I chose “For Bread Alone” by Mohamed Choukri as my book for Morocco because it is considered a classic of modern Arabic literature. The book was first published in Arabic in 1973 under the title “Al-Khubz Al-Hafi,” and was later translated into English by Paul Bowles. It was also banned in several Arab countries due to its sexual explicitness.
The book is a semi-autobiographical work that tells the trials and tribulations of Ahmed, which mirror Choukri’s childhood and youth growing up in poverty in Tangier, Morocco. Ahmed, the narrator, faces abuse, destitution, and desperation, and runs away from home to find his way in the world, relying on his own resourcefulness and resilience for survival.
While the writing style is not the issue, the book’s content made it a difficult read for me. Despite the hardships Ahmed faced, his misogyny, voyeurism, and attitude towards women made it hard for me to root for him. Although he suffered at the hands of an abusive father and witnessed the murder of his brother by his father, the grittiness of his situation and his lackadaisical attitude were off-putting. Poverty is a difficult subject to talk about because it looks different for everyone, and perhaps that is why this book could be appealing for some. Although it does not romanticize poverty, I’m unsure if it was written for a privileged audience to “experience” real poverty. However, what I liked about the writing was that it did not embellish. The writing style is very matter-of-fact, and the author does a wonderful job of painting a realistic picture for us. Unfortunately, it was one that I couldn’t stomach.
When I was making my MENA reading list, I had shortlisted two authors for Morocco: Mohamed Choukri and Tahar Ben Jelloun. Both are critically acclaimed, and it was difficult for me to choose which author to read. Tahar Ben Jelloun has been nominated for the Nobel Prize and writes primarily in French. Mohamed Choukri’s life was very inspiring, and reading about him learning to read and write at the age of 20, then going on to become an influential figure in the Arabic literary world, was fascinating. Given the choice again, I would choose Mohamed Choukri once more, but perhaps another book from his oeuvre.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is one of the most well-known and longest ongoing conflicts, lasting for decades. Despite being in the news throughout my entire life, I still haven’t formed an opinion on it, and I don’t think I ever will. But that’s okay – one doesn’t need to have an opinion on everything. One just needs to be well-informed and have an understanding on all sides of the story.
That’s where Susan Abulhawa’s book comes in. Through the story of one family, Abulhawa provides readers with a poignant and eye-opening look into the lives of those affected by the conflict. The book follows the life of Amal, who is born in the refugee camp at Jenin. Through her story, we learn about the struggles that her family faced and the hardships they endured. One particularly devastating event was the return of her lost brother, who had been taken by an Israeli soldier and raised to despise his own people.
Abulhawa’s writing style is both engaging and heart-wrenching, making it difficult to put the book down. The interweaving of historical events with the intergenerational saga of a family affected by these events gives this book the feel of a documentary. It’s worth noting that the book is a work of historical fiction, inspired by the 2002 Israeli attacks on the refugee camp in Jenin.
Overall, Abulhawa’s book provides a new perspective on one of the world’s longest ongoing conflicts. It’s an important read for anyone wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the issue and the lives that have been affected by it.
“My story, told honestly and matter-of-factly, is the best weapon I have against terrorism”
Nadia Murad, The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Isalmic State
In The Last Girl, Nadia Murad narrates her horrifying experience as a captive of the IS, who abused and enslaved her. Know as ‘sabaya’, Yazidi girls and women were traded openly as sex slaves in the terrorities held by ISIS. They were even used to intice young men to join the terror organization by appealing to their depravity.
It was very difficult for me to get through this book. The events described in the book and Nadia’s experiences are beyond horrifying. It is the stuff of nightmares. Except they actually happened. Not only to Nadia, but to thousands of Yazidi girls and women. Like Nadia, some of these women were able to escape their captors. However, as of this writing, there are still over 2000 Yazidi women missing.
Reading books like The Last Girl, drives home the point that we cannot simply write-off the lives destroyed by geo-political situations as collateral damage and leave it at that. As individual citizens of the world, this can all seem overwhelming and downright hopeless. But the global community at large is not as powerful as it may seem. Geo-politics is just an extension of local politics. The people elected in democratic societies have the power to influence geo-politics.
Although victimized by the IS, Nadia Murad is a fighter. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 and since her escape from the IS has tirelessly advocated for the victims of genocide and terrorism. Her story must be read.
Book Review: Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS by Azadeh Moaveni (ISBN: 9780399179754 (ISBN10: 0399179755))
Back in 2015, I came across an article that amused me so much that I still remember it. The news article told of three young Chechen women who scammed Islamic State (IS) recruiters out of thousands of dollars. Contacted by a recruiter via social media, the mastermind behind the operation realized that she could earn quite a bit of money by pretending to want to join the IS in Syria.
It was one of those feel-good stories that the world desperately needed at the time. The aftermath of the Arab spring had turned what seemed like a hopeful new beginning into an all-too-familiar nightmare. While most of the countries were able to avoid a nightmarish aftermath, Syria was not that fortunate. As of this writing, the war in Syria is still going on.
In Guest House for Young Widows, Azadeh Moaveni narrates the circumstances of 13 women and how they came to be members of the IS. The women who left their homes and travelled to Syria thought that they were going to a land of promise. A part of the world that allowed them to live with dignity and practise their religion in a way that appealed to them. For some of the women, it was an act of rebellion to embrace this extremist worldview. For others, it was a matter of belonging and finding a safe haven for themselves. There were still some for whom Assad was the real enemy, and as they say the enemy of my enemy….
Presently, many governments around the world are refusing to repatriate some of these women. The fear that perhaps they are far too indoctrinated to be able to reintegrate into the respective societies. One such case is Shamima Begum, who lost her British citizenship and may face the death penalty. These women have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of ideology and identity politics.
What should I write about this book that hasn’t already been said? Selecting this book for Lebanon for the MENA reading challenge was a no brainer. It has been on my to-read shelf for as long as I’ve had one.
The middle-east is home to many religions and has given the world many prophets. The most well-known prophets are those of the 3 Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). There were also the prophets who introduced Zoroastrianism and the Bahai’ Faith to the world. Khalil Gibran was inspired by these prophets and their philosophies as well as the philosophies introduced to the world by prophets further east. Therein lies the universal appeal of this slim masterpiece of spiritual literature.
So instead of writing a review of this timeless masterpiece, I would instead like to share my most favourite quotes from the book.
“And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation” (Chapter 1 The Coming of the Ship)
“When love beckons to you, follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep. And When his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.” (Chapter 2 On Love)
“Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself. Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; For love is sufficient unto love.” (Chapter 2 On Love)
“Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.” (Chapter 3 On Marriage)
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.” (Chapter 4 On Children)
“It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding” (Chapter 5 On Giving)
“When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.” (Chapter 8 On Joy & Sorrow)
“Verily the ocean laughs always with the innocent.” (Chapter 13 On Laws)
“Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgement wage war against your passion and your appetite.” (Chapter 15 On Reason & Passion)
“You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts” (Chapter 20 On Talking)
This is a book of essays written by 19 women journalists – sahafiyat – from the Arabic speaking world. Edited by Zahra Hankir, these stories are gut-wrenching and sometimes out right nerve wracking. Reading about their experiences sometimes made me very indignant too. It is no secret what women have to deal with in some countries on the pretense of culture, but some of their experiences still managed to appall me.
Calling these journalists brave is an understatement and quite patronising. These women are not only fighting for their voice to be heard, but also trying to fight for the rights of women in some of the most oppressive places in the world. They are also helping destroy the stereotypes that work against them, that put hurdles in their paths.
When I was assembling my reading list for the MENA challenge, I read some reviews on Goodreads about this book. Some of the reviewers were disappointed that issues such as honour killings in these cultures weren’t addressed. When I decided to read this book, I did not expect to read something about the societal ills that plague women in the Arabic-speaking world. The countries in the MENA region are like any other in the world. They too have their liberal, cosmopolitan centers of commerce, art and industry. They too struggle with ultra-conservatism like any other country. For me the fact that these women were journalists said enough about their gumption and was a sign of their rebellion against the patriarchy and societal norms.
If you want a nuanced and empathetic picture of what has been going on in the Arabic-speaking world for the last decade or two, then I highly recommend this book. The beauty of this book is that it provides a real view of the consequences of war. A view of the life that must go on while the bombs are falling. And of the life that remains after the bombs have destroyed everything. Set aside any pre-conceived notions and read this book with an open mind.
American War is a story about the complete destruction of an individual as a result of radicalization. At first, I thought the book was about the realities of the dystopia it is set in: climate change driven displacement of families, civil war, an incurable lab-synthesized plague. But through the pages, we see the slow and steady radicalization of Sarat Chestnut leading to her eventual destruction.
American War depicts a dystopia in which the US is divided again, this time along the lines of fossil fuel use. Disaster caused by climate change has struck the US, and as a result, fossil fuels have been banned. The Southern states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Texas, are not happy with this decision and secede, which leads to a civil war.
We meet the Chestnuts who are planning to move to the North, leaving their Louisiana home behind. Sarat gets radicalised, which eventually leads her to the Guantanamo-esque Sugar Loaf facility. The torture she undergoes leads her to confess to the trumped-up charges brought against her.
The book was a bit tedious in the beginning but half-way through it really picked up the pace. The reversals of the political fates in the US and Europe is a bit pedantic. We have chaos and war in the US and mass migration out of Europe, whilst peace and prosperity the Middle East and North Africa.
At first I had decided to read an Egyptian classic, but then I came across this book at a used book store and changed my mind. Although the author currently lives in Canada he was born in Egypt. Besides I though that this perspective on climate change and the future of the US would make for an interesting read.
Since 2020 I have themed my reading lists. I was inspired to do this because I realized that I had read and continue to read too few women authors. This realization dawned on me after I read an article by Onnesha Roychoudhari.
It goes without saying that the first year my goal was to read only women authors. In 2021 I decided to base the theme on geography, specifically the MENA (Middle-East and North Africa) region. Last year my theme was to read the unread books on my shelves at home and on my Kindle. This year that theme continues, but with a twist. Since 2020 I have been listening to audio books as well. It took me a while to jump on that bandwagon, but I’m glad that I finally got an Audible subscription.
This year along with trying to read the unread books on my physical and digital shelves, I decided that for the audio books I would listen to popular science books. In particular, pop-sci books pertaining to Physics, Astronomy and Space Exploration. Why? Well, last year I finished a pop-sci book explaining modern physics and the current theories out there that try to explain the origins and nature of the universe we live in. This made me realize how much I enjoy reading pop-sci books and how much I’ve missed them. I added Space Exploration as well cause over the holidays I re-watched Apollo 13 and it piqued my curiosity. With the current trend of space tourism for the ultra rich, it would be nice to look back and get a glimpse of how it all started.
I look forward to sharing my 2 cents on the books I read this year. Of course I have still to finish reviewing the books from the MENA challenge. So stay tuned…
Throughout our lives, we adorn many hats. But we are usually known by just one name. The Bamboo Stalk is about a boy who has two names. Isa in his birthplace Kuwait and Jose in his boyhood home in the Philippines. A mixed heritage child, Isa is shunned by his Kuwaiti family. The Filipino half of him proves to be too much to bear for his Kuwaiti grandmother who immediately commands her son to disown him or suffer being disowned himself. And so begins Isa’s journey around the sun.
We meet Jose in Kuwait where he narrates the events leading up to his birth and the aftermath his parents face due to his existence. His mother moves back in with her family and raises him in the village where she herself grew up.
The Bamboo Stalk is not just a story of identity and belonging. It also sheds a bright light on the circumstances of migrant workers in richer nations. Driven out of their own countries by poverty, in search of work, many arrive in the Gulf nations where they are mostly held in contempt and expected to blend in with the furniture. If they choose not to leave their home countries they run the risk of being exploited and in some cases held in contempt by their own family.
Through Isa’s narration, we get a glimpse into the inner workings of Kuwaiti society. In this affluent country tradition still plays a big role and everything revolves around familial ties and reputation. The disenfranchisement of the Bedouin is a theme in the background as well. Expected to defend and fight for the nation, they are not considered full-fledged citizens and hence, live like second-class citizens without representation.
This book is a real tear-jerker. Isa’s naivete is endearing and one can’t help but root for him. With each turn of the page one hopes that Jose will find happiness and acceptance.
“Life appeared to her sharply divided in two parts, like night and day: what we live, and what lives inside of us.”
Jokha Alharthi, Celestial Bodies
We all know, or at least should know, that life is one big compromise. That doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t experience joy. We snatch glimpses of joy here and there. Sometimes we don’t even need to snatch it. Between unrequited love and duty, between shattered dreams and new beginnings, we carve out a life for ourselves of which we can be proud. If we are lucky.
Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, making it the first novel to win by an author from the Gulf. The book revolves around three families and their relationship with each other in the Omani village of al-Awafi. The men and women in the book are trying their best to get by with the expectations of Omani culture, while trying to find happiness despite the cruelty they face.
I could relate to the women in the book even though our cultural backgrounds are diametrically opposite. Their lives were their own to live and yet not their own. Trying to navigate the unwritten rules of their society which inevitably made them lead bitter-sweet lives. From the outside the women seem oppressed under the patriarchy. But as we get more involved with the characters, we realize that the women are not completely powerless. Like Mayya, who decides to name her daughter London to the chagrin of the rest of the village. Or Khawla, after years of unshakeable love for her wayward husband, who decides to return to her and be faithful after all the years of philandering, decides then that she wants a divorce. There is Qamar too, a beautiful Bedouin woman, who seduces Salima’s husband.
They have their ways of getting what they want, of course not without compromise. What was interesting for me was that the men also seemed to be oppressed by the patriarchy and societal expectations. I felt a lot of empathy for Abdhalla, who was deeply traumatized by the harsh punishments meted out by his father.
The fragmented narration needs a bit getting used to. I had to keep going back and forth to remember who was who, but a few chapters in the characters became clear to me. Once in the groove, I found the writing to be very lyrical and poetic. Before reading this book, however, I would recommend watching the Al Jazeera documentary on Oman (linked below).