Thursday, October 7, 2010

Book Review: Tea Time with Terrorists (Mark Stephen Meadows)

Stranded in Paris (if that is the right word when in Paris) when 9/11 struck, Mark Stephen Meadows was planning to travel home to the US. With airports shut and terrorist becoming the new word of the moment, Meadows decided to follow his journalistic instincts and explore the psychology of terrorism and the makeup of the people behind such acts. As his laboratory (“something like a Galapagos” in his words), Meadows selects Sri Lanka – an island nation with a self-contained evolution through terrorism.

The book starts like an action thriller – a dozen or so bombs going off in various parts of the capital Colombo in 1984 sending the country into chaos before sharply contrasting the relaxed, easy-going life that has been practised for centuries. Meadows describes Sri Lankan life: “Water is pulled from the wells, coconuts are knocked from the trees, fish are dragged from the sea, and the big tropical sun swings overhead, tying the days into each other in a steaming, sweaty rhythm of ancient customs.

Renting a motorcycle, Meadows headed north into Tamil country and home to the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and scrabble set of other terrorist, free-fighter, drug smugglers and militant organisations. The Tamil Tigers are infamous for inventing suicide bombing, along with conscripting children, women bombers and linking financiers into militancy.

Throughout his journey, he arranges interviews with leading players in this three decade conflict, including the mastermind (Shankar Rajee) behind the multiple Colombo bombing. Each interview is conducted in a relaxed manner (often under intense security) over a cup of tea, such a symbolic and treasured element of Sri Lankan life.

I have never had tea smile at me. I push my nose into the steam and inhale an entire spice market in one breath. Cardamom and cinnamon and berries roll out with a sugary flavor that, despite being smelled, hits the sides of my tongue, making it water, and the smell also has a silver lining of something almost like a delicate soapy scent.

The book continues in its three phases and the contrasts between them – the rich culture and life in Sri Lanka (key symbols such as tea and the elephant are a consistent thread through the book), the savagery of the terrorist acts and the interviews with the leaders of the various organisation, each adding a further insight into the conflict. Meadows reflections on the interviews and his introspection and developing thoughts are probably the highlights of the book.

Remarkably Meadows opens all his interviews with the same question, getting hesitant, non-committal or clich├ęd answers to the differences between the Sinhalese and Tamil people. It is a constant reminder that the world often battles small differences far more than large ones.

I am not sure that Meadows ever completely comes to grips with terrorism and the reasons behind it and the psyche of the major protagonists. One militant leader hauntingly describes terrorism as follows:

Terrorism is simply targeting innocent people…Everything else fails…We are weakening the economy and making it feel our struggle. And by doing so we gain the attention we need.

As I suspect the case for most readers, I knew little of Sri Lanka nor the civil war before reading this book. All up, it is a fascinating read – part rollicking travelogue, part portrait of an ancient culture and country and part introspection into the grisly world of terrorism, all through the humble cup of tea. I heartily recommend it.

Disclosure: The publishers sent me a complimentary copy of the book for review.


Sherry Ott said...

I visited Sri Lanka after the war so I'm not real sure what the environment was like prior to that. However I did love the country. Sounds like the book would help me understand it's past.

Leigh McAdam said...

Aren't you the lucky fellow getting books to review. I've read one of Michael Ondaatje's books about living in Sri Lanka but have never been. As an avid reader I will put this one on my list.

Mark H said...

@sherry: I've never been though the country looks enchanting from the photos I have seen.

@leigh: I am quite fortunate. I will be on the lookout for Ondaatje's book too.

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