3. Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

•March 16, 2014 • Leave a Comment

girls of riyadhGirls of Riyadh is written in the style of email confessions written by a close friend catching you up on good gossip. It follows four close friends in their quests to find love and marriage in Saudi Arabia, with varying degrees of success, and plenty of outsized drama. Overall, it’s an interesting book and a good look at Saudi dating culture, but it isn’t particularly well written, and I kept getting all of the characters confused – they weren’t quite distinct enough for me to care to tell them apart.

I know this may sound harsh, but I’ve read too many mediocre books about the Middle East to have more patience. This book is definitely geared towards people who haven’t read much about the Middle East, and for them, it would definitely break down stereotypes. The four young women in question are all dating, trying to find love, friendship, and get hurt in the process, make mistakes, and the context is well explained for anyone to read and get a better sense of the culture.

I’m glad I read it, but I had slightly higher expectations for the book. When it came out, this book was actually banned in Saudi Arabia. It’s written in a mix of classical Arabic, Saudi dialect, and other foreign words thrown in to more accurately reflect the ways in which these characters would have communicated. These linguistic and stylistic choices are one of the coolest things coming out of MENA region literature – books and novels that are written in the same dialects spoken by ordinary people – not the formal Arabic of TV presenters and national speeches. The book supposedly touched on extremely racy content, things that weren’t supported by Saudi – and for that, it was banned. The book definitely touches on sex, pre and post-marital and other taboo topics in Saudi, but I was hoping it would go slightly further than it did. Nonetheless, an interesting book, not one I’d super highly recommend, but infinitely better than my review of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen last year.

Pages: 300/793


2. A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain

•March 16, 2014 • Leave a Comment

A Cook’s Tour is the pretty standard Anthony Bourdain blend of offensive humor, drinking stories, and gratuitous food porn. I greatly enjoy his style of writing, and love reading his descriptions of food – for me, it comes alive. Although Bourdain is first and foremost known for his food writing and biting, sometimes nasty tone, I think his strongest writing comes when Bourdain gets sentimental and examines the beauty in the world, reflects on his surroundings.

From a passage describing his time in Morocco, he writes:

When we finally agreed on the right distance and the right dune – still reasonably certain we could find our way back to camp – we sat down on the cold sand dune and smoked ourselves into a state that once, many years ago, might have been mistaken for enlightenment, our coughs and giggles swallowed up by the dunes. I lifted the description ‘a bewildering array of stars’ once from a far better writer – I can’t remember who now, only that I stole it – and that expression came to mind as I stared up at an awe-inspiring sky over the Sahara, the bright, penetrating lights, the quick drop of comets, a cold moon, which made the rippling patters of sand look like a frozen sea.

Maybe it is nostalgia, maybe I’m wrong, but in passages like that I think about the poet Dylan Thomas and his stories. Bourdain has a knack of making places come to life – in beautiful and ugly ways. He celebrates it, the raw glory of traveling and eating and being stupid and making mistakes. If you’ve previously read and enjoyed his books, check this one out – but you won’t need me to tell you that.

Pages: 288/493

1. Miséria : Témoinages by Aïcha Ech-Chenna

•January 14, 2014 • Leave a Comment

For one thing, this book is in French. There’s no translation in English, and it would probably also be hard to do, since parts are in transliterated Moroccan Arabic, although not much. This is a collection of stories of women, children, and of whole families in Morocco in the 1980s. Aïcha Ech-Chenna is often regarded as a hero in Morocco. She was a pioneer in the field of social work, and completely changed the way that most Moroccans see marginalized people in their society. Ech-Chenna encouraged Moroccans to see unwed mothers, orphans, sex workers, child maids, and other marginalized women and children as people caught up in a larger system. She helped people to see that choices aren’t as transparent as they seem to be, and that people act in a larger network, in a bigger context.

This book is a collection of the stories of some of the women and children that Ech-Chenna encountered in the 1970s and 80s as a social worker. The stories are told in chapter form, with each chapter focusing on a different story. Unfortunately, the quality of the writing isn’t very high, and some of the stories feel very disjointed. The individual stories aren’t told in a coherent form – they feel like someone’s train of thought transcribed. This quality makes them both more realistic, as if someone was telling them to you directly, but also the level of the writing is not as high and I found it hard to really get into most of the stories.

For me, the way in which the stories are displayed doesn’t allow the reader to get a better sense of the social work system, or of the larger system of inequalities in Morocco. The stories are presented as individuals, without any indication that they are all in some sense the products of the environment in which they live. The problems that these people face and the systemic failures and difficulties they come up against are not laid out, are not presented as a common factor in their stories. While this may seem like an irrelevant critique, it’s central to my problem with the book. Ech-Chenna’s importance in Morocco stems from her ability to connect these individual stories to larger social issues, to convince people that it’s not always an individual choice that you make that determines your fate, but really a set of choices within a much larger context. Her ability to create the link between a person’s life and the circumstances in which they live, especially in cases of drug use, alcoholism, pre-marital sex, or other taboo issues in Moroccan society – that’s a huge achievement of her career and I wish it were better underlined in this collection of stories. In a well written book, this might be an annoyance, but here, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Pages 205/205

10. Hagar Before the Occupation, Hagar After the Occupation : Poems by Amal Al-Jubouri

•December 20, 2013 • 1 Comment

I like poetry, I really do. But I have a hard time sitting down with a book of poetry, feeling like it’s a complete piece of work, not just arbitrarily chosen individual poems. This book of poetry is about the American occupation of Iraq. It specifically invokes the author’s exile from Iraq, but each poem pays homage to, or better yet, mourns a country – her country, and the ways in which it has changed.


Before the womb expelled me
you were my cord to the placenta
I was your creation
No—your goddess

I, your heiress
You, my slave
You, my god

You came from Paradise
and so did I

My cheating lover
A number, a zero-sum

–           Poetry Before the Occupation


Each poem is presented with a complement. “The Tigris Before the Occupation,” “The Tigris After the Occupation.” “My Neighbor Before the Occupation,” “My Neighbor After the Occupation.” Each poem also comes with the original Arabic text on one page, and an English translation facing. While this may seem unnecessary for a book of poetry published in the US, I think it’s absolutely necessary. This book does an absolutely amazing job in translation. There are extensive explanations and notes at the beginning, noting the importance of translating cultural references, time, place, and keeping the tone of the poems in line, while translating from Arabic to English (which is no easy feat), and managing to keep a poetic, artistic feel about the writing. The translator does a remarkable job of translating the feel of the poems, while retaining the message, references, and overall depth of the book.

As to be expected in a book of poetry about war, most of the poems are heartbreaking, lonely, melancholy. But they are exquisitely beautiful, and each word feels so perfectly chosen in Arabic and in English, that I couldn’t stop reading. For an extremely well written analysis of Al-Jubouri’s poetry, one that I feel adds so much that I want to say, this article has some excellent insights. This is a book I want to dwell on, and one I’ve recommended to several friends.


Pages: 140/3184

9. Sex and the Citadel by Shereen El Feki

•December 20, 2013 • 1 Comment

Shereen el Feki is an investigative journalist and academic who has done some excellent research and writing on the sexual practices of women and men throughout the Arab and Muslim world. She mostly focuses on Egypt, with forays into Morocco, Tunisia, the Gulf, and the Levant, but her strengths lie in writing on Egyptian sexuality. She does so fearlessly, with respect and knowledge of the cultural context, but with the drive and determination that comes from her status as an outsider/insider (she is half Welsh, half Egyptian).

El Feki’s writing has been featured in many places, but you can get a preview of her work on Muftah, and in an interview featured on NPR earlier in the year. Those pieces are pretty indicative of her work. If you’re intrigued, engrossed, or want to learn more, you should absolutely read this book.

Sex and the Citadel is well written, and can be read academically or for pleasure. El Feki’s background as a journalist serves her well and she writes with sound academic references, but in a style that grabs the reader’s attention. She starts off with sex toys and bored Egyptian housewives, but delves into complex identity issues, thoughts about marital fidelity, the age of consent, taboo sexual practices, growing issues of stability and political/economic links to home life, and eventually dips her toes into issues of homosexuality and gender identity in the MENA region.

El Feki links political stability, economic climate, and religious identity into larger discussions of sex, sexuality, and family politics, a perspective that is not frequently seen in academic and popular discussions of sex in the region. Some reviewers criticized the book for not being grounded enough in academic theory, for not backing up the theories that she starts off acknowledging. While I think this is true, it’s a work that is hard to dismiss – it’s interesting, well written, well researched, and provides a lot of new and missing perspectives in the voices on sex and sexuality in the Middle East.

I think I’m coming off harder on the book than I’ve meant to. If you’re interested in the topic of gender, sexuality, and the Middle East, you’ll have plenty to say about this book and about El Feki’s work. It’s provoking, and she creates a lot of space for dialogue, interaction, opposing opinions, and while being radical in her personal views, is sure to let other opinions shine in the work. It’s one of the better books I’ve read all year.


Pages: 345/3044

8. The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright

•October 17, 2013 • 1 Comment

I am a much more informed person after reading this book. It sounds a little boring to say, and it’s what’s written in all the reviews, but The Looming Tower is an extremely well researched and comprehensive look at the events leading up to September 11th, 2001 and the attack on the World Trade Center. Starting in the late 1950s, I think, Wright looks at the development of modern Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan, explains the internal conflicts, major figures, and political events that shaped the networks and people who would form Al-Qaeda. In the 1990s, Wright brings in the CIA and the FBI to examine the internal structures that failed to prevent the attacks.

It’s an enormous amount of ground to cover, and the people described within are too numerous to count. In fact, I got lost more than once, referring back to the appendices to remind myself which terrorist was which, who was funding whom. However, I think that Wright does an admirable job – to the extent of my knowledge, he doesn’t leave much out. He covers a huge amount of history in order to best contextualize the actions, the motivations, and the outcomes of so many different people and events that all played a role in a single day. At times, it can be jarring to switch back and forth between so many countries, people, stories and events – and about 2/3 of the way through the book, there was definitely a point in which I got infinitely more confused. However, I think that Wright correctly understood that the background, the switches between time and place, were necessary to contextualize the events, and he brings in information as it is needed. It’s unwieldy, yes, but I cannot imagine the difficulties in structuring and organizing a book that covers a huge part of modern history, spans more than 6 countries and hundreds of important figures.

I feel like I better understand Egyptian history, the internal political disputes of Afghanistan and Pakistan, why bin Laden was able to seek refuge there, and I even have a better grasp of modern Saudi Arabia and the fundamentalist principles that have flourished there. I’ve also forgotten a lot of it, and there are many details that I won’t hang on to.

In the past 12 years, much of the news, foreign policy, and many of the personal and professional choices I have made have been influenced in some way by the events of September 11th. For many people the effects were greater, more personal and much more devastating. The events of that day have made a huge mark on the US and its citizens, and for me, it was important to read more, know more, better understand the things that went on, and brought us here. I think that the sprawling history of The Looming Tower is important for Americans to know. I don’t know if everyone should read it, or if they’ll have the patience to read the entire book – to know the multitude of characters, to flip back and forth between stories, but I think it’s worth it.

Pages: 540/2799

7. In Search of Islamic Feminism by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

•August 28, 2013 • Leave a Comment

The Burka Avenger – a new cartoon from Pakistan that promotes women’s rights and education for all.

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.

It doesn’t help that the way we write about women in the Middle East has simultaneously completely changed and remained exactly the same in the past 15 years. Fernea’s mistaken ideas about women’s roles and involvement are still visible in media coverage, in the way that we think about women in Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, in the stereotypes that are omnipresent in our culture and society. As much as the status of women in the Middle East has changed, many of our perceptions have remained the same.

Nonetheless, this book raises great questions for people who aren’t as well informed on women’s roles in the Middle East, and still contains interesting points for those who are. I particularly liked the chapter on Uzbekistan – a country that is frequently ignored in coverage on Islam, and one I know little about. Many of Fernea’s observations about the changing status of women should be repeated and shared everywhere, but as someone who studies the topic, much of the book comes off as stale – and it should, since it’s almost 20 years old. If it weren’t stale by now, there’d be much bigger problems. The chapter on the US and the role of Muslim women is still highly relevant, perhaps more so now than it may have been at the time of publishing.

I think my favorite part, and one of the most refreshing parts of the book, is from the section on Saudi Arabia. Talking to a Saudi newspaperman, Fernea asks a bold question that startles the members of her group, but that the Saudi gentleman handles in a fascinating way. Fernea asks which part of the Qur’an mandates the sexual segregation, the complete covering of men and women, and the restrictive sexual mores and morality police that are predominant in Saudi society. Her interviewee responds, “Nothing.” He goes on to explain that he sees current Saudi society as in the midst of transition, a phase that will pass slowly as their society develops and adapts to the world. The host goes on to further explain, but I loved the simplicity of the response – not something you’d expect, not from a man, not from a Saudi. I liked being surprised by that statement, particularly in a book where I felt like I knew a lot of the answers to Fernea’s questions through common sense.

This book is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re interested in women in the Middle East. But I’m sure that there’s something a little more up to  date that’s worth your time, and doesn’t trade so heavily in stereotypes and is accessible, but more in line with current scholarship.


Pages: 422/2259