Against the Loveless World, by Susan Abulhawa

Trigger warning for rape and anti-Semitism.

Everything is political. Some of us are lucky enough that we’re insulated from a lot of the politics. Money and privilege are our safety nets. So, given the awful choices that Nahr has to make in the incendiary Against the Loveless World, by Susan Abulhawa, lead her to become a freedom fighter—or a terrorist, depending on your point of view. Nahr comes from a family of Palestinian refugees who lost most of their land and have been making do in Kuwait, at least until Iraq invades and they find themselves in the middle of an active war zone. As a Palestinian, she is looked down on by other Arabs. She’s been taught to hate the Jews who stole her country. And on top of all of this, her family of mostly women has had to scrap and save for every bit of money. Nahr never had a safety net, with plenty of reasons to grow up angry at the world.

Against the Loveless World unfolds over roughly forty years. When we meet Nahr, she’s in a high-tech prison in Israel. We’re not told until much later why Nahr is in prison or how she got from Kuwait to Israel. To find that out, we go back to Nahr’s adolescence in Kuwait. After expulsion from Israel (which Palestinians call the Nakba, the disaster or catastrophe), Kuwait took in thousands of refugees as guest workers. Nahr falls into sex work because it’s the only way to get enough money to send her brother to university and to support her family. Her terrible experiences with men who take advantage of what they view as paid for and bought add to her simmering rage at the world.

After the first Iraq War, Nahr and her family flee to Amman, Jordan, where she is offered the opportunity to reconnect with her Palestinian heritage. This opportunity also brings her into the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, a bloody forever war between two sides who both believe they have a claim on the same territory and who have committed atrocities against each other. I’ve heard the story of Israel from the Israeli side, as a triumph of the Jewish people after the Holocaust. I can’t recall ever having heard the story from the Palestinian side. I definitely haven’t heard the story told with such fury as Nahr tells it. As Nahr tells us about her life and how she ended up in prison, she doesn’t talk so much about history as she does about Palestinian culture, food, art, and dancing—especially the dancing—and about how remaining Palestinians are holding on to what they have left of their ancestral land and holdings. It’s impossible not to sympathize with Nahr and her family. The difficulty in reading this book is that, as an outsider with some small knowledge of the history, I couldn’t take sides. I could understand Nahr’s actions, but I couldn’t approve of them.

Against the Loveless World is an incredible, but difficult, book to read. It contains so much controversy and hardship that I was grateful for Nahr’s happiest memories. But like so many other difficult books, it’s very much worth readers’ wile to read it. It presents a very human history that we in America don’t hear much, one that we need to hear to fully comprehend the mire of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. It’s also worthwhile because it can show those of us who live comfortable lives what it might be like if we were unlucky enough to be born without a state and without the safety money can provide.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Arabian Journey, by Levison Wood

I’ve realized that I have a deep love of nonfiction accounts of amazing, slightly-crazy journeys. Levison Wood’s An Arabian Journey definitely fits the bill. Wood, a journalist and world traveler, had wanted to follow in the footsteps of Wilfred Thesiger, T.E. Lawrence, and Freya Stark—Europeans who traveled into the Arabian desert and made friendships with Bedouins, Arabs, and the other residents of the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula.

When Wood first floated his idea of walking around the Arabian Peninsula to two friends he wanted to go with him, they told him he was nuts. Not only was he nuts, they told him, but they had proof that the idea could never work. Many of the places Wood wanted to visit during the fall of 2017 were active war zones, had recently been war zones, or were shaping up to possibly war zones in the near future. It would be incredibly dangerous because of all the fighting on top of the fact that the Arabian Peninsula is one of the most hostile environments on the planet. Wood, of course, goes anyway.

An Arabian Journey is an amble of a book, fittingly enough. Wood starts in Syria and Kurdistan, planning to walk “clockwise” around the Peninsula—which of course puts him in the middle of the Syrian Civil War and the lingering fight against ISIL. In each country, Wood travels with a guide/fixer. Some of these, as his guides in Oman and Saudi Arabia, are great. Others, like his cantankerous guide in Iraq, are so awful that Wood regrets even starting out. It didn’t take me long to figure out, based on these detailed sketches of the people he works with and meets, that Wood is as interested in people as he is in the scenery of the desolate deserts and mountains of the Peninsula.

Wood is at his best when he’s talking about that scenery. He loves the empty spaces and wildness and arid danger. He marvels at the flora and fauna of the magical sounding island of Sir Bani Yas and the frankincense trees of western Oman. A lot of his journey is miserable, mostly because his luck in picking guides is dreadful about half of the time. When he has a good guide, like his guides in Oman who hooked him up with good camels, Wood can almost transport you. These passages make up for the parts when Wood is at the mercy of guides who half-ass their way through the desert or who want to scam him out of more money. Wood’s account is completely honest, for good or ill.

An Arabian Journey mostly scratched my itch to travel (via words) to remote places full of history and packed with interesting people and animals. I would never have the gumption to pack up for a long walking tour in my own country, let alone traveling to a place that is so dangerous for so many reasons as Wood did. I’m glad that I got to tag along, in a way—even if there were parts I wish Wood had glossed over. If you have a yen to visit far away places via print, I would recommend An Arabian Journey.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

An Arabian Oryx, one of the many amazing animals Wood saw while hoofing it around the Arabian Peninsula. (Image via Wikicommons)

Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan

Some Palestinians refer to 1948 as al-Nakbah, “the Catastrophe.” That was the year Israel became a state and Palestinians were pushed off of their land to make room. Hala Alyan uses 1948 as the starting point for her novel, Salt Houses. Through chapters narrated by members of one Palestinian family from 1948 to 2014, Alyan shows us what looking back and being rootless can do to a family. And through this family, we can see the effects of losing a homeland on an entire people: the Palestinian diaspora.

Note: I am well aware of the fraught political nature of Israeli and Palestinian history. I will only discuss this in the context of the novel. Further, I would appreciate if readers and commenters only use this space to discuss the book—not the politics.

Salt Houses opens in the early 1960s as Salma, the matriarch of a small family in Nablus, is reading her daughter’s fortune in tea leaves. What she sees in the cup shocks and dismays her. She knows that Alia will have a tough life. So she refuses to tell Alia what she sees. From 1963, the novel jumps to 1965 and Salma’s son, Mustafa. Then on to the 1970s and Alia and her husband. Over the next decades, we will meet Alia’s children and their children. We will go from the former Palestine to Kuwait; Amman, Jordan; Beirut, Lebanon; and Paris.

At one point in the novel, about halfway through, one of the family muses on how nostalgia can be a disease. Throughout the book, characters regret and grow angry over the things they’ve lost. There was always a better time, in another place, that they can’t go back to. Sometimes, that better place and time was in Haifa, Israel, or Nablus or Amman. Sometimes it’s before a beloved family member died. Over time, the family loses their roots. The younger generation grow further and further away from their elders, who can remember their old homeland.

While most of the conflicts in Salt Houses are emotional ones (particularly between mothers and daughters who are so similar they can’t get along), politics and religion are present in the story. Two of the male members of the family are tempted to join terrorist organizations to regain what was taken from them. Terrorism is a shadowy force in the novel, mostly occurring off the page or between chapters. We really only learn of the fallout. The Islam that these two male characters, Mustafa and Abdullah, practice is less important for comfort or understanding as it is a vehicle and justification (through radical imams) for violence.

Alyan is savvy in that she provides more than one view of Islam. For those two men, Islam is spun as a way to take back power—something that is very attractive to men who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they’ve been abused and robbed by the state of Israel. For the women, however, especially Salma and her granddaughter, Riham, we get to see Islam as a personal comfort. Truth to tell, we see more of the women’s belief than the men’s. Through Salma and Riham, Islam becomes a way to talk to god, to see order in the world, and to comfort believers when life is hard. We see the Islam that American media rarely shows.

Not all of the characters in Salt Houses are appealing. One in particular drove me nuts when she showed up on the page. Rather, this book is a subtle depiction of politics, religion, nostalgia, and belonging. I say subtle because many of these topics crept up on me. Now that I’ve finished the book, I find myself thinking about them more–which is always a sign of a good book to me.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 May 2017.