Imagining Life Behind the Veil
May 2018

I just finished a new novelized biography about the trailblazing and influential Iranian poet and film director, Forough Farrokhzad.  Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik is a debut novel set in Iran before and during the time of the last Shah.  Kirkus Reviews describes the book as “a thrilling and provocative portrait of a powerful woman set against a sweeping panorama of Iranian history.”

As much as I found her story fascinating, reading this book brought to mind several others on the same topic, all of which I found even more powerful and compelling.

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a gripping and depressing memoir—ultimately a celebration of triumph over adversity—of an African Muslim turned anti-Muslim.  Ali tells her astonishing life story, from her traditional Muslim childhood (in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya) to her intellectual awakening and activism in the Netherlands, and her current life under armed guard in the West.  Christopher Hitchens calls her “a charismatic figure of arresting and hypnotizing beauty [who writes] with quite astonishing humor and restraint.”

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, presents the stories of a wide range of Muslim women in the Middle East.  “Powerful and enlightening . . . Brooks presents stunning vignettes of Muslim women . . . and carefully distinguishes misogyny and oppressive cultural traditions from what she considers the true teachings of the Koran.” (Publishers Weekly)  I agree with the New Yorkers’ assessment:  “Frank, enraging, and captivating.”

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson is a heart-wrenching and heart-warming coming-of-age story of a plucky Nigerian girl that deserves to be better known. Winner of the Costa First Novel Award, “Christie Watson’s debut novel, set in the troubled Niger Delta, does what fiction does best, it captures place and characters so well that you feel you are also there,” according to Helon Habila.  Or, in the words of Giles Foden, “An excellent novel. It takes the reader deep into the reality of ordinary life in Nigeria and is also funny, moving and politically alert.”

But I have saved the best for last.  The Cairo Trilogyby Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, is a magnificent epic trilogy of about a Muslim family in Cairo during Britain’s occupation of Egypt in the early decades of the twentieth century. According to the New York Times Book Review, the series is “luminous . . . All the magic, mystery and suffering of Egypt in the 1920s are conveyed on a human scale.” In the words of Newsday,“A masterful kaleidoscope of emotions, ideas and perspective. Mahfouz has captured a family and its homeland at one gloriously varied moment in a cycle.”  Start with Palace Walkthe first in the series.

And I can’t resist tacking on one more book here (even though it’s not a novel), for anyone interested in understanding the Muslim cultureDestiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary, is an excellent history, easy to read, that made me rethink and understand Islam in a completely different and enlightening way.

Muslim women and culture are such interesting topics.  Surely, you must have some other books on this topic! Please reply to this email to let me know.

Last month, I asked for your recommendations for “wonderful, but neglected”authors.  In response, I learned of three detective series, the first two both by Michael Pearce: (1) the “Mamur Zapt Series” set in Egypt during the opening of the 20thcentury, (2) “A Dead Man in . . .” series set in various Mediterranean cities before WWI; and (3) the “Maisie Dobbs Series” (by Jacqueline Winspear) about a “psychologist and investigator” in post WWI London.  Although I haven’t read these myself, I am told they are non-violent and suffused with history and culture.