Friday, July 15, 2011

On curing myself of ignorance, step by step

Sometimes there are books that make me feel in awe of the writer: the skill of using sounds, connotations and flow that grasps the reader to follow every single word immediately. Then there are times when I do not quite know what I am feeling, when the awe is mixed with being subtly humbled by the content, or by having interestingly egotistical sides of my thinking revealed.

These are definitely that kind of books.

19. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

The About sans Spoilers: Mariam is an Afghani girl born out of wedlock, a shame to everyone. She dreams of a day when she can escape her oppressing, bitter and vile-mouthed, traditionalist mother and go live with her father, who brings Mariam lavish gifts and shows unconditional love to her. When one day she decides to reach for something more than her life as an unwanted young woman living in a small hut, her world collapses and she ends up in a situation even more oppressing than before.

Laila is also a young woman, albeit born 20 years after Mariam. Her family is liberal and educated, and they want to make sure that Laila will also become an independent woman who marries for love--after she has gained an education. But as war descends on Afghanistan, all the ethics and morals she is familiar with are swept away, and she suddenly finds herself relying on Mariam.

The Thoughts (spoilers within):

When I read the back of the book--which read very close to what I wrote above--I was not sure whether the story would be my cup of tea. Two women finding solace in each other during hard times? Is this going to be Steel Magnolias, Afghanistan edition? After reading the book, I understand why the back sleeve needed to tip-toe around the topic: there is no way one could condense into one paragraph the terrifying cruelty these women each face merely because of law based on religion. There is no short way of describing what it feels like to watch a relatively liberal, reasonable country fall apart and begin to treat half of its population like cattle, almost overnight. Although the situation has now changed once more, old habits die hard.

This is where I felt shame. Of course I had already known before that in places like Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, women were not always required to hide their painted nails or they'd get a beating from any man on the street from cops to brothers to strangers. As recently as in the 1970s women still went to college, dressed up in Western garb, and did not need chaperons. It is incredibly hard for me to even imagine what it must have been to be a young woman at that time, and then see the revolution come and sweep all the rights from her. Walk alone during day time without a male family member? Get a beating. Wear pink socks? What a whore, get a beating.

The shame came from not knowing this early enough. I am embarrassed to admit that whatever little I learned from school of the Middle East countries never looked at their recent history from a regular citizen's point of view, and having lived so far away I never thought that everyday life had changed so recently, and so incredibly drastically there in a span of only a few years.

Hosseini's book, although fiction, seems* to give an accurate account of these events. It's gut-and-heart-wrenchingly sad, and the story just does not let the reader to catch any relief. This reality is there for you to look into the eye and face it. And doing just that makes me want to learn more of the realities in countries I might not be able to safely visit in my lifetime. (That, by the way, was that egotistical thought of mine, and it made me blush almost as much as my ignorance on the topic).

Content aside, the book was a delight to read. Hosseini uses delightful language, and he can write action scenes really well. I could feel my heart start to race toward the end, where a horrifying sequence of events unfolds. Marvelous writing,  indeed.

(*As I have not ever experienced Afghanistan, I can only rely on reviews.)

20. Parvekejumalat by Anja Snellman ("The Gods on the Balcony")

The About: 

Anis is the teenage daughter of a Somali refugee family in Finland. The life within her family's small apartment and the one inside her school, the shopping malls and the community college classes clash, and Anis is torn by the re-evaluation of morals that her family imposes on her. After all, the morals of her friends and classmates seem drastically different. The more Anis looks at her quiet mother and the brothers who hypocritically gamble and drink while tailing Anis on the town to squeal on her doings, the more she is convinced that she needs to break away from her family's traditions--even literally, when she is locked away into the family washing room.

Zahra is not Zahra's real name. She had a Finnish name, but after converting to Islam she threw that away along with all her other earthly possessions. She has started a Finnish group for people who are interested in Islam to educate ignorant Finns on what Islam and being a Muslim really is, in hopes that ignorant crap about how oppressed women really are within Islam will be unlearned by meeting cool Muslim women, all of whom are fairly recent converts. Zahra's reasons for converting to Islam are complicated (not made any easier by her liberal, artistic and frivolous mother), and these reasons keep her still bitter and grounded to her past life. She needs a way to prove herself that she is a good Muslim, beyond just educating people about Islam.

The About:

I swear, I did not plan on reading these books back-to-back. I just happened to have them unread on my desk, and read one after the other. Only while reading the second book did I realize how similar this and A Thousand Splendid Suns actually were topic-wise, although the execution of the story of two women whose lives will collide was different.

Whereas Hosseini's book gives only a slight sliver of hope only to grab it immediately away, Snellman's story has more of a positive, expectant tone. Anis is, after all, living in a liberal society, so it feels inevitable that she should want to assimilate to that and the transfer should be easier than that of any woman living in Afghanistan. This time, it is Zahra who is considered a weirdo for wanting to cover herself in a veil. Although the cultures in these two books are different, the cultural heritage is not. Zahra wants to feverishly believe in the literal version of Koran, where nobody has to wear a veil, and nobody gets beaten with a cane if dinner is not adequately warm. Anis, on the other hand, lives the reality of how some people interpret and live by the very same text, and to her Islam is not the comforting blanket Zahra experiences it as.

This novel, despite its hopeful undertones, is also a tearjerker. I wanted to throw the book in the corner after finishing it, just because I was so angry. Don't take this the wrong way: the book is great, the writing is good... It's just that the story was so unfair. It's a fault of mine: I have a hard time coping with unfairness, even in fiction. You can imagine how I was squirming in my seat in pain while watching The Dancer in the Dark...

I'm curious about how this book was read in the immigrant and refugee communities of Finland, as it certainly does not paint a very lovely picture of Somali Muslims. The author does thank a variety of people who has helped her while writing the story, including people within immigrant communities. But I still wonder: how accurate (and respectful) a portrayal can a non-Muslim, very liberal woman who has never lived in a Muslim country really tell? Wouldn't the story always end up being filtered by prejudice and the author's personal view on what is morally right and wrong? I imagine that she'd have to tread very carefully.

After a quick Google search I found a Finnish message board for all issues Islamic, where a user attacks not only Snellman but also Hosseini as  a liar and an agitator. Although Snellman's book, title and all, gives a nod to a tragic event in Sweden where Kurd girls were pushed off a balcony, the message board user claims that Snellman is doing nothing but generalizing and stereotyping: after all, Somali culture behaves very differently from other Islamic cultures, and not every family is an extremist one.

And therein lies the dilemma: when one wants to write about the seedy side of any religious organization because it is obviously bothering the author and she has an agenda about it, what's the best way of doing it? After all, violence and oppression is a fact in many religions, although not everyone practices their religion that way. Surely not every single Somalian in Finland is a Muslim extremist, so perhaps Snellman would have been better off to explain in her novel why the family was so extreme. The positive side of Islam is only told through Zahra, who is painted as a naive young woman escaping hardships into the arms of religion. You could compare her to a blue-eyed girl who wants to become a Christian because she likes Jesus's peaceful message, but then she has to deal with a family who is all about the Old Testament: stoning women, getting kids killed who dare to talk back to old people, taking multiple wives, owning slaves... you name it. And that family would be portrayed as the norm among Christians. At the same time, I think it's absolutely fair to also talk about how horrific some movements may be. Why should we always try to paint the most positive picture there is?

Although I did enjoy reading this novel a lot, I felt slightly uncomfortable about it. Maybe that's good; at least it made me think a lot.


  1. I got a very different view of Islam from my trip to Turkey and it was certainly enlightening with regards to Arab Islam versus...everywhere else. I like your point about violence and oppression in most religions; I think it's been really easy to just poke at our modern-day media's exposure to Islam instead of pointing out how women still can't by priests in the Roman Catholic church.

    I think when you get the chance Circumstance but be a great film for you to watch, following in the thread of Hosseini's book.

  2. Thanks for sharing. I have a friend who moved back to her native Turkey and to Istanbul, and that city is very... Western, I suppose, and international. She only had to wear a scarf to her work at a conservative school, which is basically like needing to follow any kind of a dress code in a US work place. I'm sure it was an interesting experience to visit Turkey.

    I suppose it's the problem of exoticizing anything: it's easy to single out an extremist from a group and use him/her as an example of an entire religion when we don't know enough about it. In the process we don't realize that we ourselves (not necessarily you and I, but people from Western cultures) would get all huffy if someone said that the Norwegian mass-murderer at the youth camp was a representative of all Christians, and that we should start profiling everyone wearing a cross pendant at the airports. We'd be quick to explain why he was not a "real" Christian...

    I'll check Circumstance out. Now going to Netflix to see if it's available.