Rummanah Aasi
  I'm trying to experiment with different genres for my Middle Eastern Reading Challenge. I started out quite strong in children's literature. There is not much out there in the YA realm and the adult fiction/nonfiction realm can be tricky especially when it comes to politics and searching for a balanced book. I took a chance with two contemporary women writers from the Middle East, one from Palestine and the other from Egypt, who both focus on women's roles in their respective countries. I did like one of a little better than the other, but I still think I could do better than both of them.

Description (from Goodreads): A young woman is instructed by her boss to write a letter to an older man. His reply begins an enigmatic but passionate love affair conducted entirely in letters. Until, that is, his letters stop coming. But did the letters ever reach their intended recipient? Only the teenage Afaf, who works at the local post office, would know. Her duty is to open the mail and inform her collaborator father of the contents—until she finds a mysterious set of love letters, for which she selects another destiny.
  Afaf has lived in shame ever since her mother left her father for another man. And in this novel, her story is followed in turn by another: the story of a woman who leaves her husband for someone else, to whom she declares her love in a letter…The chain of stories that make up this singular novel form a wrenching examination of relationships and their limits—relationships tenuous, oblique, and momentous.

Review: When I started this book I was under the impression that it was a single love story, but I could not have been more wrong. This slim book is made up of dark, bleak, and depressing vignettes. In the course of her work, an increasingly isolated woman writes letters to a man she's never met that go from professional to personal; "I wanted to offer him the essence of my existence," she says. Intimate correspondence also informs "The First Measure," the teenager Afaf, who leaves school to work in the post office for her father, reading, and sometimes altering people's letters (changing "Palestine" to "Israel" among other edits). A married woman falls in love with the physiotherapist she visits for treatment and finds her new feelings overwhelming her conservative life. A woman's devotion to physical fitness fails to ameliorate her increasing horror and disgust with the world around her. A shy man who has failed in his university studies and works in a supermarket looks longingly at a woman on a public bench and thinks of the few women he has known.
  I'm not exactly sure how these vignettes connect. With the exception of Afaf and her family, we aren't given any names to any of the other characters. I was lost in trying to figure out the "he" and "she" were the same people in each story. The writing is poetic and the characterizations were interesting, but the book fails to provoke any thought once I finished it. I actually thought I was better off in reading pieces of the book instead of the whole thing.

Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There are mature themes regarding sexuality, religion, and gender issues. Recommended for adults interested in modern Middle Eastern literature.

If you like this book try: The Consequences of Love by Leila Aboulela

Description: Bodour, a distinguished literary critic and university professor, carries with her a dark secret. As a young university student, she fell in love with a political activist and gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Zeina, whom she abandoned on the streets of Cairo. Zeina grows up to become one of Egypt's most beloved entertainers, despite being deprived of a name and a home. In contrast, Bodour remains trapped in a loveless marriage, pining for her daughter. In an attempt to find solace she turns to literature, writing a fictionalised account of her life. But then the novel goes missing. Bodour is forced on a journey of self discovery, reliving and reshaping her past and her future. Will Bodour ever discover who stole the novel? Is there any hope of her being reunited with Zeina?

Review: I had better luck with Zeina than Shibli's book. The books begins with Successful literary critic Boudour is writing a novel about circumstances that made her abandon an infant, Zeina, when she was a young college student. Later, Boudour married and raised another daughter, Mageeda, a successful writer who feels curiosity and jealousy toward Zeina, now a musical phenomenon and her unknown stepsister. As Boudour tries to rewrite her life and recover her stolen novel, she becomes increasely aware of the unequal gender roles and expectations in the Egyptian society.
  I was really invested in the first half of the book. I thought the characters were multi-faceted and I kept waiting for the big secret of Zeina's identity to be revealed. I didn't mind the switch back and forth from past to present as Boudour essentially writes her memoir. It's when the second half of the book turns into a harsh commentary of the Egyptian society where men repeatedly betray women. Actually, I can't even recall a decent male character in the entire book. It's clear that the author is upset about the double standards found in the Egyptian culture, but the author does quote in length (i.e. almost five pages worth) from the Qur'an that illustrate this entrenched nature of this behavior, which I found was a bit excessive. I guess at some point the book shifted from reality to dreamlike qualities, but I really couldn't pinpoint that out to you. 

Rating: 3 stars

Words of Caution: Strong sexual themes throughout the book including attempted rape as well as some strong language. Recommended for adults interested in modern Middle Eastern literature.

If you like this book try: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea ; translated by Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth
3 Responses
  1. Well I have to say I am not really interested in either title. Guess I am just not up formdark, bleak and even a bit violent right now. It is too sunny and nice! Thanks for the thorough analysis!

  2. Good for you for trying new forms of fiction. I have a hard time reading vignettes, so that alone would probably keep me from reading the first one, but I'm glad you enjoyed Zeina.

  3. Rummanah, just the synopsis of We Are All Equally in Love sounds confusing so it's too bad the vignettes weren't weren't tied together in some way. Hope you enjoy your next reads more!

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