June 17, 2013

Hearts For Sale - An American Soldier's Journey Through War Torn Aghanistan

Yesterday was a holiday for many reasons. Not just the last day of the weekend or Father's day, it is also the day when the first woman cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova went into space 50 years ago.     

Seems like the perfect day of a brand new week to introduce someone who has flown thousands of miles away from home but on a planetary scale. A courageous young woman who has seen war up close and has effortlessly straddled the divide between East and West... as the gift of a Persian name bestowed on her, Farzana meaning wise and intelligent, bears testimony.

Felisa is the author of the hard hitting non fiction book Hearts For Sale. 
The book talks about the history of the region, the wars, the strategies and commitments of the American government and forces to preserve peace and humanity in a region ravaged by strife. To succeed unlike the  precious Bamiyan Buddhas who lost the battle to ignorance and brute force.

Hearts For Sale -  Farzana Marie
Publishers - Civil Vision International
Genre - Contemporary -  Non fiction - War Report
Ebook - 155  Pages
Price: Price $ 6.52
Available at Amazon Kindle Store
All proceeds are donated to charities that support freedom, stability, and peace in conflict zones.

Before we read my thoughts on the book, let us hear what Farzana has to say.

1. As someone who has served as a US military personnel and seen the ground realities, do you really believe peace and stability will find a permanent home in Afghanistan?

There is an Afghan proverb that says, "Where the water has flowed, it will flow again." There is nothing historically or culturally deterministic dictating that Afghanistan must be at war. In fact, the vast majority of regular Afghan people yearn for peace, and many I know personally are working very hard toward that end. Many Afghans remember peaceful times in their own lifetimes. So yes, I really do believe that peace and stability are possible in Afghanistan. My book talks about some of the obstacles to that peace that have not yet been properly addressed, especially the support and safe havens in Pakistan for the extremism (Taliban and other groups) flowing into Afghanistan. It will be difficult for peace and stability to come unless those sources of conflict are addressed.

2. There are reports that question the safety of Afghans who have actively helped the US army. They paint a rather bleak and insecure future for those unable to emigrate, once the complete withdrawal of troops occurs. What's your personal take on this?

Yes, it is true that those who have served directly with international forces are often at higher risk to be targetted or threatened by extremists. While there is no projected complete withdrawal of troops (that is a bit of a myth), the drawdown of combat troops means the Afghan National Security Forces must increasigly step up to protect Afghanistan's citizens. There are many recent reports showing that they are in fact doing this day by day. Nevertheless, I think there is absolutely a moral responsibility for the U.S. and other nations to take special care for the safety of those who have helped them and served alongside them in this conflict. They should ensure policies and programs are in place to make effort to ensure the safety of these courageous partners.

3. Your book states that except for efforts from certain quarters, the U.S has largely failed to involve the people of Afghanistan and missed an opportunity. Is it too late for collaboration and cooperation? 

It is absolutely not too late! In fact, a central recommendation, perhaps I should even use the word plea, of my book is that we should not give up and should concentrate on efforts to listen to, connect, and partners with the Afghan people, especially in this critical stage of transition. You see, the major downfall of the policy of withdrawing combat troops in 2014 has not been the fact of their withdrawal but U.S. failure to communicate effectively about it. There is fear and uncertainty everywhere about this looming year, 2014, with both security transition and political transition coinciding with the presidential election. Fear is compounded by historical memory: many feel that it is a re-play of U.S. abandonment in the early 1990s, when the U.S. who had supported and helped to arm jihadi groups against the Soviets disappeared from the scene and the nation devolved into civil war. 

While many analysts assess that nothing especially dramatic will actually happen in 2014, the fear and uncertainty is driving many unhealthy trends. I spoke with a book vendor in Kabul not long ago and asked him how business was going. He said, oh, not so good..."2014, you know." It is affecting business, it is affecting people's willingness to invest, to buy, to stay. Many have family members and friends who are already leaving the country if they can. Even though some number of international troops will remain in Afghanistan post-2014 for training and advisory functions, and the United States has signed an Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement set to last until 2024, the message of commitment and continued partnership has largely not reached the Afghan people. The uncertainty, fear and mistrust among the Afghan people regarding the future is an enormous psychological win for the enemies of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. Therefore, the most vital step the U.S. and international community can take to is to communicate unequivocal commitment and re-focus on partnering with Afghans in practical, deeply needed (and usually small-scale) ways that effect the communities where most Afghans live. I talk more about how to do this in the book.

4. You have mentioned ten strategic propositions to winning hearts in your book. How many of these have been  practiced by those in and outside Afghanistan? Will it likely remain an idealistic, unfulfilled vision?

I have personally witnessed the impact that the ideas and strategies captured in the "10 Strategic Propositions" can have. In other words, they have been implemented on a small scale, usually by individuals or teams who personally take responsibility for understanding the situation and developing these strategies, with little to no formal/organizational support and unfortunately often even resistance. The problem is that we need these strategies to be implemented broadly, we need policy to support them, and we need to stop relying on troop and dollar numbers and start relying on genuine human connections, measuring our effectiveness in relationships and trust. That might sound "squishy" at first, but my team saw the power of it first hand. The irony is that many of the ideas I advocate in "Hearts for Sale" already exist in counterinsurgency doctrine (see Appendix B)! Yet both US military and diplomatic efforts have failed to adjust their conventional systems and approaches (including recruitment, training, and utilization of personnel) to realize the powerful potential that is there for genuine partnership toward interests shared by both nations.

5. How easy or difficult was it to compile this book and relive the experiences? 

This is a fairly short book but it was important for me to write. There are many more experiences and stories that are not included of course, but I sought to choose those that would most vividuly depict the ideas I was trying to capture. I started writing this as an "after-action report" to capture lessons learned, in the months after I got back from my deployment in April 2012. I had a lot of leave (time off) because I had been gone so long and my commander at the time encouraged me to capture some of my experiences and lessons in writing. These were clearly, as you can see from the book, not only my own experiences but those of my team, especially the "Afghan Hands" I worked with under General McMaster in the anti-corruption task force. There was always a sense of the value and uniqueness of what that small team had lived and learned, especially from our colleagues in Afghan civil society, but at some point we realized that these insights, both strategic and practical, really needed to be shared more broadly. I see this book as belonging not just to me but to my team, including the many Afghan mentors who have shaped it. I have had many many positive experiences in Afghanistan along with the difficult ones, and I think reliving and sharing both has been important for me. I just hope that what I have written can be useful to others: to deploying troops, to leaders, to policy-makers, even to families and friends of those who have been killed or wounded in this conflict, whose sacrifice is incalculable. I believe the ideas in this book could change the course of our involvement in Afghanistan for the better, whether on a broad policy basis or one soldier at a time.

6. It is mentioned that you love to read and write poetry. Are you aware of Mirman Baheer, the women's group that secretly helps Afghan girls write and record poetry. Have you encountered such women in your travels?

Yes! I just spent most of the week with such women in the city of Herat, in Western Afghanistan. There, men and women meet together once a week at Herat's Literary Society, the oldest in the country (established in 1930) to read and discuss their poems. The women I met are writing powerful poems on human themes of love, longing, loss, oppression, freedom, and a variety of social issues. Many of them have published books of poetry available in the local bookstores. Such literary societies and gatherings also exist in Kabul and elsewhere in the country, but Herat has been a special place to start getting to know the contemporary poetry scene because it is a city with a very long tradition of art and poetry. I hope to spend much more time learning about this since contemporary Afghan women's poetry is my PhD dissertation topic.

7. Tell us about your work in the orphanages and your organisation Civil Vision International.

I worked in the public orphanages in Kabul in 2003 and 2004 with two other young American volunteers. We taught English, exercise, and did a variety of management tasks. I lived with an Afghan family and also worked with Afghan kids and adults daily, so I was really blessed to have an immersion experience that helped a great deal with learning language and culture.

Civil Vision International is a nonprofit established in 2012 with an emphasis on building citizen connections and initiatives for mutual understanding, cooperation, and action in conflict regions. Right now, CVI is solely focused on Afghanistan, on building a network of hopeful and visionary people who share a positive and determined outlook on the future there. Instead of taking on monetary-intensive projects ourselves, we like to honor and highlight the inspiring work that is already happening, but that many people especially in the US do not know about or have access to. We use a broad array of social networking to do this, as well as facilitating direct dialogues between citizens of both nations, such as the recent student dialogues between the University of Arizona and University students in Kabul. You can watch my TEDx Tucson video or check out ourFacebook page for more examples!

Farzana Marie | Program Consultant, Afghanistan Watch | PhD Student, University of Arizona | President, Civil Vision International | Twitter @farzanamarie

My short review of the book. A slightly longer one will appear on Amazon and Goodreads and other sites where I can post reviews.

Hearts For Sale is a practical book on the conflict but written with not just the insights of an Air Force veteran in Afghanistan but with passion for the country and affection for the people living there.
The book starts with a brief account into the  tumultuous history of the region and progresses at a brisk pace bringing us strategical inputs interspersed with personal experiences.

What I liked about he book was the frankness and the direct approach adopted by Farzana when she talks about the military operations and governmental policies. She doesn't hesitate to call a spade a spade. She reiterates that the involvement of the Afghani people, especially the youth, is the best way to ensure that peace and stability is achieved and maintained.

The book is a reminder that beyond victory by arms, true victory lies in gaining the confidence of people who are direct and indirect victims of the decades long conflict. The personal experiences as she and her team embarks on an often risky journey to learn about the culture, the language, and to interact with the people on the ground level can't but move you. A particularly poignant moment from me was the conversation with the young widow Rayana.

She weaves in creative lessons of governance to identify and emphasise the need for and the lack of effective approaches and mindsets in dealing with the common man and woman in Afghanistan, by the soldier and government officials alike.
Farzana scores more brownie points in my book with her advocacy of the 10 strategic propositions with for now is implemented on a smaller scale by individuals or teams. When implemented on a larger level, it could bring the change that has eluded America and her allies in the Afghan war or the war against terror in any other part of the world.

This book is a must for everyone including military personnel. It is an eye opener for those who are far removed from war zones and are more influenced by media coverage. Books like the one authored by Farzana can be useful in reducing the escalation of conflicts if not outright prevention.

The Afghani Proverb "Niat-e saaf, manzil-e aasaan" - clear intention make for easy destinations - is as much a reminder of what Afghanistan needs at this juncture, on the lines of encouraging signals that a moderate leader provides liberal Iranians.

June 05, 2013

Are You A Blog Rat?

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day for participating blog owners who may be professional or amateur writers. (All you need is the passion and output, published or not). Started by Alex Cavanaugh the author of the sci-fi space opera CassaStar and sequel CassaFire, it is a means for writers to talk about their fears big and small. It is also an opportunity to connect to other writers who may have conquered these or are sailing in the same insecure boat as you.

I won't be boring you with sad talks and usual insecurity rants.
My question is simple. Should you cut back on blogging or abandon it altogether? I haven't updated in a month, haven't done my rounds though I want to.
Starting today, I plan on just 2/3 posts a week one of which will be a book review. 
I am going to stick to a select group of old blogger friends and interact with new ones at memes and blog hops. 

Sounds like a good plan to me. What do you say?

Now for some sales talk. :) I am hosting an American soldier cum social worker based in Afghanistan on June 16th. We will be discussing her non fiction book based on her time there. Would love it if you could find time to visit and show your support and appreciation for her and others' efforts. to make a better world.

Until my next post and visit - Live Long and prosper.
April 03, 2013

C: Clarification, Conscience And Confidence - IWSG

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day for participating blog owners who may be professional or amateur writers. (All you need is the passion and output, published or not). Started by Alex Cavanaugh the author of the sci-fi space opera CassaStar and sequel CassaFire, it is a means for writers to talk about their fears big and small. It is also an opportunity to connect to other writers who may have conquered these or are sailing in the same insecure boat as you.

I ddin't join the A-Z bandwagon this year, not with the temperatures up in the 100s (37 C) and climbing. But, if I had, this would have been my entry for C. It could also fall under P:Paid reviewer.

C: Clarification Now, before you rush to the comment tab to bombard me with your opinions, hear me out, especially if your thoughts are in sync with this gentleman.

To read more on this, read this link 

Yes, I have recently joined a company that pays me for reviewing books. And, no, it doesn't mean I will never review books for free as I won't be getting more than one or two assignments a month.
I will continue to do 4-5 free reviews every month, a review a week. I will stop reviewing for the said company the day they they ask me to pad up my reviews. I have been honest all my life and I am not going to sell my conscience for a few dollars.

C: Conscience
Those who have been with me on this blogging journey know me fairly well. Those who have read my reviews know that they are detailed analysis of the book in question with my inputs as a reader. When I joined this book review group, I had some questions twirling in my mind.

My checklist was :
Will I be allowed to post honest, unbiased reviews? Yes.
Will I be expected to bluff and fluff up my review? No.
Will my review be worth the money? Yes. The authors may differ on this, but my reviews are as detailed and honest as before and long ones too.

The Company's FAQ

What do you guarantee?

We are going to monitor the site and we randomly select reviewers to monitor and track their jobs and check quality of reviewers if they don't get the reviews in a timely fashion.
We want to be clear that we do not guarantee a positive review. In no way will we tell the reviewer what to write. We want our reviewers to have the freedom to be honest and xxxxx will not work under unethical conditions. Also, we can't guarantee a 5 star review. We ask the reviewer to give their own personal thoughts and opinions of what they read. Remember, it may not be exactly what you wanted or expected but it will be from your reading audience. Honest reviews go much further with the readers than a fluffy, raving review. You can earn our "seal" of approval on your book when the reviewer rates it with 5 stars. Our seal can be used on the author's site or blog or be posted directly on your review.
We do not assign books to the reviewers; you choose the reviewer to review your book(s). Carefully evaluate the reviewers, look at their prior reviews and check out what they like to read to ensure it's a perfect match. If you have questions, you can send them a message on the portal. Reviewers have been encouraged to keep an unbiased outlook on all reviews.
xxxxx highly recommends you ensure the reviewer will be a "good fit" for your book by reading their bios and looking at their samples thoroughly.

C: Confidence

What are the benefits of entering a controversial arena? 
Kirkus's paid freelance reviewers and paid newspaper reviewers are respected but not an individual reviewer who  rarely finds opportunities to be compensated for  the time and effort spent reading books, and some really bad ones at times.

I get paid for doing something I like, something that keeps me mentally stimulated.
I get a entire day off from writing blog posts and web articles for money - to read other books  and my own collection - and provide free reviews for bloggers, indie authors who can't pay, with two such reviews - as an Indian earning in dollars.

It may not be Kirkus or Publishers Weekly that I am working with; it isn't even 1/10 th of what they charge an indie author for a negative, bashing blurb they call reviews. What it does is supplement my income, and keeps my insomniac mind at ease knowing that neither am I a generic five-stars-for-all-books kind of reviewer nor a sock-puppet for an author bashing up another's book.

Don't believe that honest paid reviews are possible, just wait till my review gets posted.

The only thing I can guarantee with both types of reviews is that the book will be read without any bias. Free reviews of three stars and above will  continue to get posted within one-three months on this blog, and I will continue to beta read when asked to and have no time constraints. 

PS: Did you know which one of my review samples got me this assignment - my review on CassaStar.

If you choose to unfollow me or stop visiting my blog, you are free to do so.
March 17, 2013

A Multicultural Romance in the Making - A Review

Love Comes Later -  Mohanlakshmi Rajkumar
Publishers - Amazon
Genre - Contemporary - romance - realistic fiction - women's fiction
Novel - Ebook - 262  Pages
Price: Price $ 0.99
Available at Amazon Kindle Store


Hind is granted a temporary reprieve from her impending marriage to Abdulla, her cousin. Little does anyone suspect that the presence of Sangita, her Indian roommate, may shake a carefully constructed future. Torn between loyalties to Hind and a growing attraction to Abdulla, Sangita must choose between friendship and a burgeoning love. 

A modern quest for the right to pursue love and happiness, even when it comes in an unconventional package, LOVE COMES LATER explores similarities between the South Asian and Arab cultures while exposing how cultural expectations affect both men and women. Identities are tested and boundaries questioned against the shifting backdrops of Doha, Qatar and London, England.

A contemporary romance with elements of realistic fiction. The story has a strong Qatari flavour blended with South Asian and offers a tantalising view of student life in London as a bonus.
A refreshing tale of love and friendship that overcomes cultural, religious and racial barriers. It starts out in the plush interiors of an affluent family in oil money endowed Qatar, seeking the remarriage of a widowed, still grieving son Abdulla who wants anything but that. The culture is primarily seen from the eyes of Abdulla and Hind, and later on through Sangita - Hind's Indian American room-mate and friend. It's their reluctance to follow traditions, and Hind's impulsive demonstration of independence and adventure that sets off Abdulla's and Sangita's worlds into a collision course of first, tentative friendship and later on love.

The characters and the situations have been created skilfully and their interaction comes off as real as possible. The author has tried hard to give an accurate picture of Qatari life and attitudes, specially towards South Asians who form the blue collar workforce without sounding preachy or condescending.

Abdulla, a strong character, comes across as inflexible a couple of times but redeems himself as a modern, religious Muslim. I really enjoyed his opening up to the world around, specially to Sangita and his adopted sister Luluwa.
 Hind - a tad selfish and Sangita are well etched, and I found myself amused when the Indian girl who advises her friend to play safe goes on her own adventure, risking everything.
The secondary characters of Luluwa and Hind's sister Noor, often two extremes were ones I found interesting. While I loved Sangita's brother - idealistic but lovable character Ravi, it was Grandfather Jassim and Hind's father - uncle Saod who were a revelation in sharp contrast to the other elders in the family.

Now for the nit picking -
In my opinion, Abdulla and Sangita's romance did not have the time to develop enough for her to burn all the bridges...it kind of ends up as an arranged marriage. But, then, they didn't fall in love at first sight and the author, to my delight, refrained from gushing descriptions of the protagonists beauty. A plus.
The Indians in the book, Sangita's parents came close to being caricatures.

The timeline was a bit confusing in some places.  A couple of dialogues were responses to an original action or comment that had been edited out. A revision if possible would enhance the book.

All in all, it was a pleasurable read and one of few romances I have truly enjoyed reading lately.
The book is well written, flows smoothly and the use of Arabic words in the story and the end notes are a nice addition.

I recommend this book to romance lovers, to those who enjoy realistic fiction set in the Asian and Arab world with ethnic characters, to generally anyone looking for a good book to immerse in.

I give this a 4 rating for simply being a good old fashioned romance story and a multicultural book.

Personal Disclaimer: This book was received for the purpose of review, hence the post in entirety is my basic impression after reading the book. It is not based on intervention by the author, publishing house or the blog review forum.
March 07, 2013

Time And Tide Wait Not For This One - IWSG

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day for participating blog owners who may be professional or amateur writers. (All you need is the passion and output, published or not). Started by Alex Cavanaugh the author of the sci-fi space opera CassaStar and sequel CassaFire, it is a means for writers to talk about their fears big and small. It is also an opportunity to connect to other writers who may have conquered these or are sailing in the same insecure boat as you.

My insecurity is a simple one - a race against time that seems to move in just one direction - forward - atleast in our space dimensions. 
There are dozens of stories floating in my head with little time to capture them all. I don't quite know how others manage it, juggling so many different roles in life.

 I work from home, am single with limited social obligations/opportunities, and yet, I can't seem to find time to put together a small book. When I do make time for the stories that my heart longs to reveal, I end up with a blank page.

Do I deserve to be called a creative writer when I have hardly written in the last six months? Poetry has eloped from my mind garden with Dreamer. I see her sometimes, just a wisp of thin air that drifts away when I utter her name.

Is time alone to blame or is there a dark force at work that I am blissfully unaware of?
So many questions and fewer minutes to answer them.
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