Life as a Middle Eastern Woman in Literature

Last year, I read The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, and this year, I read A Thousand Splendid Suns and Persepolis. These literary works have given me a window into the lives of women who lived in middle eastern countries around the late 20th century.

In the first book I mentioned, journalist Gayle Tzemach Lemmon recounts the true story of one brave young woman from Khair Khana, Afghanistan. Kamila is bright and ambitious, but her dreams are squashed after the Taliban arrives in Afghanistan in 1996. Soon enough, women are treated like second-class citizens; they cannot work, attend school, speak to a man or look him in the eye, appear in public without a male chaperone, etc. After a while, desperate for money to take care of her family, she and her sisters start a dress-making business from home. Each time she goes out to advertise their merchandise to male shop owners, she runs enormous risk of being beaten in the street–or worse. She goes on to employ dozens of women who were otherwise trapped at home, broke and bored out of their minds (anything fun was deemed “decadent” and “sinful” and thus forbidden).

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a fictional story, but Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini says he was inspired by a visit to Aghanistan during which he heard countless stories of tragedies, discrimination and violence faced by women there. The novel spans a longer time period than The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, as it starts in 1959 and ends in the early 2000’s. It starts out focusing on the adolescence and life of Miriam, born in Herat, Afghanistan, and eventually spans to the adolescence and life of Laila, at which point they are both in Kabul–then, enter the Taliban. Their stories end up intertwining, and both women are incredibly resilient and admirable; the book is heart-wrenching and unforgettable. But just as in Kamila’s story, here again the Taliban’s harsh rules crush women’s independence and hope along with the small pleasures of life–like watching a show on T.V. or playing a musical instrument.

Persepolis by the sharp, opinionated Marjane Satrapi is a graphic novel she wrote reflecting on her adolescence in Iran and studying abroad as a teenager in Vienna. The story starts in 1980 during the Iran-Iraq War in her home country. The Taliban wasn’t around in this book (the Soviet-Afghan War was underway at this time, which set the stage for the Taliban’s rise in the 1990’s–many Afghans fled to Iran during said war), though women still faced oppression because of the Islamic Revolution. As was the case in the other stories, too, people weren’t allowed to throw a party or openly date (you were married or single, no in between), and women couldn’t wear makeup, go out without a hijab, laugh in public (seriously), show their wrists, etc. Thankfully, Marji had the means and freedom to leave and get a quality education.

Reading literature from/about Middle Eastern women has been a fantastic albeit sad learning experience. Women are incredibly strong in a way that goes far beyond physicality. I’m thankful and blessed to live in a place that prizes liberty and free expression, and thanks to the last couple centuries of Western feminism, I can do or be just about anything I want (while wearing fire-engine red lipstick–if I choose).

Have you read any fiction or non-fiction books on the Taliban or this general setting? Have any facts or stories to share? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!

Books I Read in 2020

As we embark on a new year starting today, it’s fun to look back on what we accomplished over the last year. In this case, I want to reflect on my reading in 2020 and see how many books I got through and what kind I gravitated to the most.

Here’s the books I read in 2020 (smiley face=good, heart=great):

  1. Little Men by Louisa May Alcott 🙂
  2. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë ♥
  3. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline 🙂
  4. The Pale-Faced Lie by David Crow ♥
  5. Middlemarch by George Eliot 🙂
  6. The Christian Atheist by Craig Groeschel 🙂
  7. The Green Mile by Stephen King ♥
  8. The Shining by Stephen King ♥
  9. Gay Conversations with God by James Alexander Langteaux ♥
  10. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence 🙂
  11. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon ♥
  12. Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy 🙂
  13. What This Cruel War Was Over by Chandra Manning ♥
  14. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo 🙂
  15. Precious by Sapphire 🙂
  16. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck ♥
  17. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas ♥
  18. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (started in 2019, finished in 2020) ♥
  19. America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallis ♥
  20. Practicing Resurrection by Janet Wolf 🙂

DNF (Did Not Finish): Sick Girl Speaks! by Tiffany Christiansen (lost interest b/c she mostly talks about navigating doctors and hospital visits–can’t relate at this point in time–may revisit someday), Third World America by Ariana Huffington (informative, but b/c it’s ten years old, info needs updating), 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson (unbearably tedious)

Current Reads (end of 2020, going into 2021): Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Your perspective on the size of my list will vary depending on your own reading habits; those who don’t read often may be impressed, while fellow Bookstagrammers might wince with judgement. Considering the (mostly, though not totally, self-imposed) responsibilities I juggle–editing worship and Sunday School videos weekly, writing/reading blog posts, Bible study and prayer, writing/recording/editing my own videos, reading books, writing SS lessons, making the UMW newsletter, my job with the newspaper, exercising, not to mention time spent with my fiance or relaxing/having fun–I think it’s pretty commendable!

But these Bookstagrammers and real life serial readers don’t play around. It amazes me that some people can read 5-10 books a month. How?! Do y’all even eat or sleep?! Ah, well. I squeeze in my books around the rest of my life.

This year, I read several books on current social issues, like the phenomenon of women objectifying themselves (Female Chauvinist Pigs) and racial justice (America’s Original Sin). What This Cruel War Was Over was my only historical book; it delved into the American Civil War. 2020 was the year I was first exposed to Stephen King through The Green Mile and The Shining, and perhaps needless to say, I’m hooked. I read several classics this year because I’ll always be an English major at heart, but I branched out and read a few modern fiction novels, too.

As far as Bible reading, I got through all the major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and most of the minor ones in the OT. I think 2021 is the year I can start over again at Genesis! Yay! IDK how people read the entire thing in one year; it’s taken me about three years to wade through the OT. Since the NT is so short, I just lap it repeatedly.

I don’t particularly have any 2021 reading goals except to keep knocking out unread books on my shelves. It would be nice to squeeze in a Shakespeare play and read more historical books and Stephen King novels.

Did you read any books in 2020, or down you plan to in 2021? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!

The 3 Best Nonfiction Books I Read in 2020 (So Far)

As an English major, I read many classics in college from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Shelley’s Frankenstein. For the first couple years after graduation, I was a book snob who literally only read classics. I’m still a classics lover–just finished Eliot’s Middlemarch–but I got turned on to nonfiction last year when I started participating in the United Methodist Women Reading Program. I just love learning, so I quickly became addicted to gaining new knowledge from nonfiction. Today’s post touches on the three best ones I’ve read this year (though I could read more awesome ones before the year ends!). [The first and third book came from the Reading Program.]

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

In 1979, two years before our protagonist Kamila was born, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan and waged a decade-long war with the Muhajideen. When the Soviet forces dried up, they were forced to admit defeat and withdrew the last of their troops by 1992. At that point, Muhajideen leaders began fighting with each other for control of Kabul. In spite of the constant discord, Kabulis still went to work and school. Kamila, a natural leader, earned a teaching certificate and planned to continue her education to eventually teach Dari or literature. The trajectory of her life changes when the Taliban move in and take over the city. Women were no longer allowed to attend school, hold a job, appear in public without a male companion, show any skin (even exposing the wrist incurred a brutal beating), or talk to a man in public.

For a while, Kamila is resigned to this new, indefinite, oppressive way of life. But her family and others around start struggling to put food on the table since less household members can make an income. Necessity eventually drives Kamila to start a business from her own home and employ women around her in making and selling dresses.

Kamila is amazingly sharp and resilient, and her leadership abilities really blossom through her circumstances. The story is so investing and easy to digest that one could read it in a couple sittings, and the heart-wrenching moments are balanced by triumphant ones. There were also times I was holding my breath, wondering when or if Kamila might get in trouble

Highly recommend this exciting, inspiring read for anyone (who doesn’t love a good “defying the odds” story?).

What This Cruel War Was Over by Chandra Manning

Scholar Chandra Manning sets out to answer a basic question: why did primarily non-slaveholding men fight a war over slavery? Moving chronologically through the four years of the American Civil War, she uses primary sources–Union and Confederate soldiers’ letters, newspaper articles, and other written records–to explain the motivations of both sides and examine how and why they shifted as the war progressed. Manning doesn’t project her views on to the past; the soldiers’ own words speak for themselves. In fact, one-third of the book is just a list of citations and references. Though the book takes longer to read, it’s never dry or boring.

In the beginning, Unionists wanted to defend/preserve America because it was a beacon of hope for the world and proved that democracy leads to a prosperous nation; from this standpoint, the Confederates were traitors for seceding and shattering that noble image. The Confederates saw slavery as preserving a God-given hierarchy of white men-white women-white children-black people, and they also felt the government’s main purpose was to benefit them (as opposed to ordering them around). Thus, the resistance to deem new states joining the Union “slave states” threatened Southern white mens’ authority and the structure of their society while also qualifying as government overreach, making secession vital.

It’s important to remember that, throughout the four years of the war, the reasons to keep going evolved. Many Union soldiers wound up interacting with black people to a degree they hadn’t before, strengthening their resolve against the dehumanizing parts of slavery like family separation, while Confederates nursed a growing fear that black people would vengefully brutalize white people if the South lost. To be fair, even Union soldiers who supported abolition didn’t see black people as equal to themselves. Brutality occurs in the way Confederates treated blacks in general AND the way Union soldiers treated their fellow black soldiers.

Highly recommend this enlightening read for anyone who wants to dive deep into this slice of history.

America’s Original Sin by Jim Wallis

This book is a great resource–basically “Racial Justice 101” from a Christian perspective. It delves into systemic racism, white privilege, implicit bias, police brutality, and more. These subjects are very touchy, but Wallis mostly does a good job of coordinating stories, statistics, and biblical lessons to explain/support his points and convict Christian readers. While it felt a bit repetitive at times, that’s understandable with a complex subject. I’m not going to lie; it occasionally felt preachy. But the moments where I felt mentally exhausted came few and far between, thankfully.

I find it commendable that Wallis doesn’t just identify problems but provides solutions, too. Since these topics are so heavy, it’s nice to be given optimism for resolving the issues. Considering that the Christian faith rests on hope in salvation through Jesus, the hope incorporated throughout this book is fitting. For instance, in the chapter on police brutality, he ends with a list of ways that law enforcement officers and the communities they serve can reconcile broken relationships and build trust.

Highly recommend this comprehensive read for those who want to learn more on these topics. I will note that some of my fellow UMW members struggled to swallow it, and to be frank, one should only read this if they are willing to acknowledge that systemic racism exists (or are willing to be uncomfortable/challenged).

Thanks for reading! Do any of these pique your interest? Do you like to read nonfiction? Do you have any recommendations to share? Let me know in the comments.

P.S. I’m behind on comment responses, but thanks to those who leave them. Replies coming soon! 🙂