Elif Shafak: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

“It happened all the time in this city that encompassed seven hills, two continents, three seas and fifteen million mouths… yet another cry that went unheard in Istanbul… Istanbul was no stranger to sexual abuse.”

These were fleeting lines from Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve, but it is what takes center-stage in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.

This novel is an act of activism. Beyond the pretty covers, Shafak always lends a voice to those who do not have any, or whose voices are weaker than others — social pariahs, the unwanted, the unworthy, the unidentified, cultural lepers, and women.

This is a difficult read, especially for women. For women to get emotional when reading this is an understatement. Its bitter truths are suffocating; and at the verge of tears, I often felt my heart constricting.

Shafak does not romanticize Istanbul. She shows us the Istanbul that the Ministry of Tourism would not want foreigners to see — a place where sexual assault, psychological abuse, and violence against women often go unpunished. Sure, it happens all over the world, one might reason; but it is worse for women in nations that do not honor their rights.

This is an especially apt read after Turkey’s President Erdoğan officially withdrew from the Istanbul Convention, a treaty preventing and combating violence against women, and domestic violence. That is what led me to read this. Erdoğan followed the withdrawal by unveiling an “Action Plan for Combating Violence against Women,” which includes goals such as reviewing judicial processes, improving protection services and gathering data on violence, but Turkish women feel unsafe and remain doubtful.

So, incase you have not read this yet and ask yourself upon reading the summary of this book, “What would I get from a story about a dead prostitute?”
The answer is awareness.
And hopefully, empathy.

Needless to say, it is certainly well-written, too.

Elias Khoury: Little Mountain

This is one of those art forms that make you feel that you have absorbed so much and understood so little at the same time. It has been identified as the finest novel on the Lebanese Civil War, but I am more convinced that it is postmodern poetry.

The point was over there. A woman, glowing… I was holding her by the hair and drowning in the place where the pain flowed from her shoulders… I was not saying anything but was not quiet either. The apogee of sadness. She cried, sitting at the edge of the room, holding her breasts. I went toward her, frightened. No, I wasn’t frightened. I was looking for something or other, for a word. But she remained on the edge of the room. Then stood up, came toward me. I held her, she dropped to the floor and broke, and the room filled with pieces of shrapnel. I bent down to pick them up, blood began to flow and the walls were covered in mud and trees… She was the point. To hold her was to hold nothing. She would run off, leaving me baffled. I would run after her. That’s how she imprisoned me inside a dream that was hard to abandon… This is the revolution, I said. Just like this, living in the constant discovery of everything, in the nothingness of everything. That is revolution.

Elias Khoury comes from the generation of Lebanese novelists who reflect in their writings the constant threat of their national identity’s dissolution. Read this forewarned that they do not adhere to the Western form of the novel, because to them “form is an adventure”, as the Edward W. Said writes in the foreword of this edition. “…when the chapters conclude, they come to no rest, no final cadence, no respite.”

Read this to feel — not to know, but to feel — a nation’s tragic plight. Read this for the strangely beautiful language. Read this like you would a prolonged and lingering poem…

Alia Malek: The Home That Was Our Country

Syria came to international attention in 2013 because of the refugee crisis. Since then, I have been searching for a book that would cover more than its current conflict and tell me about Syria’s history and the everyday lives of its people before the humanitarian disaster.

This book delivered just that. Alia Malek designates her grandmother’s old apartment building in Damascus as the heart of the memoir, and effectively narrates over a century of Syrian history and political phases through the different generations and families that occupied and moved through its space.

In this fine balance between family and national chronicle, one does not overshadow the other; thus allowing history to be accessible and engaging, and leaves room for the captivating details of society and tradition.

The author succinctly outlines Syria’s history from the fall of the Ottoman Empire that ruled Greater Syria, to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between France and the United Kingdom (resulting in France taking Syria and Lebanon, and the British laying hold of Palestine and Iraq), the foreign-imposed evolution of its borders, its numerous coups, the rise of Hafez al-Assad, and up to the bullet-ridden Syria that we see on the news.

Probably owing to being both journalist and lawyer, Alia Malek does away with over-sentimentality despite the painful undercurrents but writes with great sensitivity and insight.  This did not rend my heart the way other books about Syria have done, but at the end of the acknowledgments a line still managed to ambush me and stirred up tears: “Lastly, to Syria and the generations before, which gave us life, beauty, and this profound pain, thank you for making us your children. And may you find it possible to forgive us.”

Through the memoir we are shown a Syria and a people that we do not often see portrayed; a Syria of rich cultural heritage, a multi-cultural and colorful nation of Arab Jews, Armenians, Christians, Sunnis, Shias, and Alawites. After all, Syria was once a haven for the persecuted during the Armenian genocide, a significant punctuation in the Silk Route, a place of Crusader castles, and the site of many Roman metropolises. Yet Syrians arrive at the doors of our consciousness either as despots, extremists, or refugees. We are guilty of viewing people from this region monolithically, and it is time we realize that the loss of their home and heritage is the world’s loss, too.

Amin Maalouf: The Crusades Through Arab Eyes

When Kingdom of Heaven premiered in 2005, the character that made the biggest impression on me was Saladin. Although I expected the film to be highly fictionalized, I hadn’t realized how much of it was true based on eye-witness accounts that survived from that period! From the writings of Ibn al-Athīr (1160-1233) to Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217) and others including a few Western chroniclers, Amin Maalouf condenses the events of 1099-1291 and gives us The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

Published in 1984, this work questioned and redrafted the prevalent narrative of who the world thought of as barbarians. The reader is made mindful that, “At the time of the Crusades, the Arab world, from Spain to Iraq, was the intellectual and material repository of the planet’s most advanced civilization,” and it was only posterior to the Crusades that the trajectory of intellectual advancement and world history would shift to the West.

It was the era of Assassins, Seljuks, Fatimids, Ayyubids, Mamluks, the Crusaders, Templars, and eventually, the Mongols. Needless to say, Game of Throne-ish details abound! But what I value most about this book is how it defines the chronology, succession, and the characters of the Crusades in a gripping way that will not easily slip into the lapses of my memory; and more valuable is the epilogue where we are made to understand the repercussions and a seeming collective trauma nearly a thousand years later.

— “What they learned from the Arabs was indispensable in their subsequent expansion… In medicine, astronomy, chemistry, geography, mathematics, and architecture, the Franj drew their knowledge from Arabic books, which they assimilated, imitated, and then surpassed.”

— “The epoch of the Crusades ignited a genuine economic and cultural revolution in Western Europe, in the Orient these wars led to long centuries of decadence and obscurantism.”

— “Assaulted from all quarters, the Muslim world turned in on itself. It became over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, sterile — attitudes that grew steadily worse as world-wide evolution, a process from which the Muslim world felt excluded, continued.”

— “The Arabs refused to open their own society to ideas from the West. And this, in all likelihood, was the most disastrous effect of the aggression of which they were the victims.”

— “The Arab world… cannot bring itself to consider the Crusades a mere episode in the bygone past. It is often surprising to discover the extent to which the attitude of the Arabs (and of Muslims in general) towards the West is still influenced, even today by events that supposedly ended some seven centuries ago.

— “There can be no doubt that the schism between these two worlds dates from the Crusades, deeply felt by the Arabs, even today, as an act of rape.”

Black Wave & From Beirut to Jerusalem

July 10, 2021

It is difficult to invest time in a book that is nearly six hundred pages thick these days, but From Beirut to Jerusalem was even more difficult to put down! This is impressive journalism!

Although Friedman writes with a more personal tone, one cannot help comparing it to Black Wave by Ghattas, because at some point after these books’ respective publications, it has been said of each that if there is a book one should read to achieve a better idea of the morass of Middle Eastern politics and relationships, it should be this. I think it should be both.

I read Kim Ghattas for her Lebanese roots, and Thomas Friedman for his Jewish upbringing and on account of his three Pulitzer awards. I assumed their backgrounds would affect their insights, but these two books surprisingly complement each other! Aside from a comprehensive account, they have chosen to elaborate on different aspects and, together, give the reader an even more exhaustive view — albeit exhausting, too.

These journalists have confronted some of the most complex and divisive issues and have endeavored to organize the confusion for us, readers, despite knowing they would ruffle feathers. While we know that no one can ever give us the complete picture, it is a substantial step.

I have to admit that most of what I know about Middle Eastern affairs are spoon-fed by selective news networks or social media pages that cater sensationalisms, half-truths, and over-simplifications to the passive.

If there is one good thing that this pandemic has given me, it is the chance to check my own biases and avoid shaping lazy opinions, and be reminded that there is so much I do not know; and that it is alright, and necessary, to reevaluate my thoughts and opinions — not just on matters of a realm thousands of miles away, but on life in general.