Posts Tagged Middle East
Harvard Square by Andre Aciman. Publisher: W.W. Norton (2013). Fiction. Hardcover. 304 pages. ISBN 9780393088601.
“I hated almost every member of my department, from the chairman down to the secretary, including my fellow graduate students, hated their mannered pieties, their monastic devotion to their budding profession, their smarmy, patrician airs dressed down to look a touch grungy. I scorned them, but I didn’t want to be like them because I knew that part of me couldn’t, while another wanted nothing more than to be cut from the same cloth.”
A melancholic, nostalgic autobiographical novel about belonging and assimilation that focuses on immigrants finding their place in America in the 70s. It’s set amidst the privileged enclave of the most elite academic environment. A place filled with the most intelligent, the wealthiest, the preppiest, the best of the best, the elite. A place where one looks down on the commoners who will never be able to emulate or understand a Harvard graduate’s life.
At Café Algiers, an Egyptian graduate student at Harvard meets Kalaj, a Tunisian cab driver, struggling to keep his green card. They have one commonality: both come from Arab states in the Mediterranean. For the homesick graduate student he’s happy to speak French with fellow exiles. The café serves as a place to meet new friends. For the Tunisian, the café’s his home apart from his miserable marriage and his cab. [“He was proud to know me, while outside of our tiny café society, I never wanted to be seen with him. He was a cabdriver, I was Ivy League. He was an Arab, I was a Jew. Otherwise we could have swapped roles in a second.”] Over the next several months these two men will test friendship’s bonds.
“He had as little patience for Islam as I for Judaism. Our indifference to religion, to our people, to the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, to so many issues that could easily have driven a wedge between us, our contempt for patriotism, for flags, for causes, or for any of the feel-good ideologies that had swept through Europe since the late sixties, left us with little else than a warped sense of loyalty—what he called complicite, complicity—for anyone who thought like us, who was like us.”
Andre Aciman lovingly describes Harvard Square through minute sensory detail, various meeting spots—Café Algiers, Casablanca, Harvest, street names and students versus year-round inhabitants. The reader will feel like she’s walking around with him on every page. His Middle Eastern characters are rich with background. In Kalaj he creates an explosive and derisive character to play off the graduate student. Does the reader want him to get his green card or be kicked out of the United States forever? He’s rather a cad. A player. He seduces women and brags about his conquests in the café the next morning. Women cry about him. He’s been married several times. He complains about America while waxing nostalgic about the pristine beaches of his native Tunisia yet yearns for a green card. Merely for the money or does he have a darker motive? And why does a Harvard doctorate student become both enamored and disgusted with Kalaj?
As much as our graduate student feels he’s an Egyptian, he’s also becoming comfortable at Harvard. He wants to succeed and belong. While he enjoys this new scene he never knew existed at Café Algiers, he understands that his future belongs to academia and his Ivy League education. He’s nothing to feel ashamed about.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W. Norton.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson is a mesmerizing novel where politics, religion and technology collide in a complex setting. A 23-year-old Arab-Indian hacker in a Middle Eastern emirate simultaneously finds his computer breached by the state’s security force and jilted by his aristocratic lover. A jinn (or genie) and his kind, intelligent neighbor Dina help Alif find out how and why this happened to him. His problems deepen while he learns eye-opening information that will change his future. Alif the Unseen is a beguiling page-turner.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. Publisher: Grove Press (July 2012). Fiction. Hardcover. 440 pages. ISBN: 978-0082120205.
A graphic novelist and author of the memoir The Butterfly Mosque, A Young American Woman’s Journey to Love and Islam, Alif the Unseen is G. Willow Wilson’s first novel. She studied history at Boston University then taught at an English language school in Cairo for several years at the request of a retiring professor. I spoke with my fellow BU alumna by phone recently.
Amy Steele: Did you convert to Islam when you were in Egypt?
G. Willow Wilson: I had thought about converting [well before going to Egypt] but then 9/11 happened and I couldn’t seriously convert when these people had done this to my country in the name of religion. It took me several more years of research and study to reassure myself that they had acted in a way that Islam would consider abominable and that Islam rejected. I thought I could keep it a secret. But I didn’t know how I was going to get through 30 days of fasting every year without anybody finding out.
Amy Steele: Religion is a private thing but then there are so many facets of it that are impossible to keep private.
G. Willow Wilson: Especially in the Middle East, religion is not private in the way we think of it in the United States. Here it would be illegal to ask someone their religion on official documents such as a driver’s license or anything like that. But in the Middle East your religion appears on everything. So I was going from a place where it’s mostly private to a place where the state gets involved.
Amy Steele: In your novel, Alif is non-practicing isn’t he?
G. Willow Wilson: At least ambivalent. The Middle East is the birth place of so many world religions that religion becomes intertwined in almost every facet of life. He probably has small bits of the Quran memorized that most people have memorized who are practicing Muslims but he’s very ambivalent about religion. He’s not really practicing.
Amy Steele: I think when Americans and Westerners think of the Middle East you think of religion and the people and the government hand in hand.
G. Willow Wilson: There’s a lot of secularism in the Middle East and I don’t think people realize it. Some people would rather that religion play no part in public life and you see these debates unfold in places like Egypt where there’s a big secularist contingent.
Amy Steele: Alif is bi-racial. Would that be unusual?
G. Willow Wilson: It would be somewhat unusual. The book is set in the Persian Gulf and the Persian Gulf plays host to literally thousands of guest workers from Bangladesh, the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia. The guest workers actually outnumber the native-born Persian Gulfers and it’s created a very interesting social dynamic. For Alif, I imagined if a wealthier businessman had a secret or unsanctioned marriage with a woman who was a guest worker from the Indian subcontinent. I think that sort of marriage is still pretty unusual. People do see those two groups as being very separate.
In this case, I wanted him to be both an insider and an outsider. It seemed like an interesting way to have it play out.
Amy Steele: How did you get the idea to write Alif the Unseen?
G. Willow Wilson: It came to me in certain parts. The big driving force for me was the fact that there was so much interesting stuff going on in the social media world in the Middle East among activists online in how they were using the internet to get around censorship in print media. The internet was really allowing different factions of people who normally had no reason or method to talk to each other [secularists, traditionalists, feminists] to share a common platform and communicate with each other.
It was a very exciting thing for me to see it happening because instead of what you’d expect to happen which is that they were all at each other’s throats because they had different beliefs, they were struggling to find common ground because they had common enemies in these horrible, entrenched, dictatorial leaders in places like Egypt who’d been in power for 30 plus years.
It was at the time a very hard sell in the United States. People were very dismissive of social media. I could see the potential of what was happening in the Middle East and I wanted a way to highlight that. And that formed the basis for Alif the Unseen.
Amy Steele: When you say that this novel takes place in an undisclosed Gulf emirate, what type of government is in place? A dictatorial regime like Egypt?
G. Willow Wilson: It’s vague. There’s a point in the book when someone says he can’t believe the government has this sophisticated digital surveillance but no mail service. That is something I pulled straight from Egypt under Mubarak where if you were a blogger and talking about politics, eventually state security would show up at your door and that would be the last that people heard of you. But try to get a letter delivered. I didn’t want to set it in a specific country or tie it to a specific country so I set it in a fictional country.
Amy Steele: Can you tell me about the Arab hierarchy among the various countries—the Gulf states being at the top– that you describe in the novel?
G. Willow Wilson: They certainly see themselves that way. There seems to be a perception among certain people—I don’t want to paint too broad a brush—who think that they have the oil, they have the money, so that people that show up to work in the Gulf are there to serve them. It’s a very feudal mentality where you’ve got the Lords and the Ladies on the top and the serfs on the bottom. Poorer countries, like Egypt and Libya, aren’t seen as existing at the level of the wealthier nations along the Gulf. It makes for an interesting dynamic and it’s the cause for a lot of frustration for a lot of people who work in the gulf.
Amy Steele: In the novel, you also speak of old money, new money and no money. That there is no middle class. Immigrants send money home as they do in the United States too.
G. Willow Wilson: It’s true. It’s really a commentary for globalization.
Amy Steele: How much did you know about the grey hat world before writing this?
G. Willow Wilson: Very little. I’m a very picky end-user of technology. I’m one of these people who bugs my tech friends a lot for advice and I also like to know what makes [computers/technology] work. I picked their brains about Alif. I knew I’d have to break some rules in the world of fiction but I did go in with some basic understanding of computer culture.
Amy Steele: How did the fantasy aspect, the jinn and Vikram come in?
G. Willow Wilson: I wanted to write about how we think about the unseen whether it’s the unseen world of computers and technology and things we don’t understand. Or if it’s the unseen world of spirits and things we don’t talk about. The parallel between the unseen world of technology and the unseen world of spirituality provided some really interesting fodder for storytelling.
Amy Steele: Did you influence the character “the convert”?
G. Willow Wilson: She’s not me. As a white Western writer writing a character in the Middle East and thinking of all the foibles and the shortcomings and the heroism, it behooves me to turn around and be able to reflect myself as well. The convert is the kind of person I try not to be in many ways. She’s very academic, very rigid and she’s very earnest but it kind of gets in her way. She’s living in this country so very different from her own and she’s making a lot of mistakes and that’s something I can relate to. She’s my way of having a sense of humor as an outsider about these issues.
Amy Steele: What do you like about Alif, Dina and Vikram?
G. Willow Wilson: Writing an ensemble cast, I made sure each character had its own arc and went through its own issues that pertained to that character. In a way it was a lot like writing comics, which I do a lot of, it was a lot of fun for me. You’re able to do that, have such a wide range of characters and have them interact in a dynamic way. I don’t really have a particular character who’s a favorite.
Amy Steele: What is a particular characteristic about them that you like?
G. Willow Wilson: I thought Dina would be the most difficult character to write but she ended up coming really naturally. I liked her stubbornness. For Alif, I like his impulsiveness. I like that he grows up. He’s transformed by his experiences. Vikram was the most fun to write because he’s a genie. He’s not bound by our rules and moralities. It gives him an opportunity to tell the truth. I tried to make them all true to themselves.
Amy Steele: What’s your favorite aspect of the novel?
It was really fun writing the car chase. As writers of literature we’re supposed to take ourselves so seriously. Putting characters in a car and in a car chase across the desert was the most fun thing to write.
Friday, July 13, 2012 – Saturday, July 14, 2012
Comic-Con, San Diego, CA
Monday, July 16, 2012
Busboys and Poets
1025 5th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
37 Main Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
Thursday, July 19, 2012
Tattered Cover Book Store
2526 East Colfax Avenue
Friday, July 20, 2012
1107 Pearl Street
Boulder, Colorado 80302
Title: I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced
Author: Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui
Publisher: Three Rivers Press (March 2, 2010)
Category: memoir, women’s issues
Review source: publisher
My mother never said a thing. She seemed sad, but resigned. After all, she had wed through an arranged marriage, like most Yemeni women, so she was in a good position to know that in our country it’s the men who give the orders, and the women who follow them. For her to defend me was a waste of time.
Everyone heard the outrageous news story about the 10-year-old girl in Yemen granted a divorce. How could someone so young have even been married? This concept confused and angered Westerners, where there are laws against such disgusting behavior. Fortunately, many women and young girls in the Middle East also found solace and inspiration in the courage of Nujood Ali.
My life was taking a new turn in this world of grown-ups, where dreams no longer had a place, faces became masks, and no one seemed to care about me.
It hurt me to be talked to that way, with such contempt, and he made fun of me in front of others. I lived in permanent fear of more slaps and blows. Occasionally he even used his fists. Every day, fresh bruises on my back, new wounds on my arms. And that burning in my belly. I felt dirty everywhere.
In I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced, Ali provides an unflinching, honest account of her horrific ordeal at the hands of a man three times her age. Her memoir sheds much needed light on archaic practices and the abuse of young girls and women around the world. Her father basically sells Nujood to this man without her knowledge or consent. He repeatedly rapes her and beats her. The thought is just disgusting and unimaginable though it happens throughout the world every day. Girls may not get married at age 10 in the United States and Western countries, but they are certainly sexually abused and enslaved by men. Ali is a typical girl growing up in a country that I associate with terrorism and poverty. She loves drawing with colored pencils, arithmetic and learning Arabic. Ali has dreams of becoming a lawyer just like her hero Shada, the woman who helped her escape the matrimonial bonds and nightmare into which men thrust her. Ali is a brave little girl who, despite her lack of education, managed to outwit her awful husband and beat the system. I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced provides a devastating and hopeful message that little girls in Yemen and other conservative Middle Eastern countries who find themselves in arranged marriages before they even hit puberty sometimes find someone who will listen to them. Sometimes someone will take notice of the injustice. The unfortunate truth is that most of these little girls cannot read I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced.
–the median age of women in Yemen is 17
–only 30% of females age 15 and over can read and write [50% total population, 70% males]
–45% live below poverty line
–Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East
–the custom of chewing the narcotic plant khat in the afternoons is still widely observed
–main exports of Yemen: Crude oil, cotton, coffee, fish
–the terrorist threat level in Yemen remains high and Americans and foreigners are in constant danger
– Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula established itself in Yemen after it was forced out of Saudi Arabia
– on October 12, 2000 a terrorist group attacked the U. S. S. Cole in the port of Aden. The group used a boat loaded with explosives, killing 17 American sailors and injuring 28 others
– on September 17, 2008, armed terrorists attacked the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a [Yemen capitol]
–Yemen is the first country in the Arabian Peninsula to give women the right to vote, have women as Members of Parliament and to appoint a woman as Minister for Human Rights
He registered Theo’s skepticism with a nod. “Kuwait is far worse. The class-consciousness here will shock you. If you’re not Kuwaiti born and bred, you’re no one; and if you’re so unfortunate as to be a South Asian housemaid or laborer, you’re worthless, invisible, and in constant danger. Look at me. I’m an Arab. I’ve lived here for twenty years. But I’m not a Kuwaiti citizen because I’m Palestinian. The reason they didn’t run me out during the war is because I’m a good businessman—and I’m married to Jane. Only Jordan has offered citizenship to Palestinians. No other Arab nation has done this, though the Israelis droves us from our homes in 1948. The Kuwaitis put up with us because we’re well-educated and willing to work hard. We make lots of money for them. But they don’t like us and they don’t trust us. They think we’re vulgar and inferior. So we live in our neighborhoods and they live in theirs.”
Anastasia Hobbet beautifully crafted a complex, layered story about the abuse of a household servant in Kuwait. This event draws together a wide variety of people who may never associate with each other: Theo, an American from California, working at a hospital clinic; Mufeeda, an upper-class Kuwaiti woman; Hanaan, a Palestinian female activist; Kit, a rather naïve American from Oklahoma, whose husband is an engineer for an American construction company and lives in the same wealthy neighborhood as Mufeeda; and Emanuella, a cook from India, who risks losing her sponsorship to remain in Kuwait.
Moving from character to character and each individual story, Hobbet provides a rich background about life in Kuwait and the complex structure of the Middle East where class divisions remain strong, Americans and British are simultaneously despised [“Americans aren’t exotic. How can they be? Everyone knows America outside and inside. You’re all over the television and movies.”] and coveted [Mufeeda’s children attend a private school where they learn English], arcane laws and customs [sometimes honor killings still secretly occur] remain in place, yet Kuwait, compared to other Arab nations appears modern.
Small Kingdoms reads part-history, part-character study and part-mystery. It’s an elaborate work of literature. Hobbet enlightens us about the modern day Middle East which still has many flaws and disparity despite its outward appearances, especially Kuwait, an ally of the United States. Hobbet meticulously crafted and developed each character in such a detailed way that the reader begins to understand his or her motives. Each character jumps off the page so vividly and memorably. Despite being from different social, economic, political, and religious backgrounds, Hobbet makes us empathize with each character and gradually know why each character is how he or she is which makes the plot flow with poise and grace. The most brutal event brings together people who might never normally speak or socialize to solve a vital issue that makes all the difference to someone’s life. Small Kingdoms speaks boldly and elegantly about the power of humanity and honesty in the name of justice and fairness, by putting aside religion and politics to help someone less fortunate. Just to take a few moments to quiet down, stop and show empathy and compassion every once in a while. Small Kingdoms is a stunning novel: in its powerful story and masterful writing.
Look for Small Kingdoms at your local Indie Bookseller on January 15.