Book Review: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

Country: Oman

“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).

Further Reading & Information:

Book Review: If The Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power

Carla Power, a journalist, was motivated to write this book because she realized that although she wrote a lot about the Muslim world she had no idea about the Quran and what the scripture meant to the Muslims she reported on. She decided to study the Quran under the guidance of Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a notable scholar at Oxford, who is best known for his research on the women scholars of Islam. Through his research, he found that women played a crucial role in the studies of the Hadith and that their contributions have been largely forgotten or willfully suppressed. His 57-volume book, chronicling the lives of nearly 10,000 women scholars, is only available in Arabic, but an English translation of the preface to the book, which alone is over 300 pages long, is available.

If the Oceans were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran, has been on my to-read since 2015 and it was one of the books that inspired this year’s theme. I added it because I wanted to get another perspective on Islam than the one I was getting from the news outlets. Back then there seemed to be a lot of debate about the different interpretations of the Quran and I felt compelled to read it myself.

I think it is important to mention that this book is not an aid for studying the Quran, it is a memoir. However, I am glad I started reading this book at the same time I started reading the Quran. This book is by no means meant to be a guide on how to read the Quran, but I found that the passages mentioned in the book were a good place to start.

The Quran is a series of revelations from God delivered to the Prophet Mohamed by the archangel Gabriel. And just like any other religious scripture, it too is open to interpretation. Power tells us that “Revered by a population as diverse as the Umma, or world-wide Muslim community, the Quran can refract in dazzling ways.” The same chapter in the Quran can be interpreted and approached in so many different ways, seemingly supporting diametrically opposing world views.

The book touches on several issues such as child marriage, women’s rights, extremism, Islamophobia, among others. This book was very eye-opening for me. For instance, on the issue of women’s rights, it became clear to me that “it is often patriarchal culture, not Islamic tenets restricting women.” Another important lesson for me was that context is everything. When reading the Quran it is very important to have an understanding of what 7th century Arabia was like, as well as the collective history of Judaism and Christianity.

Written with empathy and nuance, I would recommend this book to anyone trying to gain an insight on the Quran in an apolitical way. For me personally this book was eye-opening because, not only did I get a glimpse of the life led by the Prophet Mohamed, I also gained an understanding of what it means to be a good Muslim.

Further Resources:

Carla Power Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_-oaAeY2EU

Online Quran: https://quran.com/

Book Review: Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets

Country: Yemen

Back in 2020, when I was meticulously making my list of books to read for this year, there were a number of countries in the MENA region for which it was difficult to find a translated work to add to the list. That is not to say that there weren’t any authors from these countries. On the contrary, there were many. It was just that their works were not yet translated into a language I could read.

Sadly, Yemen was one such country*. So I decided to find a book that would give me a glimpse of Yemen, but one what wasn’t a textbook. I stumbled across Laura Kasinof’s book after a very long search. At first I wasn’t entirely convinced if I wanted to read it. Yemen has been a great puzzle for me. The country has been in the press lately due to the civil war and the humanitarian crisis it has led to. Therefore, I wanted to read a book that would give me a better understanding of what is really going on in Yemen.

The book chronicles the events of the Arab Spring in Yemen, which took place between 2011-2012, starting with the pro-democracy protests in Sanaa and ending with President Saleh stepping down over a year later. Kasinof’s experiences during this period take her to Aden in the south and Taiz in the Yemeni highlands. Just like any other country, Yemen too is not a monolith, with an all encompassing political spectrum from one edge of its borders to the other.

I listened to the audio book and I wouldn’t recommend that version of the book. The reason being that the narrator read it in a way that makes Kasinof comes of as very patronizing and condescending towards the people of Yemen. If I hadn’t read some of her articles before listening to the audio book, I think I would have had a very negative view of her.

This book will help you get an understanding of Yemeni culture, its heritage and the complexities of Yemeni society. I also recommend this book for anyone trying to understand the current civil war raging in Yemen, because Kasinof does a brilliant job in providing an overview of the political landscape of Yemen and the events which led up to the current conflict. For a overview of the current crisis, I would recommend going through the Wikipedia summary.

*Eventually, I did find a translated work by a Yemeni author and hope to read it this year. You will find the to-read list here. 

Further Reading:

Bakri, N. and Goodman, J.D. (2011, January 27). Thousands in Yemen Protest Against the Government. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/world/middleeast/28yemen.html

Book Review: Lion Mountain by Mustapha Tlili

Country: Tunisia

Mustapha Tlili’s Lion Mountain is a beautifully written book, which was banned in Tunisia due to its critique of the government and the general political situation. The novel spans the colonial times all through to the end days of the Bourguiba’s regime. This review took me a long time to write because I felt that I needed to read a bit more about Tunisian history. I have provided the links to the articles that I came across.

In 2011, after the fall of the Ben Ali regime, several previously banned books started to make an appearance on the book-shelves in stores across Tunisia. However, I was unable to find any official list of previously banned books which are now not banned anymore. So I don’t know whether or not Lion Mountain is available in Tunisia at the time of writing.

Although this book is beautifully written and it is obvious that it is a critique against the government, since I didn’t know much about Tunisian history, I didn’t quite ‘get’ the critique. It was only after I read a lot of articles online about Bourguiba and his government, did I completely understand the context of the critique. The novel is not overly harsh, in my opinion, but it was banned nonetheless.

Narrated by our protagonist’s son, Lion Mountain tells the story of Horia El-Gharib and her trails and tribulations with an ever-changing Tunisia. Horia, a widow, has two sons to raise all by herself. Her faithful servant, Saad, helps her with the fields and orchards left to her by her husband. Imam Sadek, who is Lion Mountain’s spiritual leader, also acts as Horia’s moral compass.

Our protagonist is a devout and enterprising woman, who has big dreams for her sons. Placing immense importance on education, she wants to send them abroad to become “doctors”, which she believes will help them find their way in this world.

But, as is always the case in life, things don’t quite turn out the way Horia imagines. It all starts slowly, with compulsory party-membership here, imprisonment of Saad there. With the ebb and flow of time, Horia adjusts to the new realities. As long as her view of Lion Mountain remains unchanged, the political turmoil of Tunisia almost don’t touch her. Almost.

Soon we find out that her younger son has decided on another path for himself. He longer sees the point in becoming a “doctor”, when there are things bigger than him he needs to fight for. Denounced as a terrorist by the state, Horia loses her younger son to his cause, never to see him again. With an entire ocean between her and our narrator, it is unclear if she will ever see her elder son again either.

To add to the loss of her sons, she will soon lose her lands between her home and the mountain, which would effectively obscure her view of this beloved mountain. Will this be the final straw that breaks the proverbial back? Will Horia endure these changes as she has in the past, or will they destroy her?

Further Reading on Tunisia:

BBC. (2000, April 6). Habib Bourguiba: Father of Tunisia. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/obituaries/703907.stm

Boddy-Evans, A. (2021, February 16). A Brief History of Tunisia. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-tunisia-44600

Bopp, L. (2011, April 8). Tunisia’s Book Market After Ben Ali. An End to Visas. Qantara.de. https://en.qantara.de/content/tunisias-book-market-after-ben-ali-an-end-to-visas

Goldstein, A. (2016, February 1). Tunisia: Secularism, Political Islam, and Democracy. The World Mind. https://edspace.american.edu/theworldmind/2016/02/01/tunisia-secularism-political-islam-and-democracy/

Srebernik, D. (2014). Inequality and Corruption: Drivers of Tunisia’s Revolution. Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse, 6(10). Retrieved from http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=924

Book Review: The Marginalized Majority: Claiming Our Power in a Post-Truth America by Onnesha Roychoudhuri

Back in 2019, I came across an essay, which later turned out to be an excerpt from her book, written by her. She inspired my reading list this year. It wasn’t until I read her essay, did I think about the authors I mainly read. And of course, it was mostly men.

The Marginalized Majority is a very hopeful book. Published in 2018, its chronicles the sentiment after the 2016 US elections as well as the normalization of behaviors which were considered despicable not 10 years ago. However, it is not a book that will keep you up all night doom-scrolling. No, quiet the opposite. This book will make you feel hopeful.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri talks quite extensively about the power of protest. Despite the disdain of the mass media towards the Occupy Wall Street and the Women’s March protests in the last decade, she talks about how in fact these protests did help incrementally move society forward.

This book is a must read for anyone wanting to feel more hopeful, especially after living through 2020!

Book Review: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

“To say that a moment is ‘very Barbara Pym’ is to say that it is a moment of self-observed, poignant acceptance of the modesty of one’s circumstances, of one’s peripheral position.”

Alexander McCall Smith, Excellent Women (page X)

I came across this book in 2018 via an article in the Guardian written in 2008 and decided to read it this year. This book took me quite a long time to finish. I am a slow-reader anyway, but this book took me very long indeed and in the beginning tried my patience a bit. However, I stuck with it and it turned out to be a very interesting and amusing read. It is one of the most poignant and nuanced books I’ve read in a long time.

Excellent Women starts off with new tenants moving into a vacant flat in the same house as 30-something, independent, unmarried and genteel, Mildred Lathbury. The Napiers are not your conventional 1950s married couple. Helena Napier is an anthropologist and Rockingham (Rocky) Napier is an ex-Navy officer. Soon after we are introduced to Julian Malory, vicar of the parish, and his sister Winifred Malory. We are also introduced to a colleague of Helena Napier, Everard Bone, who comes off as being rather arrogant.

A comedy-of-manners, Excellent Women is very witty. The book revolves primarily around Mildred, an excellent woman, the Napiers, the Malorys and Everard Bone.

“I was obviously regarded in the parish as the chief of the rejected ones and I must fill the position with as much dignity as I could.”

Excellent Women, page 190

An excellent woman is someone who is sensible, has been rejected and is therefore unmarried. Alas, Mildred is labeled as an excellent woman by everyone around her for precisely, she suspects, these reasons. Mildred is a humble, down-to-earth person, who sometimes laments the fact that she is a spinster. Her spinsterhood, unfortunately, leaves her open to the condensation of the men, and sometimes women, around her.

I would recommend Excellent Women to anyone wanting to read more British women authors or wanting to amuse themselves by poking fun at the condescension of other people. The book is full of quotable witticisms, so definitely read it with a pencil nearby!

Book Review: Quicksand by Nella Larsen

I don’t remember what brought my attention to this book. Whatever it was, I am grateful for it. Nella Larsen was associated with the Harlem Renaissance and Quicksand is loosely based on her life. Our protagonist Helga Crane, like Larsen, has mixed-race heritage. A daughter of a Danish mother and West Indian father, Helga finds that she doesn’t really belong to either community.

I found Helga Crane’s life to be completely tragic, which made me feel quite sad for her. Throughout her search to belong somewhere, I was rooting for her, thinking the entire time that soon she will find fulfillment and happiness. But Helga Crane is not a pitiable character. She is in fact fierce, tenacious and resourceful. Every time she falls, she picks herself right back up again.

Her journey takes her from Naxos (based on the Tuskegee Institute) to Denmark, via Chicago and New York, back to the south. The book starts with a disillusioned and dissatisfied Helga, feeling herself to be a complete failure at Naxos and contemplating immediate departure. But first she must tie up loose ends, like breaking off her engagement to a fellow teacher and heading back to Chicago. Shunned by her uncle’s bigoted wife, Crane finds work with Mrs. Hayes-Rore who then helps her find work in New York. Helga’s life in Harlem starts out optimistically, but she soon feels out of place and disillusioned. As she begins contemplating leaving Harlem, she receives a letter from her uncle in Chicago with the address of her aunt in Denmark.

With the money left to her by her uncle, she books passage to Denmark, where she is greeted with enthusiasm by her aunt and uncle. Although in the beginning she really feels at home in Denmark, soon she realizes that she is simply viewed as an “exotic”. The old disillusionment and dissatisfaction resurfaces and she longs to come back to Harlem.

At the end of the book, we see Helga dissatisfied with her new family life in the south. Her search for belonging and contentment seems to have led nowhere. But perhaps there is still hope…

Book Review – Shrill:Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

“We live and then we stop living. We exist and then we stop existing. That means I only get one chance to do a good job. I want to do a good job.”

– Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman

On June 17, 2016, This American Life aired an episode titled Tell Me I’m Fat. Through that episode I learned about the writers Lindy West and Roxanne Gay, and since then they have been on my to-read list. Lindy West’s memoir really inspired me. At times it was really funny and at times I found myself in utter despair. Overall though it was very uplifting.

“The ‘perfect body’ is a lie. I believed in it for a long time, and I let it shape my life.”

– Lindy West, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman

The book can be roughly divided up into three parts, or as West puts it, her three “little victories”. The first part deals with her experiences with fat-shaming and the “role-models” (or lack there of) who were available to her in her childhood. According to West, Ms. Piggy seemed to be the only semi-positive role-model. She also discusses that women are conditioned for “chasing perfection”, which is a scam because “There is no perfection.”

West’s second victory was when she stood up to comedians who tell rape jokes in their routines. She received a lot of backlash from that. She spoke out against the misogyny prevalent in comedy and ended up being “on the receiving end of a viral Internet hate mob”. She decided to read out loud the most vile comments in front of a camera, and posted the video online. After the video went viral, she received support from many people, including some comedians, with many of them realizing that rape-jokes are not okay.

Not only does Lindy West deal with fat-shaming and online trolls threatening her with rape, she faces harassment on Twitter by a man who stole her father’s identity. Reading about her experience with that was just heart-wrenching. She decided to write about it and after some time, the troll sends her an email apologizing to her. I remember listening to an episode on This American Life about this. That story was really uplifting.

The memoir ends on a positive note. Lindy West summarizes her three big wins, towards her goal in helping build a better world:

  1. fighting for fat people’s humanity
  2. putting an end to rape jokes in comedian routines
  3. dealing with and calling out trolls

Perhaps, there is still hope!

Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

*** My reading list for this year has been exclusively women. Why? Because I realized that I mostly read men and wanted to read more women. So I picked up a few books from my to-read list, added to that some recommendation from friends and then finished off the list with some spur-of-the-moment purchases . For the days leading up to Christmas, my goal to write a short review of the books I have read this year. ***

When we traveled to Japan, shopping at convenience stores became something of a ritual. Before you turn your nose up, the coffee we drank at some of the convenience stores was some of the best I’ve had! The good memories of my travels prompted me to get this book on a whim and I am so glad that I did. Convenience Store Woman, is about Keiko, 36, who works at, as the title suggest, a convenience store. She has been working there since she started university, and that is the only job she has had up till now. Not only does this job give her a sense of purpose, she is also very good at it. She is, in my opinion, the perfect employee any organization would love to have. Her dedication knows no bounds. One example of this is when she “walks around the area” in order to “glean valuable information”, such as if a rival store is closing down, in order to help the store run more efficiently and smoothly.

She doesn’t quite fit in, but isn’t oblivious to that fact. In fact, her powers of observation help her get by. After carefully studying the “normal” people around her, she starts to emulate them in small ways. Enter well-meaning, but worried, family and friends. They wonder why at her age, she has never had a boyfriend and why she isn’t trying to get one. In order to stop their pestering, she decides to take-in a colleague from work, who basically just wants someone, who will take care of him.

“The Nail That Sticks Out Gets Hammered”

– Japanese Proverb

As I was reading this book, this Japanese proverb came to mind. A friend of mine, who has worked and lived in Japan for a long time, mentioned it to me once. Keiko seems to have mastered a way to game this system of conformity. In order to avoid being “hammered in”, she just fakes her way through. She is indeed a clever protagonist!