“People who see themselves as victims sometimes don’t notice when they become oppressors.”

I was told to come aloneBrown Baggers met on June 21 at Central to discuss the memoir I Was Told To Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet. This book details Mekhennet’s experience growing up as a Moroccan-Turkish Muslim immigrant in Germany and her work interviewing high profile members of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other known terrorist groups.

Most readers found the book intriguing, while a few struggled with the journalistic feel. They wondered at the type of personality it would take to keep willingly entering dangerous, life-threatening situations to pursue answers. Most readers found Mekhennet very credible and objective and chalked her risk taking career behavior to being extremely driven.

Mekhennet is an award-winning journalist who has worked for the Washington Post and the New York Times. As a result, readers found it amusing how the powerful, dangerous men she went to interview insisted on asking about her relationship status. Readers also were impressed with both Mekhennet’s access to and respect received from her interview subjects. She describes this as a combination of shared culture, connections, or heritage (as a direct descendant of Muhammad).

The virulent hatred towards “the West” and America and the growing divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims were also discussed. Readers wondered, as does the author, how an individual ends up so radicalized, not just in the Muslim world but also here at home with the increasing organization of white supremacists and even Nazi groups in America.

Readers who made it to the end of the book found the ending truly heart-wrenching. The terror has always been close to Mekhennet, as some Al Qaeda cells originated in Germany, but increasingly it is her friends and family who are affected resulting in unexpected loss and grief. Again this felt very near to Charlottesville and the experiences of last August.

While it would’ve been nice for the author to wrap up this complicated foreign affairs subject matter with a nice bow and say sunnier days are ahead, she instead was very frank about the situation which is serious and perhaps worsening. She does end on a tiny, hopeful note that we are all more alike than not, and maybe we can begin to recognize that.

Other titles:
House of Stone by Anthony Shadid
Almighty by Dan Zak
The Eternal Nazi (book she wrote with colleague)
The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker

More information:
Headcovering differences
Author Bio
Author Interview

Brown Baggers will meet again on July 19 at noon to discuss The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman.




“He had rescued it once from the hands of jihadis in Timbuktu, and again from a waterlogged basement in Bamko.”

the-bad-ass-librarians-of-timbuktu-9781476777405_hrThe Brown Baggers delved into The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer on May 17. This book told the story of how historian Abdel Kader Haidara, saved thousands of priceless manuscripts from destruction.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of suspected thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. Haidara was an archivist from Timbuktu- he organized an operation to smuggle over 350,000 volumes out of the city into much-safer southern Mali. Over the course of two decades, Haidara and other dedicated antiquarians scoured the region, buying up ancient texts from remote villages and getting them to safety.

Some Brown Baggers liked the book, others found it hard to finish, but most enjoyed learning more about African history and the Islamic culture. All agreed that it was wonderful to learn that people from all over the world wanted to help save and protect these manuscripts. The scrolls proved that this population was cultured and had a rich history. The manuscripts contained information on math, astronomy, and medicine, and the Timbuktu was a thriving center of knowledge, much earlier than other parts of the world.

Many readers mentioned that they did not like Hammer’s actual writing style. Others commented that they didn’t like how the story jumped back and forth in time, as this was a little confusing for readers and made the story harder to follow. Some others were interested in what was actually written on the scrolls, and would have liked more detail about what information was contained in the scrolls.

As one Brown Bagger said: Read the first 100 pages, then skip to the epilogue.


Abdel Kader Haidara

Books mentioned:
The Storied City by Charlie English
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Islamic Society of Central Virginia offers Arabic Calligraphy classes
Article from the Smithsonian Magazine by Joshua Hammer
From NPR
From the Washington Post
Hobby Lobby scandal 

The next meeting will be on June 21 at 12pm and we will be discussing I was Told to Come Alone  by Souad Mekhennet.

“So I wondered what was different about us-”

hillbilly elegyThe Brown Baggers met on April 19th and discussed J.D. Vance’s bestseller Hillbilly Elegy. Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of Vance’s time growing up in Ohio and how Appalachia shaped his life.

The Brown Baggers had mixed feelings about the memoir. Many readers thought the book was depressing and hopeless, while others enjoyed the story and how Vance overcame poverty. However, all agreed that the story was interesting.

Most readers thought that the strongest characters in the book were the women in Vance’s life. Readers especially liked Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw, and how she raised Vance when his mother was not able to. Mamaw was extremely loyal to her family and she was the one who encouraged Vance to go to college and pursue higher education. Vance’s sister and aunt were also bright and capable women who helped Vance throughout his life.

Readers had a few criticisms of the book- mainly that some of Vance’s stories and claims seemed exaggerated and even far-fetched. Others found it odd that Vance had no trouble moving in various social circles and never seemed to struggle to fit in. Several readers also pointed out that Vance lumped all of the inhabitants of Appalachia into one group, when in actuality, the Appalachian population is diverse in terms of both race and economics. And, some thought that Vance might not be the best person to speak for an entire group. Some mentioned that Vance even seemed to resent his neighbors.

It was pointed out that Vance did not technically live in Appalachia, but rather a few counties over from the Appalachia border. However, the culture is what was important, not the where he actually lived, some readers noted.

There were some positive values of the Appalachian culture mentioned in Vance’s book- mainly Vance’s family, especially his grandmother and sister. These women were always there for Vance and helped him to succeed. There was also the support structure that enabled Vance to step out of poverty, along with a fierce loyalty to family, and love for the country.

Titles Mentioned:
Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah
What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Gray Mountain by John Grisham
Ramp Hollow by Steven Stroll

More Information:
Review from the New York Times
Review from the Los Angeles Review of Books
Article from the Oxford University Press
Article from the Washington Post

The Brown Baggers will meet again on May 17 at 12pm to discuss The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.