Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Behind Closed Doors in Amman

Four women and one man in modern-day Amman find their narratives intersect because, although Amman is a big city, it’s still a small world.
Zaghmout, Fadi. The Bride of Amman. Trans. Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. Hong Kong: Signal 8 Media, 2015. ISBN: 9789881219893
WARNING:  For mature audiences only—graphic content.

Salma, unmarried at 30, fights against the stereotype of the Jordanian spinster, while her sister Leila is about to have it all—a degree, a career and a handsome and wealthy husband.  Her husband, Ali, has a dark secret he keeps well hidden.  Hayat, who knows Leila, has dark family secrets of her own, meets Samir who knows Ali’s secret.  Should she tell Leila or should they all be worried about their Christian friend Rana who has run off to Sweden with her Circassian boyfriend? 

This book was publicized as social commentary, and I began reading it as such.  As such, it bored me.  I didn’t care much for the voices I was hearing as their problems sounded shallow and self-obsessed.  I was drawn into the novel, however, bit by bit as the stories began to intertwine and the connections between the characters became more complicated.  Then, I was able to understand the complexities of the Jordanian families and friends I have met in Amman at a much more intimate level than I have previously understood.  Life isn’t easy in Amman, infamously known for the “Amman scowl,” but this book helps the reader understand how difficult it is for some modern Jordanians to put on a brave face and smile. 

Is the book a masterpiece of literary achievement? I don’t think so.  Is it enjoyable reading? Definitely, yes.  Does it pass the test of helping the reader step into someone else’s shoes and walk around in them? Definitely.  On that basis, it’s worth the 4 hours it takes to go through it.  

Next step, meet the author.  Fadi Zaghmout, where are you?  I want to have coffee.

Fadi's Blog: https://thearabobserver.wordpress.com/

Sunday, December 13, 2015

It's a Small World

I have been waiting for this book to come out in English since 2012 when it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Finally, finally, I received the English translation, made possible because of the prize.

Al Sanousi, Saud. The Bamboo Stalk. Trans by Jonathan Wright. Doha: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2015.
ISBN 9789927101779
Having lived in Kuwait for 8 years, I was intensely curious to see how a Kuwaiti man would tell the story of a boy whose father was Kuwaiti and whose mother, although the two were legally married, was still the result of the father's union with the family's Filipina maid.

As it turns out, Al Sanousi's tale is realistic, believable, and as heart-breaking as I thought it would be. Afraid of the shame the half-blood child will bring to the family name, the father is forced by his domineering mother to send the mother and son packing back to the islands, shortly before he goes missing in the 1990 invasion.

Jose grows up, fatherless in his motherland, never quite feeling complete, always dreaming of the day his father will make good on his promise to raise him as his legitimate Kuwaiti heir.

When that time arrives, Jose becomes Isa Al Tarouf, and is literally caught in the net of the Tarouf family reputation. What ensues is a Juvenalian satire of the state of class and race relations in Kuwait. Al Sanousi creates a microcosm of the microcosm that is Kuwait--with the bad, as well as so much that is good.

It is a first novel, so perhaps some of its elements are a bit contrived. For example, the attempt to connect the colonization of the Philippines to the lack of father figures, is a bit of a stretch, but it does ultimately work for the "islands" part of the story as it resolves. The main motif, the titular "bamboo stalk" is made a bit too obvious in places.

However, the historical backdrop and discussion of Bidoon and Kuwaiti politics from 2006-2008 was dead-on accurate, as I was teaching during those years and remember those elections quite well.

Was I surprised at the outcome of the novel? No. No, I wasn't.

Was I disappointed? Yes, I was.

Oh, Kuwait. You are a small world, indeed, as the book so clearly reminds us. I wish the novel would become required reading for all students in Kuwait; however, I fear the opposite may be more likely to happen. Tongues wag. Reputation is more important than money.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

It's Not Always So Bright

Violet has been shrinking since, well, a tragedy occurred in her life about a year prior to the introduction of this story. Now, she is a confused and lonely HS Senior, drifting from clique to family, contemplating suicide. Enter Finch.
Niven, Jennifer. All the Bright Places. London: Penguin, 2015. 
The description of the book as "The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor and Park" is completely misleading. The protagonist of this story is Violet, who has been shrinking since, well, a tragedy occurred in her life about a year prior to the introduction of this story. Now, Violet is a confused and lonely HS Senior, drifting from clique to family, contemplating suicide. Enter Finch who finds her while he's contemplating the same thing on the ledge of the school bell tower. Finch is the handsome antagonist who quite literally steals the plot. He has bipolar disorder--all the joys and euphoria associated with it, but also the despair and hollowness it leaves in its wake, not to mention the anxiety and neuropathy in between. 

The book has nothing to do with star-crossed lovers, nothing to do with fate. It's about the roller-coaster ride that is bipolar. I'm on the fence about recommending it because I believe teens who experience suicidal thoughts should read more about the effects on the victims left behind. Focusing on the euphoria of highs or the eccentricities of the lows of bipolar tends to depersonalize, stereotype or even glorify the disorder in a way that trivializes the disease as a moral lesson from which shrinking Violets must learn.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Heroines in Hejabs: THE GREEN BICYCLE by Haifaa Al Mansour

When you have a goal, you go for it.  Wadjda wants a bicycle. This wouldn't be that big a deal, except for the fact that she's a girl. And she lives in present-day Saudi Arabia.  Will she be able to make her dream come true?

The Green Bicycle by Haifaa Al Mansour

Wow! The Green Bicycle was published in September 2015, after the very successful 2012 feature film Wadjda garnered world-wide respect for Haifaa Al Mansour, the first female director to come from Saudi Arabia.  Sometimes I make the mistake of setting my expectations for a long-awaited book too high, but this book did not disappoint me.  In fact, Al Mansour captures every facet of a middle-class, working woman’s world in Saudi (reading this brought me right back to my eight years in Kuwait).  The tendency for Westerners to think of all Saudis as oil rich snobs or overflowing with new money has got to be stopped.  Increasing exposure to Western culture often sends middle-class Muslim girls mixed messages that a coming of age story is perfectly suited to deal with.  Wadjda’s struggles to remain independent are innocent, but also become more weighty as they begin to affect those around her—her family, her friends, her classmates, and mostly, her own sense of being.  The theme of Wadjda’s struggle to find herself is very much echoed in the subplot of her mother’s struggle to be a woman of independent means in a patriarchal society where both men and women suffer because of cultural and moral restrictions placed upon them.  For example, Wadjda’s mother is forced to teach at a school two hours from home because teaching in an all-girls school is one of the only acceptable professions for Saudi women and local positions are flooded. So she and 8 other completely-covered female teachers must endure a two-hour drive to and fro on a crazy-dangerous desert highway, in a van with no A/C, driven by a surly Pakistani man who is her social inferior due to his illegal immigration status but who  feels he can berate her because she is a woman. There is also the tense relationship between Wadjda’s mother and father.  What happens when a Saudi woman cannot bear a son?

What superstitions would keep a girl from riding a bicycle in the first place?  Everything about this book was so real—the streets, the empty lots, the dust, the political elections. The longing of Wadjda’s mother to break social norms, but her reluctance to do so because of social tradition. The principal of the school, Ms Hussa, with her designer clothes, high heels and sense of self-importance, the attitudes of the girls in Wadjda’s school.  Seriously, I felt like I was right back in the Gulf. 

I don’t think, as some critics have said, that Al Mansour seeks to cast Saudi in a bad light.  She is showing it with ethos and pathos. She completely honors Koran.  The plots are beautifully woven, and shine brightest in the moment that Wadjda and her mother recite Koran which brings them together, “And of His Signs is that He creates for you mates out of yourselves, so that you may find tranquility in them; and He has put love and mercy between you.” This is beautiful, and Al Mansour turns a traditional male-female dynamic on its head by reinterpreting it as an unbreakable and triumphant bond between a mother and a daughter. 

Vital Stats:
Al Mansour, Haifaa. The Green Bicycle. London: Puffin, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-141-35668-6 

Read the book or watch the movie.  Either one would be a positive experience.
Movie trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3koigluYOH0