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

2021 Reading List

This year the theme of my reading list is Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, which includes 20 countries. I don’t really know much about the Middle East or North Africa. At first I thought I would only consider the Middle East, but then decided to extend it to cover North Africa as well.

Sometimes we over-estimate the simplicity of searching for information on the internet. It took me over a year to populate this year’s reading list. It wasn’t because there aren’t enough writers from the MENA region. It was due to the fact that only a few have been translated into a language I can read.

After a lot of research, I was able to narrow down the list to 2 authors per country. I also added some anthologies and collections to the list. My goal this year is to read 30 books, but perhaps I do finish all the books on the list (which can be found here).

Besides reading books written by authors from each of these countries, I will also be studying the religious texts from the religions that came out of this region. Five major world religions have come out of here; Judaism(the Talmud), Zoroastrianism(the Avesta), Christianity(the Bible), Islam(the Quran) and the Baha’i faith(the Kitab-i-Aqbas).

This year I will try to be better about posting my reviews of the books I have read.

Until the,

Happy Reading!