Inside Al Jadid - Book Reviews
‘Sun Imaging’: How Arab Photography Impacted the Modern World
“Nahdah ideas and customs permeated Arab societies of the late Ottoman era, and the wide dissemination of portrait photography affected all social classes, from noble men and women to effendiyah (the emergent middle classes of professionals and trades people) to peasants and even slaves.” (From Angele Ellis’s review of Stephen Sheehi’s “The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography, 1860 – 1910” in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016).
‘Dreaming at the Crossroads of Cultures: Mirages’
Issa Makhlouf’s “Mirages” (The Post-Apollo Press, 2015), formerly translated from the Arabic into French in 2004, returns in an English edition translated by Alicia F. Lam. As a Lebanese writer and poet living in Paris, Makhlouf has written 11 books, of which many have been translated into other languages. In “Mirages,” he presents a collection of eye-catching poems that, as the book’s title suggests, are written with the mysticism of a mirage. He touches upon several themes in these prose poems, some of which are the connections between travel and absence and the use of violence and beauty to question nature, its creatures and mysteries. Divided into two sections, Makhlouf dedicates the first part of his book to a stream of thoughts and observations, where the speaker reflects on past memories of his childhood war nightmares while traveling through Europe. The second part of the book consists of five meditations on the lives of saints. Although written in dream-like styles, the poems are not entirely carefree — Makhlouf teaches his readers how to persist onward in life in spite of traumatic memories that may hold them back. Angele Ellis reviews “Mirages” (“Dreaming at the Crossroads of Cultures: Mirages”) for the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016.
Love and Loss: An Iran-Iraq Story
For those unaccustomed to witnessing the daily, random bombardments of cities during a bloody conflict like the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, it would be hard to imagine the lives of those who actually endured those experiences. The novel “A Portal in Space” (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 2015), by Mahmoud Saeed, allows readers to feel, share, and interact with the ordinary people living in war-plagued Basra, Iraq. You cannot help but feel connected to the characters as they struggle to cope with their worries, fears, and despair. The intimacy of the novel turns the reader into a member of Mundhir’s small family. Mundhir, a righteous judge, loses his son Anwar, just after his graduation from university as an engineer. At this time, Iraqi law requires that university graduates serve two years in the army, and Mundhir’s son disappears only two months after his conscription. Anwar's disappearance and the uncertainty concerning his fate devastates his mother, who suffers an emotional breakdown bordering on madness, while his sister runs away from home with the first opportunity. Meanwhile, Mundhir becomes a living corpse, resigning from his job, and traveling on a weekly basis to Baghdad in search of news about his son from a United Nations agency, hoping against hope to read Anwar’s name in the list of the prisoners taken by Iran. Throughout all the worries, bewilderment, and destruction, Mundhir finds a widow in Baghdad also searching for a lost relative, now held prisoner. She awakens a love that alleviates the judge’s pain, but cannot heal the tragedy of his missing son. Mr. Bobby Gulshan reviews “A Portal in Space” in forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016.
A Palestinian Saga: Tales of Families, Generations, and Diaspora
The winner of the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction in 2014, Susan Muaddi Darraj’s “A Curious Land: Stories from Home” (University of Massachusetts Press) follows several different narratives, bringing together a collection of nine stories told by past and current inhabitants of a Palestinian West Bank village, Tel al-Hilou, as well as their descendants. The stories span almost a century and deal with the recurring motif of connection—both the characters’ ties to the village and each other—despite great distances of time and space. While most of the characters originate from Tel al-Hilou, Darraj also includes other cities beyond the village, from which some of the men and women have fled, or to which they have immigrated, in search of a safer place. A review of her book by Ms. Priscilla Wathington is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016.
New Book Examines Middle East ‘Post Americana’: Twilight of U.S. Cultural Influence
Time publisher Henry Luce coined the term, “The American Century,” in his essay of the same name, published in 1941. It came to summarize American political and economic domination in the world. In a more recent book, “After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East” (Columbia University Press), Professor Brian T. Edwards, Crown Professor in Middle East Studies and professor of English and comparative literary studies at Northwestern University, borrows the term from Luce’s essay, highlighting the modern scope of cultural lives in major Middle East capitals to show how the cultural presence of the United States no longer remains dominant. The U.S. holds less and less influence as a global power in these changing times, and while, in the past, the spread of American culture proved conducive for American interests, today these very same American influences have been adapted to new cultural identities.
Things such as social-networking sites, teen romances, and even comic books can no longer be viewed as exclusively American-affiliated products, but have emerged as forms of Middle Eastern cultural expression. Edwards claims “cultural products and forms are altered as they jump publics,” arguing against the idea that such instances simply represent the replication of American culture. However, Professor John Waterbury raises criticism in his review for Foreign Affairs, citing how Edwards’ book lacks “any reference to Bassem Youssef, the satirist often referred to as ‘the Jon Stewart of Egypt.’” D.W. Aossey reviews “The American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East” in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016.
‘Life without a Recipe’: The Ingredients of a Multicultural Life!
Life can be sweet or spicy, depending on who is there to share it with you. In her recent memoir, “Life without a Recipe,” Diana Abu-Jaber explores the intimate relationships in her life and how they were deeply affected by the pressures of two key figures in her life, her German grandmother Grace — who she describes as a lover of all things sugar — and her Arab father, Bud, who she emphasizes is a spice-loving man. Abu-Jaber discovers that it is not only food that divides her life between two cultures. Grace and Bud constantly offer contradictory “advice” to the then-young author that ultimately led to a journey of self-discovery later on in her life. Pressures regarding love and children urge Abu-Jaber into two brief marriages and finally a marriage with the outdoors-loving Scott who she feels fully satisfies her desires and not her father’s or grandmother’s. At the end of the day, Abu-Jaber learns to live life her own way rather than confine herself to the expectations of others. A review of “Life without a Recipe” by Lynne Rogers is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016.
(Diana Abu-Jabber, photo © Scott Eason)
Diaspora Arab Women Writers: The Legacy of Shahrazad and Female Infanticide
Rather than focus on Arab women’s repression from an observer’s viewpoint, Hanadi al-Samman’s “Anxiety of Erasure: Trauma, Authorship, and the Diaspora in Arab Women's Writings” (Syracuse University Press) instead highlights the accounts of female writers living in diaspora who have contributed productively and creatively through their writings. Taking close readings of six prominent authors — Ghada al-Samman, Hanan al-Shaykh, Hamida al-Na’na’, Hoda Barakat, Samar Yazbek, and Salwa al-Neimi — and exploring the therapeutic effects of resurrecting forgotten histories, the book relates the struggles of these writers in their tales to the struggles of Arab women today. To build this effect, Hanadi al-Samman connects ancient practices and stories, namely infanticide and Shahrazad, to the subconscious minds of Arab women today, showing that while ancient practices may no longer be employed, the sentiments behind them remain prominent in women’s lives and actually contribute to a systematic trauma. The author, however, suggests that writers facing this trauma can still productively involve themselves in the intellectual and political struggles of their homelands. The book, reviewed by professor Nada Ramadan Elnahla, is scheduled to appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016.
Oppression’s Child: How Hatred Imbedded Itself in Syria’s Soul!
Exploring the complex nature of hatred, Khaled Khalifa’s novel, “In Praise of Hatred” (St. Martin’s Press) examines the difficulties of living in Syria under Hafez Al-Assad through the eyes of a young, unnamed girl acting as the narrator. In this coming-of-age story, set in the 1980s of Syria, a young Muslim girl struggles to find her own identity while living in her grandparents’ house, where she spends time with a literalist aunt who teaches her to reject any and all forms of desire, as well as two other more liberal aunts who offer her a break from the stifling patriarchal society the girl has grown up in. Torn between loving her body and demeaning it, the narrator finds herself consumed by self-hatred. At the same time, the novel examines the influences of Hafez Al-Assad’s war on the Muslim Brotherhood and the measures the regime took to strike down any rising liberal movements, illustrating the buildup of tensions between different Islamic sects — a hatred that leads to the deaths of 17 Alawite soldiers, executed because they didn’t belong to the “right” sect. The two sides of the novel narrative come together as the narrator transitions into adulthood and begins to understand that the hatred she sees in herself for her body and the hatred existing between the sects, sparked by the dictator’s bloody campaign, both prove praiseworthy because they represent natural occurrences that should be embraced. Determined, she rises to make a stand against the regime. Khalifa portrays, through the at-first innocent eyes of a child, the death of liberalism in the nation, and the battle to maintain expressions of it. His novel reveals that in times of oppression, hatred proves the human being’s first natural response. Al Jadid Magazine featured an interview of Khalifa, an award-winning Syrian novelist, in the last issue. A review of his novel by Aman Madan is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016.
New Book Examines Yemeni ‘Lascar’ Community in British Maritime Trade and Society
The Yemeni war today is perhaps next in importance after the Syrian and Libyan post-Arab Spring conflicts. The first thing that comes to the minds of some readers is the Saudi-Iranian link with Yemen. However, not many are familiar with the country's long history with Imperial Britain. In Mohammad Seddique Seddon’s recent book, “The Last of the Lascars: Yemeni Muslims in Britain 1836-2012” ( Kube Publishing Ltd.), the origin and settlement of the Yemeni ‘Lascars,’ a British term used to categorize sailors of ‘oriental’ — from Indian to Arab and so on — descent, is explored through extensive research. The book begins with the first Yemeni seamen laboring aboard British trade ships of the East India Company in the early 19th century to their eventual settlement in Britain, where they developed the first “Arab-only” boarding houses, mosques, and religious communities. They lasted generations, all while persevering through racism and prejudice. “The Last of the Lascars” is reviewed by D.W. Aossey in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016. To read the full review online, click on the link below.
The Ripple Effect of the 'Eclipse' of Iraqi Sunnis
As Iraqi politics descend increasingly into chaos, the repercussions of before and after the onslaught by ISIS on the Sunni provinces become clear, and the sectarian policies of the present and the former Iraqi government continue to create stark divisions, Deborah Amos’ “The Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East” (PublicAffairs) becomes a handy source for navigating Iraqi politics.
An award-winning NPR journalist, Amos follows Iraqis living in exile from Amman to Beirut and Damascus. Rather than reporting on the rigged elections and official corruption found in other standard histories, she instead narrows in on the personal stories of families torn apart and thrust into hardship. Amos analyzes the impact of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the people of the region as well as the effects of the explosion of sectarian hostilities that have been unleashed throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and other Arab states. In particular, she interviews several of the middle class Iraqis, from doctors to scholars and government workers, the very people whom she asserts are vital to creating a democratic Iraq, though are unfortunately forced into exile. In one case, she observes the tragic upheaval of middle-class women forced into prostitution to survive. Poignant and grisly, “The Eclipse of the Sunnis” conveys the futility of constructing a multicultural and tolerant Iraq through Amos’ eyes. Deborah Amos has reported for television news such as ABC’s Nightline and PBS’ Frontline, winning multiple awards, and currently reports on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. A review of Amos's book by Lynne Rogers is scheduled to appear in Al Jadid, Vol. 20, No. 71, 2016.
In Photo: Iraqis chant antigovernment slogans as they wave national flags during a protest in Fallujah. (Photo Credit: csmonitor.com.)
Books Reviewed in Al Jadid 71
‘The Rope’ by Kanan Makiya, reviewed by Lynne Rogers; ‘Life Without a Recipe’ by Diana Abu Jaber, reviewed by Lynne Rogers; ‘Eclipse of the Sunnis, Power, Exile and Upheaval in the Middle East’ by Deborah Amos, reviewed by Lynne Rogers; ‘The Last of the Lascars: Yemeni Muslims in Britain 1836-2012’ by Mohammad Seddique Seddon, reviewed by D.W. Aossey; ‘A Curious Land: Stories from Home’ by Susan Muaddi Darraj, reviewed by Priscilla Wathington; ‘In Praise of Hatred’ by Khaled Khalifa, reviewed by Aman Madan; ‘Mirages’ by Issa Makhlouf, reviewed by Angele Ellis; ‘Anxiety of Erasure: Trauma, Authorship, and the Diaspora in Arab Women’s Writings’ by Hanadi al-Samman, reviewed by Nada Ramadan Elnahla; 'After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East' by Brian T. Edwards, reviewed by D.W. Aossey; 'Shahaama: Five Egyptian Men Tell Their Stories' by Nayra Atiya, reviewed by Caroline Seymour-Jorn.