Currently Reading…We Hunt The Flame by Hafsah Faizal

I realised the other day that I haven’t posted any book reviews for a while (too busy eating out, I guess!) but thought I’d start sharing some again, especially as I have read a bunch of new books!

I started reading We Hunt The Flame by Hafsah Faizal last night, and I’m liking the concept of it so far – a fantasy story set in an Arab setting, about lost magic, a girl who disguises her identity, and a dark King. I’m still reading it so I can’t say a lot more, but so far it has the ingredients for an interesting story! I have to admit I was looking forward to reading book (which only released about three weeks ago) because it was written by a Muslim author, and it’s been an anticipated release which I’ve been curious about because you don’t get a lot of fantasy novels which have an Arab background.

I’ll post a proper review once I’ve fully read it – but it is interesting so far!

And The Mountains Echoed

Our brothers and sisters are there with us from the dawn of our personal stories to the inevitable dusk. ~Susan Scarf Merrell

And The Mountains Echoed, much like Khalid Hosseini’s earlier novels The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Sun begins, and draws its roots from Afghanistan and its tumultuous history, following on from the upheaval of the country in the 70s to emigration to America. Unlike his other two novels, however,  there is also a layering of characters from other cultures – Markos, a Greek surgeon, photographer and philanthropist, Nila, a part-French, part-Afghan artist who embodies the glamorous, detached Parisienne lifestyle, and Iqbal and his family, who have come home from emigration to Pakistan to find his family are unable to claim their home, or even Amra, a Bosnian nurse caring for the wounded in war-torn Kabul.

Although there is plenty of diversity in this story, at the heart of it all is the focus on the two primary characters, Abdullah and Pari, siblings whose close bond is ripped apart when they are separated at childhood, sold by a desperate father. So begins a ripple which resounds over the next 60 years, in which each sibling feeling incomplete without the other, affecting their families and friends around them.

There are several themes throughout the novel, which reverberate through each generation of siblings, lovers and friends – each of them having their own forms of abandonment and reconciliation, and each of them finding the true meaning of love and relationships over the years.

Normally a large number characters in a novel may overwhelm the story, but in this case, each character contributes, reinforcing a theme which subtly leads back to Abdullah and Pari. Each sibling carrying their own sense of incompleteness and abandonment; Abdullah growing up in Afghanistan and having his own family, emigrating to America in an attempt to find stability, and Pari, taken to France by her adoptive Mother, learning French culture and never understanding her identity and what is missing.

While this story is a little depressing in it’s telling, it’s beautifully written – there are parts of it which read like an old story being told, and indeed each character does tell his tale in order to contribute to this strange myth-like story.

If you’re looking for something full of culture, history and beauty, this has plenty of all three, and gives more besides. While it does show the characters and their yearning – to be elsewhere, to be with family or to be simply accepted – the characters are beautifully rendered, invoking a feeling of amity and the idea that you can step forward, and be a part of their lives.

Weekly Challenge: Letters

I love the Arabic language, the beauty of its curving letters and the detailed strokes of each letter which joins together to make beautiful passages as well as beautiful art. This is an old text from the 16th Century, depicting an ayat (verses from the Holy Quran) which was painstakingly written out by scribes during this time. I love the beautiful neatness of this piece of writing, the sloping, long letters highlighted with gold paint and the beautiful calligraphy – it’s not often you get to see some old texts like these.

I wanted to take a close-up of this picture but wasn’t able to because this piece exhibited behind glass, but perhaps I’ll get to see something similar to this again, and try to get a better picture!

Part of this week’s Weekly Challenge: Letters.

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Journal Your Ramadan – Day #8: Handwriting

My handwriting’s not great (and it looks even worse when I try to write with my drawing tablet), but I thought I’d give it a shot anyways for today’s challenge. I decided to try some Arabic calligraphy-style art, which took me a while, but here we are! Not bad for a first second attempt, eh? Best of all, now that I’ve done this one, it’s made me want to do some more in order to get better at it, although I think I’ll stick to simpler letters, for now!

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Love, Graphics and Slavery in ‘Habibi’

Habibi, by Craig Thompson, is a novel with a difference. Not just because it is a beautifully drawn graphic novel, full of layers of subtle meanings, stories-within-stories and a depiction of society, but also because of the ingenious way the artist weaves together the life of a young slave woman’s, Dodola, with that of a chance meeting with another, slave child named Zam, whose own life is shaped just as he shapes hers.

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Thompson, then, begins20121111_134856 a story which, although not conventionally happy, becomes one which is beautifully moving and extremely easy to engage with. We follow Dodola from her poor and unfortunate beginnings of being sold by her parents to be a wife at the age of six, and from there, her life does not get any better – kidnapped, sold into slavery and rounded up until she meets Zam, a toddler with whom she runs away with to look after.

From there, we see plenty of layers, of love, of slavery, of being gender roles and of being a possession. Thompson does not shy away from the brutality of sex, as well as the hardships of being a slave, of being poor and of course, of being a woman.

Dodola, then, becomes almost an archetype for almost every role a woman can assume – mother, sister, daughter, wife, slave, prostitute, and even food-bringer, as she shrugs off her hardships and her past to try her best to survive, and of course, bring up Zam.

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Throughout the novel, we see both character’s roles, personality and even relationship change, which has a tragic effect on both Zam and Dodola. This is particularly emphasised as Thompson combines modern realities such as coming to terms with your own identity and sexuality, with older-fashioned values such as trading for food, the life of a slave and the realities of  being a woman, being black or being poor.

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Just as we see Dodola’s concerns in bringing up her adopted child, however, we see Zam’s (whose name is no accident, originating from Zamzam water, a holy well situated in Mecca), anxieties in his own role as a man.

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And that is not to say that the story focuses purely on these characters, as Thompson weaves in beautiful architecture in the Middle East combined with the grimy, poor dwellings of the rest of the country. Stories of King Soloman, the Queen of Sheba and Islamic number based puzzles are weaved in as parables to mirror Dodola’s dilemmas and concerns, as well the history of the country, different plans in the city, and the environmental concerns of current society.

And it is no accident that there is a motif of story-telling, calligraphy, writing and drawing throughout the story, artist points not only to the graphic form of the novel, but also the centuries old form of telling stories, writing and recording history, and in a way, recording our identities. Thompson does not leave20121112_125713 a topic untouched, yet this does not feel messy, everything is weaved in beautifully and depicted in seriously beautiful, detailed drawings.

I particularly also liked the architectural drawings in the story, which ranges from ships and small towns to beautifully regal palaces and gardens, and back again to shanty towns and rubbish filled waste-grounds. Again, Thompson points out the range of cities and it’s environments through these encounters – the danger of pollution, the apathy of its citizens and the excess carelessness of the rich are all movingly captured – one sub-plot which struck me was a fisherman who catches rubbish from the sea every day, never getting a fish and yet remaining happy until he has a breakdown – which is surely symbolic of the Earth slowly killing itself with pollution in a truly depressing scene.

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As each scene and circumstance changes, it is no accident that the characters change and adapt with them – Dodola changes from young innocent girl to a teenage thrifter to a harem woman and still goes beyond this, just as Zam’s identity anxieties take him on his own adventures.

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While I though this novel was brilliant, some readers may be put off by the amount of sexual content in this novel, which is never crude but does seep into a lot of its chapters and scenes, and can feel unrealistic. When reading this, while I felt sympathy for Dodola’s character, I also felt it was depressing to see that she is constantly measured by her worth as a woman, and how she can satisfy men sexually. While I’m sure that this is Thompson’s intent, to show that she is objectified to the extent that this defines her above all else, it is sad to see that she is constantly seen as a sexual object by all the characters in this book, which is only stressed by the fact that she is the only female character in this novel and essentially is alone in any type of sisterhood, motherhood or any other positive, female relationships.

Without revealing too much, there are certainly some twists in the novel which changes the initial outlook on not only Middle Eastern society, but the rest of the world and its history in general by the time you reach the end. While the ending itself is ambiguous, it is not a sad one and there is certainly a note of hope by the end of it, although it one which has taken a hard journey to get to. Thompson has done a great job with this novel, and one which is full of beautiful illustrations, poignant meaning and amazing symbolism which is weaved together cleverly – it’s certainly made me want to look out for his other work.20121112_231253

Kenza at Liverpool Street, London

I’ve been to this beautiful restaurant before, but had the pleasure of visiting Middle-Eastern themed restaurant Kenza again a few days ago for a birthday dinner.  The ambiance is relaxing, the decor is beautiful and the food is just great – it’s perfect for a celebration or just a cosy get-together with friends (or even a romantic candle-light dinner).

Here’s a few snaps of the place, I’d recommend a visit if you’re looking for something a little more fancy (although be warned, there are bellydancers on weekends!) My favourite thing about this place were the beautiful lamps and carved alcove, which added a pretty detail to the place!

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Fairy Tales and Long Tails: Middle Eastern & Arab Romances #1

We’ve all heard the classic, archetypal story of Romeo and Juliet (and it’s various versions) and how their romance ends in legendary tragedy. I thought it would be appropriate to write about similar legends which have been carried down through the centuries, but from different cultures, and which are still spoken about today. Some of these stories are pretty passionate (compare Edward and Belle’s pangs of the heart-strings to this lot, for example), and most of them are quite tragic stories, which is probably one reason they have resounded over the years. Here are a couple which are probably the most well known stories in the Middle East, being sung today in stories, being portrayed in paintings and being slipped into popular references and films.

Heer Ranjha
Firstly is the most famous Punjabi romanctic legend which comes to mind, and one that is still depicted in story-telling and pictures today. Heer is a beautiful young woman of the prestigious Jat caste, and from a wealthy family, while Ranjha is the youngest of the four brothers (also from the same caste), who spends his time playing the flute and basically skiving away from working the lands. After an argument with his brothers (presumably about him being a lazy sod), he storms away from his village and travels around until he reaches the village where Heer resides. Offering to look after her father’s cattle, Heer becomes mesmerised by his flute-playing (a olden day Justin Beiber fan, perhaps), and they begin to meet secretly for years. Eventually they are caught by Heer’s uncle, and she is married off to another man (which was always the best answer in those days). A heartbroken Ranjha wanders the Punjabi hills as a jogi until he again finds the place where Heer is living, and manages to convince her parents to let them get married. Mr Meddling-Uncle again interferes, however, and poisons Heer on the wedding day, leaving a heartbroken Ranjha to follow suit and poison himself too.

Layla and Majnun
This is a similar love story, this time of Arab/Middle Eastern descent, and has several (often embellished) versions. The version more familiar to me is one in which the lovers meet as young children in school, where ‘Majnun’ (which means mad-man, his real name was actually Qais) used to get beated by the schoolmaster for not paying attention to schoolwork. Yet wherever he was beaten, Layla would be the one who bled his wounds. Sounds Stigmata-type creepy, but it’s meant to be romantic. This led to a lot of uproar about devilry and a whole lot of scaremongering, and the children were seperated until they met in their youth (so they were teenagers really) and carried on their love affair. Along came another meddling relative, this time in the form of Layla’s brother Tabrez, who refused to let them get married, leading to a fight in which Tabrez is murdered by the crazed-with-love Majnun. The standard punishment is, of course, a good stoning or two, which Majnun is subjected to until Layla agrees to marry another man to save him. See a pattern here? Layla is married off (cattle again) while the boyfriend is exiled to the deserts. Layla’s hubby, however, got fed up of Layla pining after Majnun like an emo, and, with his men, went to hunt him down and kill him. The climax of this story is that when Hubby kills Majnun, at the exact same miment, Layla also dies.
The less dramatic version of this story is pretty much the same except for the mystic bleedings and the lovers both dying after writing a lot of poetry.

There’s a few more stories (to come soon!) which follow a similar theme of unreconciled, noble love and a lot of wandering around/soul-searching/tending sheep which is often the results in tragic endings.

Can any of you think of any more popular romances from non-Western cultures?