Tag Archives: Haifa

Armchair Travel: The Middle East

One great way to recover from your first half-marathon is to sit on the couch and catch up on all the wonderful books you’ve got checked out on your library card. Lately I’ve been dabbling in non-Western literature, and–with the help of this wonderful list from the Tacoma Public Library–familiarizing myself with the diverse range of fiction produced in the Middle East. Here are just a few of the titles I’m sampling this month.

dakhmehDakhmeh, Naveed Noori. Arash’s family fled to the United States when he was just a boy. As a man, he has returned to Iran against his family’s wishes, to try to understand his birthplace and its complex political problems. Aresh’s one-way ticket to Tehran buys him not only a consciousness-raising, but also a stint in prison, which the novel chronicles in a series of journal entries. The title–which roughly translates to “towers of silence”–implies that things will not go well for Arash, but, more importantly, for Iran at large either. A complex tale about a man trying to understand his heritage, but, possibly, too Westernized to fully grasp it.

Women Without Men, Shahrnush Parsipur. Banned in Iran for its frank discussion of women’s sexual desire, Parsipur’s tale parsipurexplores the inner landscape of the feminine in the post-WWII period. Who is a woman without a man? Per Parsipur, she is a lover, a fighter, a creative being, and a creature seeking justice or vengeance (and sometimes both). Struggling to escape the narrow confines of their world, Parsipur’s women realize–frequently to their horror–that once you have liberated yourself, the landscape of freedom poses its own problematic challenges. Read it and find out why the author was jailed, and now lives in the U.S. as a political exile.

hillsofgodOn the Hills of God, Ibrahim Fawal. In the summer of 1947 Yousif’s two main goals in life are to become a lawyer after high school and win the heart of the beautiful Salwa. Completely unaware of the political chaos brewing around him, Yousif does not realize that by the summer of 1948, his life in Palestine–soon to become Israel–will be very different. Fawal paints a complex, layered portrait of a period in history the participants themselves have not been able to parse out peacefully, giving the reader a front-row seat at what everyday life must have been like at the time. What’s really striking here is the loving attention to detail: houses, food, and the landscape are described concretely, yet simply, pointing out the jarring contrast between the larger currents of history and the daily routines that, somehow, always go on.

The Liberated Bride, Abraham B. Yehoshua. Set in and around Haifa University in the mid-1990s, this novel explores Jewish and liberatedArab intellectual circles, and their uneasy relationship to each other. Professor Yohanan Rivlin can’t figure out why his son’s wife divorced him, and neither member of the former couple will explain, which makes him even more determined to find out. Meanwhile, Professor Rivlin’s brightest student, who has just recently gotten married herself, alternately irritates and intrigues him as they work together on an Algerian history project. A bittersweet comedy of manners, that explores our need to know the truth, even when we don’t really want to know the truth. And by the way, what is “truth” anyhow? Polite, but with bite.

Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih. A young man returns to Sudan after receiving a university education in England. When he arrives in his village, he meets and becomes obsessed with the mysterious Mustafa Sa’eed, a recent newcomer to the town. Over time the narrator learns the full truth of Sa’eed’s disturbing life story, but will it serve as a cautionary tale or a road map to ruin? Compared favorably by some critics to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this novel is a fascinating tale of colonialism and psychological horror.

I don’t know much about the Middle East, but these novels have me itching to pick up some decent history books. Fiction-wise, I’m also planning to devour the titles on the Muslim Journeys booklists the library staff has created as part of a grant project, which you can read more about here. Do you have any other recommendations? Have you read any of these, or other works from the Tacoma Public Library list? What parts of the world have you explored in fiction, and where should I go next?

–Leigh Anne

stamping her metaphorical passport


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World Fiction: Modern Israeli

Within 4 days of each other this summer, two friends of mine – unknown to each other – and living in different parts of the world came up with book recommendations for the same author – Eshkol Nevo.  The first recommendation came in a letter from my friend Mark who lives in Kfar Sava, Israel.  In the letter Mark comments “You’ll have to read Nevo’s ‘Homesick‘, I want the lads to talk about it when we get together, he touched me.” (a trip several of us make every two years or so.)  Less than a week later on Facebook,  Ranen who teaches Literature at the University of Miami wrote me almost identical words about the book ‘World Cup Wishes‘, also by Mr. Nevo. Cover of book 'Homesick'

Both books (the library doesn’t yet own World Cup Wishes) are absorbing and may well be some of the best examples of modern Israeli fiction that are available . . . in English.   Here’s the rub; many respected foreign language writers find it very difficult to get sold in the US market. The translations are there, these titles are already being sold in the UK, Australia and Canada to critical acclaim, but US publishers aren’t picking them up.  I bought my copy of ‘World Cup Wishes’ from Amazon Canada.  In The Translation Gap: Why More Foreign Writers Aren’t Published in America, Emily Williams points out that the reasons for this aren’t so much cultural as much as economic and some literary pigeon-holing; does the writer get directed or marketed to target audiences in a way not done overseas?

From a reader’s standpoint, I adored both books, but I believe they challenge us because of how they’re written. The storytelling is intensely personal, the narrations are mostly multiple first person.  The style is polyphonic; the various characters narrating from their perspective.  It took me awhile to get used to it and to be able to follow the storyline and who was narrating; I sometimes felt like I was on a merry-go-round where I kept changing seats, but it’s well worth it.  Chapters are short because it’s the perception that changes, not the occasion. This isn’t how we (Americans) normally read a story.

I liked them because the people and places are real, what happens is day-to-day and not the sensationalized fodder we read or see in the news.  Nevo doesn’t run from what makes Israel fascinating (or horrifying if that’s your inclination,) or deny it’s importance; but there’s perspective – catching buses, class assignments, friendships or surgeries are more real for his characters than diplomacy and peace proposals.  The history between Jews and Palestinians underlies much of ‘Homesick‘, as does the unresolved tensions between the religious and the secular, but they aren’t what the story is about – it is a love story.

‘World Cup Wishes’ also touches on the things we see or read about as history and current events, but they’re peripheral.  It too is about relationships, the evolution of friendships, jealousy, forgiveness, and the place of spirituality in a modern society and using the World Cup as the timeline to measure accomplishment.


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