Books open our minds to the Middle East

Fort Worth Star Telegram, TX
July 20 2008

Books open our minds to the Middle East

By ELIZABETH AGNVALL- Special to the Star-Telegram

They stare at me accusingly each time I walk into the basement, with
their straight spines and serious covers: Vali Nasr’s The Shia
Revival, William Roe Polk’s Understanding Iraq, Akbar Ahmed’s Journey
Into Islam. Excellent books. Highly recommended.

For several months they lay impressively on my bedside table, but then
I piled the books I was actually reading on top of them and one day ‘
in a fit of tidying ‘ I moved them to the basement bookshelf.

I pulled them off the shelves several times, but I find it tough to
read about places in books where I read daily about dead mothers,
sons, soldiers and children in the newspaper. And yet I feel an
obligation to learn something about these far-away places that are now
such an intricate part of our lives. Not just Iraq, but Iran, Turkey,
Afghanistan and Pakistan. The places capable of raising people who are
willing to kill themselves to kill thousands of others; the places
where some of our deepest prejudices are now aimed.

So I started searching for books that could help me understand the
culture and context of these lands without needing to work my way
through thousands of years of history.

I started with a book given to me as a gift: The Bastard of Istanbul
(Viking, $24.95) by Elif Shafak. It tells the story of a family of
women in Istanbul: two grandmothers, four sisters and one daughter who
live in relatively chaotic harmony. One of the sisters, the beautiful
and unorthodox Zeliah Kazanet, is the mother to 19-year-old Asya, a
devotee of Johnny Cash and existentialism who does not know the
identity of her father.

Asya is also raised by her three aunts: Banu, a devout Muslim and
soothsayer; Cevriye, a widowed high school teacher and Feride, a
mentally unstable paranoid. The aunts’ brother, Mustafa, left Turkey
as a young man and has never returned, but his stepdaughter,
Armanoush, is obsessed with her Armenian heritage and makes a secret
trip to visit Mustafa’s family.

The fate of the Armenian people in Turkey after WW I is woven into the
book from several points of view. But this isn’t just about the
conflict between Armenians and Turks. It’s about controversies between
mothers and daughter, sisters, lovers and friends. It’s about a
modern-day family in Istanbul where one sister wears the scarf out of
respect for her religion and three think it’s disrespectful to women
to do so. In other words, it’s about life ‘ the same sort of messy,
complicated lives that most of us have.

And in reading Shafak’s book, I think I understand more about Turkish
society and the Armenian mind-set. Yes, a scholarly work might have
given me a more objective point of view, but I wouldn’t have grasped
the culture and conflicts of the people with the same depth.

Shafak, who divides her time between Istanbul and Tucson, Ariz., was
put on trial for this book for "denigrating Turkishness" under Article
301 of the Turkish Penal Code. I wonder if those who judged her really
read the book. Besides the obvious fact that it’s ridiculous to put
someone on trial for anything they’ve written, this work, if anything,
celebrates Turkey in many ways.

Iran and the revolution

In the shadow of disturbing news about possible U.S. conflict with
Iran over nuclear issues, I next picked up The Septembers of Shiraz by
Dalia Sofer, which is about a Jewish family during the Iranian
revolution in 1979. Alcohol became illegal, along with singing,
listening to music and women appearing in public with uncovered
hair. Although Jews were fairly well accepted under the Shah of Iran,
they were now suspect.

Isaac Amin is a jewel dealer who is arrested and imprisoned in 1981’
in the midst of Iran’s war with Iraq ‘ and accused of being a Zionist
spy. Amin’s wife is overwhelmed with fear while searching for him as
his 9-year-old daughter decides to fight back in her own dangerous
way. The family’s son, who is studying in New York, feels trapped and
helpless waiting to hear news of his family.

Sofer was born in Iran and fled the country at the age of 10 to live
in the United States with her family. Sofer’s debut novel is largely
autobiographical. She tells the story from her father’s point of view
and draws on her memories of the land that exiled her.

Like all of us, the characters are complex in their desires,
prejudices and beliefs, in the wrongs and heroics they commit.

In a country where nearly two-thirds of Americans ages 18-24 can’t
find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, even after thousands of
U.S. soldiers have died there, reading books about cultures we are so
ignorant of but that have such a great impact on our lives is a way of
rising above our prejudices and fears.