Nine Parts of Desire

To date, I’ve despised every single one of Geraldine Brooks’ works of fiction – except March, which I haven’t bothered to read – so it’s no wonder that I was cautious about approaching Nine Parts of Desire. At the same time, I was immensely curious as to what a foreigner would have to say about the practices of Islamic society. After all, Brooks combines two extremely provocative subjects in this book: religion, and women.

I’m pretty much ignorant concerning the ways of the Middle East, so at first I wasn’t sure whether to trust Brooks’ authority on Islam. However, I came to realise that there was hardly anything subjective in this book; in fact, the majority of it consists of anecdotes. It’s clear that Nine Parts of Desire has been written for the purpose of dispelling media-projected, stereotyped views of the Middle East.

And it’s inevitable that there are gaps in our understanding of Muslim ideology. One relative of a Muslim woman encouraged her to take part in demonstrations, only to have her condemned by the religious leaders.

“I thought the time was right. Now the cause has been set back ten years – buried under twenty tons of concrete. It’s so easy for peopple like me” – a diplomat’s son raised abroad and educated in America – “to be totally off base about this country and what it is ready to accept.”

But the lack of understanding stretches to more general issues that arise from the practices of Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim countries:

“Rose,” [Brooks] said incredulous, “are you telling me you’ve ruled him out because he had dirty fingernails? For goodness’ sake! You can always clean his fingernails.” She raised her head and gazed at me sadly with her huge dark eyes. “Geraldine, you don’t understand. You married for love. What’s a dirty fingernail on someone you love? But if you are going to marry somebody you don’t love, everything, everything, has to be perfect.”

***

I’d hoped to find something different at Gaza University – perhaps the emergence of an Islamic feminism. Palestinians had always been among the most progressive on women’s issues, and I thought the fusion of that spirit with militant Islam might produce something interesting

But in Gaza, the militants had latched onto a brand of Islamic radicalism that threatened to do worse than set the clock back for Palestinian women. What Majida was proposing had never been part of Palestinian culture. Instead, her ideas were imports: they had “Made in Saudi Arabia” stamped all over them.

What I like most about Nine Parts of Desire is that it is written with heart; something I find lacking in Brooks’ novels. And it’s accessible. I found it an easy and enjoyable read even though I knew nothing about Islam and its customs. Brooks manages to avoid both the “sensational and the stereotypical” by incorporating anecdotal material, and she manages to discern between the teachings of the Koran and the misogyny of many Middle Eastern traditions. Brooks believes that many Muslim men are mysogynistic because they believe they are acting rightfully in the eyes of Allah.

I was baffled by this man’s hypocrisy until I read Naguib Mahfouz’s novel, Palace Walk, in which the main character is a man of strong faith who strictly sequesters his womenfolk, but each night goes out whoring with Cairo’s famous singers. When a sheik chatises him for his fornication, he replies that “the professional women entertainers of today are the slave girls of yesterday, whose purchase and sale God made legal.”

One chapter I detested (‘Whom No Man Shall Have Deflowered Before Me’) concerns another mysogynistic Middle Eastern tradition: clitoridectomy.  The detail made me feel rather squirmish afterwards. But of course there are some beautiful descriptions of everyday life. Have I mentioned that I love bread, and bakeries?

At sunrise, before the heat slams down and the air becomes heavy with diesel fumes, Tehran smells of fresh-baked bread. At neighbourhood bakeries women wait in line with their flowery household chadors draped casually around their waists. Their faces seem less lined than they will look later, as they struggle through the crowded city burdened with parcels and children and the countless worries of women in poor countries.

In the mornings I would find my way to the local bakery by following my nose. The air carried both the sweetness of seared crusts and the tang of woodsmoke from ovens sunk into the bakery floor. Inside, a four-man assembly line blurred in a heat shimmer of deft hands and flying dough. The bakers made lavosh – thin flat sheets of bread soft as tissue.

» Nine Parts of Desire was read as a part of the World Citizen project. Although I still have much to learn about the Middle East, Brooks’ book was a great introduction to the lives of Islam women. Geraldine, you’re alright after all. Why don’t you write fiction like this? Oh wait, I forgot. She does write fiction like it’s journalism, and that’s what makes it so wooden.

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13 thoughts on “Nine Parts of Desire

  1. This sounds like an interesting book. I admit, I liked March (although I thought The Bright Forever was a better book, and should have won the Pulitzer), but I’ve not read anything else by Geraldine Brooks. I have a difficult time reading about women in Islam because it makes me feel so helpless on their behalf.

    1. Priscilla – Hm, the reason why I didn’t read March is because I dislike books that are based off the characters of other books. I reckon they should be left as they are. Anyway, yes, it is an interesting book.

  2. Given that you weren’t a fan of Brooks coming in, I wonder, why did you decide to pick up another one of her books? I haven’t read anything by her, but I was just wondering if it was really the topic that intrigued you this time round, or you felt that you should give her non-fiction writing a try?

    I can definitely see why the chapter that made you squeamish would make you feel that way! Yikes!

    1. Steph – I wasn’t a fan of her fiction, but because she’s first and foremost a journalist (wait, maybe she’s retired now?) I chose to trust her non-fiction. So it would be a bit of both – the topic was intriguing too :)

  3. I wanted to read People of the Book but read your review. This one I wouldn’t have thought of reading, but I can understand why it would fare better with you. Sometimes we’re less harsh with nonfiction because we don’t have to judge the style of writing so much as with fiction. We read nonfiction mostly only for the content, but fiction for the content, also, and then all the other things. I think this is something I’d be interested in reading.

    1. claire – oh no, I hope my review didn’t stop you from reading it! Because I think you’d like a lot of it, particularly the last section, which goes into detail about the creation of the Haggadah (psst, there’s a giveaway of the hardcover edition over at Chain Reader). But I agree that we tend to be less harsh with non-fiction. And the content definitely makes it worth reading.

  4. Haha, actually People of the Book is still in the back of my mind, something that I might get to someday, but because of your review I just didn’t make it a priority anymore. But.. since you mention the giveaway.. I entered in the draw.. haha. Thanks!

  5. I think I might be more harsh with non-fiction than fiction! For the reason that I generally don’t read non-fic, so it has to be REALLY good to get me to stick with it and want to keep reading it. I once tried to read Reading Lolita in Tehran for book club (it’s a memoir, so perhaps it’s not strict non-fiction), and the writing was so atrocious and the author so condescending that I made it 70 pages in, and then vowed to never read anything else by the author. Oh, that book made me so mad!

    1. Steph – hm, well atrocious writing is never excusable! I did feel that at times Brooks was a little patronising, but overall it was quite bearable. Then again, it might be a Sarah Palin. I had such low expectations that I was surprised into being impressed.

      ps. Reading Lolita in Tehran sounds like a dangerous and controversial thing to do. Now I’m all curious about the book!

  6. After Finding Nouf, I was both intrigued and turned off by this subject matter. I’m with Priscilla that I cannot bear to read more about the repression that women suffer. Consider that non-fiction usually doesn’t engage me as easily as fiction does, this book sounds like a good read.

    1. Matthew – One thing Brooks’ book did was that it opened my eyes to the repression. Of course I was aware of it, but it all seemed rather like a faraway myth; something that didn’t concern me. Reading Nine Parts of Desire helped me realise that for so many women, such repression is reality. Haven’t really heard much about Finding Nouf before, but I just read your review of it, and it sounds fascinating – Saudi CSI, sort of :)

  7. You know Reading Lolita in Tehran is a weird book because I know some people really love it. And I don’t get that at all because essentially nothing about it worked for me whatsoever. I can’t recommend that you read it, but if you ever do, expect me to be very vocal in the comments! ;)

  8. Steph, just read a summary of the book on Wikipedia and if the book sounds that great and you disliked it that much – probably means the writing really is atrocious! I think I’ll skip this one …

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