Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
Here’s my teaser:
“Weddings here [in Syria] come in two stages, the kitab when the contract which legalizes the marriage is signed and the irs which is an optional party to celebrate the actual wedding night. Unlike a Christian wedding, there are now vows and a wedding is not a religious ceremony.”
This is from Road to Damascus by Elaine Rippey Imady. This book is the memoir of an American woman who married a Muslim from Syria in the 1950s and moved to Damascus with him. They lived happily ever after. Seriously!
Last December, I came across an announcement for a “One Book, Many Communities” campaign organized by the group “Librarians and Archivists with Palestine.” The “One Book, Many Communities” plan was for people around the world to read Susan Abulhawa’s novel Mornings in Jenin in January of 2015 and then to organize discussion groups about the book. For more information about this campaign, click here.
I thought this was a great idea and wanted to participate, especially since I already had Mornings in Jenin sitting (unread) on my book shelf. (I had discovered it in an English-language bookstore in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, when I was there in 2012.) The bad news is that I wasn’t on the ball enough to read the book and/or organize any One Book event in January. The good news is that I DID read the book in February, along with one of my book groups, and we discussed it today.
I think we all agreed that the book was a powerful narrative dramatization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of one Palestinian family.
For an overview of the novel, here is the blurb provided by the book’s website:
Palestine 1941. In the small village of Ein Hod a father leads a procession of his family and workers through the olive groves. As they move through the trees the green fruits drop onto the orchard floor; the ancient cycle of the seasons providing another bountiful harvest.
Palestine 1948. The Abulheja family are forcibly removed from their ancestral home in Ein Hod and sent to live in a refugee camp in Jenin. Through Amal, the bright granddaughter of the patriarch, we witness the stories of her brothers: one, as stolen boy who becomes an Israeli soldier; the other who is sacrificing everything for the Palestinian cause, will become his enemy.
Amal’s own dramatic story threads its way through six decades of Palestine-Israeli tension, eventually taking her into exile in Pennsylvania in America. Amal’s is a story of love and loss, of childhood, marriage, parenthood, and finally the need to share her history with her daughter, to preserve the greatest love she has. Richly told and full of humanity, Mornings in Jenin forces us to take a fresh look of one of the defining political conflicts of our time. It is an extraordinary debut.
Although the novel focuses on Amal, it is actually the saga of an entire family, including Amal’s parents and siblings. This family, although fictional, is meant to illustrate the history of the Palestinian people as a whole (or at least 20th century history). Abulhawa takes the readers from the 1930s in Palestine, when Amal’s family were peacefully farming the land their family had cultivated for centuries, through the creation of the state of Israel when the entire community was forced away from their village and into the refugee camp of Jenin. The horrors do not end with life in a refugee camp, though. The narrative takes us through the bombings of the 1967 war, life under Israeli occupation, the horrors of the Shatila camp massacres and even the 1983 terrorist attacks in Lebanon. Through all of these events and more, readers cannot help but be moved and horrified by the experiences the Palestinians had to endure—and still do endure.
The mainstream U.S. media, when it reports on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is almost entirely one-sided. Americans can easily get the impression that Palestinians are all terrorists (for no particular reason except that they are somehow born that way) and Israelis are harmless victims who do nothing except to defend themselves. Of course, there are plenty of nonfiction books available that give a broader perspective, providing much needed historical and political information.
However, not everybody reads these nonfiction books. For people who want to know more about the Palestinian perspective, but are loathe to slog through analytical nonfiction, I think that Mornings in Jenin is a great alternative. Many of us can relate better to conflicts that are in the news when they are told in narrative form, whether that is fiction or nonfiction. We can understand the people in the conflict as PEOPLE, not as abstract entities, and thus our empathy is more likely to be engaged.
So, although there are flaws with Mornings in Jenin as a novel, I nonetheless urge as many Americans as possible to read it. I say “Americans” because our government and our media are so one-sided that we need to do all we can to learn about Palestinian perspectives.
(Perhaps readers from other parts of the world do not confront this same odd (to me) one-sidedness in their government and media. I’d be interested to hear more from all of you on this subject.)
Taha el Shazli has dreamed since childhood of becoming a police officer in his home city of Cairo, Egypt, and he has done everything in his power to make that happen. He achieved high scores on all his school tests, he trained his body to become physically fit, he cozied up to all of the policemen in his area, and he passed the qualifying examination for the police academy with flying colors.
Taha is one of the main characters in Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany’s best-selling 2002 novel The Yacoubian Building. This novel focuses on a group of characters who all live in (or on the roof of) the once-elegant apartment complex called The Yacoubian Building. This building is meant to represent a microcosm of Egyptian society, with the rich, poor and middle class all living intersecting lives within close proximity.
Taha is one of the poor members of this microcosm, so poor that he and his father live on the roof of the building. Taha tries his whole life to rise above his humble origins. Despite all his efforts, however, Taha is rejected from the police academy, not because of his qualifications, but because his father is a lowly door keeper. Class barriers are strong in Egypt. As Taha’s girlfriend Busayna points out,
“This country doesn’t belong to us, Taha. It belongs to the people who have money. If you’d had twenty thousand pounds and used them to bribe someone, do you think anyone would have asked about your father’s job? Make money, Taha, and you’ll get everything, but if you stay poor they’ll walk all over you.” (59)
After being rejected from the academy because of his father’s job, Taha starts to dream of revenge. He moves on with his life, however, by attending university. He finds himself unable to shake off his class though. The university students replicate the rest of their society; his fellow students are divided into cliques of the rich vs. the poor, just as the Yacoubian Building is.
One place where Taha DOES finds a place where he feels accepted is at the Faculty’s mosque. Most of the other young men who frequented the mosque are poor like himself, and he soon became part of a close group of friends. One of these friends eventually introduces him to Sheikh Shakir.
Shakir convinces these discontented young man to join his group in jihad. He exhorts his listeners to rebel against the corrupt rulers of Egypt, claiming that Egypt is ruled by “French secular law, which permits drunkenness, fornication, and perversion, so long as it is by mutual consent.” Shakir then reminds the men that their “supposedly democratic state is based on the rigging of elections and the detention and torture of innocent people so that the ruling clique can remain on their thrones forever. They lie and lie and lie, and they want us to believe their revolting lies.” After railing against the corrupt Egyptian government, Shakir then urges his lsteners to “reclaim the concept of gihad and bring it back to the minds and hearts of the Muslims,” noting that “Millions of Muslims humiliated and subjected to dishonor by the Zionist occupation appeal to you to restore for them t heir ruined self-respect.” (95-97.)
Taha, like many other young men, is drawn to the words of the sheikh. He is all too familiar with feeling humiliated and rejected and finds succor in the idea of organized resistance against all the corrupt forces that are holding him down. Becoming an Islamist gives him “a new, powerful, bounding spirit. He has taken to walking, sitting, and speaking to people in the building in a new way. Gone forever are the old cringing timidity and meekness before the residents. Now he faces them with self-confidence.” (115)
Once Sheikh Shakir is confident of Taha’s strengthened religious faith and his feeling of belonging, he next persuades him to join their jihadist struggle, the Islamic Action Charter. He give Taha a copy of their brochure to read, which Taha stores in his pocket. Not long afterwards, Taha participates in a mass protest against the Western alliance in the Gulf War. The police are not happy with his participation in the protest, so they take him in to jail.
The police find the brochure for the Islamic Action Charter in Taha’s pocket and assume he is part of the organization. The beat him to a pulp trying to get him to talk about it, but Taha knows nothing. At that point, the police escalate their torture.
“Then they threw him facedown on the ground and several hands started to remove his gallabiya and pull of his underclothes. He resisted with all his might, but they set upon him and held his body down with their hands and feet. Two thick hands reached down, grabbed his buttocks, and pulled them apart. He felt a solid object being stuck into his rear and breaking the tendons inside and he started screaming. He screamed at the top of his voice. He screamed until he felt that his larynx was being ripped open.” (153)
It is this experience of torture and humiliation at the hands of the police that complete Taha’s transformation from an earnest, hopeful young man to a scarred soul bent on revenge. He is now ready and willing to do anything for revenge. He is now primed to become a member of Shakir’s jihadist organization and to volunteer for a suicide mission.
Alaa al Aswany’s portrayal of Taha has some intriguing similarities with Yasmina Khadra’s portrayal of his nameless narrator. Both of them start out as poor yet peaceful young men with high hopes for the future. Both are brought down by a series of shocks and assaults on things and people they love. What finally turns both of these characters towards terrorism, though, are actions of others that humiliate them and remove their sense of honor and dignity. Once those are gone, they feel compelled to seek vengeance. They believe this vengeance is necessary to restore themselves to life as they know it, life with dignity and honor.
Khadra’s narrator claimed that he was, for all intents and purposes, dead after seeing the humiliation his father suffered at the hands of the American soldiers. Similarly, Taha felt dead after his torture by the police. He said to the sheikh,
“I’m dead now. They killed me in detention. When they trespass on your honor laughing, when they give you a woman’s name and make you answer with your new name and you have to because of the savagery of the torture. . . You want me to forget all that and go on living?’
Whether this loss of honor and dignity come from Western military forces or from the brutal Egyptian police, these characters believe they must take action to restore their sense of selves.
This post is the third in my series “How to Create a Terrorist.” The first two posts were on Yasmina Khadra’s novel The Sirens of Baghdad:
I spent several weeks in Bethlehem, Palestine a few years ago. I lived by myself, which meant cooking for myself. That meant I did not necessarily eat traditional Palestinian dishes. I did learn about one popular dish, called Maklouba. (I see it spelled differently by different people.) Malkouba means “upside down,” and it refers to the presentation of this dish: when the dish is ready, the cook tips the pot upside down onto the plate so that the rice is on the bottom and the meat is on the top.
In the few short weeks I was in Bethlehem, I was served maklouba on three separate occasions. This says to me the dish is popular! There are endless variations on the recipe, but it is always a combination of vegetables, (usually fried), rice mixed with spices, and some sort of meat (chicken, beef, lamb are popular). Each “layer” is cooked separately.
Most of the pictures included in this gallery were taken on the day that a group of culinary students showed me how they made the dish and then served it to me. It was dellicious! Each time I was served it the dish was always a little bit different, but it was always tasty.
After I returned home to the U.S., I felt I needed to make maklouba myself. One of the pictures is of me with my own homemade attempt.
I am including links to a few online recipes I found for this dish, in case you want to try it yourself. Enjoy!
Spoiler Alert! I discuss the ending of the novel in this post.
This post is a continuation of yesterday’s discussion of Yasmina Khadra’s book The Sirens of Baghdad. This novel traces the journey of a young Iraqi Bedouin man from a sensitive, peaceful person to someone determined to destroy as much of the world as possible through violent means.
As I mentioned earlier, the narrator turns to violence after the Americans and their allies inflict a series of outrages on people close to him. After the third outrage, the protagonist believes he has no choice but to seek revenge. This need for vengeance comes not from his religion, but from his Bedouin heritage’s emphasis on honor. The unnamed narrator points out that, “For Bedouin, no matter how impoverished they may be, honor is no joking matter. An offense must be washed away in blood, which is the sole authorized detergent when it’s a question of keeping one’s self-respect. . . Dignity can’t be negotiated. Should we lose it, all the shrouds in the world won’t suffice to veil our faces, and no tomb will receive our carcasses without cracking.” (133)
Most of the characters in Khadra’s novel who voice disgust over their treatment by the West are outraged by the indignities they believe they have suffered from the West. Some of these abuses are specific instances of violence and mal-treatment like those suffered by the narrator (discussed previously.)
Other examples are less physical, but are nonetheless stinging. One taxi-driver in Sirens says, for example, that “I was an interpreter with the American troops. . . ‘Sand niggers’—that’s the name they give their Iraqi collaborators” (126) Iraqi characters in the novel also voice disbelief at the way Americans treat their parents and the elderly: “But the GI has no clue. He can’t measure the extent of the sacrilege. He doesn’t even know what a sacrilege is. In his world, a man sticks his parents in an old folks’ home and forgets them. They’re the least of his worries. He calls his mother an “old bag” and his father “an asshole.” What can you expect of such a person?” (173)
Still others are appalled at the general disdain they think Westerners have towards Arab culture, which has a much longer and more distinguished history than does Western culture. As one character observes, “They think all Arabs are retarded,” he muttered. “Imagine: Arabs, the most fabulous creatures on earth. We taught the world table manners; we taught the world hygiene and cooking and mathematics and medicine. Ad what do these degenerates of modernity remember of all that? A camel caravan crossing the dunes at sunset? Some fat guy in a white robe and a keffiyeh flashing his millions in a gambling casino on the Cote d’Azur? Cliches, caricatures..,” (128).
In this novel, Khadra is emphasizing that the reason some Arabs and Muslims hate the West is not because of their religion (which is what right wing media pundits would have us believe) but because they are not treated with respect and dignity. Another reason, Khadra suggests, is that Westerners seem to value money and material progress above else. We see an example of this sort of thinking when the American military offers money to the father of Sulayman just a few days after they shot him to death. The father is appalled that Americans would stoop so low as to try to “buy him off” in the midst of his grief.
I need to emphasize, however, that despite the many critiques of the West contained in The Sirens of Baghdad, Khadra is by no means promoting terrorism. On the contrary. He portrays the resistance fighters with whom the narrator gets involved as wrong-headed at best. Just as he gives voice to characters who hate the West, he also gives voice to characters who are horrified at the Fedayeen (resistance fighters.) One character says, “The actions of the Fedayeen are lowering us in the eyes of the world. We’re Iraqis, cousin. We have eleven thousand years of history behind us. We’re the ones who taught men to dream.” (161)
Another tells the narrator, “If you insist on fighting, do it properly. Fight for your country, not against the whole world. Keep things in perspective; don’t mistake wrong for right. Don’t kill just for killing’s sake. Don’t fire blindly—we’re losing more innocent people than bastards who deserve to die.”
Others try to dissuade the narrator from his terrorist mission by telling him this:
“You’re already on the wrong track. The world isn’t our enemy. Remember all the people who protested the invasion all over the world, millions of them marching in Madrid, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, South America, Asia. All of them were on our side, and they still are. We got more support from them than we got from the other Arab countries. Don’t forget that. All nations are victims of the avarice of a handful of multinational companies. It would be terrible to lump them all together. Kidnapping NGO workers who are here only to help us—those kinds of things are alien to our customs. If you want to avenge an offense, don’t commit one. If you think your honor must be saved, don’t dishonor your people. Don’t give way to madness.” (183)
In the end, the narrator almost gives way to madness. He is about to embark on a mission to infect millions of people with a deadly virus that spreads easily and rapidly. As he is about to get on the plane to start his mission, however, he falters.
Looking around the airport at all of the people doing ordinary things, like kissing each other, waiting hopefully to be reunited with their families, etc., he realizes how wrong he has been. He realized “they deserved to live for a thousand years. I have no right to challenge their kisses, scuttle their dreams, dash their hopes. What have I done with my own destiny? I’m only twenty-one years old, and all I have is the certainty that I’ve wrecked my life twenty-one times over.” (306)
It seems to me that the narrator realizes there is a big difference between hating The West (an abstract concept) and hating all of the individual people that make up the West, most of whom have little to do with the outrages that have been inflicted upon him. By the time he comes to this realization, unfortunately, he has already shot himself up with the deadly virus and can do nothing more but wait to die.
As he waits, he “concentrates on the light of the city, which [he] was never able to perceive through the anger of men.” (307)
Quotations used are from the 2007 Anchor Books publication, translated by John Cullen.
***Stay tuned for future installments of “How to Create a Terrorist,” in which I discuss The Yacoubian Building and The Reluctant Fundamentalist.**
Note: Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian writer
Yasmina Khadra, Sirens of Baghdad. Published in French in 2006.
The unnamed narrator of Yasmina Khadra’s Sirens of Baghdad lives most of his life as a peaceful, shy, naïve soul. He is a Bedouin from the small, backwater Iraqi village of Kafr Karam, which lay mostly isolated from the tumult of the modern world. The narrator notes that
“For generations beyond memory, we had lived shut up inside our walls of clay and straw, far from the world and its foul beasts, contenting ourselves with whatever God put on our plates and praising Him as devoutly for the newborn He confided to us as for the relative He called back to Himself. We were poor, common people, but we were at peace” (12).
This peaceful, if lethargic, existence careens to an abrupt halt, however, with the American invasion of Iraq. At first, the Kafr Karam inhabitants try to ignore the violence occurring in Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, and other Iraqi cities. Soon, though, the ravages of war come to them.
At this point, Khadra’s narrator begins his transformation from a peaceful village boy to a resistance fighter who is about to embark on a mission that, if successful, will destroy millions of people. How can such a dramatic change occur? Three key events catapult our protagonist into his short career as a terrorist.
The first event concerns a developmentally disabled young man named Sulayman who lives in Kafr Karam. One of the symptoms of his disability was his habit of taking off running frantically until he passed out: “Sulayman didn’t talk, didn’t complain, was never aggressive; he lived entrenched in his world and ignored ours totally. Then, all at once, he’d give a cry—always the same cry—and take off across the desert without looking back” (29).
One day, Sulayman accidentally cut off two of his fingers, and he needed to be rushed to a clinic. The narrator accompanies Sulayman’s father on their trip to the next town, where the nearest clinic is found. Unfortunately, their trip is interrupted by a checkpoint that blocked their route. Two soldiers with automatic weapons stopped their car and started barking orders at them. The American GI, in particular, intimidated the passengers in the car with his gigantic body, his rage, and his shouts. Sulayman’s father pleaded with him, “I beg you, please don’t shout. My son is mentally ill, and you’re scaring him.” (55)
The black GI responded with even more rage, “Shut the fuck up or I’ll blow your brains out! Hands behind your head!” (56) The tensions of the exchange escalated, and eventually Sulayman became so scared that he bolted out of the car and started running away. The soldiers assumed the worst and immediately started shooting. They shot Sulayman so many times that his head “exploded like a melon; his unbridled run stopped all at once.”
Sulayman’s death left his family inconsolable and the narrator reeling with shock. The Americans eventually realized they had made a mistake, “but they weren’t going to make a big deal of it. Incidents of this kind were commonplace in Iraq. Amid the general confusion, everyone sought his own advantage. To err is human, and fate has broad shoulders” (59).
The killing of Sulayman was just the first event that shattered the protagonist’s outlook on the world. The second event involved the destruction of a Kafr Karam wedding party by American missiles. The Americans had mistaken the wedding party for a gathering of terrorists. The results were devastating:
“The force of the explosion had flung chairs and wedding guests thirty meters in all directions. Survivors staggered about, their clothes in rags, holding their hands out in front of them like blind people. Some mutilated, charred bodies were lined up along the edge of a path. Cars illuminated the slaughter with their headlights, while specters thrashed about in the midst of the rubble. Then there was the howling, drawn out, interminable; the air was full of pleas and cries and wails” (93).
This slaughter, not surprisingly, appalled the narrator: “I didn’t remember ever having borne a grudge against anybody, anybody at all, and yet there I was, ready to bite something, including the hand that tried to soothe me—except that I held myself back. I was outraged, sick, tormented by a thousand thorns…” (97). And yet, he still remained peaceful, reasoning that “I held a better grudge against the coalition forces, but I couldn’t see myself indiscriminately attacking everyone and everything in sight. War wasn’t my line. I wasn’t born to commit violence—I considered myself a thousand times likelier to suffer it than to practice it one day.”
This philosophy changes irrevocably one night when the narrator’s home was forcibly invaded by a squad of American soldiers looking for weapons. As usual, they used excessive force, shouting obscenities and destroying the few valuables owned by the family. Much more outrageous, though, was the way the GIs treated the family members, dragging everyone around and striking women into submission.
The way the Americans soldiers treated his father, however, was truly unimaginable to the narrator. His father was frail and elderly and was not dressed when the soldiers knocked down his bedroom door. He requested that the soldiers let him get properly dressed, but they would not allow it. The father could not permit himself to appear in front of his family members with nothing but underwear, so he turned back to the bedroom to get his clothes.
The soldiers responded by knocking the elderly man to the floor with a gun. When they did that, his abdomen and genitals were revealed to the entire family. This sight was an unspeakable sacrilege to the narrator.
“That sight was the edge of the abyss, and beyond it, there was nothing but the infinite void, an interminable fall, nothingness. . . A Westerner can’t understand, can’t suspect the dimensions of the disaster. For me, to see my father’s sex was to reduce my entire existence, my values and my scruples, my pride and my singularity, to a coarse, pornographic flash. The gates of hell would have seemed less catastrophic!” (102).
This outrage on the honor of his family was the final straw for our narrator. As a Bedouin, he had no choice but to “wash away this insult in blood, until the rivers and the oceans turned as read as the cut on Bahia’s neck, as my mother’s eyes, as the fire in my guts, which was already preparing me for the hell I knew was waiting….” (102)
From this point on, the narrator is bent on revenge. He travels to Baghdad, where he joins resistance forces and agrees to participate in whatever mission they assign him, including a suicide mission. He reasons that he is already dead, at least he can go down fighting.
Clearly, Khadra is suggesting in Sirens of Baghdad that the American invasion of Iraq contributed to the rise of terrorism in the region. Moreover, while our presence was inherently disruptive, many of the events that traumatized the narrator could have been avoided if soldiers had been more respectful of ordinary Iraqis and cracked down on the “shoot first, ask questions later” policy of so many soldiers.
Also noteworthy in this novel is that the reasons for the narrator’s turn to terrorism had nothing to do with the religious tenets of Islam, although it did have much to do with Eastern vs. Western values. I will discuss these values as they are portrayed in The Sirens of Baghdad in my next blog post.
(The quotations come from the Anchor Books version published in 2007, translated from the French by John Cullen.)
When I think of “bountiful,” I think of my travel experiences in Arab countries. Arabs are amazingly generous with their hospitality. If you have the good fortune to be invited to their home, you will be overwhelmed with the bounty of the food and gracious hospitality they offer you. (Unfortunately, I have yet to lose the weight I gained travelling in Arab countries. Sigh.)
The pictures below come from Palestine, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. I hope you have the opportunity to partake of such bountiful hospitality some day!
The Arabic word bayt translates as “house” in English. However, according to Anthony Shadid, the connotations of bayt “resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings gathered about family home. In the Middle East, bayt is sacred. Empires fall. Nations topple. Borders may shift or be realigned. Old loyalties may dissolve or, without warning, be altered. Home, whether it be structure or familiar ground, is, finally, the identity that does not fade” (xiii). Bayt is not just a building; it is an identity—an idea as much as a physical space. But, “what happens to the idea of ‘home” [or bayt] for migrants who live far from the lands of their birth? How might their travels impact upon the ways “home” is considered?” (John McLeod 210).
Anthony Shadid grapples in The House of Stone with this question, addressing the repercussions faced by immigrants or their descendants who have lost their bayt, the roots of their identity. Shadid, who died recently, was known mainly for his work as a journalist in the Middle East. In his House of Stone, Shadid recounts his process of restoring his abandoned and ruined family home in the town of Marjayoun in what is now Lebanon. At the beginning of this process, he feels depleted, lost and rootless. He uses the term “mahjour, an Arabic word meaning abandoned, forsaken, lonely (xvi)” to describe his great-grandfather’s house, but this term also applies to Shadid’s own run-down emotional state. By the end of the restoration period, however, he finds he was able to rebuild not only the house, but also a more solid identity with stronger roots.
One thing I find interesting about House of Stone is the process Shadid uses to rebuild their sense of bayt, one that was disrupted by the processes of history and migration. More specifically, I suggest that he uses the technique of bricolage to effect this more satisfying identity. The term “bricolage” comes from a French word that describes the process of creatively using bits and pieces of materials leftover from other projects to create a new artifact. Within the realm of cultural studies, the term was popularized by anthropologist Levi Straus and is often used to mean the processes by which people create new cultural identities by combining various social constructs they find at hand. Bricolage, thus, emphasizes notions of “eclecticism, flexibility, and plurality” (Rogers 1). I argue that Shadid believes that Arab-Americans need to be inventive and flexible in using whatever cultural “bits and pieces” they have at hand to create a hybrid Arab-American identity.
House of Stone is Anthony Shadid’s Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East. His book is structured as a mosaic of different pieces, or “tiles,” if you will. House of Stone is, in part, an account of the frustrating yet rewarding process of restoring his abandoned family home. It is also in large part a history of Shadid’s ancestors who left the town of Marjayoun and emigrated to the United States. These ancestors, not surprisingly, left Lebanon because of larger historical/political forces; for that reason Shadid also outlines for readers some of the convulsions of recent Middle Eastern history. If that is not enough, Shadid also introduces readers to some of the people who currently live in Marjayoun. In the end, though, I would argue that this book is most importantly a memoir of healing.
At the beginning of the book, when Shadid first moves to Lebanon, he is divorced, exhausted, rootless and dispirited. He is at a point in his life when he needs the sustenance of a real home, in the deepest sense of the word, which is why he returns to his great-grandfather Isber’s home. This house was built in order to “join us [his family] with the past, to sustain us, to be the setting for stories” (xiii). The process of restoring his family home, using the literal and metaphorical technique of bricolage helps to restore his sense of a grounded identity. But what is the nature of this identity? The question is harder to answer than it might at first seem. The old adage, ‘you can’t go home again’ is at least partially true. The Marjayoun to which Shadid returns is a far cry from the Marjayoun where Isber resided. Decades of civil war in Lebanon, along with larger upheavals in the Middle East, changed the region almost beyond recognition. By the time Shadid arrived in Lebanon in 2006, he observes that
“Politics was refracted through unyielding religious discourse or more ancient affiliations, and identity flowed exclusively from them, irrespective of culture and language. It seemed we have been left with tribes bereft of citizenship. Home, united, as other generations had known it, had long been lost, though an older architecture still whispered of times glimpsed in broken masonry and solitary arches.” (6)
The Lebanon that Isber once knew was gone, as Shadid acknowledges, and yet that does not stop him from continuing his quest for home. If the Lebanon of the present reality has little continuity with the Lebanon of his imagined past, then what does he hope to find there? One could argue that he is seeking to live with people who share his identity, but who are these people? Identifying as a Lebanese-American has little meaning to him because of the artificial origins of this nation, with its boundaries demarcated by European colonial powers. He believes these borders and boundaries are toxic. He asserts that “Marjayoun suffered with the advent of borders, losings its true hinterland in Palestine and Syria and all the more accessible towns there. Those towns of an older antiquity—Haifa, Jerusalem. . .—shred with it common geography, history, trade, and culture, unfettered by borders, and for generations that land was the place of opportunity for those who chose to remain in Marjayoun. Now they no longer could” (98).
A broken man returns to the land of his ancestors, hoping to find a place where he fits in, hoping to find a home in the deepest sense of the word. Instead, he finds that almost everything worth cherishing is gone, destroyed by the ravages of war. One possible reaction to this loss would be despair. He could give up on the whole idea of finding something meaningful in his family’s past and recreate himself as a newborn American without a past. (I would argue this is what happens with many, maybe most Americans.) However, Shadid does not take this path. Instead, he (metaphorically) looks around the culture and history of the Middle East and picks up the “bits and pieces” that he finds useful and beautiful. In a process of bricolage, he incorporates these remnants into his newly emerging identity.
The pieces of the Middle Eastern identity Shadid finds most useful is the idea of the Levant. The Levant for him is more than just a geographical concept. He notes:
But the Levant was really more a culture than an expanse of land or group of nations or homelands. It was a way of living and thinking that bound Asia Minor to the Middle East and Egypt to Mesopotamia. It was, in essence, an amalgamation of diversities where many mingled, a realm of intersections, a crossroads of language, culture, religions and traditions. All were welcome to pass through the territories and homelands within its landscape, where differences were often celebrated. In idea at least, the Levant was open-minded, cosmopolitan; it did not concern itself with particularities or narrow concepts of identity. (119)
The quality of the Levant that Shadid finds attractive and wishes to retain is its diversity, what he calls the “mosaic” of different cultures, different identities which, for the most part, were able to live together in relative harmony.
Intriguingly, Shadid finds a material artifact that symbolically represents his ideal of the best of the vanished Middle East: the cemento tiles that he installs on the floor of his restored house. He devotes a significant portion of his memoir to commenting on these tiles and what they mean to him. Here he describes the moment when he first notices them:
“As I walked toward the smooth stone stairs, I noticed some ornate Italian tile peeking from beneath all the dust. I was immediately drawn for reasons I can’t explain. I am no aesthete, but I knew that the tiles were called cemento (though they were known these days as sajjadeh, Arabic for carpet, a name suggested by their repeating colorful patterns.) Through the dirt I could see only black and white, but I suspected other hues lay hidden beneath all those years.” (29)
He said he had undoubtedly walked on cemento tiles many times before in the Middle East, “but it was the cemento here in Isber’s house that drew me.” (30)
These tiles drew him in, I suggest, because they offer him a concrete means by which he can construct his new identity. These tiles, for him, represent what is best about the Middle East, the Levant of his great-grandfather’s time. He says, “The tiles at my feet were the remnants, in Arabic the atlal, of a lost Marjayoun. They were artifacts of an ideal, meant to remind and inspire, vestiges of the irretrievable Levant, a word that, to many, calls to mind an older, more tolerant, more indulgent Middle East.” (118)
The endless fighting and narrow sectarian identities of the current Lebanon appall Shadid. The cemento tiles, however, hearken back to an earlier time and a way of life that values craftsmanship rather than war. These tiles
“did not speak of war, or frontiers, and the spaces they narrowed, but rather grandeur. The tiles returned one to a realm where imagination, artistry, and craftsmanship were not only appreciated but given free rein, where what was unique and striking, or small and perfect, or wrought with care was desired, where gazed-upon objects were the products of peaceful hearts, hands long practiced and trained. War ends the values and traditions that produce such treasures. Nothing is maintained. Cultures that may seem as durable as stone can break like glass, leaving all the things that held them together unattended. I believe that the craftsman, the artist, the cook, and the silversmith are peacemakers. They instill grace; they lull the world to calm.” (118)
Shadid spends a great deal of time, effort, and money to find just the right tiles (from different merchants) and then laying them in just the right way. As he lay these tiles, he notes that “It felt as though I was lifting history and putting it back in its place.” (126) I suggest that this effort is not simply to create a beautiful house; it is simultaneously his way of creating his own identity as a tolerant, cosmopolitan Levantine who values craftsmanship, art, and peace. It is his way of lulling himself into an internal state of calm. The way he shops for, chooses, and carefully lays the tiles as a way to create his house AND his identity exemplify the process of bricolage—in both a literal and metaphorical sense.
I find Shadid’s embrace of the tiles and their representation of Levantine identity interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, he admits that this open-minded, tolerant Levant no longer exists. His language (“in idea at least”) suggests that perhaps in its idealized version, it may not ever have existed. Nonetheless, this imagined past can still provide emotional sustenance for him. Also interesting to me is that the Levant, at least as he defines it, is a place that is attractive precisely because it does NOT represent a clearly defined, restricted identity. Rather, the Levant is a “crossroads of language, culture, religions and traditions” that eschews “narrow definitions or identities.” Shadid, then, is a man who is hoping to find a more rooted identity by going back to his family home. He does find this sense of home, but he does it by forming an emotional bond with a place that no longer exists and embracing an identity that paradoxically eschews narrow definitions of identities. He is not really going back to reclaim an old identity. He is creating a brand new one, one that incorporates the past, but just the parts of it he finds sustaining.
Click here for a link to Shadid talking about the house and tiles on a Youtube video.
More than a decade ago, when the young Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was struggling to get her first novel, “Purple Hibiscus,” published, an agent told her that things would be easier “if only you were Indian,” because Indian writers were in vogue. Another suggested changing the setting from Nigeria to America. Ms. Adichie didn’t take this as commentary on her work, she said, but on the timidity of the publishing world when it came to unknown writers and unfamiliar cultures, especially African ones.
These days she wouldn’t receive that kind of advice. Black literary writers with African roots (though some grew up elsewhere), mostly young cosmopolitans who write in English, are making a splash in the book world, especially in the United States. They are on best-seller lists, garner high profile reviews and win major awards, in America and in Britain. Ms. Adichie, 36, the author of “Americanah,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction this year, is a prominent member of an expanding group that includes Dinaw Mengestu,Helen Oyeyemi,NoViolet Bulawayo,Teju Cole,Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Taiye Selasi, among others.
There are reasons for the critical mass now, say writers, publishers and literature scholars. After years of political and social turmoil, positive changes in several African nations are helping to greatly expand the number of writers and readers. Newer awards like the Caine Prize for African Writing have helped, too, as have social media, the Internet and top M.F.A. programs. At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, black writers with recent African roots will make up more than 10 percent of the fiction students come September. Moreover, the number of African immigrants in the United States has more than quadrupled in the past two decades, to almost 1.7 million.
And publishing follows trends: Women, Asian-American, Indian and Latino writers have all been “discovered” and had their moment in the sun — as have African-Americans, some of whom envy the attention given to writers with more recent links in Africa.
“People used to ask where the African writers were,” said Aminatta Forna, author of “The Hired Man” (2013, set in Croatia). “They were cleaning offices and working as clerks.”
Some writers and critics scoff at the idea of lumping together diverse writers with ties to a diverse continent. But others say that this wave represents something new in its sheer size, after a long fallow period. (There were some remarkable exceptions, like Wole Soyinka’s 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature and Ben Okri’s 1991 Booker Prize.) And it differs from the postcolonial wave, roughly beginning in the 1960s, which brought international acclaim to writers like Chinua Achebe and Nuruddin Farah, among others.
There are more women, for one thing. More important, the stories being told, while sometimes set in Africa, often reflect the writers’ experiences of living, studying or working elsewhere and are flecked with cultural references — and settings — familiar to Western audiences.
Ms. Adichie’s “Americanah” chronicles the lives of Ifemelu and her lover, Obinze, whose adventures take them from Nigeria to America and Britain. In the United States, Ifemelu writes a popular blog about her growing racial consciousness and finds love with American men, both black and white. Back in Nigeria, her friends use the word “Americanah” to tease her about her Americanized attitudes.
Ms. Adichie, who divides her time between the United States and Nigeria and runs a summer writing workshop in Lagos, has now written three well-received novels and a book of stories. She has amassed awards and has a movie adaptation this year of her novel “Half of a Yellow Sun,” about the Biafran war. She even made it into a Beyoncé song: “Flawless,” released in December, sampled several lines about feminism from a public lecture she gave.
The success of “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2006), after the critical embrace of “Purple Hibiscus” (2003), was a major factor in sending publishers scrambling to find other talented African writers.
The flowering of new African writers is “an amazing phenomenon,” said Manthia Diawara, a professor of comparative literature and film at New York University. “It is a literature more about being a citizen of the world — going to Europe, going back to Lagos,” he said. “Now we are talking about how the West relates to Africa and it frees writers to create their own worlds. They have several identities and they speak several languages.”
But for all the different themes and kinds of writing, the novelist Dinaw Mengestu said that he saw a thread. “There’s this investigation of what happens to the dislocated soul,” said Mr. Mengestu, 36, the author of “All Our Names” and a MacArthur “genius” award winner, who was born in Ethiopia but left at age 2 and grew up in Illinois.
The novelist Okey Ndibe, 54, said for his part, “My reflexes are shaped mostly by life in Nigeria, but so many aspects of me are in the American mode.” His second novel, “Foreign Gods, Inc.,” is about an educated Nigerian in New York eking out a living as a taxi driver. Mr. Ndibe, who arrived in America in 1988, said that as someone coming from a place where being black was the norm, he became fascinated by the experience of American blacks. “My protagonist’s life in America is as important as his life in Nigeria, if not more so,” he said.
Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, agreed that “there is a new, self-aware internationalism” and “a much more welcoming interest” in this country, too. Earlier generations, he added, “had it much harder.”
Breaking in isn’t getting easier for everyone, however. Some professionals in the book world say that too many literary publishers would rather put out work by writers from Africa than work by African-Americans because in the current climate the Africans are considered more appealing for what is seen as a “black slot.”
Marita Golden, an African-American writer who is a founder of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which supports black writers around the world, acknowledged that those sentiments exist but disagreed with them.
“Black writers operate within a small, culturally defined sphere,” she said. “That space is not defined by us, so with any shifts people may feel victimized or that they’ve lost, or they’re experiencing a deficit.”
Ms. Adichie said she understood those feelings, too. “In the U.S., to be a black person who is not African-American in certain circles is to be seen as quote-unquote, the good black,” she said. “Or people will say, ‘You are African so you are not angry.’ Or, ‘You’re African so you don’t have all those issues.’ ”
Publishers, not surprisingly, tend to disagree with the idea that African-American writers are being overlooked now. “Hogwash,” said Robin Desser, vice president and editorial director at Alfred A. Knopf and Ms. Adichie’s editor. “When the next Toni Morrison comes around I can say that publishers will go crazy.”
Given the inroads they have made and the new roots they have planted, African writers say they have proved they are much more that a trend.
“My hope is we all become part of the canon, not just here but internationally,” said Ishmael Beah, 33, who lives in the United States. His 2007 memoir, “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” about Sierra Leone’s civil war, was a best seller. His novel, “Radiance of Tomorrow,” about the aftermath of that conflict, came out this year.
“We all have a lot to say,” Mr. Beah said, “and we realize that we have to speak for ourselves about the diversity, the difficulties, the beauty of this continent.”
A version of this article appears in print on June 30, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: New Wave of African Writers With an Internationalist Bent. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe
Too often, the discussions Americans hear in the media about women in the Muslim world are marred by ignorance, distortion, politics and just plain bigotry. The subject is far too broad and deep to be elucidated by news bites, especially the kind found on right-wing media outlets.
Fatima Mernissi is a Moroccan, Muslim, feminist sociologist who used to teach at Muhammad V University, in Rabat, Morocco. Most of her published writings are scholarly rather than creative, with the notable exception of Dreams of Trespass, her memoir.
She has written many highly acclaimed books; the ones I’ve read are Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society, Sheherazade Goes West, and Dreams of Trespass.All of her works focus upon gender roles and Islam, each with a slightly different focus.
A central argument recurring throughout Mernissi’s work is that there is nothing inherently sexist about Islam. Rather, she argues, the gender imbalance in Muslim societies is a result of the all-too-human male tradition of the ulama’—the male theologians/jurists who manipulate Islam to their own patriarchal ends.
Another argument central to her work is that Islamic sexual ideology stems from its fear of female sexual power. Female power left unchecked would, according to this ideology, would wreak havoc on the social order and thus must be contained.
A third point she makes is that the current Islamic fundamentalist backlash against women that we hear so much about in the U.S. must be remembered as just that—a backlash against the very real gains women have made in Muslim societies—especially in terms of education. She notes that “The conservative wave against women in the Muslim world, far from being a regressive trend, is on the contrary a defense mechanism against profound changes in both sex roles and the touchy subject of sexual identity. The most accurate interpretation of this relapse, is as an anxiety-reducing mechanisms in a world of shifting, volatile sexual identity” (xxxviii).
In other words, she claims, the noise made by the fundamentalists can actually be read as an encouraging sign. It means that women have made real gains, which scares the pants off of some people.
Her work is obviously more complicated than this brief posting suggests. Don’t take my word for it. Read Fatima Mernissi yourself if you want a smart, erudite, feminist, Muslim woman’s view on her own religious and cultural traditions.