lefaquin’s #CBR5 Review #7: In Search of Islamic Feminism by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

The Burka Avenger – a new cartoon from Pakistan.

Islamic feminism is a pretty loaded term. Whatever your opinion on the matter, it’s a topic that has drawn a lot of criticism from many angles: conservative, liberal, religious, secular, communist, Marxist, and the like. Fernea’s book investigates the concept of Islamic feminism throughout several countries in the Arab and Islamic world. Fernea was a filmmaker and ethnographer who studied the lives of women in the Middle East and North Africa. This book comes after many years spent living and working in the region, and in a narrative fashion, Fernea explores different ideas about women.

Each chapter focuses on a different country and tells a completely different story. Fernea has many contacts in each location, and is taken around by women and men who wish to share their ideas of women’s roles in their country. At the time of research, Fernea was well into her 60s, I believe, and this perspective is evident in the writing and questions she asks. The book is set up to dispel stereotypes of Muslim women and is written for a mainly uninformed audience, despite Fernea’s academic background. Fernea inserts herself into the dialogue, into the stories, sharing her stream of consciousness, the details of each meal she eats with interviewees and the like. Although I understand her goal of writing a more accessible, conversational book on the topic of women’s roles in the Middle East, it frequently comes off as overplayed, and the stream of consciousness writing serves to undermine her credentials.

To read the rest of the review, check out my blog.

lefaquin’s #CBR5 Review #5: Baghdad Without A Map by Tony Horowitz

Everyone should read this book. Instead of handing your parents another dull memoir of ‘traveling in the Middle East’ which Orientalizes and exoticizes the region, give them Baghdad Without a Map. It’s entertaining, thought provoking, informed, self-aware, and by far one of the best (entertaining-style) books I’ve read on the region. For a few rambling thoughts, check out my blog – but really, just go read the book.

lyndamk #cbr5 review #15 & #16: Baghdad without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horwitz and The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzetti

Horwitz will make you laugh about his “misadventures” in a turbulent region. Mazzetti, on the other hand, will probably provide a dose of frustration. Both are good discussions of our relations with the Middle East. Read more at my blog …

Karo’s #CBR5 Review #5: The Circle of Reason by Amitav Ghosh

Yeah! More Amitav Ghosh! I bought this new, in a bookshop, and paid FULL PRICE! That’s how much I love the man.

As with his other novels, there is a lot going on here, too, and not just geographically. On the surface, this is about the flight from India of a young man who is falsely accused of smuggling weapons and causing his aunt, uncle and neighbours to die in an explosion. Alu, who really only wants to be a weaver and be left in peace, hides with friends’ friends and random aquaintances, but is tracked down each time and leaves the country on a rickety smuggling boat. Hot on his heels is a young policeman looking for a promotion, although he is really only interested in birdwatching, sketching and being left alone. Again, on the surface, this doesn’t make for the most exciting novel, because if it were for those two characters alone, we might as well just look at a picture of India in the 1970s, and there would be more excitement in that.
BUT. If I had to sum up Ghosh’s writing in one phrase, it would be “There’s so much more to it”. There is. This novel is full of complex characters, ideas and stories. You could criticize the fact that characters that have dozens of pages of backstory are suddenly left behind once Alu is on the move, but that’s life. People come, people go, and knowing their story is never a bad thing. The Circle of Reason is a bit of a patchwork story, and the way is comes full circle in the end seems a bit unlikely, but the stories it tells are little masterpieces.
On the whole, the novel deals with the big idea of rationalism and the struggle to apply reason to human life. I know next to nothing about the theoretical framework, and I’m sure I could have read a lot more into the stories, but it still served as a nudge towards a few deeper thoughts and questions on my part. For me, it was the recurring theme of all of Ghosh’s novels that pulled me in: displacement. Although my life is a neverending party compared to the struggles of the characters in this novel, the story resonated strongly with me. Wherever Alu, himself an orphan, goes, he meets people who have left their homes in search of a better life. This continues all through the novel. From Bangladeshi refugees and immigrants living on the fringes of a wealthy Arab city state, to Indian doctors living in the midst of the Sahara, marvelling at the dunes, everyone has a far-away home that makes them who they are. They get on with it, and each one contributes to society in their own way. It’s not a story of persecution, racism or any of the big subjects that go hand in hand with migration. It’s really just the many stories of the many people living in Asia and Africa at a certain point in time. And as such, it’s much more powerful than any pamphlet.
Ghosh is a born storyteller, with a rich cultural background, and it’s hard to pick out individual paragraphs that sum up the feeling of his novels. But here is one that made me choke back a tear or two:

“As the plane came in to land, blinded by the glare of the sun, he forgot the Barbary falcon and the Saker falcon and the other birds he hoped to see, for he knew suddenly that al-Ghazira wasn’t a real place at all, but a question: are foreign countries merely not-home, or are they all that home is not?
He was already older.”

You should all go and read Amitav Ghosh now.

Lauri’s #CBR5 Review #4: Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

ImageThis book has been on my Amazon wishlist for a while; each time I thought about ordering it, something else seemed more compelling. I wish I hadn’t waited so long (thank you, public library, for making reading on a whim so easy!) to read what turned out to be a quite engaging, modern urban fantasy.

At the beginning of the story, set in an unnamed Middle Eastern military state, we meet The protagonist, Alif,who takes his online handle from the first letter of the alphabet. Out of high school, but barely, Alif is a hacker genius who, from the apartment he shares with his mother, runs a cloud where all types of dissidents are able to digitally converse, and stay hidden from The Hand, the head of the State’s electronic security force. When Alif is jilted by his aristocratic lover for a prince that can provide her the lifestyle to which she is accustomed, a chain of events is set in motion that has widespread implications for the future of this country and the revolutionaries fed up with the status quo.

Wilson deflty weaves a story that combines the seen and unseen, religion and philosophy, and a struggle for life and death — not just for the characters involved, but for the world itself. Driven underground in an effort to evade The Hand’s henchmen, Alif and his closest friend, Dina, are forced to seek aid from the underworld…and the unseen world. Ancient Arabic/Muslim themes, djinn and other magical beasts, and current political ideas are brought together in unique and surprising ways. From the first page the book has an energy that speaks to modern times but draws upon ideas from the fantastical ancient world. With the energy of the Arab Spring, the book offers a modern view of the Arab world that is hard to put down.