Law and Conversation

August 20, 2010

Stories from the Islamic world

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has an editorial this week in The Wall Street Journal entitled “How to Win the Clash of Civilizations” .  She argues that Western news media have incorrectly framed the controversies over the proposed mosque near Ground Zero, the eviction of American missionaries from Morocco earlier this year, the minaret ban in Switzerland last year, and the recent burqa ban in France as matters of religious tolerance.  In Ali’s view, those matters are symptoms of a monumental conflict between civilizations.  You can listen to an interview with Ali on Radio New Zealand‘s “Saturday Morning With Kim Hill” from June 18 of this year in which she suggests that democracy is incapable of addressing Islamic fundamentalism, a discouraging idea for anyone who is accustomed to using and upholding Western democratic laws and who has faith in democratic and legal solutions for conflicts.

I don’t know enough about Islam, international relations, or, indeed, Ali herself, to have an opinion on Ali’s views, which have garnered her death threats.  I do know, though, that the Islamic world has a rich storytelling tradition.  Scheherezade, after all, has to be one of the greatest storytellers ever (though she herself is a story, and was not a real person), and The Arabian Nights should lead anyone’s list of great story collections.  (Geert Jan van Gelder discussed the relative merits of the various English translations in the TLS last year.)

Here are some other books, old and recent, fiction and nonfiction, that illustrate, explain, and uphold that tradition:

1) Damascus Nights, by Rafik Schami.  Salim, a coachman in mid-20th century Damascus, inexplicably loses his voice.  For seven nights, seven of his friends gather to tell seven stories in an attempt to cure him.  (Schami writes in German.  The English translation of Schami’s latest book, “The Dark Side of Love,” was published last year.  From the reviews, it sounds like it, too, is full of great stories.)

2) Tales from the Alhambra, by Washington Irving, another great writer who was trained as a lawyer.  Stories and essays inspired by the author’s 1828 trip to the Moorish palace in Granada, Spain.  Saudi Aramco World has a virtual tour of the Alhambra here.

3) The Khamseh of Nizami.  12th century stories from a Persian poet that are as enthralling today as they were 800 years ago.

4) Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi.  Graphic memoir in 2 volumes from a child’s perspective about life in Iran pre- and post-revolution.  Vol. 2 chronicles Satrapi’s life as an adolescent in Vienna, where her parents send her for her own safety.  Bookslut has an interview with Satrapi here; the Guardian has one here.

5) Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azir Nafisi.  Thoughtful, analytic memoir about life in Iran pre- and post-1979, centered around Nafisi’s passion for the Persian storytelling tradition and world literature.  Jian Ghomeishi, host of the CBC’s Q radio program, interviewed her on June 15, 2010; you can listen to it here.

6) Things I’ve Been Silent About, also by Azir Nafisi.  Her second memoir, mostly about her fraught relationship with her mother.

7) Motoring With Mohammed, by Eric Hansen.  Fascinating travel tale about Hansen’s quest to retrieve his journals in Yemen, which he’d buried ten years earlier.  Hansen contributes articles to Saudi Aramco World; you can read an interview with him here.

8) The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini ,  An upper-middle-class Afghan boy behaves dishonorably in the first part of the book but reflects on it and, in the end, redeems himself.  A friend tells me that Hosseini’s followup novel, “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” is even better.

Mary Zimmerman, a Chicago theatre director and professor at Northwestern University, adapted the Arabian Nights and Mirror of the Invisible World:  the Khamseh of Nizami into magical theatre productions for Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and Goodman Theatre, respectively.

If you’d like to read more about the Islamic world, Saudi Aramco World is a beautiful and fascinating magazine published by the Arabian American Oil Company.  Each issue has a variety of articles on eclectic topics and is gorgeously illustrated on high-quality paper.  There’s no advertising, and the company will send it to you for FREE.

What are your favorite stories or books inspired by the Islamic world?


August 18, 2010

Last will and testament as literature

Filed under: Books and writing,Law,Victorian literature — Helen Gunnarsson @ 7:41 am
Tags: , ,

Oh, this is exciting to those of us who love both the law and Victorian literature:  Cathrine Frank, assistant professor of English at the University of New England, has published “Law, Literature, and the Transmission of Culture in England, 1837-1925.”  From her university’s and the publisher’s websites:

Focusing on the last will and testament as a legal, literary, and cultural document, Cathrine O. Frank examines fiction of the Victorian and Edwardian eras alongside actual wills, legal manuals relating to their creation, case law regarding their administration, and contemporary accounts of “curious wills” in periodicals.

The press release from the University of New England quotes the author:  “It’s easy to play ‘spot the will’ in novels,” Frank said, “but one of the most fascinating things I found in my reading, from judges’ opinions to magazine articles, was how widespread the interest in wills was. Everyday people, not just the wealthy and their lawyers, were deeply interested in the idea of the will.”

I wrote earlier about probate law and literature here.

Hat tip:  The BronteBlog.

August 16, 2010

Read This!

I’ll be featuring a Read This! recommendation on Mondays going forward in addition to my Friday posts.  The first one is the “Aya” series of graphic novels written by Marguerite Abouet, from the Ivory Coast but now living in suburban Paris, and illustrated by Clement Oubrerie of France.  Only the first three, “Aya,” “Aya of Yop City,” and “Aya:  The Secrets Come Out” have been translated into English.  Beautifully drawn, the series depicts the lives of residents of Yopougon, a middle-class suburb of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, from the viewpoint of Aya, a studious teenager with a good sense of humor and her head on straight.  The books include a glossary of Ivorian terms (deh!) as well as Ivorian recipes at the end.

It looks like Abouet and Oubrerie have collaborated on a total of six “Aya” books.  I can’t wait for the last three to appear in translation; also very exciting is the report that an Aya movie is in production for 2011.  Bookslut has an interview with Abouet from 2007, Wild River Review has another interview with her by Nigerian writer Angela Ajayi, and The Brown Bookshelf has another from just a few months ago

Abouet founded the association “Des Livres Pour Tous”, which supports literacy education of children in disadvantaged districts in Africa.

August 13, 2010

Factory farms and animal law

The New York Times just reported a negotiated agreement between Ohio farmers and humane treatment advocates “to bar new construction of egg farms that pack birds in cages, and to phase out the tight caging of pregnant sows within 15 years and of veal calves by 2017.”  (Hat tip:  Chicago lawyer Ava George Stewart.)

One farmer is quoted in the article as saying that his chickens won’t produce if they’re not happy.  New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter provides a description of how factory farms work in his article, “The Extremist,” which appeared in the April 4, 2003 issue of The New Yorker; if you think that farmer’s argument sounds reasonable, read Specter’s description for yourself and decide.  (You can also do a search for “factory chicken farms” or “factory farms” and click on the links.)

The article reminds me that animal law is a growing area of the law, which I wrote about in “Animal Law Comes Into Its Own”, the cover story for the August 2007 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal.  As Texas Tech University School of Law Professor Gerry W. Beyer explained to me, there’s a little bit of animal law in every area of law. 

As I wrote in my article, Beyer went on to explain that criminal law encompasses cruelty to animals, as may tort law, which also includes negligent injuries of animals, including veterinary malpractice, and animal injuries to humans, such as dog bites. Estate planning may involve animals when a client wishes to ensure that pets will continue to be cared for after the client’s death. Family lawyers know that pets may be the subject of custody disputes when a couple’s marriage or family relationship breaks up.  Farming, breeding, buying, and selling of animals require a special expertise within business law. Real estate and municipal lawyers may need to develop a corresponding expertise for those concerned about living downwind of a hog confinement operation or who wish to keep their potbellied pig pets when residing in a swanky suburb or condominium.  In fact, animal law has grown so much that there’s actually an animal-law casebook that most, if not all, of the U.S. law schools that now offer animal law courses use, and a few law schools publish animal law journals.  Many bar associations, including the American Bar Association and the Illinois State Bar Association, have added sections or committees on animal law to their other member specialty subgroups.  An Illinois lawyer, Amy Breyer, was the first chair of ISBA’s Animal Law Section Council, started the first animal law practice in the state, and writes the Animal Law Blog, a comprehensive, up-to-date resource for anyone interested in the subject.

California lawyer Bruce Wagman, who coauthored the animal law casebook, also spoke to me for my article.  Though he himself is a vegan, he refrained from condemning those of us who continue to eat meat.  He said to me, “Most people want to know that animals will be treated well while on this earth. The circle of practices regarding animals that everyone is OK with is getting smaller.”

Given the evolution in people’s attitudes and the law, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether, say, a century or two from now, either factory farms or, even more broadly, killing and eating animals may be generally viewed as barbaric practices comparable to slavery, whose supporters used to justify by saying that it was necessary for the economy, or that people from Africa or of African ancestry were subhuman, or that the slaves were actually happy with their lot.  Those proponents weren’t generally demons, any more than we who eat meat today are; they lived in a different world, had a different mindset than we do, and probably preferred not to become uncomfortable by giving too much thought to the obvious sickness of slavery.  Will our descendants someday view arguments in favor of industrial meat production and/or eating meat as ridiculous and revolting as we now view those that were used to justify slavery?  If so, how will, and how can, the law develop?

Here are a few books that discuss the livestock industry, eating animals, and related matters:

“Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer

“The Lives of Animals,” by J.M. Coetzee

“Animal Liberation,” “The Ethics of What We Eat,” and other books by Peter Singer

“The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” by Michael Pollan

You can listen to interviews with Foer and Singer on “The Book Show,” a program available on podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Company, on January 26, 2010 and March 19, 2010 (Foer) and July 27, 2010 (Singer).  A recent documentary, “Food, Inc.,” deconstructs the food industry; there’s a paperback of the same name that’s marketed as a “participant guide” to the movie.

UPDATE:  While waiting to get my car fixed this morning, I noticed that the cover story for the current issue of Time magazine is Jeffrey Kluger’s “Inside the Minds of Animals.”  Kluger provides evidence from experts that animals DO think and suffer, contrary to historical views to the contrary.

August 6, 2010


I recently called up a few of the most professional lawyers I know and asked them how they’d suggest dealing with the churls that we all run into from time to time.   The result was a fun and, I think, useful article, “Uncivil Action,” the cover story in this month’s issue of the Illinois Bar Journal.  Though directed to the litigation context, my sources’ advice is good for any area of life where churls may appear.

One of the lawyers I interviewed recommended reading “The No Asshole Rule,” by Robert I. Sutton.  I did so, and could see why she recommended it. 

Sutton, a management consultant, writes about the harm churls do in the workplace and beyond, illustrating his thesis with vivid examples and providing practical coping recommendations.  He advises against going to work for a company populated with churls, for example, because of the heightened risk of becoming a churl oneself.  There’s a good reason we’re known by the company we keep.

What I found particularly memorable about Sutton’s book was his use of multiple examples of his own behavior to make the point that we all have the capacity to behave badly, even churlishly, at times.  It speaks well of him or anyone else, in my opinion, to have examined his own behavior, reflect upon it, and publicly acknowledge that it was wrong.  Sutton’s point should also remind us that most of the churls we encounter in our lives are not completely evil monsters, but, rather, imperfect people who may not be so different from ourselves.

The British Victorians were really good at depicting extreme versions of churls:  easy-to-hate bullies with no redeeming qualities.  Even the names that Charles Dickens gave to his churls tell us right away what sort of people they are:  Wackford Squeers in “Nicholas Nickleby,” Mr. Bumble in “Oliver Twist,” and Mr. Murdstone in “David Copperfield.”  In “Jane Eyre,” Charlotte Bronte also depicted some memorable churls, the Reed family and Mr. Brocklehurst.  Hardly less disagreeable are Anthony Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie and Obadiah Slope in “Barchester Towers.”

More recently, Khaled Hosseini created such a churl, Assef, in “The Kite Runner.”  Far more interesting a character in Hosseini’s wonderful novel, though, is his chief protagonist, Amir, who behaves very dishonorably—churlishly—for the first part of the novel and spends the rest reflecting on and atoning for his actions.  I can imagine that Amir’s character was more difficult to write than Assef’s, but Amir, a complex and well-rounded character, is much closer to most of us than the sociopathic Assef.

What fictional churls have you found interesting and memorable?

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