How did you find your way to me?
My mother does not know Albanian well,
She writes letters like Aragon, without commas and periods,
My father roamed the seas in his youth,
But you have come,
Walking down the pavement of my quiet city of stone,
And knocked timidly at the door of my three-storey house,
At Number 16.

There are many things I have loved and hated in life,
For many a problem I have been an ‘open city’,
But anyway…
Like a young man returning home late at night,
Exhausted and broken by his nocturnal wanderings,
Here too am I, returning to you,
Worn out after another escapade.

And you,
Not holding my infidelity against me,
Stroke my hair tenderly,
My last stop,

Ismail Kadare, 1959

Translated by Robert Elsie


At the age of 80, Ismail Kadare has lived through the Second World War, the Communist regime in Albania, and the fall of the Soviet Union. After his studies at the University of Tirana, Kadare worked for a time in the Gorky Institute in Moscow as an official writer of the regime, which cemented his hatred for censorship and indoctrination. After the fall of the Soviet Union he was called upon to become president, a suggestion which he swiftly declined. Based primarily in Paris, he has achieved significant recognition in the West, and won the Man Booker International Prize in 2005. I couldn’t go past his tender love-letter to poetry, and now look forward to reading some of his novels.

In ‘Around the World in 230 poems’, I will share a poem from every country in the world.

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I’ll kiss you in the pomegranate garden. Hush!

People will think a goat’s stuck in the underbrush.

– Anonymous


The Kabul-based women’s literary society  Mirman Baheer has a hotline which women and girls from the provinces call to share their poems. These frequently take the form of landais – couplets written in Pashto, often dealing with taboo topics such as love, sex, and war. Singing and poetry can be associated with licentiousness, and many female poets compose in secret, using a pseudonym to call Mirman Baheer. Their poems express frustration, heartbreak, wit, and irreverence. I liked the cheeky tone of the above landai, which nonetheless conveys the furtiveness with which the young lovers must express their affection.


In ‘Around the World in 230 poems’, I will share a poem from every country in the world.

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Around the World in 230 Poems

Happy New Year!

I have a 2017 project I’m very excited about. Inspired by Ann Morgan’s wonderful A Year of Reading the World, I’m going to embark on my own around-the-world literary quest: this time, via poems. Within an unspecified time frame, I will share a poem from every country in the world: 230 in total.

Why 230? Where am I getting this number from? Deciding what constitutes a country is notoriously tricky. Morgan chose to read 196 books, using the 195 UN-recognised sovereign states plus Taiwan. I wanted to separate out the components of the UK, and I also wanted to err on the side of more rather than less when deciding whether to include territories (I don’t have any deadlines to meet, and if I can’t find a poem from a particular place I will simply skip it).

So in the end, I’ve chosen to use Lonely Planet’s The Travel Book: A Journey Through Every Country in the World to guide my journey. My copy is not the most up-to-date edition (it’s from 2004); moreover, Lonely Planet has its own agendas when deciding whether or not to include a place, some not necessarily conducive to finding poetry (Antarctica is on the list!). But I like how comprehensive the list is; I like that England, Scotland and Wales have separate entries (Northern Ireland is lumped in with Ireland); and most of all, I like that it is a beautiful big book, full of gorgeous images, and I can turn to a new page each time I am ready to find another poem.

I’m not going to impose many rules on myself. The poem does not need to be set in the country it is representing, or be “about” it in any explicit sense. The author doesn’t need to have been born there, as long as she or he identifies with the place. Nor does the poem need to be representative of broad literary/poetic trends in that particular country: no place can be summed up by a single poem, and that is not the point of this project, which is to broaden my horizons and those of my readers. Sometimes I will deliberately favour female poets because we are biased to favour white males – don’t believe me, pull down any anthology of poetry and open to the contents page – and making a little effort to counter our biases is extremely rewarding. Indeed, this is what this project is all about. The huge majority of my favourite poems are all from a single country, England: particularly given that I’m not even from England, that should be enough proof that cultural biases play an enormous role in dictating what we seek out, and what we assume to be valuable. And while I don’t for a second doubt the consummate skill of the male English poets I love, I have to also consider the treasure trove of poetry I am missing out on by maintaining such a narrow gaze.

I will do some research before selecting a poem, rather than simply googling “poem from Burkina Faso” and posting the first thing that comes up! I am excited by the prospect of learning about places I know next to nothing about, and also about languages – one of my other great passions. So to that end I will do as much research as time allows. I haven’t decided conclusively what I will do regarding translations. If the poem is written in a language I don’t understand (ie pretty much anything except for English, French and German), I will post an English translation where one is available; I may also post a translation of the French and German works if I came to them via translation. Full credit will of course be given to the translator in addition to the poet.

Finally, I reserve the right to narrow or widen these guidelines as I go!

I look forward to beginning my journey in Afghanistan…

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T.S. Eliot wrote in ‘The Cultivation of Christmas Trees’ that Christmas is a time for children to accumulate a sense of wonder. The emotion of awe – which I mentioned briefly in my last post is garnering more interest among scientists as well, and fascinating research has shown that feeling a sense of awe can inspire pro-social behaviour.

I remember when the Bali Bombings happened in 2002, I wondered at the actions and attitudes of the terrorists. Surely, if they understood the overwhelming magnitude of our universe – that we are nothing but a tiny blue globe hanging in the immense vastness of space, a noisy minute in the vastness of time – their hubris would dissipate.

So in the New Year, I wish you not just happiness but awe: the antidote to despair, that other possible response to the incomprehensible enormousness of existence.

Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. – Carl Sagan

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Stories and Multiple Truths

Cafe Scheherazade by Arnold Zable

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

We’re living in a post-truth world, so we are told over and over by the media, but my own leitmotif this year has been the idea of multiple truths – two competing viewpoints can be simultaneously valid. I think I always thought/understood this somewhere at the periphery of my consciousness, but now I more properly grasp what it means.

I’ve read two books about storytelling recently. The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall (2013), and a lovely novel by Arnold Zable called Cafe Scheherazade (2001), based on a real cafe in Acland Street, St Kilda. Jewish survivors of the Second World War gather here to tell their tales, in a novel which is a paean to the magic of story itself. There is a reverence, even a fetishisation, in the way Zable describes and performs the act of storytelling.

We remain seated as darkness descends, Zalman and I. We eat our evening meal garnished with fables and tales. We imagine cities, strung across the globe, like pearls upon a silver chain. We see frayed maps etched in the foreheads of the old men who sit at neighbouring tables. Rivulets from distant continents course through their veins.

It is a work of art which gives me that sense of… I am sure there is a more apt word in a different language, but in English the most fitting word I can find is awe. The sense of the enormousness of the world, as well as the interconnectedness of things. It is a pleasant feeling which I often get, strangely enough, at airports – the reason why I so often volunteer to be on airport drop-off or pick-up duty.

I digress. Gottschall, whose book is subtitled How Stories Make Us Human, argues that storytelling is of evolutionary benefit to humans: it allows us to rehearse our responses to potentially dangerous situations in a risk-free manner, as well as disseminate moral values which contribute to a cohesive society. A point which really stuck with me was that we continually construct narrative in order to make sense of our lives and protect our egos, positioning ourselves as the flawed yet ultimately good protagonist at the centre of our life story. People with depression, Gottschall argues, have been less successful at doing this, which is why the “talking cure” is often so effective – it helps people reclaim their life narrative and their role as protagonist. There is so much to debate here, but it is a fascinating – if somewhat disturbing – proposition.

Gottschall and Zable both practise what they preach, and both books (particularly Zable’s) are filled with excellent storytelling. A huge downfall of Cafe Scheherazade is its pointedly masculine outlook, relegating female characters to cardboard cut-outs on the set of the men’s stories. Certainly, some of these set pieces are interestingly and lovingly drawn, but they are two-dimensional: women are either whores or saints, and if they do great things, they do only great things. They are neither complex or contradictory, and they dissolve into nonexistence in the absence of men, who are almost exclusively the storytellers in this novel. The only female storyteller is Masha, proprietor of the cafe; yet even she is in the novel as a lover, the beautiful girl who shares a name with her husband’s first love, and goes on to save him from his despair. She only does good things, whereas her husband Avram does both good and bad things.

And then there is the odd passage of prose which seems straight out of a parody:

His blue eyes are darting about, following the ladies moving past on the street. He glances at the patrons entering the cafe, and surveys the chicken schnitzel that the mini-skirted waitress places by his side. ‘Thank you, my beautiful girl,’ he says, with a wink. ‘Isn’t she a krasavetze, a true beauty?’

I was immediately put in mind of this article I had recently read.

Yet both interpretations are true. Zable’s (and the fictional Yossel’s) perception of the romanticism of the scene – the waitress’s legs and the food and the women on the street as all a part of this landscape of peace which the old survivor can now enjoy – this perception is not invalidated by the feminist reading, which boggles at Zable’s reduction of the waitress,  a multifaceted human being with her own share of stories, to an item of clothing below the waist, a silent deliverer of chicken schnitzel. Even the eponymous Scheherazade told stories only to appease a violent, all-powerful and misogynist man.

The unsophisticated depiction of women holds me back from fully immersing myself in this tale about tales, subtly implying as it does that I am excluded from the storytelling act by virtue of my gender. But my enjoyment of the novel is reduced, not erased. Multiple truths.

On that night, under an impassive moon, Laizer discovered parallel universes, hovering side by side, one of beauty, one of ugliness, one permeated by darkness, the other suffused with light. On that night Laizer regained his childhood sense of naivety and awe; and he realised that be learning to manoeuvre between these alternative universes he could generate the change of energy necessary for him to pull through.

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Birds on the Wires

I saw this today on IFLS. A man cut out a photo of birds sitting on wires, imagined them as notes on a stave, and orchestrated the piece of music they unwittingly created.

Isn’t it beautiful? The world is so full of wonderful, hidden things.

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An Open Letter to Sam Harris

I recently started reading Sam Harris’s blog. I haven’t read any of his books, admittedly, although Mum has and liked them a lot (and I normally agree with her taste in books). Today I sent him a letter, more like an essay really, in response to his blog post titled “I’m Not The Sexist Pig You’re Looking For.” I’m sure he’ll never read it, so I’m posting it here as well.

Dear Sam,

I am a student from Australia, and as of recently a keen reader of your blog. I am writing, however, to express some concerns about your recent post, “I’m Not The Sexist Pig You’re Looking For.” I felt that parts of it were lacking in your usual intellectual rigour, and I would be very pleased if you would take a few moments to read my criticisms, as these are issues I have spent a lot of time thinking about.

As an example of a difference in social status between men and women, you mention that only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women, and express doubt that sexism is the sole cause for this enormous disparity. You argue that other factors, such as the sacrifices women make to raise families, and “normally distributed psychological differences between the sexes,” almost certainly play a role too. In fact, you argue that anyone who thinks that this disparity is caused entirely by sexism “hasn’t thought about these issues very deeply.”

Actually, it is entirely possible that such a disparity is caused entirely, or at least overwhelmingly, by sexism. This can be seen once you take into account all of the different ways sexism can manifest itself, some of which are extremely subtle. Overt sexism, such as sexual harassment in the workplace, will of course play an important role in discouraging women from climbing the corporate ladder. So will the regular sexist comments about women not making effective leaders, being too emotional to run a company, etc. So will a laddish corporate culture that alienates women by normalising sexist banter, and so will witnessing the misogynist treatment of other women in high-profile positions.

But far subtler sexism takes its toll, too. For example, a deeply ingrained cultural bias is that we associate a man’s deep voice with authority, and the higher pitch of a woman’s voice with frivolousness and unreliability. As a society we are still unused to hearing female voices speak up: I read a study once demonstrating that when women talk for 30% of the time in a group discussion, they are perceived as “dominating” the conversation. If a woman does speak up and take control, she is called bossy, a bitch, or a ball-breaker. All of these factors weigh upon women from a young age, subtly redirecting many of them away from actively seeking leadership roles.

Moreover, the other two factors you mention – women’s family commitments, and psychological differences between the sexes – cannot be completely extricated from sexism either. Yes, women (in most countries) are no longer legally obliged to stop working after giving birth. But there is still an overwhelming pressure on women to a) have children in the first place, and b) to make significant career sacrifices for these children. This pressure stems, of course, from the patriarchal notion that women are first and foremost caregivers. Thus, there are reasons related to sexism why women’s careers are more affected by family commitments than are men’s.

Finally, sexism plays a role even in how psychological differences between the sexes may contribute to the Fortune 500 disparity. I’m not going to get into the innateness vs socialisation debate. Unlike so many gender-difference researchers, you acknowledge the impact of socialisation; furthermore, you emphasize that any differences we’re talking about are normally distributed differences, thus avoiding the baffling men-excel-women-struggle dichotomy that so many quacks seem determined on wresting from their results. But even biological differences don’t emerge in a cultural vacuum. I’m sure that men’s increased tendency towards aggression is at least partially biological; this could be a reason that more men become CEOs. But why is aggression considered such a vital leadership trait? I could think of a hundred ways in which being kind, nurturing, and cooperative would confer excellent advantages on a leader. Why do we consider “masculine” traits so much more important? Because of a deeply-rooted cultural bias which confers higher value to “maleness” and devalues anything associated with “femaleness.” It is a bias so deeply embedded in our culture that we take it on face value that masculine traits are more advantageous to a leader than feminine traits. So arguing that psychological differences contribute to the Fortune 500 disparity is not enough. We need to go deeper than that, and recognise that these differences are themselves subject to sexist evaluation. As someone who writes extensively about the (often nefarious) influence of ideas, I am sure you can appreciate just how powerful something as seemingly innocuous as a sexist bias can be, particularly when coupled with historical dominance.

There were a couple of other points which I found problematic. You state that most of the differences between men’s and women’s experiences of rape and domestic violence “can be explained by general disparities in size, strength, and aggressiveness between the sexes.” This is a gross oversimplification. In fact rape and domestic violence are overwhelmingly driven by something more abstract and cultural: relations of power. You will know as well as anyone how rape has been used for centuries as a way to assert power (historically, to assert power over other men – by violating their possessions, their wives and daughters). Today, rape is often used as a means to assert power over the woman herself. It is a tiresomely common narrative. A woman walking alone at night rebuffs a strange man’s sexual advances; the man becomes enraged and punishes her insolence by raping her. To use a real-life example, last week a woman in Atlanta committed the heinous crime of defeating three male rappers in a freestyle competition. As a punishment, she was gang-raped, set on fire, and shot several times (she survived, but remains in a critical condition).

Domestic violence follows a similar narrative. In Australia, one woman is murdered by her partner or ex-partner every week. Frequently, this happens when the woman has just left her partner or is in the process of leaving: the ultimate slight to his authority. Reducing violence against women to simple differences in size and strength ignores the crucial fact that it is symptomatic of a patriarchal culture, which sees men’s rightful place as in control.

Your oversimplification of violence against women also underpins your argument regarding gun control. You state that “a gun is the only tool that reliably cancels the advantages that (most) men have over (most) women when it comes to physical violence.” I’m sorry, but this truly is absurd. Would-be rapists don’t trundle up to women from a distance wearing t-shirts declaring their intention in big bold letters – about the only situation I can think of that would give a woman untrained in firearms the time and presence of mind to retrieve a revolver from her purse and shoot her assailant (or at least to show that she feasibly could – if the point is that it’s meant to be a deterrent). The enormous majority of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the assailant, anyway, in a setting in which the woman is unlikely to be carrying a gun.

The reality is that because I live in Australia, where guns are tightly regulated, I am 20 times less likely to die from gun violence than if I lived in America. My chances of being raped are about the same in both countries. Much better to tackle violence against women by teaching men to stop asserting their dominance through rape and murder.

I want to discuss one final comment you make in this post. You relate how a woman confronted you after an interview about things you said that she found sexist. After a brief discussion, you said to her: “You really are determined to be offended, aren’t you? It’s like you have installed a tripwire in your mind, and you’re just waiting for people to cross it.”

This is a widespread misunderstanding of why people call out others on sexism, racism, homophobia, or any kind of discrimination: that it’s because we are spoiling for a fight, addicted to the adrenalin of being offended. Now, I’m not saying that you hold this view about everyone who challenges you on these lines. But your earlier comment about the “ridiculous paranoia engendered by political correctness” suggests that you do indeed feel that this kind of criticism often comes from the unreasonable, hyper-sensitive PC-brigade.

Let me say one thing. I believe that I speak for the large majority of women when I say that I hate sexism. I hate talking about it, reading about it, and calling people out about it. When I hear or read a deeply sexist comment, my heart sinks into the pit of my stomach. It is hurtful and damaging in a way that no insult directed to me as an individual can be. Far from being “determined to be offended,” if I read or hear something that seems sexist, my mind desperately works to recalibrate it in a way that it is not. Surely, I think, the writer is being satirical. Surely, he or she actually means this. I arrive only reluctantly at the painful realisation that this is undeniably sexism. Honestly, the time I spend writing and talking about sexism gives me very little joy. I wish that sexism didn’t exist so that I could write and talk about something nicer. I would never torture myself further by seeking out sexism that wasn’t already there.

Perhaps there are a few women out there who enjoy being offended. But most of us don’t. Most of the time, when a woman challenges someone about sexism, it is because she just wants it to stop. And if her criticism is, on occasion, the result of a misinterpretation, it is probably not because she is desperate to create controversy out of nothing. It is probably because, after a lifetime of sexist micro-aggressions, she has become wary of instances of sexism that go by unchallenged – and has on this occasion come up with a false positive. If she gets defensive, it is because women are told time and time again that we are overreacting whenever we point out sexism. It is the most common tactic used to deflect our concerns. And to tell a woman that she is “determined to be offended” betrays a lack of understanding at just how deeply hurtful that particular kind of offense is.

I’m aware that I haven’t addressed the main content of your post, which is why you and other prominent atheist writers have more male followers than female. I have avoided this topic because I have no real experience with the “atheist movement,” so would need to do more research in order to respond properly. I will note in passing, however, that the very (perceived) characteristics of your style of communication which you believe attract more men than women – your work is often considered “angry,” “divisive” and “confrontational” – are exactly the traits many men cite as reasons they can’t take to feminism. I suppose for men like that, a “confrontational” style is all well and good until it is their privilege which is being confronted.

Thank you for taking the time to read this; I hope that at least some my comments have been helpful. I will continue to read your blog with interest.

Kind regards,

S. Martin

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