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
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:
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.
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
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
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.
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:
This one started out as a tree trunk with some plants growing around it.
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!
I’ve done some realistic ones, too. This is one of my favorite flowers, the fuchsia:
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:
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!