Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire
Random House 2003

It’s almost fitting that the task of reviewing, and therefore reading, Shake Hands with the Devil, Roméo Dallaire’s wrenching first-hand account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, was a task studiously avoided by many of us around the offices of ascent. Fitting, as it mirrors in a microcosm how Dallaire’s cries for help were also largely ignored at the time by the West.

Shake Hands with the Devil is a haunted survivor’s attempt to assess responsibility in “the failure of humanity in Rwanda,” wherein 800,000 people were massacred over a period of 100 days. Dallaire’s point is not merely to point fingers, but rather to learn where mistakes were made so that future interventions by the world community into conflicts might render these intercessions more facile.

While highly emotional, this book is also fair and balanced in its criticism, never confusing true emotion with sentimentality. One example is Dallaire’s criticism of the Belgian government, which has a long and shameful colonial history in Rwanda. Although the Belgians lost ten soldiers in a massacre, Dallaire doesn’t allow that tragedy to temper his disapproval of their behaviour during the genocide. In fact, no one escapes Dallaire’s just criticism, from United Nations and world leaders arguing semantics over UN decrees while hundreds of thousands of people were being slaughtered, to US army assessors’ macabre accounting that the life of one US soldier was valued equal to the lives of 80,000 Rwandans, and of course, the perpetrators of the genocide themselves – the normal people who just woke up one morning and joined in the killing of their former neighbours.

Shake Hands with the Devil is a great guttural wail of humanity coming from one who has witnessed its worst possible behaviour. It is telling that while Dallaire paints his account of the atrocities in broad strokes, he reserves more detailed accounts to quoting other observers: his second-in-command, UNHCR commanders and other NGO workers. It is as if he himself cannot find a voice to speak of things that no one should ever see.

Ultimately, this book stands as Roméo Dallaire’s confession and self-indictment. This seeming paradox of a man – a career soldier who is a gentle, eloquent spokesman for peace – still cannot forgive himself for what he sees as his failure in being unable to stop the killing a decade ago. The horrors witnessed in Rwanda, coupled with the impotence of his UN mandate and scarce resources of an ill-equipped force of only 500, have left this brave man scarred, prematurely aged, forced into early retirement from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and a survivor of multiple suicide attempts.

This book filled me with an overpowering moral outrage, but ultimately it allows a small glimpse of hope. The survivors of the Rwandan genocide have attempted to rebuild their country with a non-partisan government not based upon ethnic lines. Roméo Dallaire came back from the edge of hell with hope that the new century will be what he calls the “century of humanity.” Where human beings will rise above violence, while recognizing that the poverty that leaves much of the world without hope is the source of most violent conflict and therefore must be eliminated to help bring peace. Dallaire believes that we can rise above notions of race that led Hutu to kill Tutsi – notions that raise the question of whether Western nations would have stood by while a nation of non-Africans were slaughtered en masse.

In all this uncertainty, Roméo Dallaire is still able to entertain these hopes, and the fact that a hardened, former high-level military leader who has witnessed the ultimate savage potential of human beings can still have faith in mankind helped restore my own hope for humanity, flawed as we are.
– Joe Ollmann

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Intelligence in Nature
Jeremy Narby
Tarcher/Penguin 2005

Readers of Jeremy Narby’s first book, The Cosmic Serpent, might wonder as I did, after reading Intelligence in Nature, why he wrote this latest book. They might also wonder what happened to the spirit of personal discovery that was so present in his previous work. Where Cosmic Serpent fairly rings with the kind of unbridled enthusiasm that comes with uncovering splendid mysteries, Intelligence in Nature reads more like a transcription from the Discovery channel.

Narby’s search for intelligence in nature takes us into the biology labs of a select group of scientists around the world who are trying to identify humanlike intelligence within the plant and animal life of the natural world. From the Peruvian Amazon to Japan, we meet scientists whose investigations are undoubtedly fascinating. But Narby’s inquiry begins and ends with large questions hanging in the air. We learn interesting things about how slime mold, for example, appears to make decisions, or how certain tropical birds ingest clay to prevent disease in much the same way that we use antibiotics. But then what? Why is intelligence in nature such a puzzling question to science when it seems so obvious to anyone who regularly walks in the woods with a curious and observant eye? And why should it be left to mainstream science to decree the existence of something for which scientists themselves can reach no defining consensus?

Narby asks good questions in this book but he doesn’t go very far with them. His tentativeness in the company of scientists is curious given the open-minded enthusiasm he brought to his experiences with shamans in the Peruvian Amazon, which he first wrote about in The Cosmic Serpent. There, far from his academic and cultural roots, he eagerly pushed the edge of conventional knowledge. Describing his experience with ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic healing plant of the Amazonian basin, Narby made a symbolic connection between the double-helix imagery of DNA and what the shamans described as the “language twisting-twisting” experience of ritualistically altered consciousness. Through their profound knowledge of the natural world, the shamans revealed a larger intelligence governing all life. Narby’s experience and subsequent description of this revelation was truly inspiring.

But it’s possible that The Cosmic Serpent was more than Western science could handle, which may be one reason why Intelligence in Nature is so tentative and inconclusive. Once bitten, twice shy, perhaps. In 1997, following publication of The Cosmic Serpent, Harvard biophysicist Jacques Dubochet roundly criticized Narby for insufficiently testing his hypothesis about DNA and universal intelligence. Accusing Narby of “blindly charging down the wrong path,” Dubochet made it clear that in his opinion Narby had succumbed to the least responsible path of science.

But it was never meant to be a formal scientific inquiry. Jeremy Narby is an anthropologist, not a scientist, and his intent clearly was to use his own experience to inspire us to think more deeply about our intelligence and what our potential could be. Subjective experience is not admissible to established scientific methodology, which is fine for science. But for the rest of us, personal experience is the only real knowledge there is. That’s where Jeremy Narby is strongest, and where he can be an inspiration for all of us. He’s done it once, he can do it again.
– Swami Gopalananda

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Yoga Spandakarika
Daniel Odier
Inner Traditions 2005

The Yoga Spandakarika (spanda: sacred tremor; karika: set of verse), originally written in the ninth century by Kallata, is one of the fundamental Tantric texts of Kashmir Saivism. Teacher and author Daniel Odier brings one of the first translations of this scripture to the West with clear and engaging language and commentaries. In the book, he also presents the Vijnana-Bhairava – another fundamental text of Kashmir Saivism – and other scriptures to help assimilate the teachings.

A main principle of the book is that of spanda, the sacred tremor that inhabits everything. Odier teaches that in order to feel the tremor, we have to find the root of desire and experiment with that excitement, that shivering delight. He goes further to say that we come across this tremor in our everyday life, but in order to tune in to the Divine, we need our desires to be objectless. This is quite a challenge for me, but Odier continues by saying that the point is to understand that everything is Divine and that divinity is not an object so we should turn our desires toward that “objectless Divinity.” At that moment, we can feel spanda without a cause or effect; we can just become the Spanda. He also encourages the practitioner to adopt a “spherical view,” where everything is included in our practice. That view enables us to evolve without limitation and helps us to integrate wholeness in our lives.

The first section of the Yoga Spandakarika offers a full translation of the fifty-three verses, while the second section features Odier’s commentary interlaced with the Spandakarika text and other sacred texts. The translations are fluid and poetic, and the commentaries illuminate the verse in an engaging way without using overly complex language and concepts.

Daniel Odier has a long history of training and practice in Tibetan Buddhism through his teacher Kalu Rinpoche. In another of his books (Tantra: l’initiation d’un Occidental à l’amour absolue, Paris: J.-C. Lattès, 1996; Pocket 1998), he explains his training with a Tantrika Master named Lalita Devi, who taught him the Tandava: a dance where the practitioner learns how to feel the spanda throughout his body. He has also trained in Ch’an Buddhism with Chinese master Jing Hui. I was quite pleased by this book and feel that Daniel Odier writes from a place of experience and not simply intellectual knowledge. The poetic translation reminded me that sacred texts are indeed poems and many translations rarely offer this. In my own path I have come to understand that Divine Mother encompasses my whole life and if I try to cut some part of my life, then I am only negating a part of my own divinity. The Yoga Spandakarika helped me realize how my human feelings are key tools to understanding this divinity, and that the Divine can be as close as a shiver of joy.
– Gef Tremblay

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Sacred Sanskrit Words: For Yoga, Chant and Meditation
Leza Lowitz and Reema Datta
Stone Bridge Press 2004

When I first picked up Sacred Sanskrit Words: For Yoga, Chant and Meditation, I did not have any expectations. It sounded like a lexicon and I really did not need one. However, the word “sacred” seized my attention.

The most striking feature of Sacred Sanskrit Words: For Yoga, Chant and Meditation is the attitude of humility with which the authors approached the task of creating a primer of over 160 spiritually significant Sanskrit words for students wishing to learn Sanskrit chants and terms. The authors note, “Though we are far from specialists in Sanskrit, we’ve found the best way to learn about something is to write about it, so researching and writing about Sanskrit became our own deep learning process.”

Sacred Sanskrit Words should be read with this foreknowledge. No single volume can ever encompass the vastness, subtlety and beauty of an ancient language that cradled the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and the Vedas. For those aspiring to learn Sanskrit and read the original literature one day, several books and courses are available. But for those who want to know the meaning of commonly used yogic terms like Om, asana and mudra, this book will prove to be invaluable.

Sacred Sanskrit Words is user friendly, with entries listed in the English alphabetical order, along with the corresponding Devanagari script. It also includes English transliteration, root word meanings, definitions, relevant facts, myths, cultural history and quotations. Terms of special interest to students of yoga, mythology and philosophy have been chosen carefully, and an analysis shows the explanations to be clear, lucid and accurate. The descriptions inspire and inform. Many passages draw us to Vedic times and evoke feelings of serenity and tranquility. Longer entries read like eloquent stories. Explanations for words like Ashtanga Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, darsana, Karma Yoga, kosa and Samadhi exude a positive learning atmosphere, and will surely encourage aspirants to seek further knowledge.

Unfortunately, Sacred Sanskrit Chants also suffers from two minor drawbacks: intended to be a primer, figures and illustrations were obviously not a priority for the authors. A few, choice illustrations for key words like chakra, mandala and nadi would have better portrayed their meaning to students with no prior exposure to yoga.

Secondly, the last section of the book titled Chants, consisting of thirteen shlokas and mantra, leaves much to be desired. The authors have chosen not to preserve the traditional pattern and rhythm in which the shlokas are written and chanted. The shloka, transliteration and meaning have been printed in three columns, making it difficult for the lay person to appreciate the shloka’s inherent beauty and structure, which does not help with the recitation either. Furthermore, the introduction for the shlokas Gurur-Brahma and Om Purnamadam has not been appropriately expounded.

Except for this disappointment in the last section, Sacred Sanskrit Words: For Yoga, Chant and Meditation is a joy to read: it has accuracy in its translations, beauty in its presentation, and conveys the spiritual richness of the yogic tradition. It will definitely enrich the life of many yoga teachers and students.
–Rama Devagupta, Ph.D.

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La Kahena
Cheb I Sabbah
Six Degrees 2005

As a son seeking his mother’s song, DJ Cheb I Sabbah returns to his roots in La Kahena to record the music of his homeland.

The album takes its name from the seventh-century Jewish-Berber La-Kahena: warrior, worshiper, mother of five, who gathered an army of disparate populations to ward off invading armies in their takeover of North Africa.

Much like La-Kahena herself, this album merges the stories of Sufi, Jewish, Muslim and Berber peoples. Mixing live recordings taken from three continents, Cheb I Sabbah offers us eight heart-thumping tracks, which merge traditional trance with subtle contemporary beats, and offer listeners the voices of some of the most respected women singers of the Maghreb region.

Defined by tradition, these religious songs integrate the use of the call and response. This calling out is no longer confined within the circle of singers, but acts as a common ground between traditions. Ultimately, these songs are Cheb I Sabbah’s contribution to a more integrative inter-faith dialogue.

Stocked with rare recordings, the album opens with the solo voice of Algerian-born Cheba Zahouania, calling on the name of Cheb I Sabbah’s birthplace. La Kahena includes such groups as Haddrates, a group of Moroccan women who chant traditional Sufi music in praise of the prophet Mohammed. It also captures two haunting songs by Khadija Othmani, singing “Alkher Illa Doffor – Peace is Found behind the Wounds” and “Ad Izayanugass – What Will Happen Will Happen.” The album even grants us a taste of singer-songwriter Michal Cohen, performing “Im Ninalou” in Hebrew.

Cheb I Sabbah shifts away from the typical DJ’d world beats, which veil the spiritual truth of the music by concealing it under chronic drum and bass effects. Despite the mixing, the recordings on La Kahena maintain their authenticity and the chants retain their inherently hypnotic effect.

Unlike his first three albums, Cheb I Sabbah does little to modify the live recordings; instead he allows them to unfold and interact with each other. One track bleeds into the next, songs blend, voices merge and retract.

These echoing chants haunt me. I wonder at the commonalities between cultures, the possibilities of uniting people by acknowledging the roots we share. This record acts as both a preservation of, and doorway into, our social history. Although these songs return us to Cheb I Sabbah’s ancestry, they also invite us into the presence of people united together through music.

Despite the trend in world music to remix traditional songs, I welcome this electronic digression through cultural histories, and allow these songs to bring me back to the roots of trance music.
– Anne Read

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