Review: Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari

Then They Came for Me: A Story of Injustice and Survival in Iran's Most Notorious Prison Then They Came for Me: A Story of Injustice and Survival in Iran’s Most Notorious Prison by Maziar Bahari

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think everyone needs to read this book in order to get a better understanding of what is behind that tiny word, “Iran”, when the newsreader says it.

Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek journalist, was arrested following the Iranian election in 2009. Beatings and solitary confinement ensued as the regime attempted to extract a confession from him that he was a spy.

In spite of the agonising circumstances, he had been expecting to return to the side of his pregnant fiancée in London in a matter of days, Maziar writes with warmth and flashes of humour that betray enormous strength of soul. He comes from a family of dissidents whose love for their nation has forced them to defy three generations of tyranny. His father and his sister and numerous friends were incarcerated and tortured under successive regimes and Maziar uniquely weaves their story into an account of the recent history of Iran since the times of the last Shah.

This is not just a book about his imprisonment and eventual release, it is an insightful and authoritative analysis of the tensions within Iran and a snapshot of a generation that is ready for a change that was quite brutally denied them in the last election.

The author is at pains to bring a journalistic fairness to bear even on his captors and tormentors and the human elements of his relationship with his interrogator are poignantly told with a sense that the man who beats him is, himself, a puppet of the regime. This objectivity gives the author the moral high ground at every turn. The paranoia and ignorance of the authorities is starkly contrasted with his attempts to speak the truth. At one point he is interrogated about his relationship with the dead playwright Anton Checkhov, who they are convinced is another zionist spy.

The Iranians have a beautiful and ancient culture and many of the kindest and most well mannered people I have ever met are from Iran. It is tragic that this is not reflected in all the “bad news” that comes from that part of the globe and it is important that we do not respond with the same blindness that grips the current regime. Please read this book.

“Then They Came for Me” is published by Oneworld.

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Austerity Measures and the Simplified Pantry

Before we got rid of our TV, I was becoming weary of the amount of hours dedicated to cookery programs which encourage people to “fetishize” food and slaver over exotic culinary preparations. Historically, an unhealthy fascination with gourmandise seems to have proliferated in civilisations on the cusp of decline and I think we are no exception.

It was this extraordinary photographic project from the book “Hungry Planet” that gave me the impetus to embark on my next experiment in simplicity.

Not only do I feel convicted about the excesses of our western diet but it has become a matter of financial importance to rationalise our grocery bill. I have also noticed that the only times I have been successful in losing weight and enjoying the benefits of a healthier diet where when I pursued a simple and fairly repetitive “ethnic” diet in the past.

Previously this consisted of a “raw” porridge of soaked oats for breakfast (with salt or honey), miso soup for lunch and simply prepared vegetables for tea (usually stir fried with rice or noodles). Knowing that the majority of people in the world do a full day’s work on a bowl of rice or some other staple, with some sort of garnish, convinces me that it must be possible to flourish on a much simpler diet.

Kneading
Only eating our own baked bread has helped me to cut down a bread addiction.

I think it was Mahatma Gandhi who said the table fork is the most destructive weapon wielded by humans. For ethical reasons, meat and dairy no longer make an appearance on our plates but I have noticed how I have still clung to the pursuit of a rich and exotic palate. After paying our mortgage, it is our grocery bill that consumes the next greatest segment of our household income. No small contributor to this is the tendency to need a specific, exotic ingredient for a particular dish, that usually prompts a trip to the supermarket where a number of luxury “treats” also tend to be put in the basket before the checkout is reached.

For the sake of austerity and health and in order to bring our pantry more into line with the simple food of our fellow humans in poorer parts of the world, the next step was to cut the number of ingredients available.

Initially I have opted to limit the entire grocery stock to 35 items. This is still incredibly generous in world terms and I think we will still be enjoying a richer and more varied diet than most global citizens. However, it is just an experimental step in the general direction of a simpler existence. At the same time I hope to cut the weekly grocery bill to £30 a week for the two of us. I think that is realistic.

So, for the curious, here is the new stock list:

Staples
1. Rice (at the moment this is white basmati rice)
2. Pasta (dry fusilli)
3. Rolled Oats (jumbo organic – for raw porridge and the occasional flapjack)
4. Wholemeal Flour (for bread making and other baking)
5. Maize or Plantain Meal (African staples that are filling and nutritious and hopefully making more frequent appearances as I learn how to prepare them)

Pulses (Our core source of protein – I adore all beans but had to pick my favourites)
6. Lentils (for bulking up soups and preparing dhals)
7. Butter Beans (I usually use in stews or mash)
8. Mung Beans (for sprouting and other uses)
9. Chick Peas (one of the most important items in our diet of curry, hummus and falafel; also delicious roasted as a snack)
10. Red Kidney Beans (mainly end up prepared with chilli or refried, Mexican style)

Ingredients
11. Olive Oil (only used sparingly for dipping and dressing)
12. Rapeseed Oil (absolutely my oil of choice, a great “butter” substitute in most recipes and doesn’t burn easily)
13. Salt (of course)
14. Agave Nectar (trying to switch refined sugar out for this)
15. Vinegar (prefer cider vinegar for most purposes but it will be a case of what is available)
16. Cocoa Powder (Probably one of my most useful ingredients, not just for hot chocolate and baking projects but I have it on my oats and am currently exploring other uses)

Seasoning (these tend to be ones that are easily and cheaply bought in bulk)
17. Chilli Powder
18. Paprika
19. Coriander
20. Cumin
21. Black Pepper
22. Mixed Herbs

Miscellaneous
23. Dessicated Coconut (for baking and dhals and other curries, can be soaked and blended for use as “creamed coconut”)
24. Almonds (appearing a lot these days, I’m learning to prepare my own almond milk)
25. Dried Dates (use as a sweetener and a snack)
26. Tinned Tomatoes

Beverages
27. Tea (for drinking but also makes rice more interesting, just as toasted rice makes a cup of tea more interesting …)
28. Ground Coffee
29. Rooibos (also known as Red Bush Tea, can be used as a herb in cooking)
30. Peppermint Tea

Vegetables
31. Garlic (I’m not ashamed to say we eat a lot of it and I believe in its medicinal properties)
32. Onions (everything starts with onions)
33. 3 Other Seasonal Vegetables

I don’t expect to be either bored or malnourished … but I’ll let you know how we get on.

Barefoot Colleges

In spite of the fact that we risk information fatigue as we are overloaded with data from the web and other media, I can’t help noticing that sometimes something I see among the hundreds of pages and pictures and clips that I view every week “sticks” and begins to embed itself on another level. This TED talk from Bunker Roy is one such sticky thing. It fed my soul, reawakened something, pulled some threads together. I’ll let it speak for itself for this is one of the most inspiring and heartening things I have seen for a long time:

 

Are You Creative? Send Me Your Card!

I’m a sucker for business cards. Collecting them is like playing a grown-up game of swapsies. Even though we live in a digital age of networking, there’s still nothing quite like taking home a pretty little piece of card with someone’s details on it.

So here’s a thing I’m going to do: If you are a person who works broadly in the area of creativity, art, writing, music, performing arts or that sort of thing, send me your card (either a scan or a “hard copy” – email seymour@seymourjacklin.co.uk for my snail address) and I’ll feature it on this blog and link it to your website … simples!

I have started with a few that were already in my wallet:

Java Apps that Make my Little Nokia (almost) a Smartphone

I have had a Nokia 6303, described as “no-nonsense easy-to-use handset” for about 3 years now. I have looked at upgrading to a Blackberry, iPhone, or high-end HTC but I’ve never found a good enough reason to switch to something that costs three or four times as much as this reliable classic. I’m quite sure that some people who think they need a top gadget to do what they want to do don’t realise the potential of these Java enabled handsets running on Symbian 40.

Here’s a few things that give it the edge over  the buggy rushed-to-market do-everything other phones that I have come across:

  • It’s cheap to replace and free on a lot of low monthly tariffs.
  • It’s frightfully robust. I have dropped it on hard floors and in wet grass countless times.
  • The battery life is exceptional. I charge it once a week, which is usually more of a top-up than a full charge. Although I use it only occasionally for longer conversations, I use it constantly for browsing and for twitter, texting and email.
  • GPRS coverage (although a lot slower than 3G, of course) seems to be available absolutely everywhere in the British Isles.
  • There are a huge range of Java apps out there for any purpose and they are generally very reliable.
  • Memory card slot gives me more storage than I need for music on the go.

Here’s my pick of Java apps that give me an almost-smartphone – all of them are also FREE:

Browsing: Opera Mini.

With the slowness of GPRS you need a light and lean browser that is perfectly adapted for a smaller screen. Of all the ones I have tried, Opera wins by a long way. It is very customisable, you can specify the quality of images or eliminate them altogether for faster browsing. Tabbed browsing is supported, too, and works well. Bookmarks can be synchronised online with an Opera account on other machines and it has a built in feed reader – sweet!

Social Networking: Snaptu.

Snaptu has an iPhone like menu of icons and a number of its own internal apps. I use it all the time for Twitter as it handles lists and multiple accounts very smoothly. It’s great for Facebook, too (although I’m not on there any more). Multiple useful tools within Snaptu also include several feed and news readers, a weather app which can be set for multiple locations, and a neat little Google Calendar interface.

Calendar: Gsync.

Synchronises the internal calendar with an online Google Calendar.

Task management: Mobile Task Manager.

This little gem by Tommi Laukkanen has become the final answer to my list-making habit. A lightweight and simple app that manages any number of lists embedded (if you want) to three or four levels. I have my daily to-do list on here as well as shopping lists, gig set lists, project planning outlines e.t.c. It is elegant and unfussy and does the job very nicely thank you.

GPS: Mobile Trail Explorer (MTE).

Again, although these phones don’t have built in GPS, they will connect to a bluetooth GPS unit (of which there are many to choose from) like the BN901S. Mine cost £16 on eBay and I keep it in the car. Mobile Trail Explorer is a fully featured and very flexible GPS tracker once again by the brilliant Tommi Laukkanen. It uses OSM or Google Maps if you need them, caches maps to save data calls, allows you to record and save KML files and various other waypoints systems as well as having a navigation function.

QR Code Reader: Bee Tag.

Using the phone’s built in camera to read QR codes. Seems to work 90% of the time and is certainly adequate to the job although it struggles with tiny codes, this may be more a limitation imposed by the 3.5 megapixel camera.

E-Reader: WattPad.

Thanks to the adjustable smooth scrolling screen, I use WattPad to plough through classics that are free to download (in the public domain). Perfect for reading after lights-out. Most of the contents of Project Gutenberg are available, no shortage of good stuff.

Bible: YouVersion.

Most people I know with Android use this but, the marvelously handy YouVersion is available for Java, too. Unfortunately it doesn’t cache so can be a bit slow sometimes, but there are a wealth of translations to use.

In addition, for email, most of these S40 phones have their own email reader embedded with the texting and messaging menus and they can be set up to synchronise with any POP and SMTP accounts for sending and receiving. Synchronisation can be scheduled or on-demand.

So … er … yep – I don’t see why I should bother putting up with the sort of trouble (and expense) that smartphones have been giving people lately.

Creative Entrepreneur of the Month: Robyn Trainer of Floral Footsteps

Confucius say, “Make a living from what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life” and although this sounds lovely and has become something of a mantra for our times, anyone who has succeeded in making a living from something they love will be able to tell you there is a lot of hard work involved.

One of the effects of the instability of our economic system seems to have been to loosen the concept of career and employment as many people seek to meet their circumstances creatively, develop alternative streams of income, and question why they do what they do and how much it matters anyway. There is a new breed of creative entrepreneurs who have stopped waiting for someone to employ them and given themselves a job instead. They have said, “The future is so uncertain I might as well take things into my own hands and do something I love instead of waiting for the next round of redundancies.”

These are really exciting times and, once a month, over the next year, I will be profiling some of the creative entrepreneurs who have inspired me and continue to offer the companionable reassurance that we are not alone on the hard road to doing what we love for a living.

I have had the pleasure of working with Robyn Trainer of Floral Footsteps (she provides the artwork for Stories from the Borders of Sleep) and being part of her journey over the last year. She kindly agreed to be my first interviewee for the Creative Entrepreneur of the Month series.

Robyn is a mathematics graduate from Durham who got in the habit of sidestepping the geek label by telling people that she wanted to be a florist one day. She is married to Phil and exercised by a mischievous but adorable spaniel called Samuel. In April 2011, Robyn left her full time job at the Ethical Superstore to give herself fully to her floristry, illustration and photography business, Floral Footsteps. To fully understand how these three strands link together into her unique brand, you really need to see examples of her work and style as displayed on the Floral Footsteps Website.

Robyn says that the combination of three creative practices bounce off one another and although she has a distinctive style that is somehow recognizable in all her work she gets special satisfaction out of creating exactly what a customer wants.

“My work is entirely personal in that each order I create, either a floral arrangement or a bespoke illustration, is unique and designed according to the individual.”

Of course, there is a fourth strand to Robyn’s work, the all-essential business side of things. As anyone who has watched “Dragon’s Den” will know, being outstandingly creative and having business acumen is a very rare combination. Robyn certainly has both, and I dare say the maths comes in handy here, too.

I asked Robyn to give us an insight into her business and offer some thoughts and advice on creative entrepreneurship.

What are you working on at the moment? What’s on the “to do list” this week?

There are plenty of things going on! I’m hoping that my brand new website will be launched either today or tomorrow, which is rather exciting. Samuel the Spaniel (my naughty/adventurous dog) has his very own blog, which started this week. I’m working on a “Celebrations!” Greetings Cards range and a Christmas card range and I’ve wedding flowers to do next week, amongst other things!

So you are thinking about Christmas already! And you have involved the dog in the enterprise!

Samuel the Spaniel is too inspiring to not involve him in the business, and yes, sadly I’m thinking about Christmas already. Where I used to work, Christmas tunes began playing in the beginning of July… I’m not kidding!

How does a typical day look for you as a self-employed person? Do you have any routines you depend on?

I think the only routine I have is: start early, finish late! As I haven’t been trading for long, my work really varies, from building websites, through planning financial forecasts, to actually doing the work of illustrating, designing, working with flowers and meeting with clients. In a year’s time, I’m sure my answer will be different, but for now, each day is very varied.

How many hours a week would you say you are working at the moment?

Probably about 40 – 45?

Do you ever wish for a steady office job?

Not at the moment. Having had one of those, it’s great for stability and regular income, but I found myself longing to do something else. That longing has gone now because I’m actually doing it.

Do you think that you’ll need to have another strand of income while the business grows or is it a case of succeed or bust?

I initially thought that I would, but decided to do the summer season full time. I’m really glad I made this decision. I am considering taking on another strand of income in the autumn, but I’m seeing how that goes. Setting up business is quite hard; it does take quite a lot of investment to begin with.

What made you decide to start Floral Footsteps? Was it a slow burning idea or did you have a moment of epiphany?

I studied Maths at University, but always said “I’m going to become a Florist”. When I finished University, I thought I should really study it and become qualified, to see if I like it and want to take it further. I loved it, and was asked to do a friend’s wedding at the end of the year, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. So from there, working as a florist became something I definitely wanted to do. With regards to the other strands, illustration and photography – these are things I’ve always done and have slowly improved over the years, so it seemed natural to me to incorporate them into a business as a florist. So I’d say it was a slow burning idea.

How did friends and family respond to your decision to go for it?

My parents have been very supportive, but not without their “warnings” about “financial safety”. My husband has been really encouraging along every step of the way and helps me in making some of the bigger decisions and logistics (although he keeps well clear of any actual floristry or illustration! the wiring scares him…) and my friends have been wonderfully supportive by finding ways to involve me, and being my advertisers, giving me cause to start Floral Footsteps officially.

Some people would say you are crazy to try a venture like this in today’s economic climate. What would you say to them?

I’d say that I think one of the main ways in which we can improve our economy is through local business, by supporting one another in their employment. Yes, it is a difficult time to start a business, but I do believe that working with local trades instead of outsourcing to larger companies is the way forward.

So would you say that Floral Footsteps has a socially conscious edge to it?

Yes I would. I’m keen to work more closely with local growers of flowers, foliage and herbs (although that’s not easy in the North East!) and to recycle, reuse and reduce my waste as a business. I’m also keen to support other businesses that are local and eco-friendly in what I do and what stock I buy. I was shocked when I did my floristry course that some florists throw away leftover cellophane, ribbon and non-compostable rubbish with organic waste (loads of it!) in the same bin bag and put it out for collection. Some don’t recycle or compost anything! It’s madness!

How important is blogging to your business?

Very important for me personally, and I think for those closest to me, and for those just dipping their toe in. It provides a pretty unique insight into the person behind the business, as well as the business itself. It also shows you are interested in more than just “making money”…

I guess in these days of social media, people are not so comfortable dealing with “faceless corporations”; they want to know the people they are dealing with and what the story is.

I agree. It’s funny how just communicating over a computer can change the way we feel about someone and give a sense of ownership in what they’re up to and your relationship with them (however virtual or real that may be!)

What is your most important source of referrals?

I think most referrals come from word of mouth. From people telling one another about Floral Footsteps and what I do, and passing on that information. If someone chooses to contact me, I will reply as soon as I can to find out how I can help and be of service

Are there any websites that have been useful to you in your work either for networking or information, or support or anything else?

Well, I keep an eye on lots of different blogs and websites to see what others are up to and support them. I have a profile on lots of different networking platforms and websites including Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, Pinterest, Google+ and more to build up an online profile and I also have a shop on Etsy, which I link people to. In terms of specific websites, there are a few wedding blogs which are good to read to check out trends, and twitter is always fantastic for keeping up with the latest news in your business sector.

What are your thoughts about using online markets, like Etsy, versus setting up your own website?

Hmm I’m not sure yet. I have my own website and I have a shop on Etsy, but have chosen to sell goods through Etsy because of the community already established there. It’s easier for people to find you through Etsy than it is through a standalone website.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to strike out as a creative entrepreneur?

I think they need to assess 1) Is there a need for your business? I.e. – is there a market for it? Will people buy your service or product? And try to think objectively. Will your business make money or is it better as a hobby? 2) Is now the right time for you to financially go for a creative business? It takes time to earn money in setting up a business and the business takes investment, do you need to wait a while until you can afford to set up? 3) Ask your family and friends for advice and support. They know you best. Ask them to be truthful and guiding, as I can say this has been one of the most influential things for me.

Three quite hard things, but you have to ask yourself the difficult questions!

So now another hard question for you: What was the lowest point in the last few months?

Oh, that is a hard question! So often my lowest points are to do with my own confidence, rather than specific events. If I lose confidence in my ability to run a business or in my work, I can fall quite low. It’s then that the support of others really lifts me – in having people who I am accountable to with the business.

On a happier note: Can you put your finger on your favourite project or your highest moment so far?

There have been lots of great moments! Every time I make a bridal bouquet I get a little quiver of excitement and say to myself, “this is actually a bouquet for the bride!” (Yep, geek!) When you see your completed work being appreciated by others, that’s a fantastic moment. I can’t name one in particular really, as each event feels very different! Perhaps handing in my resignation at my old job was a highlight…

Could you describe to me where you hope to be in a year’s time?

In a year’s time, I hope to have full weeks of hands-on floral designs, illustrations and more, keeping busy with clients, fulfilling regular and special orders. Perhaps I’ll be in a slightly more comfortable workspace, too!

That sounds achievable.

I hope so!

And so do I. To find out more about Robyn’s work, check out her website: http://www.floralfootsteps.com or her Etsy shop at: http://www.etsy.com/shop/FloralFootsteps
I am sure she would be happy to answer any more questions. All images in this post are the property of Robyn Trainer.

Personal Experiment: Going Soap Free (it’s the new “clean”)

Soap
Soap? N.I.M.B. (Not In My Bathroom).

I’m trying this as an experiment. I am on day 5 of using no soap or shampoo, just water, to wash and shave with. This may come as a surprise to anyone who knows how fond I am of natural plant based and home-made soaps.

Why give up soap?

From the top of my head, I think people might want to give up soap for two reasons, which they might place in a different order of importance. For me it is primarily the first reason and the second reason is like the icing on the cake.

Firstly, people give up soap because it might not be necessary and, therefore it is one less thing to consume. It is like another area of my life that I can take back from the powers of consumerism that want to convince me that “you have to buy this” otherwise you are going to stink and have no friends. It never occurred to me that soap might not be absolutely necessary, although I discarded shaving foam and shampoo a couple of years ago when I figured out that they are basically soap that is given a fancy name so you think you need to buy it to do a job that soap does very well. But does it really …

The second reason is that it is probably much better for your skin. The bare naked truth is that soap dries out your skin. We all know this. This gives the cosmetics companies the chance to sell us moisturisers to undo the damage that their soap did. Some soap bars and products now have moisturiser added in to counteract the effect. But what if our skin is never getting the chance to establish its own balance and all the time we are rushing to buy another product to try and replace the natural functions and qualities of our skin that took millions of years to evolve. Cosmetic products create a need for themselves when they interfere with the body’s normal way of providing for itself.

But don’t you stink and have no friends?

No … and nor do the numerous other people who have also gone soap free, including:

Paleoblogger, Richard Nikoley of Free theAnimal, all-round-lifehacker, Sean Bonner from BoingBoing, and the two vegan tweeple who woke me up to this in the first place, Ronda Vanderzanden (@funerealwaif303030) and Kristiina Stromness (@MsKristiina282828).

How do you get clean?

With water, the most glorious element on the planet, also known by chemists as “The Universal Solvent”. I get clean using water and scrubbing.

Scrubbing brush and flannel have made a triumphant return to me cleansing arsenal. Finally the annual flannel, that appears half way down the Christmas stocking, is getting a regular outing.

One of the ways soap functions is by leaving a dirt repellent layer on the skin that supposedly means you stay cleaner for longer. This may mean that being soap free requires that washing/bathing is more frequent.  I can easily get away with missing a wash for a day or two when I have a layer of soap on my skin and I can use various other products to smell sweet – but being soap free does give an excuse to indulge in getting wet more often (that being once a day).

Basically, to get clean, I have found I have developed almost a ritual that makes sure all of me is scrubbed in a certain order starting with a clean flannel on the face, and ending with the … ahem … areas.

Actually I was shocked, when I took my first “soap-free” bath, how much gunk was left in the water. It was as if I had had a proper wash for the first time although this may have been more to do with the very thorough scrubbing that the lack of soap.

What about hair?

Yep, hair can do fine without keratin enhancing super shining shampoos with “advanced molecular science” (oh, may we be delivered from shampoos with “science” in them). I guess I can’t speak for people with long hair but I have it on good authority that it is a bit odd to start with until everything settles down.

Received wisdom from those who have gone before also advises that it may take a couple of weeks for the body to balance out generally. So a little perseverance is required.

Complimentary practices for soap-free hygiene.

I think that going soap-free is not just a case of giving up soap. There is a more conscious approach to hygiene that can be explored here as to give up soap is to give up one of the crutches that has helped us to “feel” clean for years.

Firstly, diet plays a massive part in what is secreted on the surface of our skin and how we smell. I am not a physiologist but anyone can wake up to how true this is with the help of their own nose. We all know garlic comes out in the sweat but since giving up dairy products I have become sensitised to the fact that everyone else smells of cheese – literally – because of the dairy they consume. However, raw vegans (people who only eat uncooked plant matter) consistently report that they can discard with deodorants because their sweat is virtually odourless. I am monitoring this at the moment, subsisting on a plant diet as I do, I have almost entirely discarded deodorant products although I do occasionally use an essential oil.

Drinking lots of water also becomes much more important, the idea being that a well hydrated body will be better at eliminating toxins and sweat will be less concentrated.

Secondly … re-think clothing. Feet are not smelly, it’s socks and shoes that are the problem. Some of the clothing we wear, shoes being the best example, provide a close moist environment for bacteria to grow so it is little wonder that feet smell. Going barefoot as much as possible will actually lead to hygienically cleaner feet. Wearing looser clothing made from natural, breathable fabric also makes hygienic sense.

Other plus points to giving up soap

Apart from sticking up two fingers to The Man and making a bid for healthier skin and hair, there are a few other advantages to giving up soap:

  • No more “soap scum” on the side of the bath or shower
  • Saves a few quid a year
  • Contributes to a reduced demand for wierd toxic chemicals and the industrial processes that make them
  • Burn more calories washing/scrubbing
  • Declutter your bathroom from a whole lot of junk