• Shia Revival by Vali Nasr *** (of 4)

    The first two chapters were so densely packed with Islamic history I am almost gave up on the book, but am so glad I didn’t. Nasr provides the clearest explanation of events in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia of anyone I’ve read and does it primarily by describing the 1400 year conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. At the end of the book I felt I knew more about Middle Eastern politics than most of Bush’s advisors and half the U.S. media. That shouldn’t be taken as faint praise. The only caveat is that the writing is dense, textbookish, but well worth the effort. The book isn’t too long, either. December 2006.

  • The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright **** (of 4)

    You know at the beginning the story will end with planes flying into the World Trade Center, but Wright’s recounting makes the book a suspenseful thriller, nonetheless. His explanation of the rise of Al Qaeda from the writings of a disgruntled Egyptian expatriate to Osama provide context hard to find in the media. The psychoanalysis of Osama and his cult-like followers is especially insightful. March 2007.

  • Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village by Elizabeth W. Farnea ** (of 4)

    In the late 1950’s Elizabeth Farnea’s new husband traveled to a small rural village in southern Iraq to do graduate research on an irrigation project. Farnea was relegated to life with the women and thankfully recorded her observations of how women completely veiled by clothing, secluded behind walls, and hidden inside houses lived with one another and their multitude of children. It must be one of the first books to think women’s stories are worth telling. Moreover, I suspect that for many rural, Muslim women life has not changed dramatically in the intervening fifty years. The strength of the book lies in its cracking open the stereotypes and Farnea’s revelations of the individual personalities behind those veils. The fact the book has been reprinted and is still available is testament to its insight. March 2006.

  • A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini *** (of 4)

    A bottomless well of hopelessness, despair and background warfare in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion of the 80s through the American invasion post 9/11. Seen through the eyes of two women who lose nearly everything they can imagine either blown to bits around them or whose common husband senselessly beats them. And yet. Hosseini’s crystaline writing and, in my case, Atossi Leoni’s heart wrenching reading simultaneously suffocated and repelled me. I wanted to stop the pain, but could not turn away; instead I lay awake for nights praying for salvation for Leilo and Miryam, two women who endured. December 2007

  • The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra ** (of 4)

    A poetically written account of life under the Taliban extremists of Kabul Afghanistan. It’s written by an Algerian, not an Afghani, with a self-described vendetta against extremist Muslims. The story wrings true enough compared to news reports, but is utterly depressing. All four main characters, two men, two women, go crazy and die horrible deaths at the hands of the Taliban. November, 2004.

  • Snow by Orhan Pamuk ** (of 4)

    Ostensibly there is a plot based on the return of a Turkish exile to his small eastern hometown where the national debate about the politicization of women’s headscarves has reached a murderous pitch. Secularists and Islamists vie for supremacy while teenage girls commit suicide unable to bear the pressure placed literally on their heads. But the story is Absurdist. Characters appear and vanish without reason. Their thoughts and actions illogical, unpredictable, and without respect for the hours of the day, at least as we consider time in the West. Pamuk may have won the Nobel Prize, but after 200 pages I was too lost, smothered by the protagonists’ despair, and frustrated to continue. Febuary 2009.

  • Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz *** (of 4)

    A larger-than-life father, a household dictator, terrifies his 1920s Cairo household into submitting to his divine will. Divine, in the sense, that his actions are supported by the expectations and practices of Islam. His wife is so subservient, neither she nor her two daughters, have left the house for twenty-five years. Yet, Dad, as strict as he is spends his evenings drinking and carousing with women. While he is gone his three sons make their way in the world and share their visions with the women of the house. If strict Islamic domination of women and children is hard to bear, Mafhouz’s detailed descriptions of life in the house and on the blocks surrounding it in Cairo in the 1920s are so luridly painted I have to believe that his family descriptions must be equally accurate. Written in 1965 before political correctness might have softened his writing, the book works as living history. Despite a somewhat stodgy translation I can see how Mahfouz is destined to become a Nobel laureate. August 2008.

  • The Attack by Yasmina Khadra **** (of 4)

    The Arab wife of a Bedouin Israeli physician straps a bomb to her waist and blows up a restaurant where Israeli children are celebrating a birthday party. The shocked physician, after performing emergency surgery on the survivors, embarks on an investigation to learn how his wife arrived at her decision. Khadra makes us compare the life of a successful Arab doctor, feted by Israeli establishment, his wife who has been given everything by her husband’s success except the capacity to live fully freely in Israeli society. Khadra’s entrance into the minds of suicide bombers emerges clearly even after the book has been translated from its original French. March 2007.