Skip to main content

BOOK REVIEW: Conversations with Myself

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Mandela is known for playing two distinct roles in his lifetime. One was as Prisoner 466/64 on the infamous Robben Island (now a UN World Heritage Site); the other was becoming the first president of a democratic South Africa. He received worldwide accolades for making both performances memorable. Since 2009, July 18 has been declared the Nelson Mandela International Day for freedom, justice and democracy.

Mandela — described as an “obsessive record keeper”, can now add another chapter to his extensive legacy; one that will give the world an opportunity to use his own words as the key to decipher his original message. Conversations with Myself is a compilation of private papers, prison letters, speeches, taped conversations with a fellow prisoner (Ahmed Kathrada), excerpts of interviews given to TIME magazine editor Richard Stengel, and a draft of an unpublished sequel to his autobiography. They have been put together by Verne Harris — Project Leader (Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue). President Obama, an ardent admirer (one of many), has been chosen to write the foreword.

These documents provide useful insights into the life of a visionary who served a 27-year sentence, helped unite a land once torn by apartheid and demonstrated the healing power of reconciliation. Mandela ‘up close and personal’ cuts an impressive figure who hastens to push aside the halo many would like to confer on him. Since this is an unrehearsed presentation, it gives the world a unique opportunity to get reacquainted with one of the greatest icons of the present century, on his turf. His most remarkable characteristics (integrity, honour, magnanimity) take centre-stage while lesser known traits emerge from the shadows.

It is an extraordinarily moving portrait of a man shown to bear his heavy burden with ease: “....only the flesh and blood behind bars, I remain cosmopolitan in my outlook, in my thoughts I am as free as a falconeven as he makes eloquent arguments asking for release. Yet Mandela the man is fallible, he pleads guilty to lesser charges — of harbouring secret prejudices, of uncertainty, admitting that he always sees the good in others. Within these pages he confesses to battling with DDD (debility, dependency and dread). He is humble, claiming to be unworthy of penning his life story: “What a sweet euphuism for self-praise the English language has evolved! Autobiography.” He is proud, refusing to allow outsiders inside his private world.

Mandela the father yearns for his family; the freedom fighter in him gets frustrated watching good people sacrifice lives “on the fiendish altar of colour hatred”; the Wiseman counsels his kin not to harvest bitterness.

His concern for his family looms large in the narrative as he writes heartfelt letters to his children filled with beautiful passages where his optimism struggles to cut through the hopelessness knowing that these words might never reach their destination. He continues to fight for his rights with the only tools available, finding humour in the most desolate of places. At one point he dreams of inviting the magistrate to dinner while wryly observing the fact that paying for said dinner could well pose a problem.

Including Mandela’s prison correspondence provides an acute sense of his suffering. He dwells on his harrowing ordeal and details the “abuse of authority, systematic persecution”, which he concluded were officially sanctioned. Despite the grim circumstances, somehow the underlying message remains hopeful. The word ‘vengeance’ is missing from his vocabulary and he tries to sow the seeds of forgiveness in his family members. Throughout his ordeal he remains convinced that “the floods of personal disaster can never drown a determined revolutionary, nor can the cumulus of misery that accompany tragedy suffocate him.”

He offers similar words of encouragement to his wife, also imprisoned:

Those without a soul, no sense of national pride and no ideals to win can suffer neither humiliation nor defeat; can evolve no national heritage, are inspired by no sacred mission and can produce no national heroes or martyrs.”

One second he is the Sun Tzu of guerrilla warfare elaborating on the tactics used as a freedom fighter, or holding forth on the qualities of a good leader, and the next moment he can hardly contain his disappointment on missing a Tracy Chapman and Manhattan Brothers concert.

Equally interesting are his thoughts post-imprisonment that spell out, among other things, ways of dealing with fellow humans: “One tends to attract integrity and honour if that is how one regards those with whom one works,” adding that “public figures need to accept the integrity of other people until there is evidence to the contrary.

One last surprise: this Mandela uses a Garfield the Cat personalised notepaper.

It is all in here — the humour, the heartbreak and the hope. These are the pillars of Mandela’s life’s work from prison to presidency. These are the makings of a great leader. The cost of doing things the ‘Mandela Way’ has been high but so have the dividends and he remains a source of inspiration for many.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Pp 480; Rs 2,500

Images Courtesy of: http://www.bewajah.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Nelson-Mandela-in-Prison.jpg

http://edudemic.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/quill.jpg

http://krackedkillers.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/prison-bars-image.gif

Comments

  1. Salam Afrah,

    thank you so much for this interesting books, I just read some paragraphs but I'll read it all.

    you know Afrah, We need like these writings in Arabic ...

    anyway, I follow u .... and reading ur updates, ok??

    ---
    thanks again

    ReplyDelete
  2. WSA,

    Appreciate the feedback & kind words...

    The net can translate anything these days so making something 'Arabic' shdnt be that difficult..:)

    Enjoy the book.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan: Beyond The ‘Crisis State’ / Author: Maleeha Lodhi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published under the title: 17 Reasons to Hope

“History will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, history will have its revenge and retribution”— from the movie, ‘Good Night, & Good Luck’

A region known for most “terrorist sightings”, a place feared for harbouring medieval mindsets next to progressive thinkers and a nation shunned for having an affinity for nuclear toys. By turns a cautionary tale, an indispensable ally and an international pariah, Pakistan does not fit into any mould — for long. But its name crops up whenever things go awry.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ is a compilation of articles put together by Maleeha Lodhi that countermands the grim prognosis. When Ms Lodhi, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledges that “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story from its inception, obscured by the single issue lens…

VIEW: Of Clarion Calls and Golden Statuettes / By Afrah Jamal

First Published in Daily Times /Saturday, March 17, 2012

Elegiac laments for a fading film industry are interrupted midway with news that could give the documentary film medium at least a new lease of life. It owes its resurrection to a young filmmaker, who mined troubling sound-bytes overheard in theatres where war, injustice or social disparity reigns supreme. Clips aired at the third Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) held earlier this year provided glimpses of her work, including the internationally acclaimed ‘Saving Face’. At the time, she had an Emmy stacked away for one documentary and was just weeks away from winning an Academy Award for another. At the time, she had been relentlessly crusading to rid societies of those anachronistic practices (among other ills) that weigh them down in the modern world. And — despite these glittering credentials — her work was largely unknown amongst Pakistanis.

The young Oscar nominee who took the stage that day would soon be the face of a bur…

BOOK REVIEW: DIARIES OF FIELD MARSHAL MOHAMMAD AYUB KHAN 1966-1972

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
PUBLISHED IN THE POST AUG 29, 2007

Books allow people to have their say. Diaries express what they actually meant. Therefore, every prominent personality must stray from the path of political correctness and leave behind a diary. One way to regain an insight into the defining moments of our history post ‘65 War would be through the diaries of Pakistan’s first military ruler and first C-in-C, Field Marshal M. Ayub Khan, who also authored the book, ‘Friends. Not Masters’. The personal lives of public figures are always intriguing; while their contemporaries indict/acquit them on consequences of their actions, diaries give individuals a rare shot at swaying the upcoming generation of juries. Recorded during the uneasy calm before an inevitable storm brewing on the Eastern horizon and Indian front, the entries, spanning 7 years from September 1966 - October 1972, are replete with shrewdness and candor of a narrator who observed the events initially as a key player…

BOOK REVIEW: Hira Mandi / Author: Claudine Le Tourneur Dlson

Published in Daily Times Saturday, February 11, 2012

Reproduced on Claudine Le Tourneur Dlson's Website

Translated from French by Priyanka Jhijaria

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

A programme about Hira Mandi did the internet rounds a couple of years ago. It claimed, among other things, that the sons of the ‘dancers’ reportedly end up as lawyers, doctors, artists — a few join politics and some even reach the military. These outrageous statistics may be one of the reasons the documentary was banned from the mainstream media. That and its primary premise — the plight of the fallen women — would prompt the conservatives to howl with dismay before scurrying off to bury any evidence in the backyard along with other bodies.


Claudine Le Tourneur d’Ison embeds such wrenching moments in a bold narrative where its doomed protagonist can hail the brave new world and its genteel patrons from an extraordinary vantage point. The expedition to the underworld with the unfortunate progeny and the hapless…

SERIES REVIEW: THE HEROES OF OLYMPUS / Rick Riordan (2013)

First Published inDaily Times / 5 Jan 2013

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Demigod fans who bade farewell to Percy – (son of Poseidon) & the Olympian franchise a few years ago must have wondered what the writer was up to as they came across a ‘final’ Prophesy conveniently left unresolved at the end of the saga.

The Last Olympian’ concluded the five part series wrapping up Percy Jackson & his merry band of demi-gods' extended arc with a high-octane finale and an emotional send-off. Though Rick Riordan had moved on to explore Egypt in ‘The Kane Chronicles’, he wasn’t done with Olympus, its ever shifting centre of power or its hoity-toity god population for that matter.

The cryptic warning heard in the final pages is used to establish the credentials of this spin-off. The gods return in the ‘Heroes of Olympus’ series - distant as ever and in Roman form heralding a brand new dawn with the promise of new crusades, a shiny new quest, fresh faces and an ancient threat. And Percy is b…

BOOK REVIEW: No Easy Day : The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden

First Published by Daily Times / Oct 06, 2012

Authors: Mark Owen & Kevin Maurer
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published under the Title:Signed, SEAL(ed) and Delivered



The men who paid Pakistan a hurried visit in the dead of the night typically do not leave calling cards. Or talk shop with strangers. And they are expected to shun the limelight. One broke the commandment recently. As a member of the SEAL Team 6 — Naval Special Warfare Development Group or DEVGRU, Mark Owen (not his real name) had been in the downed ‘helo’ (helicopter) — the one Pakistanis discovered lying in their backyard.

His book provides a valuable timeline of events leading up to ‘Operation Neptune Spear’ in Abbottabad (or ‘Abababa’ as they insist on calling it), cutting through the official haze. With 13 consecutive combat deployments to his credit, the author paints a group portrait of America’s finest that had been handpicked for the job in an attempt to overturn the media-created hype. He calmly reasons, “If my com…

VIEW: WOMEN in the PAF: AN ENSEMBLE CAST

PUBLISHED in HILAL (Pakistan Armed Forces Magazine) Feb 2010

By Afrah Jamal

Progressive - Conservative - Contemporary - Professional; separately these terms could apply to any service; together they were reserved for just one - the PAF.

Pakistan Air Force has kept in touch with its roots through its glorious traditions and kept up with the changing times with innovative thinking. Oftentimes, traditions that made it stand apart have also stood in the way of, well - progress. Consequently, the service nimbly skipped past the one proposed change that was going to have a profound effect on the lives of countless young girls and would forever alter the way society perceived their womenfolk.

Before 1994, Lady Officers were a rare sight in the PAF. So rare in fact, that when male cadets donned wigs to represent the female species in annual variety shows, nobody wondered why. By 2010, women have become an indispensable part of the service. While, PAF was no stranger to a woman in uniform, a f…