Jiji tackles the different cultural and religious groups in Iraq in the 1940's in this historical novel. The main character, Kathmiya, is a Marsh Arab who has been sent away by her unfeeling, alcoholic father and who must work as a maid to a wealthy family in the city of Basra. Kathmiya longs to be married and to live in the marshes with a husband like her sister and she doesn't understand why her father will not arrange this for her. Several abortive trips to matchmakers leave her knowing that this option, for some hidden reason, is not likely to come true any time soon. So in her loneliness, Kathmiya strikes up a friendship with Shafiq, the young brother of her mistress. Their friendship would be forbidden if it became known as Shafiq is an Iraqi-Jew and Kathmiya a Marsh Arab. But their budding relationship is not the only cross-cultural relationship in the book. Shafiq's family is also very close to their Muslim next door neighbors and in fact Shafiq's best friend is Omar, the son of that family.
As World War II and its ideology starts to invade the Middle East, the balance of political power shifts, leaving Shafiq's Jewish family, with one son an ardent Zionist and another a Communist, vulnerable. Jiji has drawn a convincing picture of individual people who look beyond religion and tradition to the human-ness of friendship and love without drawing unrealistic outcomes. The tension of the growing feelings between Shafiq and Kathmiya are reflected in the growing tensions of the political situation. But the story is not about the overall politics, it is about the individuals, Shafiq and Kathmiya, Shafiq and Omar, Jewish family and Muslim family, and there is no way to stop the unraveling dictated by culture and difference. The ending is earned and the exposed secrets, while personally explosive, haven't changed the time-honored way of life. It is clear, in reading this book and being given a peek into the diverse cultures in Iraq, just what some of the still smoldering tensions are and how their roots extend deeply into the past.
This novel doesn't, perhaps, have the power of several others set in the Middle East but set at such a different time frame, which might account for the muting of the impact, it adds to the understanding of what comes afterwards. There are quite a few characters to keep track of in this. And in the beginning it is rather difficult to keep them all straight and to understand their relationship to each other but the difficulty eventually eases as the story focuses in closer on the major plotlines. Kathmiya is definitely the best developed of the characters and her motivations are all clear as a bell whereas the other characters remain murkier. Overall, a good story, this is one that will appeal to book clubs wanting to read about the Middle East beyond The Kite Runner.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.