Category Archives: Arab

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi, translated by Sherif Hatata

Writer/playwright/activist/psychiatrist Nawal El Saadawi is one of those women who seem to scare men – especially those who purport to have something called ‘authority.’ She’s been fired, banned, accused, threatened, imprisoned because of what is ultimately her simple belief that all women are worthy human beings deserving respect and equality.

The Egyptian-born El Saadawi writes in Arabic; her husband, Sherif Hatata, who is also a novelist and doctor, has translated a number El Saadawi’s works (and his own) into English. The prolific El Saadawi with dozens of title to her name, has written six memoirs thus far; she wrote her first from a jail cell on a roll of toilet paper and a smuggled-in eyebrow pencil, aptly published as Memoirs from the Women’s Prison.

Prison looms large in Woman at Point Zero, considered to be El Saadawi’s best-known novel internationally. While conducting research on neurosis in Egyptian women in the early 1970s, El Saadawi made regular visits to hospitals and outpatient clinics, but she was especially interested in “what prison life was like, especially for women,” she reveals in the book’s 1983 preface. “Perhaps this was because I lived in a country [Egypt] where many prominent intellectuals around me had spent various periods of time in prison for ‘political offences,’” including her own husband. “Little did I know that one day I would step through the same gates, not as a psychiatrist, but as a prisoner arrested with 1,035 others under the decree issued by Sadat on 5 September 1981 [which called for the imprisonment of all opposition activists].”

“This is the story of a real woman,” the novel begins. That woman whom El Saadawi met almost four decades ago was called Firdaus. It is the night before Firdaus’ execution for having committed murder. And throughout the night, Firdaus reveals her story.

“Let me speak. Do not interrupt me,” Firdaus insists – most of her life has been spent unheard and unseen as a thinking, feeling human being. Born to peasant parents, she is eventually raised by an uncle who takes her to Cairo, who recognizes her intellect, who sends her to school, but who also thinks nothing of treating her as a sexual plaything. He marries her off to a decrepit old man, who in turn violently abuses the still teenage Firdaus. She escapes, only to be lured into one abusive relationship after another. Her attempt to live a ‘respectful’ life ends with a betrayed, broken heart, and she re-invents herself as a highly-paid, sought-after, seemingly independent prostitute … at least for a short time.

Firdaus speaks without remorse, without pity. She recognizes that death is the only escape from her debased, shattered life. In spite of her devotion to learning and knowledge – as soon as she has the financial means, she enshrines her love of books in a library room she does not allow any others to enter – she cannot escape the oppressive cycles of power and abuse.

“This woman,” writes El Saadawi, “… evoked .. a need to challenge and to overcome those forces that deprive human beings of their right to live, to love and to real freedom.” That is what makes too many so-called ‘authorities’ afraid. Almost a half-century since her encounter with Firdaus, even as she approaches the age of 80, El Saadawi continues her fight for women’s freedom. Her books continue to provide remarkable testimony … as well as the not-to-be-ignored call to join in.

Readers: Adult

Published: 1975; 2007 (latest English edition)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Arab, Egyptian

Sharing Our Homeland: Palestinian and Jewish Children at Summer Peace Camp by Trish Marx, photographs by Cindy Karp

Too often, media headlines are filled with Arab/Palestinian and Jewish/Israeli conflict and tragedy. Here’s a resonating anecdote filled with images of real-life kids from both sides of the religious/political/historical borders, enjoying a real-life camp where “… they will have the chance to meet and come together – not as enemies, but as campers, as children, and maybe as friends.”

Alya lives in the Arab village of Meiser in north-central Israel; she and her Muslim family are Israeli Palestinians. Yuval, a young Jewish boy, lives in the Jewish community of Maor just a short distance from Meiser. “Alya and Yuval are like children who go to camp anywhere. But in other important ways they are different. They are from two separate ethnic and religious groups who share the same land but who have been in conflict for the past one hundred years.”

For two weeks, children “who live in the midst of this ongoing conflict” will gather at Menashe Summer Peace Camp, sponsored by Givat Haviva, an educational organization that promotes Jewish-Arab Peace. “[N]o matter what language he or she speaks – [everybody] just calls it Peace Camp.” Friendship is hoped for, but the one thing all the children will learn is to respect each another.

Based on writer Trish Marx‘s visit to Peace Camp in 2005, this inspiring title alternates between glimpses of both Alya and Yuval’s everyday lives at home with their families, with key elements of their shared Palestinian/Israeli history, and most importantly their experiences at Peace Camp. In addition to the expected swimming, special crafts, and sleepovers, Peace Campers have some uniquely (surprising!) shared events, including an emergency rescue re-enactment complete with police, ambulance, and bomb squad in attendance!

Such is the children’s reality today … but a future of hopeful change is certainly in their hands: “In a country filled with tension and conflict, the campers have learned to take the first steps toward sharing their ancient homeland. And it happens every year, year after year, at Peace Camp.” Now if only we could get the adults – especially the so-called leaders – to spend a few weeks learning with/from the children …

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Nonfiction, Arab, Israeli, Jewish, Palestinian

Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jelloun, translated by Linda Coverdale

Leaving TangierIn spite of his prestigious college degree which should have guaranteed him a bright future, Azel is unable to find meaningful work in his native Tangier, a city in northern Morocco. Mired in self-absorbed disappointment, he spends his days and nights lost in women, wine, and song, living off the hard earnings of his older sister, Kenza. When he meets Miguel, a wealthy Spaniard, Azel recognizes a chance for escape. Although he adamantly denies being a homosexual, Azel nevertheless allows Miguel to buy him a luxurious new life in Barcelona.

Azel’s sister Kenza soon follows as Miguel’s legal “wife,” but insists on remaining independent. Unable to come to terms with his exploited sexuality – not to mention his dissolute existence – Azel falls victim to his own sense of trapped failure.

Already a bestseller in France where it was first published (Jelloun is a Moroccan transplant who immigrated to France in 1961), Leaving adroitly explores the complicated issues of immigration, contrasting two cultures separated merely by the few miles of the Straits of Gibraltar, and yet so vastly distanced by socio-economic differences.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Translation, Arab, European, Moroccan

Santa Claus in Baghdad and Other Stories about Teens in the Arab World by Elsa Marston

Santa Claus in BaghdadEight stories about eight teens from eight different countries coming of age during a time of uncertainty and tumult in their native Middle East countries. In the title story, young Amal of Baghdad, Iraq, must find the very best gift for her departing literature teacher even while watching as her family’s already depleted resources continue to dwindle. In “Faces,” Suhayl of Syria comes to terms with his parents’ divorce, desperately hoping to make his mother happy once again.

Aneesi watches in horror when her beloved father is accused of theft in the wealthy Lebanese home in which they both work in “The Hand of Fatima.” When Mujahhid is sent away from Bethlehem and the constant shootings that already claimed his older brother’s life to stay with relatives in a remote village in “The Olive Grove,” he learns new ways of struggling for his people’s rights against the controlling Israelis without having to become yet another martyr.

An Egyptian city girl learns first hand about village life in “In Line,” a young Tunisian boy who sells his mother’s hats befriends a famous artist in “Scenes in a Roman Theater,” two brave girls in Jordan help save another from an honor killing in “Honor,” and a young Palestinian boy living in a refugee camp in Lebanon helps his isolated older brother possibly find real love.

While the circumstances of these young lives might first seem unfamiliar to a western audience, universal truths about what all children want soon emerge. Differences that all too often get magnified by the media fall away as the children in these pages come of age, sharing their lives with friends, dealing with the occasional conflict with parents, and trying to fit into their communities – all the while surviving war, deprivation, political uncertainty, and imminent dangers.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Arab, Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Middle Eastern, Palestinian

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

in-the-country-of-menIn 1979, 9-year-old Suleiman already lives a fractured existence in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, controlled by Qaddafi and the ever-present threat of his secret police. While his father is often away on some unknown business, young Suleiman is left behind to take care of his mother and her sudden bouts of “illness,” the onset of which is linked to a bottle she calls her “medicine.” Thanksfully, as soon as his father returns, family balance is quickly restored, his mother a carefree young woman once again, and Suleiman assumes the role of the beloved, pampered only child.

But one day, while out shopping in town with his mother, Suleiman sees his father when he should have been on yet another business trip. Not long after, his best friend’s father is carted away and violently displayed on government-controlled broadcasts. Then his own father disappears, his beloved books confiscated, and eventually the reader will learn how he was held and tortured for believing in democracy.

As a child with adulthood thrust upon him far too early, Suleiman must somehow navigate the frightening world around him, its uncertainty, its consequences, its terror, its utter brutality. Matar’s debut – shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize – is a chilling, haunting account of the disintegration of both family and society, rendered even more disturbing through a young boy’s wide-open eyes, once trusting yet quickly overshadowed by the inhumanity all around him.

Reader: Adult

Published: 2007 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Arab, British

Muhammad by Demi

Muhammad.DemiBased on traditional Islamic sources, award-winning children’s book maestro Demi creates a book specifically for children about the life and teachings of Muhammad. The book underscores that Muhammad’s message is the same message the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus brought to Earth: peace be upon us all. Muhammad is an especially timely title, with almost a quarter of the world practicing Islam, not to mention the unfortunate – though current – Western fear (and denigration) of the Muslim world.

Review: “New and Notable,” AsianWeek, October 17, 2003

Readers: Children

Published: 2003

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Biography, .Nonfiction, Arab, Middle Eastern

Honor Lost: Love and Death in Modern-Day Jordan by Norma Khouri

Honor LostKhouri writes hauntingly about the life and death of her childhood best friend, Dalia, who was murdered by her own father for falling in love with the wrong man. Khouri exposes the insidious laws of her native Jordan (as well as other parts of the Arab world) that condone so-called “honor killings” of young women by their own brothers, uncles, and even fathers for allegedly “shaming” the family– even in the case of rape! The last four pages which recount a handful of these murders add to the horrifying tragedy.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, April 25, 2003

Readers: Adult

Published: 2003

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Arab, Jordanian, Middle Eastern