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.