Jokha Alharthi: Celestial Bodies

“Mongoloid” as a term for Down syndrome has been considered offensive and obsolete by the time this book was published, and yet it is still being used here to describe a minor character. It is but a small spot in a galaxy of details and I’m not usually one to nitpick on political correctness, because I also tend to be guilty of political incorrectness at times, but this somehow cast a cloud on my appreciation. And although I read this about a week ago, it took some time for me to gather my thoughts.

_ _ _

Jokha Alharthi is the first Omani woman to have a novel translated into English. Marilyn Booth, the translator, has translated works by two favorite authors in my Silk Route & Fertile Crescent Reading Project, Elias Khoury and Nawal El Saadawi.

With that in mind, perhaps I set my expectations too high.

There are elements that I highly value: How each chapter is named after a character, and through these various perspectives from different social strata unfold the story and tapestry of Omani history and society; unique details of traditional wedding preparations through the eyes of the mother; captivating descriptions of Bedouin life; and Abdallah’s musings during an airplane flight that often wax poetic. The historical aspects led me to look into the British-mediated Treaty of Seeb and, hardly ever mentioned in reviews, the master-slave dynamic in such a society that plays a significant role in this novel, reminding the reader that it was only in 1970 that slavery was abolished in Oman.

Orbiting around the lives of three sisters in the village of al-Awafi, I immediately found a favorite in the middle sister, Asma. The reading sister, the one through whom references to the region’s literary traditions are made, the one who has read enough to see through the nonsensical beliefs and superstitions.

These three sisters in the cusp of a modern Oman, although bound to customs, had relatively more freedoms compared to women from other stories I’ve read of the region. And so it was with disappointment that I read how Asma readily agreed to an arranged marriage while the younger sister who spent more time prettifying herself was resolute in refusing hers. It can be argued that Asma did it in the hope of furthering her education and the younger had more foolish reasons for her refusal, but something still did not add up. The strong character that I admired at the beginning seemed to give way to a weaker one towards the end.

On the other hand, there is more to the novel than that. The fact that there is so much to pay attention to borders on both distracting and brilliant, but as far as novels translated to English are concerned, this is still currently the most intimate look into Omani life available to us.

In a way, it makes me look forward to what lies ahead in translated Omani literature — especially those written by women.

Nawal El Saadawi: The Fall of the Imam

“No one of you has ever possessed my mind. No one. And no matter how often you took my body my mind was always far away out of your reach, like the eye of the sun during the day, like the eye of the sky at night.”

In a culture where a buffalo has more worth than a woman, where love and marriage are usually two different things, where there is a disconnect between religious devotion and actions, where a man has the freedom to sin but where a woman can get stoned for being a victim, Nawal treads dangerously with her words.

She throws difficult questions at religion and those who are in power, beats us out of complacency and privilege, and prods us to be angry at injustice and inequality.

This is not the book I would recommend to someone who is new to her writings, but a seasoned Nawal reader would probably consider this an epitome of her literary prowess.

Prose-wise, it is the most ornate. Content-wise, it is the most potent. Form-wise, it is her most sophisticated. And wading through all of that is not so easy.

Different narrators for each chapter can get disorienting; the victims narrate, the criminals narrate, so do the dead, and oftentimes about the same incident. When it comes to the women, one can get confused trying to identify whether it is the mother speaking, or the daughter, or the new wife, or the first wife, or the mistress, or the sister. But I realize the intention: It is to emphasize the fact that they are women, and because they are women they suffer all the same.

“Like in The Thousand and One Nights, the beginning of each tale merged with the end of the one which had preceded it, like the night merges with the day…” And then she draws us away from Scheherazade to a lesser-viewed aspect of this literary heritage and culture, and points the spotlight at the hypocrisy of King Shahryar.

Through it all, the question that seems to reverberate loudest in my mind is this: What can we do if the leaders, those who are in power, the ones assigned to mete out judgment, are the perpetrators of the crime?

Because at times, they are. Not only in some culture foreign to us. But in ours, too.

Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads

A fascinating overview of the world my mind has been transported to in 2020. Without any intention of underrating the author, I doubt if I would have found this as easy to ingest had I not gone through all the other materials I devoured prior to reading this. The political, religious, and economic landscape already seemed familiar to me by the time I arrived at The Silk Roads.

Aside from agreeing on accounts and facts with the other books I read, and also declaring that it is time we look at history from another perspective; what details the other books chose not to elaborate, this one expounded and vice versa, altogether offering a more detailed and broader picture of history.

In my recent readings, the vastness of how much mainstream history excludes and how it reeks of western bias disturbed me deeply. I felt rather betrayed by history textbooks and it was tempting to shift entirely to an eastern-centric worldview.

But the remarkable thing about seeking to learn more is that it encourages openness, and you ultimately realize that the most wonderful way of viewing the world and history is to study it through not one, not two, but through as many vantage points as possible.

Quoting Peter Frankopan, “There was good reason why the cultures, cities and peoples who lived along the Silk Roads developed and advanced: as they traded and exchanged ideas, they learnt and borrowed from each other, stimulating further advances in philosophy, the sciences, language… As tastes became more sophisticated, so did appetites for information. Alongside increasingly sophisticated tastes came increasingly refined ideas.” History teaches us that this is how cities and cultures thrived, reasoning implies that this is how our minds could flourish. 

Shirin Ebadi: Iran Awakening

Iran’s first female judge, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, has penned this affecting book with such free-flowing sincerity that I could not help but cry in a number of passages.

Just as in 2011 when I read Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and it made me celebrate my freedom as a reader, Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening is making me celebrate my freedom as a woman as it raises awareness of the many liberties that we often take for granted.

Gertrude Bell

“The world was awake — it wakes early in the East.”

Gertrude Bell’s simple description of a Persian sunrise encapsulates, with figurative overtones, the theme of the books I have been reading lately. In The Silk Roads, she is described as dynamic and fiercely intelligent, brilliant, a mercurial scholar and traveler who knew the region and its people as well as anyone. Portrayed by Nicole Kidman in Queen of the Desert, she is called a Kingmaker for being influential in drawing up the borders of the new nation of Iraq and in bringing King Faisal to power as its first ruler in 1921. But it was only through Safar Nameh that I was introduced to her writing.

She writes so elegantly with a deep perception of places, people, and the relationship between East and West. She speaks of “the careless optimism of those who seek to pile one edifice upon another, a Western upon an Eastern world, and never pause to consider whether, if it stands at all, the newer will only stand by crushing the older out of all existence.”

This is a tiny book of a hundred pages that I thought I would be able to finish in one coffee break, but the writing is too beautiful that I had to savor the lines over and over again.

And for those times when my mind and soul are exceedingly wide awake in wonder, she has the right words… “The world was too lovely for sleep.”

Henry Hemming: Misadventure in the Middle East

In contrast to de Botton’s encouraged manner of traveling by allowing art to guide us in our travels and what we pay attention to, Henry Hemming, a British painter and author, ventures to the Middle East and lets his travels guide his art.

He and his companion discovered that each country and their people were immensely different from the other that, as artists, it was now more difficult for them to paint a portrait of what we call the “Middle East.” But this is where the book comes in.

It may not be a complete picture, but it provides a keener understanding, especially at a time when we need it most. 

Nawal El Saadawi

November 2021

I did not read these books. I inhaled the force of these books — in big and small gasps, and by the end of the third, I could not part with her. I do not think I can ever part with her. You would want to acquire her strength through osmosis!

She is my writer. Belonging to that rare breed who, even when writing about their lives, call attention to matters beyond themselves. Her words insist that you come out of her books knowing more about yourself, about the world.

Indeed, there are authors whose lives are as intense as their books. Nawal El Saadawi is one of them. Writer, activist, physician, and psychiatrist, her eventful life consists of losing her job as Director of Public Health Education due to political pressure, being imprisoned as a vocal critic of President Anwar Sadat and released only a month after his assassination, running for the Egyptian presidency in 2004, appearing on an Islamic fundamentalist death list, and being a potential Nobel laureate in literature until her death in March this year.

When it is Doris Lessing herself who says this is something we should all be reading, what is there left for me to say?

.

Woman at Point Zero & God Dies by the Nile

October 2021

Two books undiluted in their scathing criticism of religious hypocrisy among men and leaders, corruption, and the brutal treatment of women.

Both stories are based on real lives, and these are not to be read if you would rather prevent yourself from seething.

Written in 1973 and 1976, these stories and themes should have already become irrelevant at this point in history.

That they still aren’t is the tragedy.

.

Searching

April 2022

A Nawal El Saadawi work of fiction is an art film; one where nuanced cinematography captures the reflection of the sun on a window pane and which slowly pans toward the distress coursing through a woman’s veins; one that disquiets with its honesty; one with an unbroken tension that does not resolve, but bleeds into a thousand provoking questions as the end credits fade into darkness.

.

The Fall of the Imam

“No one of you has ever possessed my mind. No one. And no matter how often you took my body my mind was always far away out of your reach, like the eye of the sun during the day, like the eye of the sky at night.”

August 6, 2022

In a culture where a buffalo has more worth than a woman, where love and marriage are usually two different things, where there is a disconnect between religious devotion and actions, where a man has the freedom to sin but where a woman can get stoned for being a victim, Nawal treads dangerously with her words.

She throws difficult questions at religion and those who are in power, beats us out of complacency and privilege, and prods us to be angry at injustice and inequality.

This is not the book I would recommend to someone who is new to her writings, but a seasoned Nawal reader would probably consider this an epitome of her literary prowess.

Prose-wise, it is the most ornate. Content-wise, it is the most potent. Form-wise, it is her most sophisticated. And wading through all of that is not so easy.

Different narrators for each chapter can get disorienting; the victims narrate, the criminals narrate, so do the dead, and oftentimes about the same incident. When it comes to the women, one can get confused trying to identify whether it is the mother speaking, or the daughter, or the new wife, or the first wife, or the mistress, or the sister. But I realize the intention: It is to emphasize the fact that they are women, and because they are women they suffer all the same.

“Like in The Thousand and One Nights, the beginning of each tale merged with the end of the one which had preceded it, like the night merges with the day…” And then she draws us away from Scheherazade to a lesser-viewed aspect of this literary heritage and culture, and points the spotlight at the hypocrisy of King Shahryar.

Through it all, the question that seems to reverberate loudest in my mind is this: What can we do if the leaders, those who are in power, the ones assigned to mete out judgment, are the perpetrators of the crime?

Because at times, they are. Not only in some culture foreign to us. But in ours, too.

Elif Shafak: The Bastard of Istanbul

Reading this is like walking into the vibrance of the color spectrum and ending up enveloped in its deepest and darkest hues.

But which caused the author to be put on trial for “denigrating Turkishness” under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. By lending voice to the Armenian characters in the novel, Elif Shafak risked being sentenced to prison. The charges were eventually dropped, but the incident highlights the fearlessness of a Turkish woman brave enough to write about something which, until now, the Turkish government denies — the Armenian Genocide during World War I. 

The dialogues between the descendants of the oppressed Armenians and modern-day Turks are moving and revealing on equal sides; the characters are relatable and human; historical facts and astonishing twists leave the reader no choice but to gasp; magic realism effectively subtle; all these, interlaced into the breathtaking and bewitching chaos that is Istanbul make it a triumph of unforgettable and disquieting beauty.

And because the two main characters are readers, there are ruminations on the power of the written word: “Though books were potentially harmful, novels were all the more dangerous.  The path of fiction could easily mislead you into the cosmos of stories where everything was fluid, quixotic, and as open to surprises as a moonless night in the desert… Imagination was a dangerously captivating magic for those compelled to be realistic in life, and words could be poisonous for those destined always to be silenced.”

Rabih Alameddine: The Hakawati

February 18, 2021

This book is on fire! A dizzying magic carpet ride. A jealous book. It requires your full attention. Look away and you will lose track and get lost, look closer and you will get lost in the stories within stories within stories. It is a matter of choosing your definition of “lost.”

“No matter how good a story is, there is more at stake in the telling,” says the hakawati. The evidence is the book itself, a contemporary retelling of the Arabian Nights through the approach of Lebanese writer, Rabih Alameddine; but this is the Arabian Nights (uncensored, the author warns), deeper and more relevant, and suffused with rich Lebanese culture and history.  It is wondrous, bizarre, sometimes even vulgar and repulsive — but only when you take things literally and only until you realize they are metaphors and then it becomes disturbing, and then these parts become ingenious!

One does not have to read the Arabian Nights in order to enjoy this, but I believe it will be better appreciated with an ample background. Many references would have been lost to me and some sections would have seemed absurd had I bypassed the Arabian Nights. The writing style does not have a tinge of mediocrity, and yet I am aware that it cannot be everyone’s cup of coffee; but I will remember this book for the beautiful words it gave me:

Hakawati — “A hakawati is a teller of tales, myths, and fables (hekayat).  A story-teller, and entertainer. A troubadour of sorts, someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns… ‘hakawati’ is derived from the Lebanese word ‘haki,’ which means ‘talk’ or ‘conversation’. This suggests that in Lebanese the mere act of talking is storytelling.”

Zajal — a poetry duel practiced in Lebanon until today.

Bakhshi — an oud player, a singer, and a storyteller.

Maqam — In the Arabic language it means place, location, situation, position, a shrine, but in Arabic music it is a scale and a mood. “Teardrops descending along cheeks, a cascade of grace,” as the protagonist puts it lyrically.

Tarab — “A musical enchantment. It is when both musician and listener are bewitched by the music.” An entrancement achieved between performer and listener while engaged in music.

This whole book is a cacophony of stories. How fitting that its last word is “listen”.

Rabih Alameddine: The Hakawati

February 18, 2021

This book is on fire! A dizzying magic carpet ride. A jealous book. It requires your full attention. Look away and you will lose track and get lost, look closer and you will get lost in the stories within stories within stories. It is a matter of choosing your definition of “lost.”

“No matter how good a story is, there is more at stake in the telling,” says the hakawati. The evidence is the book itself, a contemporary retelling of the Arabian Nights through the approach of Lebanese writer, Rabih Alameddine; but this is the Arabian Nights (uncensored, the author warns), deeper and more relevant, and suffused with rich Lebanese culture and history.  It is wondrous, bizarre, sometimes even vulgar and repulsive — but only when you take things literally and only until you realize they are metaphors and then it becomes disturbing, and then these parts become ingenious!

One does not have to read the Arabian Nights in order to enjoy this, but I believe it will be better appreciated with an ample background. Many references would have been lost to me and some sections would have seemed absurd had I bypassed the Arabian Nights. The writing style does not have a tinge of mediocrity, and yet I am aware that it cannot be everyone’s cup of coffee; but I will remember this book for the beautiful words it gave me:

Hakawati — “A hakawati is a teller of tales, myths, and fables (hekayat).  A story-teller, and entertainer. A troubadour of sorts, someone who earns his keep by beguiling an audience with yarns… ‘hakawati’ is derived from the Lebanese word ‘haki,’ which means ‘talk’ or ‘conversation’. This suggests that in Lebanese the mere act of talking is storytelling.”

Zajal — a poetry duel practiced in Lebanon until today.

Bakhshi — an oud player, a singer, and a storyteller.

Maqam — In the Arabic language it means place, location, situation, position, a shrine, but in Arabic music it is a scale and a mood. “Teardrops descending along cheeks, a cascade of grace,” as the protagonist puts it lyrically.

Tarab — “A musical enchantment. It is when both musician and listener are bewitched by the music.” An entrancement achieved between performer and listener while engaged in music.

This whole book is a cacophony of stories. How fitting that its last word is “listen”.