Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Culture Shock

Dare I say it? If there could possibly be anything good to come out of this war in Iraq, which seems to be lasting a life time, it might be the fervor with which readers have embraced the plethora of novels that have come out of the Middle East in the past, say, five years. Thoughtful people all around our country seem to truly desire an understanding or insight into the Islamic culture and religion. Programs here in our library system on this subject generally have standing room only. Did this all begin with The Kite Runner? I wonder how the negative publicity surrounding the making of the upcoming movie will affect this phenomenon?

I've been thinking about this because I've just finished two books, one of which is Hosseini's much anticipated follow-up to The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, which sits high upon the New York Times best seller list. This novel, dedicated to the women of Afghantistan, is a devastating indictment of a way of life that forces young girls into marriages that basically amount to slavery and virtual imprisonment. It is also a novel of war and is overwhelming in its relentless description of lives lived under the threat of daily bombings, starvation, death and destruction. I don't believe that any of us can conceive of such an existence. My complaint with Hosseini's work is that he portrays people and events as either good or evil, offering little of the nuance that informs a great book discussion.

On the other hand, Yasmina Khadra, an Algerian writer who gets much less publicity and respect, is a master at layered storytelling that forces readers to ruminate long after his books are finished. Last week twenty women attended my book discussion of Khadra's The Attack, second in a trilogy of life in the Middle East that began with The Swallows of Kabul. These novels, while as devastating as Hosseini's, delve much deeper into the effects of living in a suffocating atmosphere of turmoil and upheaval.
Khadra is a pseudonym (his wife's name actually) for Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former military officer now living in France. I have to wonder if he immersed himself in psychology during his military training as his ability to recreate the complexities of male/female relationships of long duration, and to speak from the woman's heart, is uncanny. There is a scene in Swallows...where a relatively liberated Muslim, aware of the injustice of Taliban rules toward women, happens upon a stoning of an adulteress as he walks home from work. He moves into the crowd, drawn by an ugly fascination, and inexplicably finds himself picking up a stone to throw at the already dead, cloaked stranger. Mired in guilt and disbelief at his own behavior, he confesses to his wife, expecting her usual succor and understanding. Khadra's description of the wife's response is a literary tour de force.

Once accused by an interviewer of always writing about terrorism, Khadra responded that his novels talk, not of terrorism, but of "human brittleness, anger, humiliation, the fears, sometimes the hopes; and of this burning and fatuous actuality which spoils our life." A few of the women in my book group also seemed to fixate on the terrorist aspects of The Attack, a novel in which the central act of a suicide bomber serves as the catalyst for a more profound tragedy. The real story is about a marriage. Is fifteen years long enough to truly know someone? Dr. Amin Jaafari and his wife Sihem live as good a life as one can in a world of such conflict. They are Muslims who have assimilated in an Israeli community in Tel Aviv. He is a surgeon, dedicated to saving lives. They are educated, well-traveled, well-connected, and yet........

Khadra writes in French and has been well-served by his translators. The language of the text is as fierce and emotional as the story it tells. It may be a few months before I'm psychologically prepared to tackle his third offering, The Sirens of Baghdad.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, Sally B, your book introductions make me, no they demand that I read your offerings: out the door and to the library I run dying to know more about the characters and the venue, The Middle East. Thank you for pointing out new books that truly carry us "around the world". Thank you and keep it up! ys