Book Review: Empowering an older generation of women

Author Lisa Congdon brings hope back to all women who are both insulted and frustrated by the disparagement of maturity.
Updated 08 March 2018
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Book Review: Empowering an older generation of women

Old has become a generally negative term. In our consumerist society, where advertising concentrates on youth and beauty, growing older — especially for women — is the great taboo.
In her new book, “A Glorious Freedom,” Lisa Congdon brings hope back to all women who are both insulted and frustrated by the disparagement of maturity.
Congdon describes herself as a late bloomer. Now an artist and writer by profession, she only began drawing and painting when she was 31. Her first book was not published until she was 44. Getting older has been, in her words, “an enormously gratifying and liberating process.”
“A Glorious Freedom” chronicles the lives of extraordinary women who give old age a new meaning by doing their best work in their later years.
Sensei Keiko Fukuda, for example, endured decades of discrimination before she became the highest-ranked female judo master in the world when she was 98 years old.
Born in Tokyo in 1913, she was the granddaughter of Hachinosuke Fukuda, a samurai and master of ju-jitsu.
After learning flower arrangement and calligraphy, her life changed at 21, when Kano Jigoro, the founder of judo and one of her grandfather’s students, invited her to train with him at his dojo. Despite her size — she was under five feet tall — she excelled. At the age of 40, she became a fifth-dan black belt. For 20 years, despite her achievements, the male-dominated Kodokan Judo Institute refused to give her the sixth dan she deserved.
Finally, after a successful petition, she became the first woman to hold the rank of sixth dan. And in 2011, aged 98, she was awarded the highest rank possible: tenth dan. Keiko continued to teach judo until her death a year later.
Stephanie Young is another inspirational figure who proves it is never too late to live your dreams. After 30 years as a writer and editor for “New York” magazine, at the age of 53 she decided she wanted to pursue a career as a doctor. However, her applications to American medical schools were rejected because she was considered too old. So, she relocated to the island of Dominica, where she was accepted by Ross University.
Young told Congdon: “The difficulty a lot of women have is finding the thing they want to do … There is a lot of yearning. So, if you want to make a change, just be open, and be open to unexpected directions … What worked for me was that intuitive moment when I realized what I have is this amazing opportunity.”
Supermodel Christy Turlington was the face of many brands in the Nineties, including Calvin Klein, Chanel, Marc Jacobs, and Versace.
Two decades on, at the age of 41, she became an activist, setting up Every Mother Counts — a non-profit dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe.
“I had a complicated birth with my first child … I learned that the complication I had experienced and survived was the leading cause of maternal death,” she told Congdon. “I couldn’t ‘unknow’ that information, and I started to actively think about how I could use this experience to help others going into motherhood … And that’s how Every Mother Counts was born.”
Turlington said the remarkable energy she found during the busy decade in which she founded Every Mother Counts, ran marathons, and produced and directed three documentaries, was in part because “I feel so passionate about the work I do. It’s so rewarding daily.”
At 95, Betty Reid Soskin is the oldest national park ranger in the US. She is proud to never have had plastic surgery or Botox. She still works five days a week and believes that she is offering an alternative to a system that puts youth culture on a pedestal.
“Opting out of the workforce at 65 will no longer be practical. Maybe we’re going to start looking at aging differently, and maybe I’m a forerunner,” Soskin said.
Marguerite Duras was born in 1914 in French Indochina, now Vietnam. She studied in France, where she married and had a son. She started writing novels, essays, and screenplays in her late thirties. At 45, she was nominated for an Oscar for her screenplay “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.” At 70, she published her first bestseller, “The Lover,” and won the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary honor.
All the women featured in “A Glorious Freedom” show us that age is not a barrier to creativity. Inspiring, and uplifting, the book offers hope and encouragement to women of all ages.


Egyptian novel explores Christians under controlling church

Updated 13 December 2018
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Egyptian novel explores Christians under controlling church

  • The novel tells the story of a young Christian man in Cairo, Sherif, who has abandoned the church
  • It explores what the author says is the victimization of Egypt’s Christians by a “politically engineered harmony” between the state and their own church

CAIRO: Shady Lewis Botros says his recently published novel — “Ways of the Lord” — can be broadly viewed as an attempt to answer one question: What it’s like to be a Christian in Egypt?
The answer, given in stories narrated by the book’s chief character, is complex and often disheartening. It’s giving your children neutral names that don’t identify them as Christians in hopes they’ll have a sporting chance of progress in the mainly Muslim nation. It means facing baseless but dangerous charges of spying for Israel at time of war. It means turning off the lights at home and gathering the family in one room to escape the attention of a Muslim mob on the street.
Beyond entrenched discrimination, the Arabic-language novel explores what the author says is the victimization of Egypt’s Christians by a “politically engineered harmony” between the state and their own church, seeking to control their lives.
“Ways of the Lord” is a rare example of an Egyptian work of fiction whose primary characters are Christian. The result breaks stereotypes that many of the country’s Muslims hold about their minority compatriots. But it also turns the look inward, dispelling the secrecy surrounding the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church — the predominant denomination in Egypt — and addressing its controlling practices and its rivalries with smaller churches.
“Most Coptic literature is about the discrimination or oppression Christians endure with a dose of rights advocacy. That’s understandable but that is also about as far as it goes,” Botros told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from London, his home of 13 years. “This work introduces Egyptians to the reality of Copts as a people who are not always praying, singing hymns and waiting on every word from the church. The novel opens the world of Copts to both Copts and Muslims.”
The novel, the author’s first, takes on added relevance because the Coptic Church leadership has adhered closer than ever to the government. It’s an alliance that gives the community a measure of protection but has raised questions over its independence and has drawn the wrath of Islamic militants, who have over the past two years killed more than a 100 Christians in attacks.
The church’s unity is also being tested, partially over calls for it to modernize some of its rigid rules, like those governing marriage and divorce. The killing in July of the abbot of a monastery, for which two monks are on trial, has led to soul searching about the practices of monasticism, traditionally a cornerstone of the church’s identity.
The novel tells the story of a young Christian man in Cairo, Sherif, who has abandoned the church. He’s in a relationship with a German woman, but to marry her he must first get a church document. So he goes to his neighborhood priest each week for interviews that turn into confessionals.
Sherif relates a series of tales to explain to the priest why he never comes to church. He tells of his family’s past rebellions, like a grandfather who left the Coptic Church because the priest would not baptize his newborn child before her death.
As a young man, he says, he hopped from one Christian denomination to another to explore his identity. His father is cynical about his spiritual search, telling his son, “Generally, they are all con artists.”
The confession sessions with the priest are one of two plot tracks running through the novel. The other follows Sherif’s political activism, which lands him in trouble with the police. His one hope to escape jail time is to marry his girlfriend and go to Germany, but in the end, the girlfriend returns home. He spends a year in jail for a white-collar crime he did not commit.
“Sherif was painted as a character in crisis and that’s not just on account of being a member of a minority, but rather as someone facing an existential crisis over his problems with the church and the state,” said literary critic Ahmed Shawqy Ali.
The novel ends with Sherif surrendering to the powers that crush his rebellion. Jobless after losing his government engineering job, he survives on a small income from doing little jobs for the church, while telling his stories to whoever will listen. “The ways of the Lord are strange and tough to understand,” Sheriff says of his return to the church’s embrace.
Botros said the book’s “fatalistic” ending “shows that, in a place like Egypt, religious minorities like Christians don’t have many choices.”
The church presents itself as the protector of Egypt’s Copts, and many in the community adhere to it fervently.
“The church is a peacemaker that is in harmony with everyone, from the ruling government and civil society groups to Al-Azhar,” said a church spokesman, Boulis Halim, referring to the top Muslim institution in Egypt. “We cannot deny that there are shortcomings in some respects, especially the social field, but that will evolve going forward.”
But critics say the interests of individual Christians get lost under the church’s communal leadership.
Kamal Zakher, a Christian who is one of Egypt’s top experts on the Coptic Church, said the church has become a “hostage” to the government for safety, particularly since the rise of Islamic hard-liners starting in the 1970s.
It and the government leadership deal with each other directly, but “they have all forgotten that ordinary Christians deal on daily basis with bureaucrats who, like everyone else, have been influenced by that Islamic revival,” Zakher said.
Karoline Kamel, a researcher on church affairs from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the novel’s main character is not typical of Coptic youth, who in large part associate closely with the church. But she said the novel gets the theme of control right.
“The church’s protection is focused on itself as an institution, as walls and buildings regardless of what happens to Christians,” she said.