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: Jihadi

9781910633311

Jihadi, by Yusuf Toropov, is not an easy book to get into but will reward the persistent reader with the satisfaction of having consumed an impressive work of literature. The narrative hooks brought to mind the Fibonnaci sequence. After a slow start the plot gathered pace until it was necessary to pause from time to time to absorb the multitude of ideas being conveyed. It is a layered and nuanced study of how society may be manipulated to further a cause.

The book is set out as a memoir written by a treasonous American operative during his incarceration in a secret government facility. The prologue suggests that this man, Ali Liddell, died during his interrogation. His executioner is now reading his words, making notes as they go along.

The notes appear personal and unhinged. The note writer listens to music and finds meaning in the lyrics to fit their desired interpretation, one of the more bizarre elements of the book. Perhaps it demonstrates that any words may be twisted to support an argument.

The story is a jigsaw puzzle. Pieces are offered out of order and must be slotted together until gradually what is being assembled becomes clear. It is set in the Islamic Republic and in America. Murders are planned and carried out in both locations.

Thelonius Liddell is a secret agent who kills on government orders. He has returned to his wife in America following a mission that did not go as planned. He appears to be suffering from something like PTSD. His wife, Becky, has a brain tumour that mimics schizophrenia. Her husband and father have tried to keep this prognosis from her that she may better enjoy whatever time she has left.

Liddell’s mission brought him into contact with a devout follower of Islam named Fatima. Fatima’s pregnant sister, her husband and mother-in-law have recently been killed by a shell fired from an American tank. Another shell killed a toddler and injured his eight year old brother. These events set in motion an uprising within the Islamic City where Fatima lives and works.

The story revolves around the intelligence services on both sides, the soldiers tasked with maintaining order, and the radicals who initiate the uprising. Among the Americans are those who think that any and all Muslims should be killed as they present a threat to civilisation. Among the followers of Islam are those who think that any and all Americans should be killed for similar reasons. It is clear that neither side truly believes in the tenets they espouse but use them to garner support for their cause, believing that the end justifies the means. The end they are looking for may be boiled down to personal gain.

What is being explored is the nature of terrorism and the personal cost to individuals on both sides of the hatred being whipped up by their leaders. This is not a new supposition but is presented in such a raw and compelling framework that it commands careful consideration. It does not, however, read as a political diatribe but rather as a study of humanity. The instinct to preserve, to seek control and to follow the herd are recognisable. There are also moments of humour in the tale – I chuckled at the reference to White Walkers.

Jihadi is strap-lined A Love Story. Just as the reader will question what is right or wrong, good or evil, so they may question what it means to love. Whatever language is spoken or creed followed, to seek to control, to dominate, is to accept submission. Where force is used suffering will follow, and it will not always be the ‘others’ who will suffer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.