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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 4 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.

 

Favorite Things about the United Arab Emirates

June 18th, 2011 7 comments

A few of my favorite things about the United Arab Emirates:

Favorite Book from the UAE

Whenever a fellow expat complains to me about the UAE, I say to them, “There’s a book you should read.”

I tell them about From Rags to Riches by Mohammed Al-Fahim. The subtitle is A Story of Abu Dhabi but because Abu Dhabi is the capital, the book reads like the story of the UAE.

First published in 1995, the book is part history and part memoir. Al-Fahim recounts his childhood, the hardships his family endured and his experiences in the UAE from the 1950s onward. This is all woven with the history of the UAE and its dramatic transformation from a tribal society to a modern nation.

The book is full of fascinating anecdotes about life in the UAE before the discovery of oil. Al-Fahim explains that as a child, the kandura had no pockets because they had nothing to put in them. He recounts traveling by camel from Al Ain to Abu Dhabi and describes the treacherous job of pearl diving. He gives insights into why Sheikh Zayed is so revered by his people. Interestingly, Al-Fahim discusses how the British exploited the UAE and why he has forgiven them.

The book was ghostwritten by Susan Macaulay. She visited my book club about six years ago and told us how she conducted a series of interviews with Mr. Al-Fahim, recorded his words and turned them into a cohesive story.

The book is sold all over the UAE in various languages, and I recommend it to all expats living here.

Favorite Food from the UAE

Dates! I didn’t appreciate them until I moved to Dubai. Now we eat them almost every day; we serve them to guests and give them as gifts when we travel. Dates are abundant in the UAE and are part of the traditional diet.

When an Emirati friend gives me a big box of dates—as they sometimes do, as many Emiratis have family date farms—I save them to make ma’amoul, date-filled pastries for Eid. Recently, on the day of the Royal Wedding, I made Date Scones.

The time of the year when dates are most important is Ramadan. For thirty days we break our fast by eating dates. Many people claim that dates have extraordinary nutritional value. I don’t know about that, but I like to think it’s true since I eat dates like candy.

Favorite Feature of Emirati Culture

To anyone who says “Emirati culture is dying,” I direct them to the UAE national dress, worn by virtually all Emirati nationals. To me, it’s evidence of strong national pride and no desire whatsoever to assimilate to the dress of the expats filling their country.

And why should they when they have a superb local dress of their own?

The women wear the abaya, a light and flowing cloak—always black, but often with a colorful or sparkly trim—loose-fitting, worn over their clothing, sometimes partially open, sometimes not. This is typically topped with the shayla, a long black scarf. The ways to wrap and pin it are endless and depend upon the personal style and modesty of the woman. Several ways to wear the shayla are here and here, and how to create those amazing head bumps.

The men wear the kandura (dishdash in other dialects)—usually white but sometimes beige, sand or even dark blue. The head cloth is called a gutra, and the black cord to secure it, an agal. The men also have choices on how to wear their gutra, depending on season and preference.

When I’m in the mall, and a group of Emirati women glides past me, their heels clicking, abayas fluttering, heads wrapped artistically in the shayla—honestly, it’s hard not to stare; they look so striking. The same can be said of the men in their luminous white kanduras and carefully folded gutra.

Tell me your favorite thing about the UAE.