Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Knee Deep in Words

A few weeks ago, one of the higher echelon people at school sent everyone in the social studies department an email listing a bunch of classes available around Seattle this summer. There were several interesting prospects, including one through the Seattle Art Museum and one through the national archives. I, of course, was looking for something free. So I picked out one class that was titled "Teaching Middle Eastern history using Arab Fiction," and applied, and got accepted. Cool.

I began to get emails from a woman at the University of Washington about this class, which apparently is part of a series that is offered to high school teachers every summer. It is a two week class in July, 3 hours a day for 10 days. I thought that it would involve short stories, and older literature, from the 1700s or 1800s, but then last week I got a box.

In that box were 7 novels, all written in the 20th century, all dealing with various areas of the Middle Eastern world, and all but one between 300 and 400 pages. My first thought was "holy COW this is a lot of reading, even for me!" Also included was a syllabus, and I got another syllabus a few days later. I started reading last weekend, and so far, the first two books have been pretty good.

I really liked the first book, called Leo Africanus by Amin Maalouf. It is about a Muslim guy who was born in Spain just before the Spanish kicked the Jews and Muslims out of Spain (1480s and 90s, for you non-nerds). He talks about Granada, and then Fez (Algeria), Cairo, and Rome...all places he ends up living over the course of the first 40 or so years of his life. It is a novel, so it is fiction, but I thought it was absolutely fascinating, and it was definitely a different point of view than I had ever really considered before. Generally we think about the Spanish Inquisition either from the Protestant point of view or from the Native American point of view, but I have never consciously considered it from the Muslim, Jewish, or African point of view. I really, really liked the book.

The second book I read was called Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz and is part of a trilogy about an Egyptian family that is set between 1917 and 1952. Palace Walk is the first book and is about Egypt at the end of World War I, and the events that take place while Egyptian nationalism is growing. Again, I had never consciously considered the post-war British occupation from the Egyotian point of view and while I did find that part of the book intensely interesting, I did not really like this book. The father is an extremely strict Muslim who confines his wife and daughters (and later his daughter-in-law) to the house. His wife has not been outside the front door in 25 years. He has absolute authority over the house, to the point of forbidding his family to laugh at his daughter's wedding. He takes pride in his devotion to God and his blameless life, as evidenced by his family's conservativeness. But this same man is considered the life of the party to his friends, goes out drinking every night, and has had multiple affairs. Despite this, he actually kicks his wife out of the house because she went to the mosque one day without his permission, and threatened to divorce her for being "wanton." I did not particularly care for this book, it made me angry at times and made me want to yell at the characters to stand up for themselves and fight back! However, as I previously stated, this book is part of a series, that apparently follows the same family through three generations and maybe it gets better or makes more sense as a trilogy. The history part of it was absolutely fascinating, however.

I haven't read the other books, so when I do I will post a review, but they are Season of Migration to the North by Tayyib Salih, Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif, The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany, Someone to Run With by David Grossman, and Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk.

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