Book Review: Love, Insha Allah

Book Review: Love, Insha Allah

The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women


Though Islam is growing in America, one bumps up constantly against ubiquitous incompatibilities between Islam and Western culture. Nowhere is this incompatibility more prominent than in an American Muslim woman’s search for a mate.


The stories in this book reveal the problematic position of American Muslim women who would like to get married. They must either make compromises, or take a hard line with respect to their religion, further limiting their chances for finding a mate in a society that is still composted of mostly non-Muslim residents. Some of these writers have shaved the edges off Islamic teachings , even to the extent of doing haram behavior, knowingly, deliberately. The instinct to find a mate and establish a family often takes precedence over familial and religious dictates regarding how to do so.


Islamic customs, which relied heavily on community relationships, now operate in an anemic facsimile of their original effectiveness. American customs for dating, sex and marriage, are not officially available to these women.To make matters worse, Muslim communities in the United States are composed of people from varying cultural and linguistic traditions. American Muslim women sit between a rock and a hard place; even men tiptoe across a loose tightrope when courting them.


When the Abrahamic religions were being codified, the human life span was much shorter. Young people did not have to navigate a prolonged period (named adolescence) between childhood and adulthood.  Mating occurred at  physical maturation. These days, physical maturation plays second fiddle to religious mores that were not written for adolescence or homosexuality. Add to that the economic and educational demands of today that also postpone marriage well beyond the best physical stage for it.


At least one of my readers will remind me that Islam is applicable to all peoples for all times, and to that reader I say, “Then it will have to find a way to reconcile human nature with the unnatural frustration arising out of modern  adolescence. It will also have to accommodate an increasing incidence of homosexuality.”


Homosexuality, by the way, does not recede when it manifests in a Muslim, and several of these writers are brave enough to talk about it. One would think that if Allah hated homosexuality enough to forbid it, He would give us better tools for coping with it in a halal manner, but this is not the case. Homosexuality will prove to arise from physiological  and genetic predispositions, and therefore will never be responsive to blame or volition on the part of those who find themselves claimed by it.


I respect the women who’ve told their stories, and I admire their courage in trying to find a third way, a way to live as Muslims and as Americans, partaking in the blessings of both identities and navigating the inherent troubles. Some women have tossed Islamic teachings out the window, while others have have cut themselves off from the benefits for which people choose to live in America.  None, however, have turned their backs on Islam, itself, and most have become stronger in faith as a result of their trials, regardless of whether they succeeded in finding a mate.


Not all the essays are marked by conflict or frustration. Several of the women met their husbands in the traditional Islamic way, through the help of parents and relatives, without having to date and sift through a succession of boyfriends. These women are the lucky minority. Several others met their husbands by means unconventional in either American or Islamic cultures; their stories prove that finding a mate need not conform to a strict prescription.


The women represented in this book are pioneers, and through them, especially with respect to how they raise their children, a stable American Islam will develop.  Oh, I know. There’s no such thing as “American Islam” or “Saudi Islam” or, or… Well, yes there is. How do you suppose Islam, or any other religion, survives over the centuries, migrates to different continents, and serves populations that have never have heard of one another? An Islam that thrives in the West is still evolving.  This book forms a link in the process, and will eventually be regarded as an historical document. I hope the children of this book’s authors will read their mothers’ stories with a sense of relief because they will not have to blast through the moral and social difficulties endured by their parents.





Book Review– The Butterfly Mosque

Book Review
The Butterfly Mosque
by G. Willow Wilson

To say that this book was written by an American woman who went to Egypt, explored Islam, became Muslim, married an Egyptian, and spent a year assimilating into Egyptian society, would be like saying that a human body is composed of a skeleton holding organs and covered by skin. The inner workings of both processes are wonderful, complex, and beyond easy description.

By now, anyone interested in the topic can find numerous accounts of Western women who fell in love Arab men, married, moved to the Middle-East, and brought back stories of assimilation and/or abandonment. This story is different.  Willow went to Egypt with nothing more than a niggling urge to explore Islam and the people who live it. She was raised an atheist, and therefore did not wrestle with the usual conundrum of whether or not Jesus was the son of God, a savior (and all that is borne of that belief). She decided (without the help of a Muslim boyfriend) that the evidence for the existence of God not only held water, but held water within Islam.

Youth and nature being what it is, Willow did fall in love with an Egyptian and got married. Her story, however, does not focus upon this process, or upon the religious conversion. Hers is a story that pulls together the disparate elements of her life into a whole that makes sense. Hers is a multi-layered story that not only reveals who she is as an American, but who the Egyptians are, and how the enormous, but sometimes subtle differences between American and Egyptian culture really do clash in ways we cannot even predict.

She writes authentically, honestly. I know this because I, too, married an Egyptian, and I spent a little time in Egypt. No American can write about living in Egypt without addressing the difficulties of daily life there, or the discomfort of trying to stay healthy in a polluted environment. At the same time, no one can deny the spirit of generosity and optimism  that percolates through the national character of Egyptians.  Egyptians themselves are what make Egypt livable and actually loveable.

This book is well-written from several perspectives. Stylistically, it flows well, without the inconsistencies that sometimes pervade first memoirs.  Willow is a good writer, and she knows how to weave objective reality with her own inner reality to present a narrative that carries the reader in and out seamlessly.

I admit to suffering from a sort of jealousy. Willow had the blessing of marrying a man she could talk to, a man whose world view expanded beyond the boundaries of Egypt. Her husband encouraged her to learn colloquial Arabic. Many Arab husbands do not. Willow also drew upon enough intestinal fortitude to stick with Egypt for an extended period of time, long enough to accomplish a decent assimilation.

I married an Egyptian who had what we euphemistically call “issues.” Also, though I loved visiting Egypt, I could never stay in Cairo for more than five days before becoming sick and stressed to the point that I’d have to leave.  I’d dreamed of attending school there to learn Arabic, but a dream is what remains after all these years. I miss Egypt. I miss the Middle-East. Willow’s book reminded me why, and renewed my sense of who I am as a result of where I’ve lived.

This book is a gift to those who would venture into the waters of an intercultural life. It is especially good reading for those who have an interest in Egypt– not from an academic point of view but from the view at street level.

Book Review: Kabul Beauty School, by Deborah Rodriguez

I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. I think it is very well-written, contrary to some reviewers who think otherwise. The narrator’s voice remains in character, and the language flows nicely. Though the writing is conversational, it does not succumb to the repetitions and irrelevant interjections that cause actual conversations to become boring.

This book is as much personal memoir as it is an account of how the Kabul Beauty School developed. The author’s personality weaves in and out of her environment in a fascinating account of cultural conflict, cultural engagement, and the remarkably unpredictable results that emerge when people do not let go of their own cultural orientation while trying to function in foreign country.

Deborah retains her American perspective on just about everything; she continues to smoke and drink in a Muslim society, looks forward to celebrating Christmas, and feels little need to adjust her behavior with men in deference to the prevailing attitude of quiet feminine subservience. In this way, she is different from the authors who accept the religious and cultural attitudes of their adopted countries.

At the same time, Deborah becomes profoundly involved with many of the women who attend the beauty school. She also marries an Afghan man, only a few weeks after she met him, and in spite of the fact that neither speaks the other’s language. Many readers will frown upon a protagonist who makes such a vital decision based upon none of the commonly accepted parameters that predict marital happiness, but this decision, probably more than her other decisions, displays her personality perfectly. She is a risk-taker, and willing to assume the consequences.

One wonders how it has fared over the years, but I suspect both of them will accept the influences over which neither has much control to strengthen or dissolve the marriage.

The beauty school closes and opens, and closes again, amidst accusations and rumors regarding what Deborah did or didn’t do with respect to taxes and other aspects of the business. Who knows, certainly not the reader of this book, but none of that is important to the purpose of the book, which is exactly what Deborah says it is– an account of the terrible circumstances of the lives of Afghan women, and how the beauty school gave some of them a chance to develop themselves in a way that most women of the world take for granted

Internet Book Club for Middle-Eastern Literature in English

Blogs can be profoundly enlightening, properly educational, and/or entertaining for both readers and writers. After reading a number of them focusing on topics of Muslim and Middle Eastern concern, I asked myself, “What did I read before I read blogs? How did I deepen my understanding of Middle-Eastern culture?”

Well, I read books, of course!

Life in Saudi Arabia guaranteed lots of free time for women, time spent at home. For readers and writers, the lifestyle offered plenty of opportunity to indulge those interests. Riyadh had two wonderful bookstores, Obeikan, and Jareer. Each offered decent English language sections, in which my friend Sharon and I would browse until we spent several hundred riyals each. Then we’d go home and read for two or three months, after which we’d make our pilgrimage to the other bookstore. In between major book buying excursions, we’d buy magazines at the mall or grocery store.
Trips abroad rounded out our book collections because we got books we couldn’t buy in Saudi Arabia, and I don’t mean books of a “haram” nature. Those types of books we read while abroad, but we always found plenty of material perfectly safe to bring into the Kingdom.

During my first trip to Egypt, in 1986, I visited the AUC bookstore, and I still remember how thrilled I felt to be amidst such a wonderful selection of Middle-Eastern literature in translation. I still have the books I brought back from that trip.

This week I once again felt thrilled to discover a great collection of Middle-Eastern literature, some in translation, at a site called Good Reads. I found this site via Arabic Literature (in English): http://arablit.wordpress.com/book-clubs/. I inquired about an Internet book club focusing on Middle Eastern literature, and I was referred to this group on Good Reads:

http://www.goodreads.com/group/show/413.Middle_East_North_African_Lit

which I joined immediately. If you’ve read this post until now, you might as well go right over to Good Reads and check out this book club. I’ve got lots more books choices, now, plus lots of people with whom to exchange ideas and recommendations re: what to read next. Good Reads also offers dozens of groups for dozens of categories, but I’m looking forward to renewing my interest in Middle-Eastern literature in translation.

Book Review: “A Thousand Spendid Suns” by Khaled Husseini

July 8, 2010

(The metaphorical Riyadh has room for book reviews.)

Anyone familiar with Islam and/or the Middle East will recognize at once that this author knows whereof he writes. He should; he was born and raised in Afghanistan, but has lived in the United States long enough to digest the differences, complexities and contradictions of both worlds.

I wouldn’t have read this book, because I am sick of reading about the poor, downtrodden Middle-Eastern woman. My colleagues, however, are all reading the book, and they practically thrust it upon me. I felt duty-bound to read it and correct whatever misinformation might be pouring forth from the book into their naive minds.

In fact, I was the one who was impressed with the story’s apparent authenticity. Though I’ve never lived in Afghanistan, I know this book could have been a memoir as easily as it is a novel. I won’t go into the plot or the resolution, but I will say that the characters are drawn in all the complexity and irony that marks the human condition beyond its containment within the straightjackets of cultural indoctrination.

I can offer nothing but praise for the book.

The only other thing I added for the benefit of my colleagues was that I’d like to read books about women who are living happily in the Middle East, whose lives are not circumscribed by repressive forces. I know that happy women exist there. I was one of them, and so were my friends. I still have friends who wouldn’t dream of returning to the US to live; they’ve got it too good in Saudi Arabia.

That being said, I do underscore the need to tell the stories of Mariam, Laila, and others like them. Even Rasheed,  ogre that he was, could not have behaved but as he’d been taught to behave from growing up around men who taught him, by example, how to behave.

Tariq, however, as well as Abu Laila, grew up under a different set of values which offer a counterpoint and point of departure for the embodiment of the universal values set forth by all religions.

Novels such as this one are nothing if not an important contribution to the edification of readers who would not otherwise be afforded opportunities to enter into the lives of people like Mariam, Laila, Rasheed and Tariq. This is the kind of novel that can swing the tide of entire populations, and therefore position people for the change that must come before this world can thrive in peace, not only peace between men and women, but between cultures and countries.

Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

img_1441_edited-1Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

Italian language is a big part of my life these days. My study of it originated in Riyadh, in 1992, after I returned from my first trip to Italy, where I met distant relatives for the fist time, and felt as though I’d come home.

Back in Riyadh, I enrolled in an Italian class offered through the Italian Embassy. Our original class attracted a dozen women– an assortment of expats plus one Saudi – but by the end of the term, just six of us remained. We stayed together as a class for the next two years, studying, visiting each other’s homes, accepting invitations from the Italian Embassy,  and sharing our lives in broken Italian.

Our instructor was generous enough to bring a nice selection of books from one of her Italian trips. I ended up with an anthology of nineteenth and twentieth century Italian literature. I learned a lot from that book, but one segment, in particular, captured my attention– pages from a well-known book entitled  Christ Stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), written by Carlo Levi, a Jew from Turin who had been exiled to southern Italy as punishment for holding anti-fascist principles. The fragments fascinated me, not only because of the poetic writing, but because certain aspects of the narrative sounded familiar, as if Levi had been writing about life in Saudi Arabia rather than the southern Italy of the 1930′s. I asked my instructor to bring me the entire book, and she did.

I persevered reading that book for three months, surrounded by two dictionaries and three grammar texts, every day, even on weekends. Not only did I learn Italian, but also some of the history of the area of my ancestors. I never knew that Arabs had colonized southern Italy way back in medieval history. Levi’s portrayal of the character and customs of the people left no doubt in my mind that Muslim Arabs had indeed spent enough time in Southern Italy to leave strong marks– genetically, culturally, and religiously.

Notable was the way in which the Italians practiced Christianity, as if Islam had been superimposed on top of it. Distinct gender roles prevailed there, as did the prohibition of mixing of the sexes. Women were  accompanied by their male relatives if they had any occasion to be in the company of other men. When moving about in public, women wore black dresses and black head scarves. Every aspect of their lives was governed by their interpretation of Christianity. These similarities testify, almost superficially, to the melding of the two cultures. The entire book weaves Italian and Arab culture, not deliberately, but as a matter of essence.

Ironically, Rome had evolved into the world seat of Christianity, but the title of the book refers to the villager’s conclusion the teachings of Jesus did not penetrate into southern Italy. The southerners  endured extreme poverty, while the rest of the country developed economically. They knew that true Christians would not have abandoned them, yet there they were, isolated and scratching the ground for survival.

My intention here is not to give a review of the book, but to draw attention to the connection of the book, and of southern Italy, to Arab and Islamic culture. Although Arab influence can be seen throughout the history of Europe, it remained distictive in southern Italy until after the 1930s. Even the people of today bear such a striking resemblance to Arabs that they could pass for each other in any country.

Anyone having an interest in both cultures will be enriched by this book.

The book can be purchased from Barnes and Noble: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Christ-Stopped-at-Eboli/Carlo-Levi/e/9780374503161

and Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Christ-Stopped-Eboli-Story-Year/dp/0374503168

The movie version does not do justice to the book, and should not be watched as a substitute for it.

Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli was my first full length Italian book. I am now on my third! Slowly but surely, I am becoming comfortable in this language. I thank my Riyadh days for giving me a good start.

Creative Photography

 

Creative Photography

Recently I bought a new camera.  While learning how to use it I took dozens of photos that were out of focus, badly composed, underexposed, and not worthy of holding  space on my hard drive. I deleted a dozen of them before I realized I could edit them, play with them, apply filters and distortions, change color saturation, lighting, etc., and end up with something totally different from the original, and much nicer to view! Here is one of my creations:

Gardens, Greens, and Yasmeen, July 2008 003  This started out as a green vine against a tree stump. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s another:

This one started out as a tree trunk with some plants growing around it.

 

I’ve got lots of photos of my grandkids. They are very hard to photograph because they move around constantly, and when they see the camera, they close their eyes because they know a flash is coming! 

The kid photos make for interesting creative effects. Here’s one that started out too ordinary to keep:

My daughter is sitting with her daughter on a swing. My daughter refused to smile. She she made an ugly face and thought she ruined the photograph, but she didn’t!

Gardens, Greens, and Yasmeen, July 2008 042

 I’ve done some realistic ones, too. This is one of my favorite flowers, the fuchsia:

Gardens, Greens, and Yasmeen, July 2008 001 

Last week, a thunderstorm approached mid-morning. The sky became dark as night, yet the sunlight still shone in the distance. I went outside and took a few photos to capture the effect. Here is my favorite:

Gardens, Greens, and Yasmeen, July 2008 011

I suppose I’ll have to start a Flickr account now, like those of you who have inspired me to try creative photography.  You know who you are:  ~W~, Unique, Aafke, Shahrzad, Susie! I’ve already got nearly one hundred photos, and they’re all different, some of them not even in purple or green!