Under the Copper Covers, Sherine Ben Halim Jafar

How Middle Eastern Food Became Jafar’s Most Powerful Healer

The personal story that precedes the recipes in Sherine Ben Halim Jafar’s new culinary book – ‘Under the Copper Covers’ – is so highly moving and inspirational that I would advise immediate purchase. Offering a beautifully compiled printed edition – with valuable historical and family-related photo-illustrations – this author draws upon strong memories for each dish mentioned and every recipe lovingly included. Jafar takes the reader on a wonderful gastronomic journey that will urge you to get into the kitchen as soon as possible and start cooking or baking.

Sherine Ben Halim Jafar candidly explores two things: her private experience of living in exile as an Arab in the West and the unexpected triumph of food to cure much of the associated heart-pains and the psychological hurts of displacement. Coming from a very high profile political Libyan family – her father Mustafa Ben Halim was a Prime Minister under King Idris’s reign – she tells of how her once carefree and privileged childhood was suddenly interrupted in September 1969 on the occasion of Gaddafi’s coup and overthrow of the monarchy.

“The only place where I was to find solace was within the walls of the kitchen, with the comfort of my mother’s cooking and familiar smells: caramelized onions, fragrant cumin and rose water. It didn’t matter what ingredients she was using, which cuisine, culture or style – comfort was Mum and her food. My sense of belonging was measured by her cooking. Whatever Mum cooked was who we were, what we were and where we belonged.” P. 29, Under the Copper Covers

Just for having been a part of the monarchical framework, her father became an assassination target and the Ben Halim family were unable to go home and disabled from returning to Libya. Although they were granted Saudi Arabian citizenship and offered international diplomatic protection, the fear of attack became a constant threatening shadow. Due to the uncertainty of where their life was heading and worry for her father’s safety, little five-year old Sherine developed severe anxiety and depressive symptoms that unfortunately went untreated for many years.

In time however the family settled in London, where Sherine – the youngest of six siblings – studied at an International school and completed a bachelor’s in English Literature followed by a master’s at King’s College. Being the sensitive soul, she continued grappling with the troubling issues of a lost identity and the family’s cultural heritage now gone missing. It seemed very pertinent for her to address these. In the book, she says: “The skin could not, and would not, fit; the Arab inside conflicted with the West outside.”

Luckily she found out that there was a way of comfort available and that would be to connect with other exiled Middle Eastern youngsters who were able to understand and shared her condition; and, in doing so, she also discovered the great power of food as a method of sharing her soul’s desire for belonging and to make herself and others happy. It would also lead to the forming of strong friendships that have lasted a lifetime.

Now aged 51 and settled in Dubai, as well as being married with four children, Jafar has lived in so many different countries and been exposed to so many fascinating cuisines that hail not just from Libya; but, also, from Palestine (her mother’s country of origin), Iraq (her husband’s country of origin), Syria (her maternal grandmother’s country of origin), Iran (many of her friends are Persian), the Emirates (where she has been residing in Dubai for over twenty years), Saudi Arabia as well as England (she loves traditional fish and chips as well as steak and kidney pie) and Europe (Italy and France in particular).

The Food: Libya, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran

In the cooking sections of the book, Jafar shares the magic of what happens in her kitchen. She has selected six countries to include some of the national signature dishes and desserts. With the help of her female friends and family members, her goal was to nail down the authenticity of each sweet or savoury item and offer the best of tried and tested recipes. It is truly a showcase of some appetising menus and ideas for hosting extraordinary feasts.

From Palestine, she offers her mother’s family flue remedy of chicken noodle soup, molokhiyeh (mallow stew), sfiha (authentic Palestinian meat pastries), msakhan (a feast of chicken sumac onion and bread), kidra (rice and meat cooked in clay) and plenty more main meals. If you have also ever tasted and wondered on how to recreate the heavenly Palestinian katayef (pancakes), tamriyyeh (semolina in phyllo) or the halawet al smeed (semolina in syrup), then you need to buy this book.

In terms of Lebanon and Syria, we are introduced to the recipes of Zahiya (who is Jafar’s friend Dana’s cook) and Rania from Damascus. Here you will find the perfect way of making the tasty Lebanese sayyadiyeh (fish with rice), the kibbeh bil siniyeh (double-layered cracked wheat with meat) and the Syrian horrak usbao (hot fingers), mhammara (crushed walnuts and red pepper dip), fatet makdous (stuffed eggplants in yogurt). For dessert, you have the Levantine basboosa (semolina cake) and goulash (phyllo stuffed with cheese).

From Iraq and Iran, we also get an insight into their eating habits, with the dolma (stuffed onions) to die for, the kubbat hamod shalgham (classic Iraqi dish), the kabab tawa (thin lamb burgers) and the Iranian’s ability to create a hundred different types of rice polow presentations, including with beans, cherries, nuts, barberries, fish and vegetables.

It is the Libyan food section however that I believe will be the most appreciated, as it is almost impossible to find a Libyan restaurant anywhere outside of the country and as Libyans tend to be very nervous about giving out their family kitchen secrets. So, thankfully, Jafar has given us clear direct instructions on how to make the shorba hassa and shorba hamra (traditional soups), mbattan (stuffed potatoes), shakshooka (eggs in spicy red sauce with dried meat), couscouy (how the Libyans do their couscous) and the spicy macaroni mbakbaka. Just in case you are a newlywed to a Libyan man, you’ll now be able to impress that difficult mother-in-law!

‘Under the Copper Covers’ is published by Rimal Publications.

Note: This article was first published circa February 2016

The Bride of Amman, Fadi Zaghmout

Includes: Insight from the Jordanian Author

It was still early days for blogging in 2006 but the then 28-year-old Jordanian Fadi Zaghmout decided to experiment with the new world of online publication and with that also the possibility of freely sharing ideas without censorship. At first not revealing his true identity, Zaghmout’s goal was to explore what it meant for him to be an ‘Arab’ beyond stereotypes and also what it would entail for him to be the self-designated ‘Observer’ of his society and culture.

‘The Arab Observer’ blog was thus born on 7 March, 20006, when the first post titled ‘Driving Home’ was written in English, which made it slightly more accessible to the liberal-leaning youth of Zaghmout’s hometown of West Amman, Jordan; and, by extension, other Arabs of a similar educational, economic and social background placed across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and also outside of it.

His musings developed organically into an anthropological examining of the norms and behaviours of the 20s-to-30s age group and finding out their individual and common struggles. He said: “At the beginning I wasn’t sure how people would perceive the content I wanted to publish; but, a few months down the line, I wanted more readers for my blog, so I started promoting it amongst my friends and then building relations with other bloggers and attending bloggers meetings and becoming more visible.

“I also realised that when addressing the particular issues of body rights and sexual freedoms in Jordan, that the magazines and newspapers published in English were always better articulated than those in the Arabic. I thought this content needs to be in our language; and, thus, I chose to post in Arabic and found out that I can actually express myself even better!”

Conveying Real Experience Into Story Form

Soon Zaghmout’s artistic energy flowed into how best to convey what he was encountering in real life and the incredible stories that were showing up and pointing towards a very high emotional cost being endured by the Arab youngsters. Even doing their best to conform to a social, cultural and religious model that neither allowed for the expression of autonomous body rights nor accepted the concept of alternative sexual orientation, many of them continued to suffer in silence.

Realising the best way would be to put it in story form, he created the first of the fictional characters that would become altogether the five subjects in his first book, ‘The Bride of Amman’. Through them, he has indeed been able to bravely and courageously approach many of the taboo subjects that are not easy to talk about within modern or current Arabic public discourse.

Highly controversial when it was published in Arabic in 2012, the novel has recently been wonderfully translated into English by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp in order to extend its readership potential and go global. Just this past month of November, 2015 Zaghmout and Kemp undertook their successful United Kingdom launch tour where I was fortunate to meet them in London and get a signed copy.

In terms of now having the book in both languages, Zaghmout said: “I wrote the book in Arabic to address a Jordanian audience in specific and an Arabic audience in general. I wanted it to be a shout, a wake up call and a book that calls things as they are; and, hopefully, to help others going though such hard times as of the characters in the book.

“Whereas for the English translation, meant to bring in a foreign audience, it should be a reminder of the importance of feminism since many Westerners take gender equality issues for granted, unaware of how easy it is to slip down the patriarchy path.”

What ‘The Bride of Amman’ offers is an artistic voice – that sounds almost sweet, naïve and innocent in some of its passages – to the major dilemma faced by many Arab youth across the MENA world. It is the question of how – and whether or not it is even possible – to begin to criticise from within the strict rules imposed when it comes to the forming of any type of adult relationship. It does seem also that those who suffer the most are invariably the girls rather than the boys, but still including the latter.

Even though the tale is firmly set in the internet age with easy access to the knowledge and experience of different ways of social constructs, the pressure to obey the only one acceptable option of a relationship – that of the heterosexual marriage between two people of the exact same religion – is real and with it also the threat of social ostracism should one dare to push the boundaries or to challenge the status quo.

Through the lives of Hayat, Ali, Leila, Salma and Rana, we witness the heavy burdens of shame, fear, guilt, paranoia and stigma that are forced upon them and that lead to the compromise of their significant life decisions and all for the dire sake of fitting in. Grappling with how to circumvent the impossible ideals of a rigid patriarchy that is obsessed with the concepts of family honour, the imperative of virginity before marriage and even as to the religious confusion when it comes to different sexual orientations, it can seem that there is no happy way out.

How Fiction Transforms Into Social Activism

Sadly there are some tragic outcomes of a suicide and also of one of the girls who doesn’t get any justice whatsoever for being sexually abused by a close male relative. Zaghmout explained: “These are very important questions. The suicide scene is meant to shock the reader and raise discussion outside the book. Hayat and Layla’s ending were also meant to portray real stories that show the extent of injustice that some women endure because of cultural and social factors.”

Genuinely akin to a feminist piece of literature, the book reveals the stark inequalities towards the female gender, the lowly expectations regarding their future – where success is measured by when they become a wife or a mother – and the obvious lack of sexual freedom or ‘body rights’. But Zaghmout goes further and opens the lid onto a subject which is even more controversial, that of the unfair discrimination against and the misunderstandings towards homosexuality in the Arab world and the broader subject of LGBT rights.

Zaghmout, who now considers himself a ‘social activist’ and can boast around 370,000 Twitter followers, said: “I have been addressing these issues mainly through my writings. I believe that we are in severe need for liberal voices in the Arab world that are not afraid of talking about body and sexual rights. These voices have been marginalised and suppressed for a long time and we need more and more people to speak up so that social change can take place.”

He offers ideas that might lead to reform: “I think it is about education in schools, through literature and media. There is currently no sex education in Arab schools and people still don’t understand the difference between gender as a social construct and sex as biologically defined. There is ignorance of gender identity, sexual orientation, gender expression and sexual practices. What we have now is a rigid two templates that we want to fit all men and women in.”

Highlighting the LGBT Community in Amman

I had to ask Zaghmout about Ali, the gay character in the ‘The Bride of Amman’, who feels very confused and troubled about his innate desire for men; and, also, if he could tell me a bit about the situation for the LGBT community in Amman. He said: “There is a growing LGBT community in Jordan and many young members are becoming more courageous about coming out to their parents and friends, yet it is still dangerous to be publicly out.

“There are no laws that protect the community from any potential abuse or discrimination that is gender based. In a way the community is more mature now than years before as they are more confident and accepting of their own sexuality; but, on the other hand, there are many people who live in denial and who reject their sexuality and are still struggling to come to terms with it.

“It is usually those who don’t follow the expected gender expression in public who are subjected to rejection, such as the effeminate gay men or masculine lesbian women or members of the transsexual community. Risk can vary from potential beating and harassment in the street, to family abuse and in rare cases killings.”

As to whether or not Zaghmout himself has received any serious threats or reproach for being so outspoken, he said: “I always got negative comments on the blog and sometimes direct personal attacks, but my strategy was to not respond in kind. There was always some other reader who would step up and defend me.

“With the book, I have received so much support since its release and I have been interviewed by many different magazines and appeared on TV stations to talk about it. The only bad experience was within a local book club in Jordan, where the discussion got very heated and people became aggressive in their approach. I think the book provoked them, but that is understandable”.

This leaves one big question up for debate: Now that we can and have talked about the issues, how long and what more will it take to see a real shift in the popular Arab attitudes towards women’s rights in particular; but, also, towards the rights of everyone else to experience their sexuality without any more cultural, religious or socially imposed punishment or stigma? And what would be the necessary next step to begin such a transformation?

Zaghmout is optimistic: “There is a movement of young feminist activists that is growing all over the Arab world. It started a few years ago and needs time to mature. We still need more feminist voices in the media, in literature, and in politics. Social change doesn’t happen overnight, but we can perhaps witness its fruits in less than a decade’s time.”

You can purchase ‘The Bride of Amman’ by Fadi Zaghmout in both Arabic and English as an e-book or paperback at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/

‘The Arab Observer’ blog is still active and you can read it at: https://thearabobserver.wordpress.com/

Note: This article was first published circa December 2015

Headscarves and Hymens, Mona Eltahawy

Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution

Charged with feminist arguments and emotional pleas, Egyptian author Mona Eltahawy’s debut book ‘Headscarves and Hymens’ tackles the explosive subject of what she frames as the ‘misogyny’ of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Filled with harrowing statistics on the fate of Arab women at the hands of men, the state, culture and religion, she proceeds to prescribe no less than a sexual revolution for the masses, but especially for women.

Without this, she believes that the political uprisings circa 2011 against state dictatorships cannot claim themselves to be true successes. In her self-styled manifesto, Eltahawy is calling on all Arab girls to stand up for their rights, rid themselves of the injustices that are conspiring against them and to demand fair and equal treatment to men, both in the private and the public domains.

She is also suggesting – if I have read the book properly – that they all take off their headscarves and begin the exercise of sexual autonomy outside of the culturally and religiously imposed boundaries; so that, somehow, they actively and directly claim ownership of their very own hymens. Her general advice for MENA girls: “Be immodest, rebel, disobey, and know you deserve to be free.”

Throughout the book, an insightful link is made between the public uprisings on the streets of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt – that were to topple the political tyrants – with another revolt that needs to happen against the patriarchs at home, where the fathers, husbands and brothers are guilty of mistreating the other half of the population. It also notes that the Arab women who fought alongside their male comrades within the former movements deserve their freedom also within the latter.

Sharing her terrible experience of being sexually assaulted and detained by the Egyptian state forces in November 2011, Eltahawy offers it as part of the bigger proof and evidence of the rife sexual abuses happening against women in MENA. These include the deplorable acts of virginity testing that took place against female demonstrators in Tahrir Square as well as the high incidences of rape that occurred in Libya but were never addressed nor properly punished by incoming authorities.

Sparing no Arab country however, she blames a ‘toxic mix of culture and religion’ to be working against women and a ‘triangle of misogyny’ that exists at the state, the street and the home levels. She provides plenty of disturbing statistics that have been compiled by international and local human rights organisation as well as media research, that indicate unacceptably high levels of not just street sexual harassment of women; but, also, of domestic violence and every other type of gender abuse.

Indeed it is of tremendous concern, as the book points out, that the majority of Arab countries do not offer women what should be necessary legal protection against the following practices as, when and where they occur: female genital mutilation (FGM), honour-based violence, rape, domestic violence, underage marriage as well as unfair personal laws – justified by Sharia – that disadvantage them further in the areas of inheritance, divorce and child-custody provisions.

Worse again admittedly is the societal collusion that prevents female victims from reporting crimes or challenging the stark gender inequalities. Many times led and backed by an increasingly radical religious dogma, it seems to want to take women’s rights away from them, adding to a dynamite blend that restrains their freedom. Putting a ghostly fear in their hearts and minds, they suffer in silence, for fear of bringing shame and stigma to themselves and their families, because of the concept of keeping the family or the tribal honour.

Reserving her biggest attack against Saudi Arabia, she rightly labels it ‘gender-apartheid’ led by Salafi clerics and applied by a morality police. In Saudi women still cannot drive cars nor independently get jobs without male-guardian approval. Giving the preposterous true story of how fifteen young female students were left to die in a fire, because the morality police stopped the fire fighters from rescuing them as they were not wearing their veils and abayas.

Reviewing ‘Headscarves and Hymens’ as an Arab woman, I am more than happy to support Eltahawy for tackling all of the above real and sore issues, as well as to agree the desperate need in our culture to recognise our big failings when it comes to the unfair treatment of girls and women. Certainly, we need individuals like her to open up the subject and keep up the pressure against all the societal, religious and legal systems that are being manipulated to take away women’s empowerment. This can be done by more activism and a collective responsibility to start creating the changes towards better safety, respect and equality for women; perhaps, also, by employing public engagement campaigns as well as by providing good sex and relationship education for youngsters.

Where I don’t fully agree with her is the idea that all Arab men hate women and want to suppress them. Eltahawy’s loud advice for every Arab-Muslim girl to directly challenge her family and status quo by taking off her veil and claiming sexual freedom outside of marriage is not one-hundred-per-cent convincing. If she hopes to convert them, she must be aware that each is entitled the right to choose how to experience her body and sexuality as she deems fit and also has the right to exercise her religion, should she wish to put on a veil or not.

It is very brave of Eltahawy to share with the world her intimate sexual journey and particular feminist progression, but she fails by confusing her story for that of every other Arab girl or woman. Yes, the laws need to be changed to give women freedom and protection – in both criminal and personal provisions – and all the scope to choose how to live and conduct their personal and public lives; but, to suggest, that uninhibited sexuality is the panacea for all the evils against women doesn’t exactly add up.

I do recommend reading ‘Headscarves and Hymens’ as it does deserve its hard-won flaming-hot position on the important bookshelf of Arab feminist literature. It is a sure one to get everyone fired up; and, at the very least, it will urge every woman, Arab or non-Arab, to look inwards and outwards to see whether or not there is injustice being committed against her. Whether this be at home, at work or in another environment – that can happen in any country around the world – she can at least take courage to speak up for herself and know that she has the weight of many others, like Eltahawy, behind her.

Note: This article was first published circa May 2015

African Titanics, Abu Bakr Khaal

+ Paintings By Libyan Artist Matug Aborawi

19, April 2015 – A 20-metre long fishing boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, carrying over 900 migrants, all of whom were hoping to reach the European shores all in one piece, literally. They all took the long and arduous journey – with all of its known dangers – in chasing the illusive dream of a newer and better life; far away from the poverty, the displacement and the negative impact of the wars plaguing their home countries, from all over Africa – North and Sub-Saharan – as well as the Middle East.

Tragically, only 28 passengers on this boat were rescued alive and only 24 bodies were recovered with all of the rest lost and forever disappeared at the bottom of the sea. Buried in Malta, the coffins of the dead didn’t even bear their names. Rather, numbers were scrawled on the boxes that refer only to DNA samples taken, just in case relatives come forward in the future wanting to identify whether or not their loved ones had made it to at least a decent burial.

Ironically, this one incident got all of the national and international newspapers across the world to go manic whilst the truth is that these migrants have been dying every day and have been dying every day for many years. If anything, because of the recent high surge due to an unstable Libya – and up to a million ready to attempt the suicidal trip this Summer! – Europe can no longer sweep the issue under the carpet and must open its eyes and deal with it in a humane and compassionate way.

But this piece is neither to analyse the dreadful politics nor the harrowing economics of the situation. It is to review a wonderful book that has landed in my hands at such a timely conjecture. To this, on Nahla Ink, I have also added some of the incredible paintings of the Libyan artist Matug Aborawi with kind permission. Aborawi has himself dedicated a lot of time and effort over the years on this subject. It culminated in an exhibition titled ‘The South and The Dream’ that took place last December 2014 at Casa Arabe in Madrid, Spain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

African Titanics, Abu Bakr Khaal – The Book Review

Originally written and published in Arabic in 2008, ‘African Titanics’ by Abu Bakr Khaal, is a short novel that offers a quasi-personal perspective on the Africa-Europe migration route via desert, land and sea. Recently translated into English by Charis Bredin, it is about the lives of a group of African individuals – from Eritrea, Liberia, Somalia, Ghana and Sudan – who embark on this modern day exodus and what happens to them along the way.

Narrated by Abdar, a young man from Eritrea, we follow him from the minute of desperate departure from his homeland – as he succumbs to the ‘migration-pandemic’ – and setting off towards the unknown. With barely any belongings, he has only enough cash for the journey northwards and the significant amount of $1,000 that he will need for the ultimate boat passage via the Mediterranean Sea towards the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Initially, the reader thinks this could be an exciting adventure tale with a happy ending for Abdar; until, that is, the first proper leg of the journey begins in the Sudan and towards Libya. We begin to realise just how cruel and gruelling the conditions are going to be. Quickly, he has to learn to improvise to find the right smugglers to get him out and accept that his fate will of this moment become that of an illegal nomad.

On the run from the deadly ‘Hambata’ highway robbers, Abdar and his fellow travellers must endure fifteen days of driving through the desert. With 23 people all forced into one range rover, the ill-equipped driver repeatedly gets lost with only the stars to guide him out. Thrown off course by sand storms and punished by the sun, the vermin and severe dehydration; the group is overcome with a bout of collective hysteria, as some even attempt to jump out of the car for death seems to be an easier alternative.

Surviving the desert however was just the start because they still have to reach Tripoli and live underground there in anticipation and preparation for the final stretch. Forced into and stuck in miserable hideouts, much painful evidence becomes clear of the hundreds of thousands of lives of the migrants who have gone before them. Worse, all reasonable knowledge, debates and the television and radio news indicate a total lack of positive tidings should one get onto the promised boats.

It is in Tripoli however where Abdar meets some of the characters that would impact on him dearly and powerfully. It is during this mad state of limbo that they begin to share their hopes and dreams; as well as reveal the inner and outer demons that have placed them all on such a god-forsaken path. Now as they are closer to the sea with the doomed ‘titanics’ not giving any guarantee of a safe passage, it is time to negotiate the ultimate ticket out of Africa or take the last opportunity to reconsider. But who is going to take the gamble?

Offering some insight, the narrator contemplates what goes through the mind and what happens to the body should one choose to step onto one of these vessels: “When confronted by the unhappy vessels themselves, their faces would be contorted by abject terror. No one can easily stomach the prospect of boarding a boat he knows is likely destined to founder… It is hard to describe the fear that grips you at the hour of departure. You approach the boats in darkness as they rock violently on the water.

“At that moment, you truly understand the meaning of terror. People lose control of their bowels. Damp patches spread across trousers. Many jump overboard before the boat has even left the harbour. Others are swept to sea without ever having resolved whether to stay or go.” (page 61)

Although we don’t much about Abdar’s directly, we can imagine what he is like from the little revealed. We know, for example, that he has a wicked sense of humour and is prone to acquiring nicknames. He’s been affectionately called ‘the Sniffer’, ‘the Tiger’, ‘Antar’, ‘Mr Chatterbox‘; and, most tellingly, ‘the Awacs’ – meaning ‘the Airborne Warning and Control System’ – due to his obsession with travel and weather reports that hint at a cautious nature.

Throughout the journey, also, Abdar carries with him a pocket dictionary to look up English words to understand the poetry of Shelley – that too indicates a highly romantic disposition. At one point, he even confesses to a strange penchant for fortune-telling rituals and witches as well as making reference to his sexual self so that we know he is a passionate hot-blooded male.

Without spoiling its many surprises, I’ve read this fictional account as a poetic homage to the African migrants, for both the survivors and those who simply disappear en route towards the seductive mirage. Khaal gives us the names, the human faces, the tender voices and the colourful personalities so that we don’t’ forget about them. Showing as well the courage, faith and strength required of the human spirit when faced with insurmountable odds, he poses the many questions that need a serious answering to.

Briefly I spoke to the 53 year-old Khaal on the phone because his true life slightly mirrors the tale. He left a war-torn Eritrea circa 1990 and ended up in Tripoli where he stayed for over 20 years; that he began to consider it his new home and the Libyans his people. Not foreseeing the scene after the February Revolution struck in 2011, again he was forced to flee and ended up in a refugee camp in Tunisia for two months, until he was able to move to Denmark, where he is currently based.

Fortunately with a happy ending for him, the author is now working on two new novels about Eritrea and Africa; with one having a historical perspective and the other having a romantic twist. But, I had to ask him, what is – or could be – the right solution to the migrant situation. He said it to me very simply: “We need peace!”

PS Note: This English edition of ‘African Titanics’ has been published by Darf Publishers. Established in 1980 and currently based in London with two retail shops, they focus on books about Libya, the Middle East and the Arab world. Most recently, with the emergence of literature written by Middle Eastern and North African writers, they have been translating and publishing fiction and literary works from new talents as well as from established Arab writers, to introduce them to a wider audience and shed light on work that hasn’t been seen nor read for generations.

For more information: https://darfpublishers.co.uk/

Note: This article was first published circa Arpil

‘The Wanted 18’: How 18 Israeli-Palestinian Cows Experienced the First Intifada!

If you mention to people that there is a new film about the Palestinian struggle showing at a nearby cinema, you will immediately get either weary or awkward sighs; for all the reasons we think we’ve seen it all and heard it all before. However, when you say that the film is actually about Israeli-Palestinian cows, people will stop to think again and ask if it really is about cows. And, so, yes, it is really about cows but so much more besides.

‘The Wanted 18’ is an incredible new documentary and stop-motion animation film that sheds new light on the Palestinian cause. It premiered in the UK yesterday as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2015 with two more screenings taking place this week. Created by the Palestinian artist Amer Shomali and Canadian director Paul Cowan, it goes back to the days of the first Intifada circa 1987-1993 and set in the town of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, where Shomali’s family originally come from.

The ingenuity of this artistic piece, that brightly and warmly captures the heart and the imagination of the viewer, is not only in the re-enactment of a true story through first hand interviews with the survivors or in bringing important archive materials to surface; but, also, in creating human personalities for some of the cows that were at the heart of the tale. You will get to meet and feel for them as they too endure the experience of oppression and the devious ways of the occupiers.

When the Israelis took over the West Bank, it was the small Christian population of Beit Sahour that gathered to brainstorm on how to best respond to their practical situation by organising various neighbourhood committees; that would firstly administer themselves and that would also plot or plan for non-violent resistance or civil disobedience, including at one point their refusal to pay taxes. But, in order to be as self-sufficient and independent as possible, one of the creative ideas was for the town to invest in buying eighteen cows as a cooperative venture to produce their own milk and be able to proudly boycott the Israeli brand.

And, so, the cows were bought from a kibbutz and brought to the town and were soon providing the milk and becoming local celebrities! Everyone came to love the cows and the cows eventually came round to accepting their new owners and life under occupation. However, when the Israeli authorities realised what was going on, they declared the farm an illegal security threat; after which began a crazy and surreal chase against the cows that had at this point gone into hiding, but to still be able to produce the milk that was secretly being distributed underground at great risk to those making the deliveries.

What eventually happens to the cows and the people of the town is well worth watching the film for as well as offering an insightful history lesson whose consequences are still being felt today. So not only are you guaranteed laughter and tears as you get to respect and admire the fighting spirit of the people of Beit Sahour and their herd, but you will also go away with a sobering realisation for the need for both sides to re-engage to end the conflict through non-violent means.

‘The Wanted 18’ is being screened in London and will continue to tour the world in the coming weeks and months in collaboration with ‘Just Vision’. This is an organisation that highlights the power and potential of Palestinians and Israelis working to end the occupation and build a future of freedom, dignity, equality and human security using non-violent means. Just Vision drives attention to compelling local role models in unarmed movement-building and demonstrates to journalists, community leaders, public intellectuals and students – in the US, Israel, Palestine and beyond – what is possible when leaders at the grassroots choose to act.

For more information on Just Vision: http://www.justvision.org

For more information about the HRW FF:

Note: This article was first published circa March 2015

Chewing Gum, Mansour Bushnaf

To chew on gum is a mindless activity that doesn’t usually bring profound personal or philosophic insight. It is a nervous habit that distracts from engaging with one’s immediate – and usually social – environment. In fact, to chew on gum is rude in lots of ways, if say you make extra-loud the irritating mastication sounds or immaturely pop the elastic in your mouth that will terribly offend everyone.

“The gum forced its philosophy onto every aspect of life.” (Chewing Gum)

And so it is in this Libyan novel by Mansour Bushnaf set circa 1980s where all of a sudden the chewing of gum – and the obsession with acquiring it – becomes the only act not punished for expressing political resistance, individual defiance and even of sexual pleasure and desire. It acquires farcical proportions as a de rigueur unconscious escape to avoid the gruesome backdrop of a repressed societal environment where eerily, surreally and frustratingly nothing is quite as it should be.

Bushnaf cleverly wraps up the allegorical tale in a doomed love triangle between a young anti-hero Mukhtar, his father and an anti-heroine Fatma. Whilst the jilted Mukhtar is fixated in his obsessive amour for Fatma and becomes tragically immobilised for ten years in a park – waiting for her to return – she and the father, as well as the other characters in the book, move forwards in time but in negative, foreboding and tragic action.

The once innocent, pretty and petite Fatma abandons her lover, family and university studies to become a prostitute – oddly to advance her social status – whilst the father Omar Effendi, a retired Royal Police Officer, gets unknowingly involved with her in his penchant for easy girls. This then sets the scene for Bushnaf to address the reader in a direct style akin to that of the ‘Existential’ genre of European literature inspired by the works of Jean Paul Sartre, Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Herman Hess and Milan Kundera.

“Fatma doesn’t really enjoy being with men. What she really loved were those moments of highly charged, expansive chewing… Gum is the only thing that allowed her to feel her femininity.” (Chewing Gum)

Bushnaf utilises some real existing props and locations in central Tripoli – the park near the Dakheliyyah Arches, the Red Palace Museum and a 19th Century female stone statue – to reflect and ponder on the different historical stages Libya and its people have been through; from Ottoman rule to Italian Occupation, a British Mandate towards an Independent Monarchy, to the 1969 Revolutionary Coup and the eventual descent into Gaddafi’s terror state circa 1980s.

As Mukhtar is left bizarrely stuck in the rain for a decade in the park standing motionless, he becomes the focus of curious analysis and his predicament a cause for popular debate in newspapers, journals and television. Led by several professors and students of economics, philosophy, archaeology, as well as by a theatre director, a painter and a journalist, they each offer up theories and creative proposals to help but none manage to realise the genius ideas.

The park itself deteriorates over the years and becomes the centre for idle men, drug addicts, drunks, dealers and prostitutes, crowded by ghosts and dead souls from times past. With litter strewn everywhere, an ‘Environmental Committee’ is formed to address its filthy state with all of the academic heads involved. But, in the end, the only ideas implemented are those of the undercover security guards.

It dawns on the reader that the characters in the book – who ought to represent a society’s academic, cultural, intellectual and artistic potential – are in fact impotent men and women because of a hidden but ever-present intelligence apparatus and a sinister government that follows every human coordinate and derails any attempts at progress. Nobody is able to exercise the rhetorically promised – but not really existing – civil freedoms and liberties.

“The Professor of Philosophy was attracted to blooming roses but felt disdain for the crowds queuing up for gum in the candy section. This was when he saw Rahma, a blooming rose from a beautiful past that had been nurtured under the right temperature and climate. He knew the roses were not real. In his philosophical optimism, however, they represented a way of creating beauty out of ugliness, of having flowers bloom from oil.” (Chewing Gum)

Bushnaf knows only too well what happens when you defy an oppressive regime or try to criticise it in writing. He paid the price with ten years of imprisonment for penning a satirical play titled ‘When the Rats Govern’ in the 1970s. And, in this novel, there is this mysterious reference to every ten years being markers to develop and advance the plot.

I highly recommend ‘Chewing Gum’ as a truly valuable, wonderful and a surprise Libyan contribution to the ‘Existential’ school of literature, as Bushnaf bravely considers what happens when there is no room for self-determination to even just validate the usual choices of being human.

He takes us on an intense journey straight into the heart of the Libyan psyche as it suffered through the worst of Gaddafi’s rule whose aim then was to stifle the creative spirit of the Libyan people. So, quite ironically, it had to be a dark tale indeed to make light of what was then endured and by giving us a new appreciation for chewing gum and its many unusual flavours.

‘Chewing Gum’ is published by DARF Publishers, 2014.

For more information: http://darfpublishers.co.uk

https://darfpublishers.co.uk/

Note: This article was first published circa September 2014

The Orange Trees of Baghdad, Leilah Nadir

Long overdue, the United Kingdom finally sees the publication of the Iraqi-Canadian Leilah Nadir’s book: ‘The Orange Trees of Baghdad: In Search of My Lost Family’. As the UK was one of the prime architects of the Iraqi Invasion in 2003 – an event that irreversibly transformed the author’s life – it seems right that people here should have access to her story.

‘The Orange Trees of Baghdad’ is the memoir of a 32-year-old woman who felt compelled by circumstances beyond reason and control to question her father’s Iraqi and Syrian ancestral roots after decades of nothing but silence coming from him. Although Nadir’s father was born and brought up in Baghdad, Iraq and had four children half-carrying the Arab gene, he never volunteered much information about his home country and was almost in denial about it, content to have initiated a new life in the West and not wanting to look back.

But a week into the unjustified March 2003 Invasion of Iraq, father and daughter are on a plane journey from Vancouver, Canada to London to visit the three paternal aunts; when she begins to ask him some very uncomfortable questions about Iraq that he finally begins to open up and respond.

‘The Orange Trees of Baghdad’ received the George Rygan Award for Social Awareness In British Colombia (BC) Literature in 2008 and has already been published and translated in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Turkey and France.

Propelled by and intrigued with the answers, Nadir initiates a fuller search of his background, the extended family and friends he’d left behind decades earlier when he was just 16 years old; a young boy who once left but was never able to return even up until now.

In reconnecting with what was lost from years before, Nadir finds a warm, kind, generous and sincere people who hold the key to a Pandora’s box. On an emotional journey, she learns the ugly truth about the Iraq Wars and the tragic plight of its people held captive due to a trick historical passage of time.

The more Nadir probes, the more she learns of the awesomely heavy toll endured by her relatives; both those existing in exile and the others who had no option but to remain in Baghdad and experience firsthand the horrors of the invasion and its aftermath; as well as having been through years of oppression under Saddam Hussein and plenty more strife.

Nadir’s experience of digging deep and taking the brave decision to directly communicate with her estranged family during the war starts to affect and trouble her psyche. In fact, she ends up with a newborn Iraqi-Syrian identity and becoming the genuine offspring of an Arab ancestry; she can no longer help but to adopt and feel their losses and grieve for their dead. In her special way, she compiled and wrote the book as a testimony document that honours her relatives and that can one day be passed further down the family line.

She writes: “Now, as I watch this war, it is as if one part of me is invading the other. I feel like this war is between two cultures whose blood flows in me, and it makes the experience entirely different.. To look at me is to look at both the aggressor and the victim. I am both the enemy and the ally.”

Although the actual timescale of the book is from 2003 to just before the first publication in Canada in 2007 – and that Nadir goes all the way back to the Baghdad of her father’s childhood to bring out the nostalgia for that bygone age as well – this book is a timeless tribute to the power of family ties and the compassionate love that surpasses generations even when there is a big geographical divide.

Now ten years have passed since the beginning of the 2003 Invasion and Nadir has added an Epilogue for the UK publication that updates on some of the characters and stories in the book; and, fortunately, it offers some glimmer of relief, hope and light for them.

Turning over the last page of ‘The Orange Trees of Baghdad’, one is left with very strong feelings about the injustices wrought upon not just Nadir’s family – but the millions more of Iraqis – from the inside and outside. One has to wonder when the tragedy might come to an end; because, even for those who have managed to physically escape, the psychological trauma is still carried within their heavy broken hearts. And, sadly, the prospect of a happy return is still not nigh.

There is also the Nahla Ink Interview with Leilah Nadir: https://nahlaink.com/interviews/leilah-nadir-iraqi-canadian-author.

Note: This articles was first published circa March 2014

Sex And The Citadel, Shereen El Feki

If you have ever wondered about the sex lives – or shall we say the sex secrets? – of the Arabs, then this book by Shereen El Feki is for you. In her subject choice of the intimate lives of the Arabs at this unusual and historic time of political revolution across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, she comes with a hefty mission as well as vision, theory and a hypothesis regarding the sexual future of the people of the MENA region.

It is one brave lady to open the lid onto something that is quite natural for any human being to do but that which can also be riddled with a deep well of personal or – as in the case of the Arabs – collective guilt, doubt, shame, confusion and misunderstandings.

Despite the challenges, she undertook her research into the field and spoke with many a man and woman, as well as experts in the sex and intimacy department who include: activists and campaigners for the right to a private life, doctors who deal with women in search of abortion or hymen repair surgery, lawyers, academics and other key individuals who are trying to make a difference through the media and other spheres.

In doing this, she probed and asked every single person in her path and pursued their contacts too. In the process of writing the book, she also unearthed a long and distinguished history of Arabic writing on sex that only in recent centuries has all but been buried. (It is one of her many hopes to reclaim the eroticism of the Arabic language itself and usher in a new period where sex and sex talk can become part of a more open society).

What El Feki Discovered

El-Feki discovered that sex is happening for the Arabs and their bedrooms are just as steaming hot and passionate as with any other people. The Arabs are practicing every type of sex and position, but with the one exception that the Arabs have a strong preference to keeping things under wraps about what they get up to in private and will go to extraordinary ingenious lengths to either deny it or find ways to justify it behind closed doors.

This type of attitude and behavior is down to fear of the wrath of the religious and traditional establishments, who rule that only in marriage is sex to be sanctioned and allowed. But beneath the veneer of piety, married couples in the Arab world are complaining about their lot, in similar ways to others.

Sex and Marriage

A whole chapter is dedicated to marriage, where we discover that both the men and women have issues. Whereas female virginity is still the sacred symbol of a family’s honor, sex outside the holy frame is very much frowned upon and illegal in many a circumstance for both sexes; and punishment too can happen DIY community style.

For both, there is the heavy burden of haram in stepping over the cultural or religious limits; but, lo and behold the Arab woman who challenges such boundaries! And divorced women in particular are made to feel it as a source of shame and dishonor.

But like in any other society, the genders feel at cross-wires and wonder if they come from one separate Mars and another Venus. Whilst the men complain their women are not giving enough, the women are saying they don’t know what their men want or mean by what they say they want.

To spice up their sex lives also, the Arabs are just as open to experimenting with sex and seduction; using lingerie for a feminine effect, eager to see Western style sex accessories, watching porn, as well as swallowing the Viagra pill for lasting pleasure. Others also believe in the powerful effect of white and black magic, spiritual sexual healing and Arabic medicine.

With the added social pressure on young married couples to give birth quickly – because it blessed and commended by the religion – El Feki also brings up the Arab’s attitudes towards IVF, abortion, the pill, sperm and egg donation, surrogacy and the fatwas that sometimes determine what are acceptable sexual practices or not.

Most curious for this reader were some connections or themes I was able to make out from reading the full book. These are: Sex and the LGBT community, Sex and Violence, Sex and “Unofficial” Marriage, Sex and Youth as well as Sex and Politics

Sex and the LGBT

In Dare to be Different, for example, El Feki gets in touch with alternative sexual behavior and orientations. As a rule in Arabic countries, the LGBT community has to live in hiding and underground; with the exception of Beirut, Lebanon where there is a little scope to socialize, gather and party in public.

Speaking to them, she finds out how many are facing danger in coming out and being ostracized by their families and the culture. But, fortunately, she also tracks down a number of support initiatives tackling the problem to offer LGBT members free sex advice, community support, health and psychological help.

Sex and Violence

In terms of sex and violence, an astonishing figure is given in the book, that a third of married women in Egypt are at the receiving end of domestic violence, with ten per cent also experiencing sexual abuse. Although there are efforts to help women with shelters, hotlines, counseling and legal services in some countries, a troubling common attitude is that a man can do what he likes should she misbehave.

There are other violent elements regarding sex in the region, including the stress and trauma a girl may have to endure by turning to hymen restoration surgery or dangerous botched up abortions in a desperate attempt to be seen as still virgin on her wedding night. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is also touched upon and the embarrassing ordeal of ‘dukhla’ that a bride may have to go through.

Sex and Youth

Sex and the generally disaffected youth of the region is another theme. With this group caught between economic straits, religious confusion and political frustrations, they are unable to afford marriage for halal sex and their hormones are raging with no proper outlet to unleash their energies.

Plenty of dynamics at play here, with the Internet becoming a new centre-stage for expression and with blogging, social networking, and other forms of new media more open about sex and talking about it without censure. On the other hand, there is a big public sexual harassment problem persistent in the region; where even the dolce hegabbanas (young and pretty girls who wear the hijab but with colorful clothes ensembles) are still molested on the streets with the police themselves at times complicit.

Sex and ‘Unofficial” Marriages

Most unusual for this reader was learning about the long menu or choice of “unofficial” marriages (I counted at least five) that people resort to in order to circumvent or outsmart the cultural conventions or the religious restrictions about sex outside of “official” marriage.

In effect, these are all secret types of marital sexual union with some used only by Shia Muslims and others by Sunnis as well. A most horrendous arrangement is the zawaj misyaf. Popular with Gulf male tourists going to Egypt for their Summer holidays, they are but a form of prostitution of poor young girls, done with the knowledge and consent of the father with money exchanged to pay for the short length of time brokered.

And there is so much more in the book but I don’t wish to completely spoil it.

Measure of Success

The true measure of El Feki’s success will be whether or not Sex and the Citadel further encourages more public debate and understanding about sex and the sexual lives of the people in the region and if the book is translated in Arabic.

Another important measure will be whether or not El Feki’s work can convince Arab governments to take the bold step of facilitating better and more thorough sexual surveys of their people to bring all out to the open, as was done by the Kinsey Report in the 1940s and 10950s America. This would at least fill in the big void she came across on her five-year journey into the MENA world.

Her call is very understandable, so that useful facts and information can be deciphered, given and shared with the people; chief among them the youngsters who need to be able to make better and more responsible sexual decisions and have more freedom to choose how they wish to conduct their private lives.

She does offer some hope that the recent political uprisings might encourage a better attitude towards sex and a drive to guarantee the right to a private life without state or religious intrusion. Referring to the ‘transformation of intimacy’ and ‘greater democratization of personal relationships,’ she is optimistic this will take place in the near future.

This reader personally, I wonder how one can reverse a deeply ingrained cultural tendency to sweep things under the carpet? The Arabs will continue to keep it all in the bedroom and in between the sheets. Do I recommend this book? Yes, it needs to be essential reading for all the Arabs and must be translated as soon as possible.

You can purchase your own copy: https://www.amazon.co.uk/

Note: This article was first published circa January 2014

Journey of Hope, Omar Reda MD

Searching for Hope in the Middle of a War Zone

Journey of Hope is the 40-year-old Libyan American psychiatrist Omar Reda’s bold and courageous pledge to firstly dedicate himself as a mental health doctor to the cause of post-Revolution Libya.

He wants to contribute towards a country that can be at peace and harmony with itself; and for him to be able to take a leading role in healing his country from not just the outside but the inside injuries it has suffered for over the last four decades.

The book is a brief but extraordinary account of his life that shows it is possible to gain a closure of one’s difficult personal experiences, even when one is led by forces bigger than oneself. Indeed, coincidences do not exist according to the legendary psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung and synchronicity occurs in all of our lives, if only we open our eyes to its guidance and lessons therein.

Omar Reda had to flee Libya at the age of 26 for fear of his life, as Gaddafi blacklisted him in 1999 for the humanitarian medical work he was doing as a physician with some of the families of those who were imprisoned or executed by the former regime. It was his father who saved his life by warning him of the danger that he must immediately leave with no time for proper goodbyes.

Forced to escape, he sought asylum abroad in the United Kingdom and after the United States; where he was drawn to the field of psychiatry and global mental health, graduating from Harvard with a Masters in the field in 2007. Little could he then foresee February 2011 when he would not just be able to return home, but that his medical specialty would be of the utmost significance and be put to great use.

Journey of Hope is also very much a book about the Revolution and all the individual and collective sacrifices made by the Libyan people in their struggle to topple a cruel dictator who abused them for decades. It is about the sung and unsung heroes who risked or sacrificed their lives for freedom and liberty.

Above all, however, it is the writer’s unique mission to return to Libya to help, guide and support his fellow countrymen and women as a psychiatrist and to tend to the invisible psychological wounds suffered as a result of so much fighting, pain, hurt, trauma, oppression, rape, imprisonment and so much more.

To quote Omar Reda: “[In Libya], we can no longer hide our head in the sand, stuff our skeletons in the closet or swipe our dirt under the rug, our closets are full they are about to explode, our laundry is dirty but we cannot clean it unless we admit that it is dirty, there is nothing wrong about exposing what happened, the first step towards recovery is to admit that you have a problem, lack of insight is a poor prognostic indicator in psychiatry, lack of motivation is yet another one.” (page 87).

Omar Reda is concerned that this psychological terrain has been neglected and is still not being widely addressed by the government nor the people, however it is most urgent and necessary. The focus must be on the mental, emotional and feeling-wellbeing of the Libyans if there is to be any hope of lasting peace.

He also strongly believes that this mammoth task could and should be achieved by the Libyans themselves in the long run, with only the initial help and support from the relevant foreign aide professionals, NGO’s and charities already on the ground. He is also seeking the backing of the Ministry of Health that has unfortunately not been so forthcoming.

He makes a number of proposals as best strategy to make this challenge a reality and taking into account these facts: that in Libya today, there is only one psychiatrist per 200,000 Libyans, that pre-Revolution, there were only two very poorly equipped mental hospitals, that the role of mental health professionals was misunderstood and stigma attached to psychiatric symptoms.

And more facts. It is estimated that there are more than 25,000 cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), ranging from children to adults, military personnel as well as physicians who had to tend to the wounded. Plus, one cannot forget the consequences of Gaddafi’s rule that has caused, according to Reda: “moral corruption, depression, despair, PTSD, addiction to drugs, anger, grief, blood and revenge lust.”

One of the main proposals is to train the Libyans who are already working in the field of psychology and medicine or give support to those who have already built specific charities for men, women and children. Efforts must be unified and consolidated to build the much-needed mental health care infrastructure and therapeutic possibilities.

Already, Reda has immersed himself in this quest and contributed to the works of NGO’s and medical charities on the ground; beginning with his first visit to the country during the Revolution and his ongoing returns to oversee a number of initiatives focused in this area.

In particular, he is also fond of his work with children – whom he believes are the most vulnerable – by having offered some of them a safe space to freely express their fears and find ways to comprehend what has happened and give them hope for a brighter future. He is also concerned with developing support groups for the mental health professionals themselves to prevent them from compassion fatigue.

One current initiative that Reda started in June 2011 with the support of local NGOs is the Libya Al-Shefa Healing Project. This, he says, contains seven different goals but needs the government’s moral and financial backing to succeed. The seven goals are: psycho-education, raising standards of local professionals, support circles for fighters, support circles for families of fighters and the missing or deceased, a hotline, art and play therapy for children, and reconciliation efforts.

One can only wish him the very best of luck in this mission.

Note: This article was first published circa October 2013

Between Two Rivers, Dorothy Al Khafajji

With its bright yellow cover and a back page that reads very much like the synopsis of a great romance, I thought this book was some kind of chick-literature. However, opening the front page and reading the introduction, it is clear that the book is based on the true memoirs of the English Dorothy Al Khafaji, who was born and bred in Somerset, England but through extraordinary fate, had to travel to and live almost two decades in Baghdad, Iraq between 1962 to 1980.

The tale begins when Dorothy, an impressionable young girl who hasn’t even finished her A-Level education, falls in love with the handsome and dark Iraqi engineering student Zane in a London club. Soon after, they are married with a little daughter and on their way to Baghdad with no questions asked.

Their adventure starts in a fancy Mercedes picked up from Germany (for Zane’s brother) and they drive all the way through Europe and Asia to get to Iraq; passing Holland, Austria, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Jordan and Syria. When they finally arrive, the young family live with the in-laws in a pretty suburb of Baghdad near to the Tigris River.

Al Khafaji is quickly thrown into the very different patriarchal and conservative culture and has no option but to adapt. She writes in detail of her life then as a young mother away from all that was once familiar to her in England. With almost zero contact with the Western world and so far away, she learns the Arabic language and picks up on the local habits in order to personally survive.

We get a wonderful insight into life of the ordinary but dignified Iraqis during the 1960s and a country full of hope. We come to witness through Dorothy the lifestyle as well as the passionate temper and irrational family traditions they follow. She tells of her new living arrangements and how safe and friendly their neighborhood was like, with people of all backgrounds living in peace together, without any conflict based on religious, ethnic or political grounds.

She even becomes one of the extended family members and refers to the in-laws as Mum and Dad throughout the story; but, this is not to cover up the dramas and the heated arguments that take place between the brothers, sisters and parents which test her patience and diplomacy skills to the limit in order to keep things under control.

Dorothy and Zane go on to have more children and face lots of obstacles in getting to a state of financial independence, as they relocate on several occasions and have to mix with different families. But the central relationship does comes across a little strained and difficult with plenty of complaint from Dorothy, albeit restrained, regarding Zane.

We do get a great glimpse also of the popular Arabic culture in those days and the various phases that impact on the lives of everyone over an eighteen-year period. But, of course, it is in the politics of the Middle East and the situation of Iraq in particular that begins just as background information to events, but later comes to affect and colour the personal lives of all characters involved.

It was this part of the book most enjoyed as Khafaji writes it so well; although, it could not have been easy to live through the terror, horror and injustices that were caused by the Baathist government that took hold. Ending with the sadistic regime of Saddam Hussein, we understand just how mercilessly it threatened the life of every single person who either lived in or originated from Iraq.

I do recommend reading this book, as it weaves the personal with the political in a fluent and measured fashion. It does shine a light on a time in Iraqi history that tested the nerve and steel of ordinary people. With so many crimes committed against the innocent, Dorothy herself is a survivor who has lived it and can now tell the tale for others to contemplate any lessons that might help to heal today’s post-Wars Iraq.

Between Two Rivers will soon be available on paperback, priced at £8.99. ISBN 9781908946874

Note: Note: This article was first published circa June 2013

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