The Longest Ongoing Conflict

Book Review: Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa (ISBN: 9781608190461)

Country: Palestine

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[1].

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.

Further Reading:

[1] ‘Mornings in Jenin’: The Strange and Circuitous Path of a Palestinian-American Novel – ARABLIT & ARABLIT QUARTERLY (Accessed: 28.02.2023)


Depravity in the Name of Religion

Book Review: The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State by Nadia Murad (ISBN: 9781524760434)

“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.

Victims of Ideology

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[1].

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[2]. These women have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of ideology and identity politics.

Further Reading

[1] Scammed! Chechen women ‘cheat ISIS recruiters out of money’ | Al Arabiya English (Accessed: 8. February, 2023)

[2] ‘Stateless’ Shamima Begum would face death in Bangladesh, court hears | Shamima Begum | The Guardian (Accessed: 10. February, 2023)

Book Review: Our Women on the Ground

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.

Book Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

Country: Egypt

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.

Book Review: The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi

Country: Kuwait

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.

Further Reading & Information:

The Plight of Migrant Workers in the Gulf States. Retrieved from Retrieved on August 10, 2022

The Bedoons: Kuwait’s stateless minority. Retrieved on August 10, 2022

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:

Online Quran:

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

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.

Boddy-Evans, A. (2021, February 16). A Brief History of Tunisia. Retrieved from

Bopp, L. (2011, April 8). Tunisia’s Book Market After Ben Ali. An End to Visas.

Goldstein, A. (2016, February 1). Tunisia: Secularism, Political Islam, and Democracy. The World Mind.

Srebernik, D. (2014). Inequality and Corruption: Drivers of Tunisia’s Revolution. Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse, 6(10). Retrieved from