One of the best things about living in London is the access to other cultures that it is just not possible to get in many parts of the country. My local library constantly has recommendations of books to read and one of their recent displays was on Arabic literature. Having read a little that I thoroughly enjoyed, I was encouraged to read more and hence picked up this book by a Jordanian author now living in the UK. The subject matter - mental health and sexual discrimination meant that I was expecting a rather dry, dull read. However, I couldnt have been further from the truth. There is no doubt that the issues covered are disturbing; however, the book was so beautifully written, with such care and passion, that it made a wonderful read, one that I can thoroughly recommend.
Before going any further, it is necessary to explain the background to the book; to be honest, more for myself than anyone else, because I am horribly ignorant about Middle Eastern history. The story is set during and after British rule, when Jordan as we know it today was a part of the Mandate of Palestine known as the Emirate of Transjordan. The British stamped out any uprisings before they really had the chance to begin. There is a summary of the history of the time in question at the beginning of the book, which it is helpful to read before beginning.
Two women, Maha and Um Saad, are forced to share a room in a mental institution in Jordan. Initially distrustful, they eventually become friends and share the stories of their lives. Maha is a Bedouin woman from way out in the country and knows little of the modern world. Yet she has known love. She married the man of her dreams and for a short time, was very happy, until her husband was killed by the English. As a widow, she is susceptible to bullying by the men of the village, including her brother, Daffash, and eventually she loses all that she held dear.
Um Saad (which literally means mother of Saad) was married, against her will, to a butcher and had a loveless marriage. She survived because of the eight children to whom she gave birth, only to be snubbed by her husband who one day brings a much younger, second wife home.
This book is the story of the two women and their fight against the way that society tethers them to the whims of men. It is told, apparently in the traditional way of Arabic writers, in three ways. Maha tells her side of the story directly to the reader. Um Saads story is told in a series of conversations with Maha while they are in the mental institution. Then there is an external storyteller, called simply the storyteller, who tells the story of Maha from a completely different point of view. All of this adds a great deal of texture to the story, particularly Mahas, which makes up the bulk of the book.
I was initially confused by the storytellers version of events. The Maha that he describes is little more than an evil spirit whose influence poisons all those near her, whereas the Maha that she tells us about is just a young girl with expectations of happiness. Each part of the story is told first from Mahas point of view, then the storytellers. Eventually, I realised that the storyteller represents mans side of the story, who sees any attempt to remove herself from the bonds that she is tied to as malevolent and immoral. Although confusing at first, I thought that this was very cleverly done.
I loved the character of Maha. Although she is well aware of her place in society, she refuses to accept all that is expected of her. A strong woman, she is responsible for tending her fathers farm, which should have been the job of her brother, for which her father is very grateful. Her character leapt off the page at me and despite the fact I know very little about Jordanian culture, I was able to care for her very deeply. Um Saads story took up much less space in the book, but she does make a good (and in some ways more believable) comparison to Maha. Much weaker than Maha, she is forced into a marriage by her father, who cant wait to get rid of her. Blindly accepting of her role, she puts up with mistreatment until the bitter end. Her fear and anger were palpable
I think it is important to understand the background to the author, Fadia Faqir. She was born in Amman, Jordan, in 1956 and studied English literature in Jordan, University of Lancaster and University of East Anglia. She now lectures at the University of Durham. This is her second book, which she wrote in English. I think that her experience of living in England has enabled her to write a book which is a lot more comprehensible to native English speakers than it might have been had it been written by someone who has little experience of the West and then translated. I didnt originally realise Faqirs background when I first started reading the book, but I did find it immediately comprehensible and natural, and I think her background helps to explain this.
This is one of the most vivid pieces of writing that I have read in a long time. I could see and smell the story, and although the storyteller brings a lot of myth and religion into his side of the story, it is clearly written and easily understandable. The story begins in a mental institution, so the reader immediately realises that it is unlikely to be a happy ending and there are parts of the book that include highly disturbing descriptions of women being beaten, but this still didnt take away from my utter enjoyment of this book, to the extent that I found it very difficult to put down. I cannot wait to read more of this authors work. Highly recommended.
The book is available from Amazon for £7.20. Published by Quartet Books, it has 256 pages. ISBN: 0704302381