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Book Review ~ The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen

May 28th, 2012 4 comments

In the opening scene of Keija Parssinen’s novel, The Ruins of Us, we meet Rosalie, a red-headed Texan who has been living in Saudi Arabia for more than two decades. In these first pages, Rosalie discovers that her Saudi husband of 28 years has taken a second wife.

Later, we meet Rosalie’s husband Abdullah, a man who keeps secrets, the biggest of all: his second wife of two years lives in a villa down the street. Abdullah explains to a friend why he’s grown apart from his wife Rosalie: she has become “too Saudi” for him. If he wanted a Saudi wife, he would have married one.

At the center of the story is the Al-Baylani villa, grand and garish, located in a neighborhood called The Diamond Mile, where Rosalie and Abdullah host vast family meals on Friday.  The home may look impressive, but inside is a family collapsing. At one point Rosalie says, “I’m disintegrating in that house.”

The solution to Rosalie’s problem is not simple. She has transformed herself to fit into life in Saudi Arabia—“The Kingdom,” as it’s called. Rosalie has so entangled herself into Saudi life that returning to the US presents its own challenges: she has no professional skills and she has even forgotten how to drive. Meanwhile, a Saudi divorce ultimately means a mother’s loss of her children.

And then there’s the teenage son Faisal, who has his own set of problems, less captivating than Rosalie’s, but still compelling. Faisal is a young man who copes with his bicultural background by rejecting one side of his identity (American) and embracing the other (Saudi). His confusion and self-hatred leads to new, bigger problems for himself and for his family.

The novel has four plot lines, some more convincing than others. My favorite chapters are about Rosalie. I would have been content if the book were entirely about her—this American who speaks fluent Arabic, who does daily yoga practice, who dons all the trappings of a Saudi wife but who slips into her Texas dialect whenever she’s upset.

The Ruins of Us is a story of not only one lovers’ triangle, but two—overlapping and intersecting, set against the dusty, grim backdrop of Saudi Arabia. The story revolves around the themes of cross-cultural marriage, expatriate life, betrayal, polygamy, religious extremism, midlife dissatisfaction, and cultural identity.

Many books have been set in Saudi featuring the same clichéd images, and Ruins of Us has some of that, too. Yes, it would be easy to criticize Ruins of Us in this regard, declaring this scene as unbelievable or that character as stereotypical. However, to do so would miss the point. This is a worthwhile novel, a new take on an old setting—with authentic details throughout. In the end, it’s a story about a cross-cultural family falling apart and trying to come back together.

Question: Have you read The Ruins of Us? What are your thoughts?

Book Review ~ In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

May 3rd, 2012 5 comments

In the Country of Men, written by Libyan-British writer Hisham Matar, is set in 1979 Tripoli in a neighborhood swirling with underground resistance.

The story is told from the point of view of nine-year-old Suleiman, who hovers over his young mother and continuously awaits the return of his father who seems to be nearly always gone. The book starts with a scene where young Suleiman catches a glimpse of his father in Martyrs Square—yet his father is supposed to be away on business. What is this father up to? I wondered.

Turns out the mistress of Suleiman’s father is the counter-resistance movement trying to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. It’s not only Suleiman’s father who is involved, but his father’s best friend as well, the professor who lives across the street.

The young narrator’s world is small: home, neighborhood boys, and street games. The boys are sons of both dissidents and government officials. As events on the street grow darker, so do the boys’ street games.

Early on in the story, Suleiman witnesses the alarming arrest of the professor, someone Suleiman admires and the father of his own best friend. Thugs pull the professor from his home, his wife and children following behind, and shove him in a car. His arrest is for “treasonous actions” and sets the tone of fear for the rest of the novel as the neighborhood residents wonder who and what is next.

At the center of the story is the relationship between Suleiman and his mother, a young anxious woman who is deeply unhappy whenever her husband is gone. As she fears for her husband’s safety, she grows increasingly dependent on her bottle of “medicine” to cope.

There are tragi-comic moments as well. When the family hangs an enormous framed image of Gaddafi—“Our Guide” as he is referred to in the novel—young Suleiman notices that their new picture is even larger than the one hung in the home of the neighbor who works for the intelligence service.

While the story is set in the late 1970s and was published in 2006, it paints a picture of the stirrings which lead to the Arab Spring: the tension, fear, uncertainty and anger brewing for decades. In many ways, this story is timeless and not unique to Libya. It could take place in almost any country with a repressive system.

Matar has personal connections to the themes about which he writes. Various relatives and friends of his have been imprisoned or hanged by Qaddafi’s regime—including his own father, who was imprisoned and tortured in Tripoli and last heard from in 1995.

I found many things to appreciate about this novel. I particularly enjoyed how the story is told through the eyes of a child. As he tries to make sense of the increasingly horrifying events around him, the reader will see things that he does not. Meanwhile, Matar’s prose is poetic as he strings together graceful sentences with flashes of insight. Finally, in light of recent events in North Africa, this novel is as relevant as ever; it’s the story of families and friendships straining, and in some cases breaking, under great oppression.

Next on my reading list is Hisham Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance.

Question: Have you read one of Hisham Matar’s novels?

Book Review & Event ~ The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Jennifer Steil

December 17th, 2011 3 comments

When I first heard about Jennifer Steil’s memoir, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen, I immediately ordered the book. I love reading culture-clash stories about Americans bumbling their way through the Arab World.

Only here’s the thing—it turns out Jennifer Steil wasn’t bumbling. She was successfully running an English-language newspaper in Sana’a–the Yemen Observer.

After a three week stint to train Yemeni journalists, Jennifer returns to her job as an editor in New York City. Yet she finds herself yearning to for Yemen, as her Manhattan life now seems oddly dull compared to Sana’a. She longs to return to accept an offer to run the Yemen Observer for a year.

And so she does.

Jennifer’s memoir recounts her adventures in Yemen, how she throws herself into running the newspaper and whips her staff into shape. In turn, they educate her on Yemeni society, customs, and politics. She integrates herself into her new community, a varied and flawed cast of Yemeni “characters.” She eats meals with them, goes to their homes and weddings and befriends them.

Houses in Old Sana'a, Yemen

Meanwhile, the newsroom of the Yemen Observer is full of drama and power struggles. At one point, an editor is thrown in jail. Later, the newspaper is sued. With marvelous prose, Jennifer recounts the often hilarious day-to-day life in the newsroom.

Particularly interesting are the struggles of her female Yemeni staff, who nearly all wear niqab and come from traditional families. For these women, it poses serious problems simply to interview a man, take a taxi or stay at work past mid-afternoon. Despite all this, the female journalists find ways to work together and excel, often out-performing the men. The star is Jennifer’s Yemeni sidekick, a fellow female journalist named Zuhra.

Jennifer Steil in Dubai

Without relying on the worn-out stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, Jennifer illuminates Yemeni society and problems. The reader learns that half of all Yemenis are illiterate, that Yemen is the poorest Middle Eastern country, and that qat-chewing is a major hindrance to productivity.

This lively memoir is not all about journalism and Yemen. Jennifer writes of her personal life as a single working woman, living in her “gingerbread” house in Old Sana’a. In fact, there is an unexpected romantic twist at the end of the story (which I won’t give away) which turns the book into a page-turning novel.

My only criticism of the book (and it’s minor) is that I wish the book had a map of Yemen and photographs of Old Sana’a. Fortunately, Jennifer has some photos on her website to satisfy my new curiosity about Yemen.

So … when I heard that Jennifer Steil was coming to the UAE (via her Facebook page), I thought her story would be compelling and relevant to Westerners living in Dubai. I suggested she speak to members of the American Women’s Association of Dubai, and Jennifer graciously accepted.

We planned an event at Shakespeare & Company on Jumeirah Beach Road, and 25 women attended. Not surprisingly, Jennifer was a captivating speaker. She talked about her experiences in Yemen, read from her memoir and updated us on the current political situation in Yemen. She also informed us of the looming humanitarian disaster in the country.

You can read more about what is happening in Yemen in this article written by Jennifer Steil for the World Policy Institute: Yemen: Descending into Despair.

Holly, Jennifer Steil & Eileen

Question: Please share your impressions of Yemen or your thoughts on Jennifer Steil’s memoir, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky.