Book Review: Dancing in the Mosque

dancing in mosque

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Dancing in the Mosque is a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up in Afghanistan during the war with Russia and then under severe oppression by the Taliban. Interspersed with details of her childhood, teenage years, marriage and eventual emigration are letters written to her son. The child was forcibly removed from Homeira by his father while still an infant, and the author’s motherhood revoked by the courts. Women have few rights in this riven country. Any abuse they suffer – and the abuse detailed here is both shocking and horrific – is blamed on their existence and behaviour.

For all that women in the UK complain about how they are treated by some men – and in saying this I do not deny that much could be improved – this book brings home how privileged we are that, thanks to the accident of birth, we live in a place where freedom and equality are still mostly aspired to. From an early age Homeira was aware that she and her sisters were not valued as highly as their brothers. The stories told to girls in childhood encouraged them to be quietly compliant and follow the rules that oppressed them. Boys, on the other hand, were told stories of adventure, hunting and exciting feats of derring-do.

“My grandmother believed that one of the most difficult tasks that the Almighty can assign anyone is being a girl in Afghanistan”

The war with Russia provided the scaffolding within which the author’s childhood was experienced. Her extended family lived together, as was tradition, and regularly retreated to the basement when aerial bombardment and tank attack caused further destruction to already badly razed infrastructure. Some family members went off to fight. Others became casualties of the regular, local gun attacks.

Homeira has always been something of a rebel, sneaking outside to see what was going on despite the danger. She climbed trees with her brother, the family prince who would mock and berate her. Although fearful for where such behaviour might lead, she received support from her parents, including when she wanted to write stories. There were books in their home until banned by the Taliban.

The tales recounted of deaths are obviously distressing but I found it harder to read of the abuse Homeira suffered at the hands of men. Girls were encouraged or compelled to stay at home, venturing out only when absolutely necessary and then chaperoned by a male relative. As a young teenager and at great personal risk, the author set up a secret school to try to tackle the growing illiteracy problem amongst children denied access to an education. She also wished to pursue her own writing and needed help with this. Even shrouded in her burqa she was regarded as a legitimate target by random male predators.

“I know that Islam has been turned into an instrument of retribution. It has been turned into a stone with which to strike people, especially women.”

As in so many religious organisations, the so called holy men were able to abuse children sent to them for indoctrination. It was necessary for boys to give witness statements if this behaviour became too blatant as female voices were not listened to. Silence and docility were required of them, with severe punishments meted out for non compliance.

“Your mother’s name does not appear in any paper document. My son, in your motherland the mentioning of a woman’s name outside the family circle is a source of shame.”

Afghanistan is portrayed as a beautiful country populated by a people who follow hate filled rules and traditions. What few freedoms a young girl may enjoy are curtailed once her breasts begin to show – her body is a source of shame that must be kept hidden. Girls are required to marry soon after they become capable of bearing children. Only their boy babies are valued. Polygamy is accepted as a right men may exercise.

“Do you know how painful it is to hear that even my own family members consider you “his” son and not mine? Do they mean to hurt me, or are they just victims of the law and the patriarchal traditions?”

Mention is made of the high suicide rate among young Afghan women. Homeira was witness to the self-immolation of friends. Despite all this she pursued her own activism and education, determined to write her stories and have them published under her own name.

The reader is told early in the story that the author now lives in America. Her journey to here – via Kabul, Herat, as a refugee and then student over the border in Iran before returning to Kabul – focuses on her early life and then marriage, with a brief, wider biography provided at the end. This paperback edition includes an afterword written after the Taliban returned to power in 2021.

“Like millions of others, I helplessly watched as our country fell to the dark forces inch by inch and we could not do a thing about it.”

There are certain gaps in this memoir – people mentioned whose outcomes are not detailed, and how Homeira adapted to life as an immigrant. What comes through powerfully though is the damage wreaked when females are treated as chattels to be subdued or disposed of. The author may have survived rebellious behaviour but at lasting cost.

Any Cop?: This is an important work in raising understanding of the everyday suffering of those routinely oppressed and undervalued by family and the society in which they must live. It provides a bitter indictment of what Islamic faith has been twisted into. A memoir that is both fascinating and disturbing.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Godsend

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Killing our fellow human beings in the name of some religious teaching has been going on for as long as man has believed in one of the many gods available. Holy books may talk of compassion but they also endorse punishment for those who break their rules. It suits the arbiters when followers live their lives in fear of how they will be treated after death. Religion is about power in the here and now.

Godsend explores the skewed thinking of believers who are willing to kill and die for their god. It opens in California where we are introduced to eighteen year old Aden Grace Sawyer. Aden is angry with the small world she knows, especially how it has been treating her. Recently divorced, her parents view her subsequent conversion to Islam as a petty rebellion against their indecorous behaviour. They do not understand that Aden is using her faith to fill a void and give life purpose.

Aden’s father is a professor of Islamic studies and introduced his daughter to the religion, teaching her Arabic and how to read the Qur’an. He often talked of his time abroad as a young man learning in a madrassa. Aden has informed him that she plans to travel to the Emirates to do the same. Online she met a boy, Decker, and has arranged the trip with him. Unbeknown to her parents, their destination is a school in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. As a female, Aden would not be permitted to study in this place so she has cut off her hair and will present herself as a boy. She will become Suleyman Al-Na’ama.

Aden leaves America with no plans to return as she wishes to live in a country ruled by fellow believers. On arrival she shocks Decker by telling him they will no longer have sex. She strives to follow doctrine yet must hide behind the falsehood of her disguise. Keeping this secret grants Decker power.

Both Aden and Decker are naive but determined. They claim not to wish to become involved in the fighting over the border but under new influences this will change. Aden seeks an acceptance from others that has, in her short life thus far, eluded her. She doesn’t yet understand that as an American she will never truly be trusted in Afghanistan. If uncovered as a girl here she will, at the very least, be treated as a chattel.

The layers of the story explore the hypocrisy of believers as they cherry-pick which rules to adhere to. There are rivalries and jealousies as they seek personal glory or revenge. The jihadists regard America as depraved and impious. They are willing to die for a cause that they continue to sin against.

In a searing coming-of-age Aden learns that, despite her willingness to comply, she is as alone and derided in Afghanistan as she was in America. Her dreams of escaping the influences of her home country are violently shattered.

“- This war has nothing to do with America, she managed to stammer.
– There is no such war anywhere on earth, Suleyman, the captain said quietly. – America itself has seen to that.”

The calm and beauty to be found in religious observance is shown to be a veneer for intolerance. The pared down prose avoids the rhetoric and hysteria often associated with radicalisation and terrorism. The rhythm and pacing of the story take the reader on a deftly written adventure with a heart in mouth denouement.

Any Cop?: It is a tale to challenge perceptions of morality and its imposition.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: What Will Remain

whatwillremain

What Will Remain, by Dan Clements, is ‘a war novel born out of the author’s own experiences of serving with the Royal Marines in Afghanistan’. It is visceral writing. The opening pages left me feeling punched in the gut, as I did watching the opening sequence of the film Saving Private Ryan. It is uncompromising and stunningly portrayed.

Told in the first person, the book consists of a series of vignettes which bring to life the daily challenges faced by foot soldiers serving on the front line of a battlefield far from all they have previously known. The men are on patrol, under attack, holed up in camps, coping with the death and disfigurement of comrades. There is fear, exhaustion, boredom and necessary camaraderie. This is no boy’s own flavour of war. Life on both sides of the conflict is debased.

Soldiers are trained to follow orders over instinct. Their mindsets must be altered to overcome primordial, life preserving fear. Once this has been achieved it is little wonder that they return home damaged. To move on they may need to put those they experienced such hell with aside. The shared memories can bring back unbearable pain.

“there are only these pieces left to me, scattered and disordered and incomplete, troubled orphan memories that find no solace in the grand old stories.”

The foot soldiers are directed by officers, disparaged by many for their remove from deadly action. When an act of heroism is picked out as worthy of honour, discomfort is felt. The hollow proclamations of the world mean little beside “every small and careful and honest thing that truly was accomplished, and at such awful cost.” If a soldier accepts a public honour must he also accept authorship of the rest?

Mention is made of how the Afghans treat their women, expecting them to stay at home to serve their husband and family. Afghan men have no qualms about claiming the right to beat their wives. I found it ironic that the soldiers valued their pornography and gifted each other posters of topless women with large breasts. They too regarded females as objects existing for their gratification.

Yet how can we who have never been made to experience war judge how those on the front line should behave? If their actions appear degenerate is it them or what they are forced to endure? By the end of the book the protagonist has returned to England, first to recuperate from injury and then to rejoin society. These later stories demonstrate how hard such adjustments can be.

The war poets express the futility of such conflicts. This tale brings home the mental as well as physical damage caused to individuals who chose to fight for their country, perhaps not understanding what soldiering would entail. Families who took pride in their partner or offspring’s achievements struggle to deal with them once returned. To cope the soldiers must try to forget.

“As a child you know nothing. As an adolescent you know everything. And the rest of your life is that slow, difficult process of unlearning all those things you once thought you knew.”

A searing depiction of war that challenges the popular notion of bravery. This is a challenging and captivating read.