March 2010

Egad! Memorial Day is upon us, and I have again neglected the updating of my blog. I therefore return in time to northern New South Wales (Australia), where I spent the entirety of the month of March enjoying forest, beach, and wildlife (including a close and friendly encounter with a python on the verandah during the day, and a furry-tailed possum in a tree at night (quite different from the less cute, but no less marsupial, North American opossum). Among the films I watched there that I can enthusiastically recommend were Bright Star, Crazy Heart, the Swedish As It Is In Heaven, and the Japanese Departures (which won the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film).

Also during March I was able to complete Robertson Davies’ monumental The Deptford Trilogy, and inhaled Kiran Nagarkar’s amusing Ravan & Eddie (on p300: “In the synthetic and ersatz genre of smiles, this was certainly one of the most disarming and friendly.”). After devouring An Interrupted Life & Letters from Westerbork, Etty Hillesum’s vivid correspondence and diaries from her days as a Jew in Nazi-held Amsterdam, I shivered through We Die Alone, David Howarth’s true tale of a WW II Norwegian saboteur who escaped his German pursuers and somehow survived living under minimal shelter for nearly two months in the dead of winter within the Arctic circle, during which period he was forced to amputate several of his own toes with a rusty pen knife.

And then there was Skeletons on the Zahara, by Dean King, a meticulous account of the mind-boggling privations endured by Captain James Riley and his crew who were enslaved by Arab nomads after being shipwrecked off the coast of the Sahara in 1815. Riley, who along with several others survived, published on his return to the USA an account of the ordeal, and became immediately, and immensely, famous there from. Riley became an ardent abolitionist after being freed from captivity, and his memoirs, which Abraham Lincoln identified as being one of the half-dozen books that most influenced him during his youth, brought the reality of slavery into sharp focus for millions of Americans.

One might even suspect that Riley was saved just for this purpose, for it does appear that Providence actively facilitated his salvation. The most noteworthy incident of the entire chronicle was for me the vivid dream that Riley had one night about two weeks after the shipwreck, just a few days after his enslavement. In the dream he was repeatedly tormented by Arabs until an all-seeing eye appeared in the dream-sky above him directing him toward the northeast. After proceeding in this direction with great difficulty (in the dream) Riley met a tall, youthful man that he did not know, dressed in Western clothes and mounted on a noble horse, who took Riley into his house and told him, “God has decreed that you shall again embrace your beloved wife and children.” As events transpired, several weeks later when Riley finally made it to the safety of the Moroccan city of Mogador he was able to identify the first Westerner he met, the man who would ransom him, as the very man he had seen in his dream: William Willshire, the English Consul there.

Curiously, several of the (more thoughtful) Arabs whose paths crossed Riley’s became convinced that Allah was protecting him. In particular Sidi Hamet, his “good master” who repeatedly (albeit for the promise of reward) risked life and limb to get Riley to freedom, was utterly certain that because Allah was protecting Riley, he (Sidi Hamet) was being protected as well, and that no harm could come to him as long as he remained with Riley. Not long after leaving Riley, Sidi Hamet did in fact die attempting to save Riley’s other surviving shipmates. Riley lived a long and event-filled life after his ransom, and for many years enjoyed a profitable business partnership with William Willshire. Ironically (or synchronistically), shortly after Riley’s death (and thus the removal of his “protective influence”) Mogador was sacked, and Willshire and his family had to flee, penniless, back to England. Providence, moving in mysterious ways indeed …