Meeting Bosnian Author Adnan Mahmutovic

The second international event I attended this semester was also a part of the Neustadt Literature Festival. As a student in the affiliated course, I got a chance to talk with some of the authors individually, both in conversation and interviews. After the festival’s keynote address by African American poet Marylin Nelson, we got to have lunch with all the authors on the jury who come from all over the world.

I got to sit next to Adnan Mahmutovic, a Bosnian refugee who wrote the short story collection How to Fare Well and Stay Fair, which I absolutely loved. The short stories feature primarily Bosnian refugees, and some of them are autobiographical. His rich depictions of his homeland particularly resonated with me, as did his realistic portrayals of women.

The primary way that Mahmutovic describes Bosnia is through smell, particularly in the story “The Myth of the Smell.” An old woman in a refugee camp says that the rich scents of Bosnia are like “the greeting arms of a father.” When a girl returns to the refugee camp from Bosnia and brings back a handful of soil, her fellow Bosnians marvel at its heady, superior smell. Yet as the name of the story implies, the dirt smells ordinary, and the refugees are aggrandizing it in order to cling to their homeland.

Other of the stories feature very young female protagonists, most of whom are Bosnian, who are escaping the violence of war; they are victims of rape and have seen their family members murdered. Mahmutovic’s descriptions of these women’s relationships with their bodies and lovers are so strikingly intimate that it’s difficult to believe they’re written by a man.

When another female student and I complimented him on his ability to write female characters and tackle delicate women’s issues, he blushed with pride. Growing up with many sisters and a close family, he said he felt like he has always understood women better than men, and he credits the women in his family as his inspiration.

Mahmutovic was funny and honest, and meeting him in person only made me appreciate his writing more. While How to Fare Well and Stay Fair provides insight into the weighty issue of the Bosnian refugee crisis, it’s also sweet, witty and uplifting, much like the author himself.



Christmas Markets

Over the past month, I have visited the Christmas markets of Germany. (And one in France.) As it is New Years Eve, most of the markets have ended and packed up until next year. However, through these markets, I have visited places that I had originally not intended to see, and that makes me very thankful for them.

I like to collect little trinkets from places that I visit. Usually I buy a postcard and put it in an album when I return to the United States… but at the markets, I was able to buy glühwein. (Mulled wine.) It came in special mugs/glasses that showcased where I had purchased them.

In the markets, there were trinkets from all over Germany! In fact, there were things from all over the world. In Nuremberg, I bought a couple of little pins from a Ukrainian woman. Despite the copious amount of things available for purchase in each city, most of the stuff was not practical for me to purchase. Large beer steins, beautiful hand crafted woodwork, and other impressive creations were too large, (and sometimes too expensive) for me.

Regardless of what I bought/didn’t buy, I think Christmas markets are great. People of all ages, religions, and races came to walk around, socialize, and be happy. I always smiled when I saw grandparents ice skating with their grandchildren… These markets took me all over Germany. (And to Strasbourg, France.) Not only fun, but capable of showcasing the culture of the city/region. I know that I will be back to Europe to experience these again.

Meeting Russian Author Alisa Ganieva

This past November, I got to attend a lecture by the Russian author Alisa Ganieva. After reading her novel The Mountain and the Wall and excerpts from The Bride and the Bridegroom, I was particularly interested in both her perspective as a writer from the little-known region of Dagestan and as a Muslim woman.

The Republic of Dagestan is a federal republic of Russia in the Northern Caucasus region. With a population of under three million people, it’s a predominantly Muslim territory. In The Mountain and the Wall, Ganieva creates a quasi-apocalyptic yet not unimaginable future in which Dagestan is cut off from the rest of Russia. As the Dagestani people in general are oppressed by the larger Russian government, the women within Dagestan seemed to be oppressed by Islam. They are simultaneously rewarded and condemned for conservative and provocative behavior, showing that the men use religion as a means to control the female characters.

In her own literary career, Ganieva struggled to write as a woman. She initially submitted her first novella into a writing competition under a male pseudonym, and, so relatable was the male protagonist, readers assumed the work was largely autobiographical. When she won the award and subsequently mounted the stage to accept it, the audience was stunned. In Ganieva’s own words, “They were expecting some brutal, unshaven guy from the mountains.” 

I really enjoyed getting to hear Ganieva speak, especially since I had just read one of her books. It was also interesting to interact with someone from Russia; given the recent political turmoil between America and Russia, it’s easy to forget that it’s a massive country with normal, productive citizens who have nothing to do with the corrupt government. Ganieva was bright and personable, and she offered me a completely new perspective on Russia.


Learning Greek


A mosaic at Sepphoris I saw this summer

A couple years ago, I posted here about my experience learning German, the first foreign language I’ve ever seriously tried to learn. Even though I’m far from my goal of being fluent by the end of my college career, I’m still reviewing and learning, and I’m excited to be in a conversation class in the fall. I got so excited about German that I decided to start on a couple more languages – Latin and Greek – since I want to continue studying classics in grad school.

What is the difference between modern Greek and ancient Greek? Ancient Greek is much different from modern Greek. I’ve done a very small amount of research to learn just how different, and it seems like the difference between ancient and modern Greek, according to some website, is like the difference between English and Latin. Much more of a difference than I had thought. Some words are mutually intelligible – I can guess, for example, that the Latin rosa means “rose” – but other times I might guess incorrectly but have related meanings – I wouldn’t be able to simply guess that domus means “house” though I would recognize the derivative “domestic” or “domicile.” From what I gather, the relationship between ancient and modern Greek is similar. Modern Greek speakers can pick out words with varying degrees of difficulty.

Learning Greek is really interesting. It’s also one of the most difficult undertakings I’ve begun in college. First, there’s an entirely difficult alphabet. It’s not difficult to internalize, but it adds an extra layer of decoding to every exercise. Then, Greek, like Latin, is also an inflected language, and full of participles and dozens of forms of verbs that I still don’t recognize, even just after a single semester.

Even though ancient Greek is not a modern language, I still have taken some things away that remind me that language and culture tightly intertwined. I never that language has a profound effect on the way we think until I started learning different languages. “Shame” and “modesty” in Greek are the same word, and shame seems to have a positive connotation rather than negative. Groups of people are not “they” but rather “hes” or “shes” in a sense, and if a group is made up of a hundred females and a single male, the group is still a group of “hes.” Epicene nouns are nouns that have a masculine gender, but their articles can simply be changed to feminine to indicate that the thing in question is feminine. From these things, what are the implications about gender in Greek culture? I’m fascinated to think about things like this, and I’m learning to apply the same mode of thinking in examining modern American culture and other cultures I encounter.


Germany: Integrating Immigrants

Earlier this semester I saw a photo exhibit, Germany: Integrating Immigrants. This exhibit, part of Germany Week at OU, was designed to help viewers learn about the ways Germany helps immigrants successfully build their lives in a new country.

The exhibit began with a short video in a classroom in Kaufmann hall. The video described the experiences of several immigrants and refugees in Germany and the paths their lives had taken and the careers they were able to pursue successfully. A series of posters began outside the classrooms and continued down the hall of the second floor of Kaufmann and in the lobby of Farzaneh a few buildings away.

Before seeing this exhibit, I had known that Germany has had relative success in helping immigrants integrate into society, but through this series of infographics I learned about the specific ways that the German government helps newcomers. For example, there are plenty of German language courses offered as well as an app designed to help refugees learn German for everyday situations. The US government does not seem to offer similar services. Integrating Immigrants brought that to my consciousness and caused me to consider what life is like for immigrants to the US.

Sooners Without Borders

Considering my end goal of life (besides being a disney princess) is to work globally practicing medicine with Doctors Without Borders, simply the name of this organization attracted my instantly. A group who seeks to travel and serve and love all nations are the world supports everything I believe in.

In Acts 1:8, Jesus charges the disciples with His final words on earth before returning to be with the Father in heaven, telling them, “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” From His last command to the disciples, it is clear that God’s intent is to have His message of salvation delivered to all nations and all people who need the Word of truth.

There are countries across the world where no outsiders are allowed in, especially Christians. However, these isolated people are in desperate enough need for medical care that they will allow doctors in to serve their people who are struggling to survive. This is where groups like Sooners Without Border would come in and help. Seeking to serve the downtrodden and hurting.




East Coast Part I

This is going to be a several part post, because three weeks of independent travel doesn’t just fit into one or two posts, and that’s exactly how I spent the last three weeks, backpacking the east coast of Australia by bus and boat. I started at the northern end of the coast in Cairns, famous for waterfalls, Cape Tribulation, and great snorkeling/scuba diving areas of the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately I was rather time crunched, and only had time to snorkel the reef. I had to miss out on the waterfalls and everything else the Cairns area of tropical northern Australia has to offer, but I plan to go back someday and cover the things that I missed. Only once though: I realized early on in my travels that there is always something you will wish you’d done or had time to do. No matter how long you stay in a place, a city, or a country, you’re always going to feel that you missed things. There are just too many cool things to do in too many places. So, for this trip I did what I could, I made my way down the coast, staying two nights at a time in most places, one full day for activities in each place, nearly two if I was lucky, and for me for this trip that was enough.

The hostel was its own experience. I’d never stayed in a share room with strangers before, and the first people I met coming in weren’t exactly welcoming. I wondered the first night if I’d made a mistake, if I should have just stayed around Melbourne and done short trips alone or with my friends who were still in the area. I slept pretty badly too, partly because of the weird environment and indifferent or unwelcoming strangers, partly because I was terrified about missing something. I’d booked through a booking agent, who had made a schedule for me and signed me up for everything in advance, so there was no room for error. If I missed a tour or activity that was it, I’d missed it. There was no time to go back, and if I missed a bus it could put me an entire day off, costing me at least one activity and even making going to a town pointless. I’m not exactly a morning person, and most of my activities and busses left at 8 am each day, with some starting as early as 6:30, so I was really anxious about missing something. This made for some fitful nights of sleep my first few days out, especially in Cairns. In some ways this was good though, it made sure I woke up in time for my activities, even if I was a bit tired. No one travels to be well rested.

So Cairns was the reef, and this little trip was when I realized that there were problems with booking through a booking agent. They’d put me on the cheapest boat available, which was fine in that the reef is the reef, but this boat was old and the water was a bit rough that day, so most passengers got sick (myself included, but less so than most). And the spots we saw on the reef, I later learned, were not as good as the areas people who paid a bit more got to see. But because I’d booked through an agent I had no idea what I was getting, they’d just given me the cheapest options available. It was still an incredible experience though. I rented a GoPro, but unfortunately, I don’t have a card reader, so I can’t post any pictures until I get back to the states. The colors were amazing though, we could just float over the reefs, close enough to touch them if I’d stretched my arm out far enough, and the fish didn’t care. They just kept swimming, avoiding anyone who accidentally kicked out with ease.

Because the sites we were at weren’t that great, we could also see some of the damage the reef has suffered. We saw broken and bleached corals that had fallen off the shelf onto the ocean floor a few yards below, and large stretches where fish didn’t bother to go anymore. But the surviving reef was beautiful, and honestly hard to take in. When they called us in for the last time I felt like I’d barely started exploring it.

From Cairns, I took a Premier bus (cheaper version of a Greyhound) south along the coast to Townsville, where I caught a ferry to Magnetic Island, named, apparently, because Captain Cook incorrectly thought the island messed with his compass. I could have stayed on this island for a week easily. Not only was the hostel there my favorite from my whole trip, but the island was ideal for just exploring and seeing wildlife. I only had one full day there, but I walked miles across the island and saw loads of lizards, wild wallabies, and wild koalas, and I only made it over one side of the island. Given more time I might have been able to spot eagles and sea life.

My next stop was Airlie beach to see the Whitsundays, a series of islands off the coast of mainland Australia. Given another chance I would do a two or three day tour to have a chance to see manta rays, dolphins, and even whales at the right time of year. But again, I was pressed for time, so I did a one day tour, and it was still amazing. Whitehaven beach was incredible, and no matter how many photos I took I knew I’d never manage to capture it the way it seems in reality. I had a great time there though, despite the massive sunburn I discovered when I got back. The only down side to this stop was Airlie beach itself. There really wasn’t anything to do there, and I wound up having to kill an entire day there waiting on an evening bus to my next stop. A day off wound up being pretty nice though, after going all out for nearly a week, an easy day to just walk around was a good break.



I’d never considered staying in a hostel until I started planning my travels in Australia. My mental image of them was one of old buildings with too many creaky, old bunks and questionably clean sheets crammed into a dingy room. And I imagined the people who commonly stayed in such places to be appropriately dingy and questionable as well. This image was formulated early in my life, and it was simply one I had never gone back and reassessed. So, when I started planning my travels and trying to figure out how on earth I could afford them, I clearly needed to reevaluate that image.

Even once I accepted that hostels weren’t as sketchy as I had imagined for most of my life, I still had reservations about them. Everything I read online about them was about preparing to protect yourself and your things in a hostel. Bringing padlocks and cable locks to secure luggage and sleeping with valuables were recommended to prevent theft. Some sites even recommended carrying pepper spray, especially if you were staying in a coed room, which I frequently was. After reading all this I was pretty nervous about staying in my first hostel, but I quickly learned that as long as I was smart I wouldn’t have any trouble.

I kept my valuables with me at all times, either in my bag, between me and the wall on my bed, or checked into the hostel reception’s valuables storage. I didn’t worry about my clothes and toiletries in my main bag; I figured those were easier to replace anyway. However, I never had anything stolen, and I didn’t lose anything on my travels either.

I never felt unsafe either. None of the hostels I stayed in fit my “ancient building dingy bed” image from my childhood. Some were certainly older, but the rooms were well kept, and they all had a certain character to them. Some hostels were “party hostels,” either because they had a bar in the hostel or because they were very close to the city night life. Some hostels were quieter and, to me, nicer, since I’m not really the party type. My favorite hostel though was a party hostel. Called X-Base on Magnetic Island, it was a cluster of cabins set along the beach. The reception building had a restaurant and bar built on a deck, which extended out over the beach. The bar got quite loud at night, but the cabins were far enough away that the noise didn’t make it hard to sleep. Even when the bar was loud, the deck was fairly quiet, and it was a great place to sit at night and look out at the sky and ocean.

The biggest thing I learned about hostels is that it’s often best to choose your own. I booked my trip through a booking agent, who booked everything for me. Most of the bookings were nice, like X-Base and most of the other hostels I stayed in. However, some, like the first hostel I stayed in, weren’t really to my taste. They were just a bit dingy, and they just had a vibe I didn’t really like. I think if I’d booked my own accommodations I would have found places that appealed to me a bit more.

On the whole though, hostels were a great way to go. They were affordable, most were located right in the middle of the sites of interest in each city, and they were a great way to meet other backpackers and find new travel partners. I made several new friends in just three weeks traveling through Australia. Meeting people and having a place to sleep between adventures were the only things I hoped for out of a hostel anyway.

American Culture Club

This is the second year I’ve participated in the BCM’s American Culture Club. ACC is a place where international and exchange students can mingle with Americans and other exchange students and learn about American culture. In the past, I’ve learned much from going to these clubs, since I don’t normally think about the traditions behind my everyday life in Texas and Oklahoma.

The club has been structured slightly differently this year. Last year we met for five weeks and discussed family, holidays, and Oklahoma culture. This year we focused on American holidays, a different holiday each week, and explained the traditions of each one. The discussion naturally wove around to holidays from each student’s home country.

I participated in more outings than club meetings this time around. One of my favorite moments from this semester was trying to explain the food at a barbecue place we went to for dinner one night. As I read through the menu and recommended my favorite things, I realized that explaining coleslaw and fried okra is not an easy task. Fried okra’s deliciousness speaks for itself, but coleslaw is more difficult to justify.

Regardless, I’ve had lots of fun meeting people at ACC this year and look forward to next year.


Iceland’s Christmas Monsters

Iceland's Christmas Monsters

Most people have heard of Santa’s more terrifying European counterparts, like the Austrian Krampus or the French Père Fouettard, but did you know that Iceland has its own cast of winter monsters?

Modern Iceland is one of the few European countries whose residents still believe (to some extent) in the existence of elves and fairies, known as the Huldufólk. (I heard a great explanation for the continued belief while traveling in Ireland, where certain trees are still considered “fairy trees” that should never be touched: the fairies might not be real, but my grandfather and his grandfather and his grandfather never touched that tree stump, so why risk it?)  And wouldn’t life feel more magical and mysterious if we all believed that there were still creatures out there that we didn’t know much about?

In Iceland, this continued belief even goes so far as to alter building projects and road work, since the Huldufólk don’t like people to encroach on their land.  But their presence in modern Icelandic culture is one of the things that makes this isolated country so unique and beautiful.

In particular, several of these beings relate to the Christmas season, so what better time to learn about them?

GrýlaGrýla is a giantess from the Prose Edda, the 13th-century compilation of Icelandic mythology and legends written by Snorri Sturluson and one of our main surviving sources of Old Norse.  Over time, Grýla became associated with the Christmas season, when she finds misbehaving children and turns them into stew.  She is also the mother of the 13 Jólasveinarnir, or Yule Lads.

The Jólasveinarnir are usually depicted as more innocent mischief-makers, Actors portraying the Yule Ladsalthough in some early legends they kidnapped children just like their mother.  Today, though, children leave out an empty shoe for the 13 days before Christmas; if they had been well-behaved, they would receive a small present or candy from one troll each night.

Grýla also owns  Jólakötturinn, or the Yule Cat, a huge black cat that also likes to eat people.  One Icelandic tradition is that anyone who finishes all of their work for the year receives a new piece of clothing to wear on Christmas; the lazy people who didn’t finish in time and had to wear their old clothes would then be eaten by Jólakötturinn.  A 1987 song based on Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s poem tells the legend of Jólakötturinn (see the video below).

Iceland’s rich tradition of folklore includes many other fascinating characters.  I’d love to learn more about other Christmas legends; can any of them compete with Grýla gruesome family?