Review in SCA magazine

Sceptics in the Yining market

Barry Moore, the Chairman of the Scotland China Association, Glasgow Branch, was kind enough to write a review of my book for their magazine:

Book Review: Nick Holdstock, The Tree That Bleeds: A Uighur town on the edge. Luath Press, 2011 (£12.99)

The Glasgow Branch of the SCA had the pleasure of meeting Nick Holdstock at our June 2011 monthly meeting when his publishers had arranged with us to launch The Tree That Bleeds. The author gave an illustrated presentation in a commanding, energetic and enthusiastic manner and these personality characteristics are reflected throughout his dramatic story.

The account of Holdstock’s time when revisiting China in 2010 opens with the reporting of the noise of soldiers marching and chanting as they progress through the city of Urumqi, the capital of the largest Chinese province, the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. This image provides the background to a fascinating story of the year the author had spent living and teaching in the province earlier in the decade and to his underlying reason for revisiting the province: to learn about the riots which had taken place there and the associated ethnic discrimination.

Useful maps are shown at the beginning. The first locates Xinjiang as the most westerly province in China, more than 2000 kilometres from Beijing, bordered by Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Tibet. The second map shows the principal cities within Xinjiang, including Yining, southwest of Urumqi, where the author spent most of his time. After the maps are descriptive pages providing information about the unrest which has occurred in the province in 1997 and again in 2009 and offering divergent explanations of the events from the differing viewpoints of those reporting and commenting on them at the time. There follows a short description of the author’s original journey to Yining, which took him three days from Beijing. The early pages vividly provide the reader with the sense of the vastness, isolation and inaccessibility of Xinjiang, which has a total population of about 23 million, and of the confusions which arise from being in a separate time zone. Yining, with a population of about half a million, is called a border town although it is still about an hour away from the actual border with the neighbouring state, Kazakhstan.

In his description of Yining, Holdstock paints a detailed picture of the stark town where he taught and his observations on the changing character of Xinjiang’s ethnic composition are revealing. The people of Xinjiang, Holdstock tells us, are a mixture of Uighurs and Hui, (both Sunni Muslims), Han Chinese and several other ethnic minorities. He confirms that the reasons for the riots in 1997 and 2009 are complex and will not, if ever, be easily explained.

After the initial pages the book is divided into sections Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer. In “Autumn” we are introduced to diverse and interesting characters including several American teachers with a hidden agenda; Murat and Ismail, two quirky and outspoken Uighurs teaching English; Miss Cai, the ‘foreign liaison officer’, with a colourful past; and Erkin a student, who invited the author to a wedding that provided him with a unique experience delightfully recounted. As autumn progresses, Holdstock became increasingly aware of the divergent lives lived by the different ethnic groups within the student body. So much so that each acts as if the others do not exist. A conundrum surely?

‘Winter’ finds Holdstock, discussing the hardships experienced by the inhabitants of Yining, (including himself) during the sub- zero temperatures. This season provides the author with the opportunity to hold numerous conversations with the different Uighurs and Han Chinese he meets. Through these conversations he gains (and so does the reader) a deeper understanding of different aspects of the Muslim faith and of the working lives of the Uigher people of Xinjiang.

After winter comes ‘Spring’. Spring opens with observations about the prevalent drug abuse which the author encounters. Discussions on this topic in some of his adult classes prove difficult for Holdstock and end inconclusively. He finds it impossible to determine if this is a result of student reticence or lack of knowledge brought about by the suppression of information.

The teaching year ends with “Summer” but Holdstock’s observations on local life continues, and with summer comes an explanation for his intriguing title!

The Tree That Bleeds is a fascinating book for those interested in what is happening in this remote part of China. While great insights and information are provided about Xinjiang province to Holdstock’s frustration he is unable to reach any satisfactory conclusions about the definitive causes and reasons for the riots, although the extent of the tensions and potential causes for strife are well described.

To my mind this is a book of short stories rather than a comprehensive and seamless tale but the format does not detract from what is a fascinating and elegantly expressed account of this little known Province. It raises the question – is there a sequel to be written about the future of Xinjiang Province in this fast and ever changing world where the Muslim faith grows ever more in importance? If so Holdstock is the man to write it.


Keizer’s Revolutionary Graffitti

Here are some images by Keizer, one of the biggest stencil graffitti artists in Cairo, whose home turf is the walls of the Ultra Ahly Football Club HQ in Zamalek. There’s a lot of amazing work in the city, but the stuff by Keizer seems to have a clearer ideological focus (not to mention being most consistently signed). There’s an interview with him here.

My ‘unquenchable and dangerous curiosity’.

A lot of authors seem to dread their reviews, but I have really enjoyed mine. It’s not because they’ve been wholehearedly positive, far from it. All have hated my brief use of the second person. Most have criticised my intolerance, or atheism, or refusal to tie things up in a neat, conclusive bow. For me, the enjoyable parts are the misreadings (and in some cases, the inventions) of the reviewers, the sense of the mind that the book has passed through, and how it has thus been transformed.

There are many things I love about this latest Review: its strange opening sentence (‘in February 1997, a riot shook China to its core which reverberated across the world’); the talk of my ‘unquenchable and dangerous curiosity’; its claim that I encountered ‘lepers up close and personal’ (I never mention them); the idea that my ‘benign and humanistic’ approach’ is indicative of the fact that the ‘book is more of a personal odyssey of growth than anything else’ (if only); the notion that I am ‘an instigator, a fire-starter’; its accusations of pathos: ‘He cannot find the people he used to know. Like most people who revisit a place in their memory, he is both estranged from the past and painfully lost to the present time as well, he sits there somewhere, lost in limbo’.

I give this review four stars!

How to Become a Good Snake Charmer

In case you were wondering, look no further:

Go to another man who is a good snake charmer, and this man will pour some water into a plate, then he makes a snake drink this. After this he puts a piece of salt in the plate with a little more water, and then makes the snake vomit the water he has drunk  back into the plate. The would-be snake charmer must then drink this water. After he has done this he can handle any snake, none will hurt him.

This was the advice Winifred Blackman receved in 1924 from Sheikh Muhanni. I found this in Anthony Sattin’s excellent book,The Pharaoh’s Shadow which also contains a story of a Tree That Bleeds.

‘Tell me about the tree,’ I asked, as innocently as I could.

‘There is lots of baraka [blessing] in the tree. So much. It is the sheikha’s  tree.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Twenty years ago, someone wanted to cut it down. but the sheikha appeared to them and said, “Don’t do it. This is my tree. Any my name is Sheikha Khadra.” Another time magicians came and cut the tree. It started to bleed.’

‘Red blood?’

‘Red blood,’ she said  with untainted sincerity. ‘But the sheikha dealt with them. She cut off their hands.’

I waited to see if she would smile, but she didn’t.

%d bloggers like this: