Now onto Albania

Winner of the first man booker international prize in 2005

Winner of the first man booker international prize in 2005

I know next to nothing about Albania. I have a vague idea that there have been wars there. In my mind it is linked to conflict with Kosovo and that’s about it. So I was surprised (and also reminded of how little I know) to find that the first writer to win the Man Booker International Prize when it started in 2005 is from Albania. I’ve always rated the prize as a good starting point for finding out about authors I should read. It’s awarded every two years to a writer who has a body of work that has contributed significantly to that contentious category of ‘world literature’. The only proviso is that their work has to have been translated into English.

Kadare is a novelist, essayist, poet and playwright. He was also an exile, escaping a Stalinist regime, he sought refuge in France. His first novel (and there one that allowed him to live as a writer) is The General of the Dead Army. It was published in 1963 and although Kadare says he is not a political writer is a critique of the effects of war. In it, an Italian and a German army general are charged with recovering the bodies of their countrymen who died in Albania in WW2.

As it is his most acclaimed novel I was tempted to read it but chose Chronicle in Stone instead because the blurb describes it as ‘a disturbing mix of tragedy & comedy, politics & sexuality’ and the protagonist is an Albanian boy which was the voice I hoped to hear.

Other books you might want to try: The loser- Fatos Kongoli Lightening from the Depths: an anthology of Albanian poetry - edited by Janice Maggie-Heck, Robert Elsie

Songs of love & war - Afghan women’s poetry edited by Sayd Bahodine Majrough

It is without question that life for many Pashtun women in Afghanistan is tough. Yet, my instincts as an anthropologist (and African woman) is not to cast them as victims or women in need of rescue. This volume of poetry confirmed that instinct that the ways in which they navigate their male dominated (in public at least) world is much more nuanced.

I hadn’t realised that I was very familiar with Afghan poetry before I started this project to read around the world. Rumi a poet whose works I love and often turn to whenever I am in a heightened emotional state was from Afghanistan. Little did I know that women from the same country had their own formal poetry - partly because around the world women’s works are often written out of history and partly because these landays (as they are called) are part of a great oral as opposed to written tradition.

Sayd Bahodine Majrough - the poet who collected this volume explains in the introduction how each of these two lines (9 syllables and 13 syllables) with clear internal scansion are poems (that are recited by women only) are about love, honour and death. There’s an anthropologist called James Scott who writes about weapons of the weak - the everyday forms of resistance that people undertake against those who hold power. An example I think of is how so often around a manicured piece of grass with designated paths, there will often be a well worn cut through created by people who routinely walk on the part of the grass that is not meant to be walked on. Yes the path makes the journey shorter but is also part of the internal resistance we have to bring forced to made to walk in a particular way/ route. It’s also an anonymous resistance, the park authorities see its effects but can’t pin the actions down to an individual. In fact the existence of the unofficial path speaks to a collective action taken piece by piece by one person or another.

Those paths (which I love) are like these beautiful Afghan landays. They are a common feature of Pashtun life, yet belong to no one and are recognised by all - women and men. That said, Pashtun women are not weak, the book’s introduction speaks of their great physical strength in collecting water, raising children and livestock and carrying out nearly all domestic chores. Their bodies are moulded by the work they do and the commodities their bodies can become - if traded to old men (or children) in marriage.

What cannot be possessed is their love and their earthly desires and so these landays are spoken between women about their lovers. They are frank and open in a way that no self-respecting Pashtun man would dare utter. These words belong to women. These are women’s words. So while Rumi talks of a mystical love, the Pashtun women speak of their lovers and the celebration of nature.

In the examples of the landays given below, I would encourage you to whisper them out loud. The effect of hearing them is quite startling. They may have been composed in bodies that have their work prescribed for them, but they are beautiful words spoken by hearts that dare to be free.


If my lover dies, let me be his shroud! Then together we shall wed the dust.


Do not hold hold me too closely in your arms, Tomorrow the scent of my necklace will give our secrets away.


Pick the flowers by the handful, I am a garden that knows that it belongs to you.

‘Let’s start at the very beginning’…


The first country on the UN list of member states is Afghanistan. If you haven’t read them already I can highly recommend The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I read it quite awhile ago now but The Kite Runner is one of those books that I read peering through my fingers like a young child (in places). Drawn to the beautiful language but also terrified of the horrors that would unfold.

A well loved and much quoted writer who came from what is now Balkh in Afghanistan is the poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi more regularly simply called Rumi. Recently I have been reading his poem Checkmate which a friend sent to me as I was going through a hard time (that has since passed). It was a great choice by my friend and I found it immensely helpful.

Given that they are both male I decided to look for a woman writer and came across the collection in the picture. It has been put together by a Sayd Bahodibe Majrouh who unfortunately was assassinated in 1998 but before then shared his love of poetry with all.

A Reading Challenge

I like to read widely but it is easy to end up reading similar things. Its partly because access to books whether it is hearing about them or trying to buy them is controlled by the structure of an industry not known for its diversity. Whenever I am looking for something different, it has to be a conscious choice, can be difficult but I invariably learn a lot and always enjoy it. This year, when reflecting on the turbulent times we are living in I felt compelled to make an effort to reach out to the world through my reading. I decided that I wanted to read a book written by an author from each country in the world.

Initially, I thought I might want to complete the challenge as quickly as I could but I immediately began to find the idea stressful. I am a doctoral student at the University of Oxford and I am also a writer. This means I have lot of reading I have to do for my own work.

The growing feeling of stress also made me think about this quote from the monk Thomas Merton

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Thomas Merton,Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

When I thought about it, the main reason I had wanted to do this in the first place was to connect with people in the world through words. Connection takes time. I wanted to savour the words I was reading and not feel pressured to rush on to the next book.

I thought that a book a month was a reasonable amount of time that would allow me to carry on with my work and when I worked out how long it would take (16.25 years for 195 books) did stress not only release but I felt some joy begin to come in.

So often nowadays it is about the quick turn around, how quickly and efficiently can things be done. The idea of what is considered a long commitment has shortened in terms of measurable time. I found I liked the thought of having a long term slow project in the background of my life.

So, I put out the following post on Facebook:

I’m about to start a bit of a crazy challenge that will take anywhere from 15- 25 years to complete and I’m curious to see if there is someone else out there mad enough to join me. I am going to read a book by a writer from every country in the world (not counting books I have already read). I’m working with the list of UN member states for countries (swopping Palestine for the Holy See). In settler countries I will be looking to read a book by an indigenous person from that country. A book a month works out at 16.25 years. Any takers?

Quickly, I had several friends who wanted to join in and the number keeps growing. I have decided to do the challenge alphabetically starting at A. I love the fact that my friends are the kind of people who like to do things their own way so these are some of the ways in which people are doing it:

  • reading only poetry books

  • starting at Z and working back to A

  • starting in Aotearoa/New Zealand and working around the globe from there

  • starting with books they already have on their tsundoku (their pile of unread books)

I look forward to hearing more about what people plan to do. I will be writing about what I read here and also sharing what it brings up. Do feel free to join in - there is no pressure (some are starting later in the year). Give yourself the permission and time to just enjoy meeting the world, whichever way it works for you.