Staying in with Denis Dragovic

No Dancing No Dancing cover

I’ve just returned from a trip to Uganda where I saw incredible poverty as refugees from surrounding countries arrive and so I am thrilled to welcome Denis Dragovic to Linda’s Book Bag today to stay in with me and tell me a little about a book that touches on a very similar subject.

If you’re an author who’d also like to stay in with me to tell me about one of your books, please click here for more details.

Staying in with Denis Dragovic

Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Denis. Thank you for agreeing to stay in with me.

The pleasure is mine. It’s great to chat with a fellow bibliophile.  

Tell me, which of your books have you brought along to share this evening and why have you chosen it?

I have with me No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis. When we turn on our televisions, surf the web or travel we are confronted by wars and natural disasters. To help, we send money, we like a Facebook post or we Tweet in support of a cause. But our minds quickly turn back to what preoccupied us before we saw an image of a sick child or a battered city, comforted in knowing that there are people who are doing their best to respond to the needs of others.

With a growing global humanitarian crisis it’s important that we don’t get distracted so easily.

I brought No Dancing with me as it brings the reader into my former life as an aid worker by following a journey I took back to some of the places where I had worked to see what happened to the people and projects spanning across a decade of humanitarian assistance.

(This is fascinating Denis and I understand No Dancing is out today. I look forward to hearing more.)

So what can we expect from an evening in with No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis?

You will be regaled with stories of slave traders plying their trade and angry Ayatollahs arguing against American imperialism. The voices of resistance fighters and refugees are heard along with an account of negotiating the release of a kidnapped colleague.

When woven together these stories introduce the challenges of providing humanitarian assistance in war torn countries along with touching on other debates such as Western intervention in the Middle East and the impact of cultural imperialism.

The book tells the story but leaves the discussion of how each and every one of us should respond to the global humanitarian crisis to evenings such as this one where a bottle of wine and good friends can agree on how to contribute in their own way.

I’ll read a piece from the book:

One October evening together with Firas and his long-time friend and IRC colleague Haider, I got into a car and headed downtown to meet with the Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Bashir. The Ayatollah’s offices can be found in the old quarter of Najaf, a stone’s throw (or a rifle shot) away from other competing clerics vying to remain within hearing distance of the muezzin’s call to the faithful, exhorting them to prayer from a minaret high above the Shrine of Imam Ali. That evening the drive to the old town took us through narrow thoroughfares faintly lit by street lamps striking the sand still in the air from a late summer sandstorm. Dilapidated two- and three-storey houses shakily crowded over the streets in a show of either godly humility or human neglect. Men sauntered home from mosques in their dishdasha, while the women in their head to toe black abayas scurried out of sight.

We came to a road block, one more reminder of the pre-eminence of the affairs of man in this avowedly holy city. A few men, scattered amongst the shadows, pointed their Kalashnikovs at us while another stood in the headlights with arm raised, challenging our arrival. After introducing ourselves as staff members of the IRC we were led by a guard to a metal door, which he entered to check our appointment. Verified as scheduled guests we were welcomed inside, searched for weapons, shown where we could leave our shoes and then led into a small windowless room with a worn brown carpet. The interior of the Ayatollah’s residence was surprising and impressively modest for a leader of such status. Furniture was sparse, limited to a small wooden cabinet serving as a bookcase that would be lucky to have raised a few dollars at a junk yard sale. We waited, accompanied by the office manager and, a little while later Ayatollah Bashir’s son.

For several minutes we engaged in standard small talk—they asked my first impressions of Iraq, I asked them their thoughts on the war, we each answered with what we assumed the other wanted to hear. Then the Ayatollah entered. He was, in appearance, carved from the same stone as leaders of a bygone era, from a time when great men exuded an intoxicating aura of authority and wisdom. But in today’s world of slick haircuts and Hollywood smiles the close-up matters—and in this case it wasn’t pretty. With a long unkempt salt and pepper beard, rolls of fat, and skin the texture of a worn prayer rug, the Ayatollah was a study in the rejection of modernism. He wore a white turban suggesting that his ancestors were not from the Prophet’s blood line. A black robe covered his white dishdasha with a pair of thick, black rimmed glasses firmly planted on his nose.

We sat on the cushions and carpet. With some Ayatollahs I would kneel and kiss their hands, inches above the ground, as a sign of respect. For some reason it didn’t seem appropriate that I would make the gesture, nor did he reach out expecting it. Was this a reflection of his disposition? I wasn’t sure, so I prepared for the standard introduction.

Instead, the Ayatollah began by telling Firas, who subsequently translated for me, that he could not speak English. I understood this and cut in to Firas’ translation, ‘But as I am visiting Iraq it is I who should apologise that I cannot speak Arabic.’

His expression remained impassive, impenetrable, and continuing to talk in Arabic with Firas he countered ‘But English is an important language, the most important for all people in the world. I would like to have learned it, but in my role as the leader of all Shia people I must study many other things.’

I continued with flattery, ‘Those things that you study, to help you as a leader, are more important than English.’ I hoped that this exchange would win him over. This was unlike other meetings with religious leaders, during which we discussed Western academic accounts of the schism between Shia and Sunni Islam in the seventh century or the finer points of Imam Ali’s betrayal. The Ayatollah asked if he could speak frankly to me, to which I replied that I would welcome such a conversation.

‘What are your ties to the CIA?’ he demanded, explaining that all Western organisations have links to the CIA.

(Wow – what an evocative piece. I’m sure most of us as readers are totally oblivious to this kind of experience.)

What else have you brought along and why?

The evening wouldn’t be complete without some photos to share.


This is me during my return visit with Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Bashir who in our first meeting accused me of being a CIA spy assessing the layout of his compound for an assassination attempt.


US Marines landing alongside my car in a reconnaissance visit in advance of their effort to lend a helping hand by transporting shelter materials to this inaccessible mountain village in East Timor.


Here I’m with Iraqi friends waiting to meet the Governor of Najaf. Standing in the background is Nawal, a female politician struggling against cultural norms to represent her constituency.

Thank you so much for such a fascinating time Denis. I’ve learnt so much from staying in with you. Good luck with today’s publication of No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis.

No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis

No Dancing No Dancing cover

What happens to aid projects after the money is spent? Or the people and communities once the media spotlight has left?

No Dancing, No Dancing follows the return journey of a former aid worker back to the site of three major humanitarian crises—South Sudan, Iraq and East Timor—in search of what happened to the people and projects. Along the way, he looks for answers to how we can better respond to the emerging global humanitarian crisis.

Meeting young entrepreneurs striving to build their businesses, listening to tribal leaders give unvarnished views of foreign aid or negotiating the release of a kidnapped colleague, this riveting work brings the reader into the global humanitarian crisis while engaging with questions of cultural imperialism, Western aid models and foreign interventions.

No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis is available for purchase here.

About Denis Dragovic


Dr Denis Dragovic is an author of literary and scholarly works on humanitarian aid and rebuilding countries after war.

For over a decade he was at the forefront of international aid efforts responding to major humanitarian crises in Darfur, South Sudan, East Timor, Indonesia and Iraq where he led one of the world’s largest aid programs. Seeing slave traders ply their trade, leading efforts to negotiate a kidnapped aid worker or helping to support the establishment of local community groups gives him a unique insight into the humanitarian challenges of the twenty-first century. Denis’ on the ground experiences are backed by specialist knowledge as an expert on religion and rebuilding countries after wars.

He is currently a Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne and a Senior Member on Australia’s Administrative Appeals Tribunal hearing appeals from asylum seekers denied protection.

You can visit Denis’s website for more information.

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