel. Ariel also came to appreciate that what is now only a memory-culture of the lifeways of Jewish communities that had been in what is now Kurdistan from the eighth century B.C. to the mid-twentieth century would not be available to be elicited much longer.

So, the journalist keenly aware of his decades of filial impiety set out to write the story of his father and that of the Jews in Zakho… and of his own belated interest in his roots. I think Ariel wrote interestingly and sagaciously about all three, being appropriately hard on his own younger self’s irritation at his father’s modus operandi, before realizing the life experiences (not just Yona’s own, but his natal community’s) that made keeping your head down and preparing for the worst essential to survival.

Kurdish Jews, Christians, and Muslims got along, and the Sabars (at least so far as Ariel reports) found only nostalgia and positive memories of the Jews in Zakho, which has become prosperous since Kurdish autonomy following the first Iraq war (which began a no-fly zone on Saddam Hussein).

Though having access to documents, including old letter and diaries, and interviewing roughly a hundred people, and studying the transcripts of Yona’s elicitations of Yona’s mother’s life story, Ariel Sabar imagined a whole lot of dialogue over the course of Yona’s life. And even that from Ariel’s own two visits to Zakho – the first with his father, the second alone –  are vivified by what I doubt is quoted speech. The author is literally upfront (on the first page of text) that he combined a few minor characters and that
“While this book is by and large a work of nonfiction, it is not formal history or biography. Nor is it journalism. In parts of this story where key sources had died or where memories had faded, I built on the framework of known fact and let myself imagine how the particulars of a scene or dialogue would have unfolded.”

This makes for a more vivid, readable book, but as someone interested in the history of anthropological linguistics and of fieldwork experiences, I like documentation (in endnotes is fine). There are scenes from the past in Zakho, in transit, and in Jerusalem for which I know the dialogue is imagined. My frustration (a minor and close to idiosyncratic one, I know) is the extent to which recollections in quotation marks are direct quotations. Nevertheless, I’ll conclude with a direct quotation from Ariel Sabar: Yona Sabar “sublimated homesickness into a career.”

The book won the  National Book Critic Circle’s 2008 award for autobiography. Another nominee I commend is Andrew X. Pham’s The Eaves of Heaven, which is also heavily concerned with family and exile.

Sabar has more recently researched (and provided dialogue for) the stories of straight couples who met at some NYC iconic site, published as Heart of the City (2011). And a 2014 Kindle Single, The Outsider: The Life and Times of Roger Barker.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Luminous essays about exile and memory from André Aciman

Born in Alexandria on the second day of 1951, when it was still the cosmopolitan port city of Alexander Durell’s Alexandria Quartet and Constantine Cavafy’s elegies, André Aciman wrote a remarkably un-self-pitying memoir of his family being forced to sell out at a pittance and get Out of Egypt (the book was published in 1995).

What we now call “ethnic cleansing” of non-Muslims (including Arab ones) began with the creation of Israel and the 1948 war in which Arab armies failed to annihilate it and escalated after the 1956 “Suez crisis.” The world of wealth the author’s family had enjoyed in Alexandria for half a century eroded very rapidly before he and they left in 1956. Out of Egypt (like the more recent memoir of extrusion from Iraq  of Ariel Sabar and  Marcel Bénabou  Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic) is a vivid reminder that if Israel is an apartheid state, so are all of its neighbors, including even the officially secular state of Turkey from which I just returned. Jews were forced out of places they had lived for generations, and their assets looted across the Middle East. Christians have not fared much better in post-WWII Arab or Turkish or Persian nationalist pogroms (Coptic Christians are much persecuted in contemporary Egypt and Syraic Christians forced out of Turkey are far worse off than they were under the rule of early Ottoman sultans such as Suleiman the Magnificent; Turkey is now 99% Muslim having driven off or slaughtered Armenian, Greek, and Syraic Christians.)

Aciman is not a political writer, a Zionist in even the blandest sense, nor a religiously observant Jews. His essay “In a Double Exile” in False Papers records his discomfort with Passover seders and keen sense of irony about celebrating flight from Egypt, something he did not want to repeat millennia later. Even writing about a visit to Alexandria in “Alexandria: The Capital of Memory” (the appellation is Durrell’s) Aciman does not write with bitterness about the rarely visited cemetery where one of his grandfather’s is buried (I remember from Out of Egypt that his grandfathers did not get along with each other and that neither had much interest in Egypt).
false papers.jpeg
False Papers collects eleven essays and three “tales.” The latter, of which “Arbitrage” seems to me the best, strike me as nonfiction, though each involves a story Aciman tried to imagine and write (including one of visiting his grandfather’s grave, as he imagine it years before he actually made the visit).

Among the essays that I found particularly strong was “Becket’s Winter,” with which I could readily identify, having also been fascinated by the movie starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole; “A Late Lunch” in which the author takes a son to a meeting with the author’s aged father and speculates about how his son will remember it and him in the future; “Letter from Illier-Combray” in which he finds the house written about by Marcel Proust smaller than he expected; and “In the Muslim City of Bethlehem,” an account of preparations for Christmas with its influx of Greek, Armenian, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Christians who despise each other in the town that had in 1996 just been ceded to Palestinian control.

Of three essays about changing features of Manhattan, the one that seems to me the strongest (for someone with no nostalgia for any of the tree foci) is Straus Park on the upper West Side (“Shadow Cities”). Aciman is hyper-aware of his Proustian tendency to imagine time lost (and Albertines vanished) while storing away memories to be written later and not much living in the moment and enjoying any pleasures except those of anticipating mourning their loss. With a focus somewhat more on a person, though still very much a person in particular places, “Counterintuition” analyzes Aciman’s Proustian and Stendahlian pathologies.

“Counterintuition” also includes a pattern central to Aciman’s first novel (published in 2007) and inscribed in its title Call Me By Your Name in that tale of a very different (in time, place, gender, and mutuality) attempt at intimacy. The novel drips with poignant memories of love in the past, but seems to me to invoke less cerebral pleasures, as well as a sharing of memories of a passionate relationship from the past that is quite unlike the mournfully ironic Les Temps retrouvé (The Past Regained) that concludes Proust’s vast roman fleuve.

Aciman’s syntax is not asthmatic, and is easier to read (though quite beautifully crafted) than Proust’s. Aciman is a keen analysis of the workings of memory, including Proust’s, Stendahl’s, and his own. He is also a keen analyst of exile, involuntary diaspora, not just from Egypt but from Europe (particularly Paris, but also Rome when he longed to be in Paris if he could not be in an already vanished Jewish world of Alexandria).

©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

A memoir about straddling the tectonic plates of Islam and modernism

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a generally sound injunction. Yet sometimes the book inside a cover that catches the eye pays off the promise of the cover. One instance is the From the Land of the Green Ghosts, a memoir by Pascal Khoo Thwe of growing up in a non-Burmen tribe (Padaung) in Burma, going to college in Rangoon, and then in Cambridge. The dove on a turban of a bright-eyed brown-skinned boy on the cover of West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan American Story (published in 2002) is another instance both of a striking cover photo but of an excellent culture-crossing memoir. It author, Tamim Ansary, was born and spent his first years within the enclave in Kabul of what he refers to as a “clan” (and I would call an “extended family,” since I think that a “clan” has a headman), then went to a model modernizing school that pioneered co-education, then went to the United States with his Finnish-American mother, where he attended Reed College, underwent a hippie phase, tried to return via Iran to see what was going on in his homeland in the first years of Iran’s Islamic “revolution.” The book also reflects on the Taliban, and the vengances (including “nuking Afghanistan”) advocated after 9/11.


The memoir has three main parts. The first recalls “the lost world” of Ansary’s youth in an Afghanistan that he describes as not substantially differing from the Neolithic era. The second focuses on a journey across North Africa in 1979. The third part discusses his life in America, which included attempts to organize US West Coast Afghan-Americans to aid refugees from the Soviet invasion and later mujahedeen and Taliban oppressions. Appended is an e-mail Ansary wrote 9/12/01 that had very wide circulation and that clearly stated what the subcontracting/privatization mentality of the Bush administration refused to understand. The 9/12 e-mail brought Ansary to public prominence, but the quality of his book does not depend on the prophetic insights of what were the first words heard in the west after the airliner-hijacking attacks about al-Quaeda and the Taliban from a native of Afghanistan.

The first part of the book is, perhaps, the most unique contribution. Ansary attempts to explain what it was like to live in a walled family enclosure: not just the insularity (that seems suffocating to those of us socialized for privacy and autonomy), but the security of being part of a clan. “Being at home with the group gave them the satisfactions we [that is westerners] associate with solitude—ease, comfort and the freedom to let down one’s guard.” I think this is also relevant to group-oriented Japanese, to take one non-Muslim instance. The small world of the compound was one in which women, who were veiled when they ventured outside it, had freedom of movement and were not veiled.

The first part also describes his restive Finnish-American mother (met while his father was a student in the US) and some accommodation of her alienness: “The family took her in as the Permanent Guest, always to be honored, loved and cared for. Afghan society settled on treating her as an exception to the rules of gender: she was considered neither female nor male, but American.” (Such a status has recurrently been invoked for female anthropologist fieldworkers in patriarchal societies in which women have no public role.)

Ansary (at least in the retrospective gaze of the memoirist) is more aware of his privileged existence, as a son of the elite, than André Aciman was in his memoir Out of Egypt. The family name “Ansary” designates a descendant of the people who helped Mohammed escape from Medina, so has high prestige within dar-al-Islam. Ansary’s father was a poet (in a culture in which poetry is very highly valued), one of the first four Afghans who went to college in the west, a literature professor, and later a government official. The king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, and his cousin Mohammad Daoud Khan, the prime minister—were trying to modernize Afghanistan during the late-1950s and thereafter. Part of the modernization—that enraged the imams in Kandahar—was unveiling women. (In 1959, Daoud had challenged Afghanistan’s imams to show him the passage in the Qu’ran that mandated the veil. When they could not, he declared the veil un-Islamic, and the women of the royal family bared their faces in public.”) The “slippery slope” of modernization continued with co-education, in which Ansary’s sister was one of the few girls thrust into heretofore all-male classes.

Daoud sought Soviet aid, which led to a Soviet puppet regime, and the arming of Islamists (including the forerunners of al-Quaeda) by the Reagan administration. This bled the Soviets. Following the Soviet retreat, the warlord era (1989-1993) segued into Taliban domination and its concerted efforts to roll back modernization (including banning possession of transistor radios and razor blades and limitations on women far in excess of those of the traditional culture of Ansary’s childhood).

One particularly interesting point that Ansary makes is that the Taliban zealots had mostly not grown up in traditional Afghanistan, but in refugee camps inside Pakistan with a fragmented social structure, indoctrination by anti-western (anti-modernist) zealots and shamed in multiple ways, and fantasies about a past that never existed.

The second part is a darkly comic account of 1979 travel misadventures in North Africa and eastward (including great difficulty in cashing American Express travelers’ checks) with a sometimes farcical but troubling discovery of what being Muslim meant to many young Muslims inspired by Khomeni’s Islamism.

Ansary’s assimilation into American life is a more familiar story. What particularly stands out in it is his account of the profusion of Afghan American groups. No one wanted to join an existing group, assuming that all the plum leadership roles had already been taken. Better to start one’s own and hope for greater success in becoming the organization (government in exile) that the US would impose. (Analogies to Iraq are too obvious to elaborate upon.)

The book provides insight into a vanished world, and the all-too-eventful history of Afghanistan in the second half of the twentieth century, although, between Ansary’s privileged status and the lack of experience of it of those who grew up in the 1980s and thereafter, generalizability is limited. His younger brother, Riaz, who had less experience of the traditional society, is the family member who became a zealous Islamist (living in Ameica). The book also shows how Islamism looks to a non-Islamist Muslim, who was appalled by the Taliban and loathed Osama Bin-Laden long before 9/11/2001. Ansary has observed and reflected upon the uncomfortable widening divide between the postmodernist west and the antimodernist mobilization that is sometimes misidentified as “fundamentalism” (in multiple religions, not just Islam) in his life’s trajectory (to the west), in traveling, and within his (nuclear) family. What he has to say is in this engagingly written book is of interest even beyond putting a human face on the agonies of Afghan experiences.


©2006, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

A beautifully written Burmese Odyssey

From the Land of Green Ghosts, a memoir by a member of a Padaung — a small Burmese hill tribe best known for the elongated necks and neck rings of its “giraffe” women until recently — is extraordinary not only in content but in its writing. As did the painfully moving Catfish and Mandala, it won the Kiriyama Prize for nonfiction.* I’ve been rereading two of the most generally recognized great novels of the twentieth century (Invisible Man, The Master and Margarita, both focusing on pressures (of American racism and the Stalinist state apparatus) on sensitive souls. I did not feel any less mastery of form or language in reading Pascal Khoo Thwe‘s memoir and would be prepared to argue that it has no superfluous material, unlike both of those canonized classics.


One resemblance to those other two books is that From the Land of Green Ghosts seems to contain several books. First, there is a “native ethnography” in which Thwe recalls growing up the grandson of a Padaung headman/chief. Their village, Phekhon, converted to Catholicism in 1930, though continuing to revere Lord Buddha, to fear nature spirits (nats) and ghosts, and maintaining many animistic and shamanistic beliefs and practices. For instance, the rite of baptism does not occur until various traditional ways of warding off evil spirits are invoked. Thwe, born in 1967, is a devout Catholic who vividly illustrates from his own and his family’s experience a syncretism of beliefs. For instance, the gratitude to him of owls (for one of their number he saved as a child) is expressed in warnings from owls at several critical junctures.

There are many critical junctures. Despite all the catastrophes of “the Burmese way to socialism” (a road that led from Burma being one of the most prosperous parts of Asia to impoverishment like that of North Korea) and the repression of the military government of Ne Win and his successors, Khoo Thwe led a charmed life of sorts. After the 1988 student demonstrations (in which he participated as a University of Mandalay student), the love of his life was disappeared (after earlier serial rape as part of her interrogation). He returned home and made speeches against the repression, barely escaping one set of assassins by fleeing his childhood home, and another that crossed the border into Thailand to eliminate his voice (after it had been broadcast on BBC). In between, a group of students of which he was a part was lost in the jungle, and he was under heavy fire in several battles between the Burmese army and the Karen State “rebels” who took in the refugee students. He was struck by several bullets, He also survived a poisonous snake bites and severe malaria, which he matter-of-factly describes.

After the relatively idyllic tribal childhood (eating wasps, breaking cobras’ spines, etc.), Thwe descended to the plains where the ethnic majority (Burman, considered “green ghosts” by the Padaung) lived. Semi-educated martinets professed government propaganda, but knew little about their supposed subject and the students had little material to study. (Khoo Thwe wanted to study English literature, inspired by reading James Joyce’s Dubliners. Hundreds of students shared one copy each of two books in English: The Old Man and the Sea and Good-bye, Mr. Chips.) Students had to take down everything teachers said, memorize what was often nonsense, and never question or debate whatever authorities (including teachers) said.

A fervent quest for education is one important strand of the story. Khoo Thwe becomes the first Padaung to study English at a university and eventually becomes the first student from Burma to earn a degree in English literature from Cambridge University. His grandfather much preferred British to Japanese or Burman masters, and Khoo Thwe reflects that “perhaps those of us who were from the minority peoples had a special desire to take a subject that helped us escape from Burman domination” (in addition to providing a possible key to unlock the mysteries of the West).

It was as a sub-waiter in a Mandalay Chinese restaurant that his interest in Joyce was discovered by some foreign visitors, who related this oddity to Cambridge don Dr. John Casey, who searched out the restaurant and eventually sponsored Khoo Thwe out of Thailand and into the rigorous Cambridge program. (Casey also managed to get Thwe installed in the British Embassy in Bangkok while arrangements were made. This provides a particularly comic interval. Khoo Thwe has a keen eye for absurdity amid harrowing dangers but also for absurdities amidst unaccustomed luxury.)

As desperate as Thwe was for education and access to literature, he had considerable survivor guilt along with much anguish at abandoning his friends fighting with the Karen against the State Law and Order Restoration Council’s army (which nullified the 1991 election in which the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was and remained for another decade under house arrest, won 80 percent of the contested seats in a parliamentary election in 1991). He chides himself for a “terrible egotism” in leaving (though by writing this book of testimony and work with Prospect Burma, he continues to contribute to the fight for democracy in Burma).

While living and fighting with the Karen soldiers, Thwe was reading Portrait of a Lady and poetry that, among other things, made him wonder what a daffodil must be like. Despite being descended from a paramount leader of his people who was a ferocious critic of the follies of New Win’s crackpot policies, and although eventually turning out to be an effective orator, Thwe tried to avoid “politics.” Seeing demonstrators shot, his girlfriend disappeared, and the universities shut down by rulers who have destroyed the economy and impoverished most of its people, Khoo Thwe was forced to speak out and then to flee.

Having reached England, Thwe found the idea of individuals on different sides of a question arguing diverse positions exhilarating, joining such debate was difficult for someone trained to submit unquestioningly to authority. At a conclave of student leader before he left, he already “realised how hard it was to escape the psychology, the pathology of the regime we detested.” An education requiring him constantly to formulate what he thought about literary texts was daunting, quite beyond having to do so in another language (other than his mother-tongue, Padaung, and other than the language of his education, Burmese).

From the Land of Green Ghosts is a moving tribute to the Padaung and to the martyrs of the misrule of Burma. In contrast to another writer enamored of English literature who got to England, V. S. Naipaul, Thwe loves the land and people he left behind and celebrates them and their struggle rather than laughing at them from the perspective of the British. Whereas Naipaul is sardonic about everyone and everything in Trinidad (and, indeed, everywhere except rural England), Thwe is sometimes bemused, but more often elegiac, feeling sympathy even for the young soldiers sent to kill him. Naipaul has produced a large body of work, whereas this memoir is the first book by Khoo Thwe, but for largeness of spirit, Naipaul could not compete with Pascal Khoo Thwe.


The book contains drawings by the author, some maps, and a number of photos, all of which help readers get bearings on a particularly exotic people. The Padaung were missionized in 1930 (when a priest won a wrestling match with Thwe’s grandfather), and his family members avidly listened to BBC International (which the regime had not figured how to jam before Thwe fled). Though the military dictators tried to disappear the whole country from contact with the rest of the world, I found it wryly amusing that one of the Burman soldiers proclaimed an identification with Rambo, and one of the Karen soldiers hummed the Bee Gee’s “Staying Alive” as he rescued a stranded group of student soldiers.

P.S. Pascal Khoo Thwe provides a useful perspective on another of the wars declared by the US directed at places and peoples little (or not!) understood by US strategists, the “war on drugs”:

“Government officials soon realised that they could enrich themselves by becoming unofficial agents for opium warlords, and so would destroy only a few token fields. The weapons supplied by the West were turned instead on internal enemies of the regime. The alleged fight against drugs became an excuse to attack ethnic rebels and even villagers who showed any opposition toward the government. As a result, the opium trade boomed as never before.” (p. 57)


©2003, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


* I’m a bit puzzled at how Burma (or Cambridge) can be considered “Pacific Rim,” in that Burma borders the Andaman Sea, though another earlier winner of the prize was Michael Ondatjee’s Anil’s Ghost, set in the Indian rather than Pacific Ocean.

A graphic memoir of a complex family in Vietnam and America

The front cover bills Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do (2017) as an “Illustrated memoir.” Inside the jacket cover it is billed as a “graphic novel.” It is nonfiction, not a novel, and “illustrated” suggests a higher text:picture ratio than the book has. So, why not “graphic memoir”? There is still a bit of a problem with this description in that the book is based on the memories of the author’s parents as well as her own, not least in the escape from Vietnam parts.

Even the cover illustration with her parents and the three children who lived to emigrate from Vietnam is a simplification. The family history is very complicated in terms of class and political alignments, with ancestors (grandparents) in the Viet Minh as well as among those who fled from north to south when the country was partitioned at the 17th parallel in 1954. Her parents overshot Saigon and became teachers in the far south of South Vietnam.


Thi Bui was born in Saigon in 1975, the year the communists overran what had been South Vietnam. Her mother was 30 and would be very (8 months) pregnant when they fled by boat, giving birth to the boy Tam in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Typical of the unnecessarily jangled structuring of the book (which begins with the author giving birth to her own son in New York in 2005), the order of birth (including of children who died as infants) is 1978, 1974, 1975, 1968, 1966, 1965.

The book frequently skips around in time and place. I have to say that a chronological ordering would have been more reader-friendly. I also have to say that I find the colors (a reddish sepia augmenting black and white and the background for land, sky, and water) wearying.


(jacket photo of Thi Bui)

Still the stories of life in Vietnam and in America (initially, in 1978, crowded into a two-bedroom house in Hammond, Indiana with Thi’s mother’s sister and her husband and their five children, then in the warmer climate of California) are clear with more drama than anyone would want, but also some mordant humor. The book ends with hopes that her son (with her Caucasian husband, Travis) will live without the traumas of war and loss.

I’m not sure whether the reason I prefer Vietnamerica is that I read it first or because I’m man. Both books show and tell stories of complicated family histories, terrifying escapes, and difficult adjustments of Vietnamese refugees getting to the US

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Thanks to Fred Gleach for calling my attention to this new hardback book (from esteemed artbook publisher, Abrams).

One of the genocidal rulers of the 20th century

David P. Chandler, who was the research director at the Centre of Southeast Asia Studies at Monash University in Australia (now emeritus there, he is also an adjunct professor at Gergetown University), is a historian of post-World War II Cambodian history rather than a biographer. The notes of Brother Number One show not only his familiarity of seemingly everything written in English about Cambodia during the second half of the twentieth century but with the archives of the torture state of the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian communists/Angkar) and a large number of interviews with those who survived knowing Saloth Sar, who took the revolutionary name “Pol Pot.”


Chandler’s goal in Brother Number One (revised edition, 1999, first edition 1992) looking into the life of Saloth Sar (1925-1998), aka Pol Pot, is to try to understand how a not-especially-bright Khmer urbanite (who had lived in Phnom Penh and Paris) became the paramount leader of a regime that literally emptied the cities of Cambodia, pretty much destroyed its economy, mythologized peasant virtue, and killed off one out of every seven Cambodians in four years in power (and drove another one of seven into refugee camps and beyond). Chandler did not reach his goal, which seems to be an impossible one. Pol Pot covered his tracks too well, left practically no writings other than a memoir in which most everything is demonstrably false, and the disjuncture between the bland and pleasant man those who knew him recall and the delusional government he headed does not seem bridgeable.

It is not just that Chandler is interested in the policies of the Khmer Rouge more than in the private life of Saloth Sar/Pol Pot but that no one knows very much about the man’s life other than as a revolutionary. Hence the modifier “political” before “biography in the subtitle.

Chandler provides plausible views of Khmer Rouge roots in Khmer pride and Buddhist exhortation (like most males in the Thervada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia before or other than communist-ruled ones, Sar was a monk for a time) and in the Stalinist/Maoist tradition that the Khmer Rouge carried to a level of destructiveness of life and traditional lifestyles beyond even the forced collectivization and incessant search for enemies within the reigns of terror of Stalin and Mao. I want to provide my own view of this context that is only partly based on what Chandler wrote but is consistent with what he wrote. Anyone interested solely in a review of the biography as biography might skip the following section—though, as I have already said, so little is known about the interiority and very guarded private life of Saloth Sar that there is not much conventional biography that can be done.

The path from Marx to the disasters for their peoples of 20th-century communist states

The most fundamental part of the eschatology of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto and elsewhere is that human misery in its modern form stems from private ownership of the means of production. Engels in particular saw history as proceeding from barbarism to feudalism to capitalism to communism and expected the workers (the proletariat) in industrialized capitalist societies to unite across ethnic, religious, and racial lines to seize control of the means of production and to develop the utopia of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (“his” in the generic sense).

What happened instead was that in no industrialized state did the workers seize the means of production. There was also a total failure of working-class solidarity across national lines demonstrated during the First World War… and nationalism has been very, very prominent in all the states in which communist revolutions succeeded in seizing state power (Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). Neither nationalisms nor the state have withered away in those countries or in the imperial conquests by postrevolutionary communist regimes. (Lenin’s linkage of imperialism to capitalism was also falsified by 20th-century history.)

Like Russia and China at the times of their communist coups, Cambodia had very little industry—and, therefore, few industrial capitalists—and in classical Marxist “science” were not ready for communism, having not reached the stage of capitalism. This is why there is some sense in the claim that, like Christianity, Marxism is an idea that has never been tried. (Unlike Christianity, the Marxist utopia was supposed to be of this world.) But history has provided abundant disconfirmations of the view that eliminating private ownership of the means of production leads to equality (or the withering away of the state). Communist regimes have somewhat masked inequality by calling everyone “comrade” or “brother,” but to borrow from George Orwell, some have been more equal than others, and/or there have been elder brothers telling younger ones what to do. State-run economies have been colossally inefficient and all communist societies developed managerial elites and political elites: a dichotomy between party members nonmembers (with party members having privileges nonmembers lacked) and hierarchies within the parties. (Managerial elites getting rich as well as powerful without owning the means of production have also typified capitalist societies, but this is nearly as contrary to Marxist “science” as the stratification within communist societies.)

Back to Pol Pot

Saloth Sar joined the communist party in France ca. 1951, before the death (in 1953) of Josef Stalin, who dictated policies to the International. (The French communist party was the most rigidly Stalinist European communist party.) Saloth Sar found reading Marx too difficult. The less subtle (less dialectical) writings of Stalin were easier to grasp, and along with 19th-century French poets, it was Stalin whom he read. (Back in Cambodia having not completed any degree, he taught French literature. His former students reported that Saloth Sar could recite many French poems from memory, but, in power, Pol Pot took particular aim at those who were biliterate.)

What the man who would later call himself “Pol Pot” emulated) many of Stalin’s traits—the relative austerity in which he lived, the continual search for traitors to blame for failures (“sabotage”) and root out, promulgation of grand plans (Stalin’s 5-year ones), an imperviousness to the cost in human life of his endeavors, and the isolation from reality that is common to rulers who are able to eliminate anyone who says anything they don’t want to hear. Chandler points out that Saloth Sar/Pol Pot was very isolated from news about what was going on in the world after fleeing to the protection of the North Vietnamese army and some Hill Tribesmen in northeastern Cambodia during the 1960s. In power in the mostly empty Phnom Penh, Pol Pot pored over confessions extracted under torture at Tuol Sleng, but had neither any training or any inclination to evaluate economic data.

Like another major influence, Mao Zedong, when Pol Pot did venture out, what he saw were charades that supported his fantasies about increasing productivity. Pol Pot directly imported the delusion that collectivized rice cultivation could triple rice production. As in Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” many starved while no one dared to tell the ideologue-in-chief that his belief in agricultural magic was not just wrong, but catastrophically wrong.

Even more than Stalin, Mao was indifferent to deaths related to advancing his agenda of collectivizing agriculture. (Mao also expressed an unconcern about tens of millions of Chinese being killed by nuclear bombs.) Pol Pot/the Khmer Rouge were unconcerned about those driven from the cities dying, valuing peasant virtues and believing city-dwellers were corrupt.

The Khmer Rouge years have been called “autogenocide.” As far as the revolution eating the revolutionaries (in the tradition of the French and Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions) this is certainly accurate, and many Cambodians were killed or starved to death during the Khmer Rouge years. The “base people” (those who did not live in cities when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975) received more food than the “new people”—that is, those driven from the cities, new to the countryside. A majority of suspect city people were of Chinese or Vietnamese descent. As in other Southeast Asia economies, much of the business (and such industry as there was) had been in the hands of Chinese. Thus, the “social cleansing” of emptying the city and discriminating for the rural natives (in this case, Khmers) cannot really be separated from “ethnic cleansing.” To a considerable extent, the Khmer Rouge was a nativist regime, glorifying the people (Khmers) who had built the monuments of Angkor civilization a millennium earlier.

Chandler makes very, very clear that the North Vietnamese defeated the US-backed Lon Nol regime, which deposed Prince Sihanouk in 1970, and that Pol Pot resented his years of dependency on the Vietnamese a great deal. Many of the Cambodian communists (including himself) had spent time in North Vietnam and been protected by the North Vietnamese army in eastern Cambodia.

The communists purported to be fighting to restore Sihanouk (who was revered by many Cambodians) and reinstalled him—under de facto house arrest—in his palace. The Chinese communists (Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” was still raging) were the patrons of the Pol Pot regime, supplying arms. The PRC support for the Khmer Rouge is one of Mao’s many crimes against humanity. As animosity between the PRC and USSR communist states increased, and Nixon and Kissinger curried favor with the PRC to discomfit the USSR, the PRC/USSR hostility was acted out in Southeast Asia with the Khmer Rouge backed by China (and implicitly by the US), Vietnam by the Russians.

In December of 1978 the Vietnamese (again) swept across Cambodia. This time the Thais (also complicit with the PRC and an enemy of the Vietnamese) provided protection for the Khmer Rouge, and still under the command of Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge sallied across the border to raid western Cambodia. Having spent the 1960s on both sides of the eastern border of Cambodia, Pol Pot spent the 1980s and 90s on both sides of the western border, continuing civil war against a regime in Phnom Penh put in power and supported by aliens (this time the Vietnamese rather than the Americans).

Pol Pot continued to fixate on traitors and was finally deposed as head of the Khmer Rouge in November of 1997 having ordered the execution of his longtime close associate Son Sen (ten additional members of Son’s family were also murdered). Less than a year later he died (ostensibly of heart failure) unrepentant about his policies (or modus operandi of creating and eliminating traitors). He claimed “I did everything for my country,” begging the question of what his country was, but certainly showing yet again that nationalism eclipsed universalism for communist leaders (and making me wonder again if Emerson was right about patriotism being the last resort of scoundrels”—it so often seems to be the first one!)


Pol Pot remains opaque. His ability to maintain delusions about the soundness of his economic and social policies is striking. Chandler illuminates some influences, in particular China’s Cultural Revolution (though Mao only sent Red Guards who had gotten out of his control to the countryside and did not go so far as emptying China’s cities) and the ambivalence toward the patronage (and patronizing) by the Vietnamese. Chandler has sorted out where Saloth Sar/Pol Pot was most of the time, but not what he was thinking.

The book is excellent history, providing much to think about, necessarily thin as biography. Chandler seems to use all available information and seems to cut through the disinformation Pol Pot provided on the rare occasions he made autobiographical statements.

Having started reading the book in Cambodia and after reading Loung Ung’s memoir from just barely above the ground of being forced out of Phnom Penh and enduring the depredations of the Pol Pot years, I was particularly interested in sorting out blame. There is a lot to go around and multiple candidates. Certainly, the ones most responsible are the Khmer Rouge. It is clear from Chandler’s account that they would never have come to power without the North Vietnamese, and the foreign policies of Sihanouk, Nixon, and Mao. And I wouldn’t want to leave out such apologists as Noam Chomsky, either. (As far as I know, Chomsky has not recanted what he wrote about the Khmer Rouge—patriotism is not the only refuge of scoundrels…) The Vietnamese to some extent remedied their earlier errors by removing the Khmer Rouge from power, while the US, Thailand, and the PRC in various ways are responsible for the continued depredations by the Khmer Rouge after 1978.


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Sisters in the Cambodian holocaust, one of whom left, one of whom stayed

For anyone like me who had a happy childhood and a conventionally middle-American angst-ridden adolescence, it is difficult to think of anyone who was in Phnom Penh in 1975 when Angkar (known in the west as the Khmer Rouge—the Maoist Cambodian) emptied it as having been lucky. Having read Loung Ung‘s first book, First They Killed My Father I knew what she meant before beginning Lucky Child. She was a happy and privileged 5-year-old in 1975. She survived the horrors of being a suspiciously (to the Angkar cadres) light-skinned urbanite through remarkable tenacity and cunning, as the previous book details in chilling detail. There were close calls of starvation, bullets, and her family background, so some luck was involved in reaching the age of ten.


Then, there was the luck of being chosen by her eldest brother Meng to be the one to accompany him as he tried to get to the United States (through Vietnam and Thailand—yes, I know they are in opposite directions from Cambodia; read the first book to find out about this very dangerous zigzag, complete with pirates). He chose her in part because she was the youngest and most likely to adjust more easily to a(nother) new culture. She was also tougher than her surviving sister Chou.

Chou probably would have been even more lost in Vermont than Loung was, but life in America was still far from easy for Loung. Among other things, she chafed at the demands of her Elder Brother’s wife that she be demure. Having been a soldier at the age of 9 so that she could eat, demure is not how Loung survived in Cambodia. Moreover, her skin was again different from that of the majority in Essex Junction, Vermont, so that she was still suspiciously “other.” She was terrified of ghosts, carefully following Cambodian/Chinese folk remedies for warding them off. And, like many other survivors of bombings and gun-battles, frightened by Fourth-of-July fireworks.

And bearing a crushing load of survivor guilt—not just in relation to her parents and the sister who starved during the Khmer Rouge economic devolution and widespread slaughter (particularly of nonpeasants, and among them, particularly of those who looked like they have Chinese or Vietnamese ancestry), not just in relation to the million or two who died in the four years of Khmer Rouge despotism, but of her siblings who were left behind, Chou in particular.

The book alternates Loung Ung’s first-person memoirs with chapters in the third person about Chou’s experience half a world away in the village in which aunts and uncles lived. (They were “base people” to the Khmer Rouge, presumed to have supported the revolution before April 17, 1975, in contrast to those driven out of Cambodia’s cities.)

I had to wait a long ways into the book to find out what happened to Third Brother Kim, who had become the “man of the house” desperately trying to protect his mother, Loung, and Chou, and to get food for them at age nine, and who had to swallow vast quantities of bitterness and humiliation. Loung was luckier than he was in many ways, but after some more harrowing “adventures,” he, too, got to the US.

The two siblings who survived and remained in Cambodia produced five and six children, so there are many nephews and nieces in Cambodia, and the Cambodian American Ungs have been able first to help and then to visit the Cambodian ones.

As the contrast in titles already strongly suggests, Lucky Child has happier stories to tell than First They Killed My Father did. Readers of the first book can find relief in the second one and be happy for the characters. The narrative is less gripping because there are relatively mundane problems instead of nearly unimaginable horrors in the second book.

Both books have some fracturing of perspective. The first has imagined scenes—plausible conjectures about how Loung thought her family members’ ends went. The second one has the alternation between Loung and Chou. The author is more certain in telling her own story than in telling her sister’s. Loung is—and seemingly was from an early age—more introspective than Chou, and more purposeful. Chou was more passive (and a model of demureness) and is not all that interesting a character. Moreover, Loung is hard on herself and very, very gentle in writing about her sister. This is totally understandable in human terms, and I admire Loung for treating her sister well. But “kid-glove” treatment doesn’t make for as riveting reading as the self-critical narration of Loung’s own experience.

Probably it says something about the sadism and voyeurism of readers that we often find kind characters boring (and often find villains interesting and even sympathetic). I don’t think it’s just me! And I think she is too hard on herself, so am not a total sadist…

Loung Ung’s pair of memoirs, like those of Pascal Khoo Thew (From the Land of Green Ghosts) and T. C. Hou(‘s autobiographical novels A Thousand Wings and Land of Smiles) provide terrifying portraits of confused youngsters escaping brutal Southeast Asian genocidal/ethnocidal regimes in Cambodia, Burma, and Laos. They (and the accounts of leaving and returning to Vietnam in Andrew Pham’s Catfish and Mandala, Noel Alumit’s of leaving the Philippines after Marcos goons kill his father in Letters to Montgomery Clift, and leaving Afghanistan in Tamim Ansary’s West of Kabul, East of New York) make my adolescent unhappinesses seem very petty in comparison. These often poignant books may induce survivor guilt, along with telling about the lost seeming paradises of childhoods cruelly snatched away—an experience that is altogether too widespread!


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray