I read a number of books by women from and about Muslim countries so I could understand them better.
Nadia Hashimi, an Afghani-American physician who has visited Afghanistan, wrote a book that tells the story of a family that tries to flee Afghanistan after one of its members has been killed by the Taliban.
When the Moon is Low is narrated by a woman and her son. It tells of her life growing up in Afghanistan and how it became worse and worse. The family finally has little choice but to flee. And then they embark on a dangerous journey to join relatives in England. The book tells everything they go through, from humiliations to physical violence. The family struggles to stay together. A young child becomes ill from the deprivations of the journey. Europeans consider the older boy a threat just because he's an Afghan boy.
I can't recommend this book strongly enough.
Hashimi also has written an excellent novel about women living in Afghanistan, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell. It's about two related women who both live parts of their lives dressed in male clothing. One is a woman in the early 20th century who loses her family to illness and tries to find a way to survive. The other is a contemporary girl whose family has no son and decides to make her a bacha push, an honorary boy, so she can do things no girl can do, such as go out to buy groceries. She even goes to school. Then she grows older and is forced to marry. This book shows Afghanistan, from an old regime king's harem to the current parliament. It's the Afghanistan we Americans know all too little about.
I also read two books by Elif Shafak, a Turkish writer. I had earlier read and been impressed by The Bastard of Istanbul, a book she wrote that deals with relations between Turks and Armenians. The protagonist is an Armenian-American girl who reads about the early 20th century Turkish genocide of the Armenians, but goes to visit Turkey anyway and finds a surprising welcome in the family of her Turkish stepfather. A Turkish nationalist brought a lawsuit against Shafak for writing the book, but the case was dismissed.
This year I read Shafak's Honor and The Forty Rules of Love. Honor is the story of twin sisters; one stays in Turkey and learns what it is like to be a rare single woman there, while the other goes with her family in London. There are multiple narrators. It's not much of a spoiler to say the son has killed his mother in an "honor" killing because he is one of the narrators, speaking from an English prison. Islamists had egged him on to matricide. The Forty Rules of Love is about the life of the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi. I was a little bothered that Shafak insists that Rumi's love for another man couldn't have been physical, but otherwise it's a beautiful story.
I've already blogged about Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie's superb novels Burnt Shadows and A God in Every Stone (6/20/2015). But they are worth mentioning again. And again. Burnt Shadows begins with the atomic bomb dropping on Nagasaki. One of the main characters is Hiroto, a Japanese woman whose body was marked forever by the blast. Her German fiancé, Konrad, a man escaping the war in Europe who found himself in another country at war, is killed in Nagasaki. Disintegrated. Nothing left of him.
For a while, Hiroto works as a translator for the Americans occupying Japan. But when she hears them justify the atomic bomb attacks as “saving American lives” she can't bear to work with them any longer.
Tired of being stigmatized as a bomb survivor in her birth country, Hiroto goes to India and hopes to find a home. She marries a Muslim. Shamsie's description of colonial English life seems on target: balanced, but acute.
India was on the verge of partition (the time when Pakistan split off). Divisions between Hindus and Muslims sharpened and much blood was shed. Even Muslims who had no intention of leaving Delhi found themselves unwelcome there.
Shamsie tells how the characters rebuild their lives after partition. And then she tells of the descendants of the English and Pakistani families, and how they try to make sense of the world. Hiroto's outsider perspective is crucial.
The U.S. role in Afghanistan plays a large part in the story. Shamsie leaves the reader with a devastating picture of Americans.
A God in Every Stone provides an equally devastating picture of the English. The story begins on the eve of World War I. Major characters are a young Englishwoman who wants to be an archaeologist, a Turkish archaeologist, an Indian Muslim who fights with the English forces in Europe, and his younger brother. All are moving characters with lives full of pain. The book looks back to the ancient history of what is now Pakistan, especially Peshawar, and at what Peshawar has become: a refuge for Afghans fleeing their country and a point from which they launch attacks into it. She rejects stereotypes of Pashtuns, both Pakistanis and Afghans, as violent. She tells about the nonviolent movement among the Pashtuns that paralleled Gandhi's.
One character asks another, “And what do I need to know?” The other replies, “How to remove your blindfold and see your place in the world.” Shamsie demands that we all remove our blindfolds.
Rafia Zakaria's The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan is a novel-like memoir. Zakaria looks at political developments in Pakistan, particularly in Karachi, including discrimination against Muslims who came from India after partition. She also tells the moving story of her aunt, whose heart was broken when her husband took a second wife. It was uncommon for men to marry more than one woman in Pakistan's early days, but it became common as Islamization took more and more rights away from women.
Nazila Fathi, an Iranian journalist, wrote The Lonely War, a book explaining contemporary Iran. Her description of the uprising against the shah and the fundamentalist revolution startled me as I realized how much they resembled the Chinese and Russian revolutions. Intellectuals and members of the previous ruling class lost their jobs. Many were jailed. Many were killed. Moderates were purged. A new class rose up and gained education. Fathi says that Iran has an extensive new middle class that doesn't like fundamentalism but doesn't want to take risks to rock the boat. She faced danger for reporting and had to move abroad to keep out of prison.
Kader Abdolah, an Iranian man who also has to live abroad, participated in the overthrow of the shah and the subsequent revolution. His novel The King is about a nineteenth century shah, but the hero is his vizier, who tried to modernize Persia (the country still had that name then) by developing modern communications, transportation, and education. The shah had let the British exploit the country's resources without getting Persia anything in return except monies paid to himself. Russia and France also were poised to exploit Persia. Again, I was struck by the resemblance to China's struggles for modernization in that century—and by the similarity of the ways of living in the palace, with absolute rule and hundreds of concubines, with eunuchs to tend them. I learned that the progressives were able to enlist the mullahs to play a progressive role.
Ausmat Zehanat Khan, a Pakistani-Canadian, has written a mystery that is far more than a mystery: The Unquiet Dead. She tells the story of the horrific massacres of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs in the 1990s, and how many Serbs managed to escape punishment, some migrating to other countries, such as Canada. Really, Muslims have a great many reasons to be angry at the West. Her description of how Dutch UN peacemakers let massacres occur is particularly horrifying.
I also read Sandy Tolan's The Lemon Tree, a nonfiction book based on interviews with a Palestinian man whose family was forced out of its home in Israel and the Jewish Israeli woman whose family moved into his family's house. On meeting him, she tried to be his friend. The book seems to be a balanced account, or as balanced as anything could be, under the circumstances.
I can't tell about my 2015 reading without mentioning Peggy Faw Gish's eye-opening books on Iraq, Iraq: A Journey of Hope and Darkness and Walking Through Fire, books telling about her work as a Christian Peace Team member witnessing the second Iraq war and the U.S.-led occupation. I blogged about these books earlier (2/16/2015). They discuss how American peacemakers tried to prevent violence and worked on developing teams of Iraqi peacemakers. The books are unsettling in just the right way. They should move us to question everything.
Speaking of questioning everything, long-time radical feminist Kathleen Barry's book Unmaking War: Remaking Men questions war itself and urges men not to let themselves be brutalized and used as cannon fodder. I also wrote a blog about this book (4/19/2015).
Jenny Nordberg, an American journalist, wrote The Underground Girls of Kabul, which tells about girls in Afghanistan whose families raise them as boys so that there is at least an honorary boy in the family. There is a belief that having a bacha push, an honorary boy, will help the mother conceive a "real" boy. But those girls generally have to go on to arranged marriages. Nordberg tells about the lives of some of them, including one woman who became a parliamentary deputy (whose salary enabled her husband to take a second wife) and one lucky woman who manages to continue living in disguise.
There are many tragedies in the world, and the situation of North Koreans is among the worst. In her memoir, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom, Yeonmi Park tells of her life of oppression and starvation in North Korea. Her family could see a Chinese city across the river that was lit by electricity, a scarce community in North Korea. They heard that the Chinese had three meals of rice a day, which Yeonmi could scarcely believe. Like many others, Yeonmi and her mother escaped to China. But, also like many others, they discovered that the smugglers who "helped" them were human traffickers. They were prostituted for years, but finally managed to escape to South Korea via a grueling journey to Outer Mongolia. Then South Koreans looked down on them because they were so much less educated than South Koreans. But Yeonmi was brilliant and managed to learn English and many other things besides. She now lives in the United States. I was privileged to hear her read in person from her book and was glad to see that she can sometimes laugh as well as cry.
Nigerian writer Chinole Okparantha has written what is probably the first novel about being a lesbian in Nigeria, Under the Udala Tree. An Igbo who lived through the Biafra war, the narrator learns that she is attracted to girls. And that being lesbian or gay in Nigeria can be just as deadly as war.
Ghana Must Go, a novel by Nigeria writer Taiye Selasi, is the story of a Nigerian-Ghanaian family trying to live in the United States. They face discrimination, but the experiences some of the children have when they are sent to live with relatives in Ghana are even worse.
Just after the Charleston massacre last June, I read Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, a novel about the abolitionist Grimke sisters and a fictional slave their family owned. I hadn't realized that Sarah and Angelina Grimke came from Charleston. They had great struggles as women. In the story, Sarah is denied the right to read her father's books and is not allowed to free Handful, the slave her parents give her. But the Grimke sisters' sufferings appear as nothing compared with Handful's, though Handful and her mother find ways to resist. The book also portrays Denmark Vesey, the leader of a rebellion, and the devastating white oppression, including rounding up black people in Mother Emmanuel AME Church.
Lynn Kantor's Her Own Vietnam is a novel about a young American nurse who joins the Army during the Vietnam War and is sent to tend soldiers on the front. The life is horrible and damages her. Kantor says the nurses' stories have not been told.
I did read some fantasy last year. Jo Walton's The Just City fascinated me. It's the story of what would happen if the Greek gods allowed philosophers to build a city based on Plato's Republic. If you recall, Plato's Republic categorizes people into gold, silver, and bronze categories and assigns them to work based on that. It also reduces sexual interactions to one-night stands with partners selected by the city's guardians. But in Walton's novel Socrates comes along and is a gadfly. It's astonishing that Plato ever thought Socrates would approve of such a city.
Nicola Griffith's Hild, the story of a Saxon girl living in the time when the Saxons were taking Britain from the Britons (ancestors of today's Welsh), is an interesting historical novel with some lesbian undertones, but a great deal of plotting and fighting. Hild has visions that bring her power in a society where women have little. Though there is some sex between women, I would not call this a lesbian book. The women who engage in sex apparently prefer men.
Jacqueline Winspear, who has written many fine mysteries about World War I, wrote a moving non-mystery novel about it, The Care and Management of Lies. It was especially striking to read about how pacifism was a crime.
I read all I can about Shakespeare. Tina Packer, a long-time Shakespearean scholar, director, and actor, wrote Women of Will, an excellent book about Shakespeare's female characters and how they differed at different points of his life. Packer suggests that they shaped Shakespeare as well as being shaped by him.
I also have great admiration for Shakespearean scholar James Shapiro, who wrote Contested Will, a book showing that questioning whether Shakespeare really wrote his plays did not begin until the 19th century, more than 200 years after he died. I recently read his The Year of Lear, a book describing the political situation in England in 1606, when Shakespeare wrote Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Shapiro points out that the Gunpowder Plot, in which some Catholics tried to blow up King James I, his family, and all of Parliament, had just happened at the end of 1605. It was an anxious time, similar to the post-September 11, 2001 United States. Therefore, Shapiro says, plays about overthrowing monarchs felt relevant, perhaps excruciatingly relevant. Discrimination against Catholics increased after the plot, as discrimination against Muslims increased in the United States.
I read other books last year, but I recommend all of these. Happy reading to any who choose to read them.