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sarah10409 "sarah10409" (Manchester, UK)

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Sarmada
Sarmada
by Fādī ʿAzzām
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.64

3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but overstates its gender claims, 17 July 2012
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This review is from: Sarmada (Paperback)
Fadi Azzam's Sarmada is the first book from the new Swallow Editions imprint at Arabia Books, and was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (although it didn't make the shortlist). The brainchild of Syrian-German author Rafik Schami, Swallow launches unpublished titles in Arabic and English on a not-for-profit basis. It's an exciting and important development in making new writing from the Arab world available to readers in English. So what of the venture's inaugural novel?

Well, let's get the sex out of the way first, shall we?

Sarmada has attracted some comment from readers and reviewers for its explicit sex scenes. There are a number of these, some quite protracted and graphic. They are probably no more frequent or explicit than in many Western novels, but a lot more so than in most fiction (at least in translation into English) emanating from the Arab world. I don't intrinsically have a problem with this - most of Azzam's scenes are perfectly well-written and shift tone according to their context and purpose. A few descend into mildly amusing metaphors - "His fingers began to climb up her ivory thighs like a flock of hungry goats" - but there are no real contenders for the Bad Sex Awards.

My main problem with the book's sexual content is, however, this: Sarmada is being promoted as a book in which women take centre stage. The profile page on Arabia Books' website describes the book thus: "Three women struggle against the forces of society, family, and passion in a small Druze village... Druze women are expected to marry a Druze man, settle down, and have children, and there's no forgiving those who step out of line. And yet some brave souls still do. Some women risk their lives to follow their hearts and Sarmada is their story". The cover blurb says that "The stories... are told and re-told by the women who live there, who are both its protagonists and its protectors..."

Given the centrality of women to the book, however, the sex scenes are disappointingly permeated by male fantasy rather than female reality. Sometimes this is fairly harmless: both Farida and Buthayna, for instance, manage to achieve uncountable multiple orgasms with unpractised young lovers who in the real world would be more likely to leave an older woman surprised at their energy but exasperated at their unskilled fumblings. Sometimes it is more sinister, as in one of the key sex scenes, when the male partner forces anal sex on a woman, "ignoring her pleas. `Stop! You're hurting me. Stop!'". If this was a description of a non-consensual act which was appropriate to the plot, fair enough. But no - the woman in question then decides she is enjoying it. Azzam seems to have bought straight into the myth of the woman who `says no but means yes'. It's a dangerous development in a supposedly pro-women novel, as well as being a tediously antiquated view of female sexuality.

Some readers may feel to deal at length with the book's sexual content just betrays my own obsessions. Perhaps. But there is a lot of sex in Sarmada - not just between people of various genders, but also involving trees, animals, solo acts, books, kitchen implements and public rites of passage. Azzam seems to see it as an underlying force driving much of what goes on in his fictional village. So how it's portrayed, and the power relationships revealed by it, are significant.

The attitudes which seep out in the scene described above go, perhaps, beyond the bedroom. While the blurb makes it sound as if the female protagonists will be women who challenge the strictures of village life, in the end those who do break the rules pay the price. Hela voluntarily returns in the knowledge that she will be killed for running away with her lover; Farida, remembered with fondness by the village men whose sexual enlightenment she provided but who pines over her wayward son, seeks to eradicate her own sexuality in an act of extreme self-injury. Sarmada's publicity claims for its female `protagonists and protectors' the status of `brave souls', but to be female in Sarmada seems rather to mean a life of passivity and pain. Men - whether Azaday the beautiful, mysterious Algerian traveller from the beginning of the book or Bulkhayr the longed-for son at the end - can, at least to some extent, leave (and while women's fate seems bound up with their lost loves, Bulkhayr escapes his sexual entanglement with Buthayna by falling in love with Rimbaud instead). But those women who try to go are inexorably drawn back to suffer their punishment - violent death for Hela, or lonely depression for Buthayna. Even small acts of female routine are tied up with love and pain: "The two women sat together in the evening after Bulkhayr had settled into bed and decided to have a sugaring party to get rid of their unwanted hair, as a parallel means of washing themselves clean of love's burnt-up gunk and purifying themselves in depilatory pain".

Despite that extended criticism, Sarmada is worth the read. If one can transcend the dubious gender politics (anyone searching for stories of Levantine village life from an explicitly female perspective would be better off starting with, for example, Fadia Faqir's Pillars of Salt), Sarmada is an intriguing exploration of sectarian identity, memory and the slowly-encroaching impacts of modernity on rural life. The Druze faith is not one often depicted in fiction available in English (we can only hope that Sarmada's fellow IPAF long-listee, Rabee Jaber's The Druze of Belgrade, gets translated too), and although Azzam is sometimes a little clunky in his expositions, few Western readers might otherwise encounter Druze concepts of reincarnation or the practice of Seeing Marriage.

As Robin Yassin-Kassab noted in his review of Sarmada in The Independent, Azzam's depiction of his mythical village owes a certain amount to the magical realism of Garcia Marquez, with its strange physical deformities. The sweep through several generations is reminiscent of the likes of 100 Years of Solitude, whilst the structure of the early part of the book, centred on Hela's murder, pays homage to Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Although Azzam does refer to events such as Syria's wars with Israel and incorporates some (at times rather heavy-handed) political metaphors, the magical realist style reinforces the idea of Sarmada as a village existing out of ordinary time and space, where the extraordinary and the ordinary co-exist and overlap.

The name of the book and the village refers to ideas of immutability and permanence, and behind the passionate and often bloody events of Sarmada there is a strong sense of the mountains, weather patterns, trees and rocks over which human actions brush like the dusty wind of the nearby plains. The structure of the first two-thirds of the novel, which punctuates the increasingly bizarre history of the village with the narrator's text-message interactions with the outside world, heightens the isolation. Sadly the bagginess of the final portion loses this juxtaposition, as well as much of the book's sense of coherence. But despite a few spurious attempts to present Sarmada as a novel of the `Arab Spring', Azzam's portrait of Sarmada's sceptical, long-suffering villagers is a deeper and more complex look at a this corner of Syrian society than any attempt to find a newsworthy hook could imply.

[Sarah Irving is a freelance writer and editor. This review first appeared on her website]


Read and Write Arabic Script (Learn Arabic with Teach Yourself) (TY Beginner's Scripts)
Read and Write Arabic Script (Learn Arabic with Teach Yourself) (TY Beginner's Scripts)
by Mourad Diouri
Edition: Paperback
Price: 19.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Useful companion to general Arabic textbooks, 1 Mar 2012
Like the first reviewer, I've used this book as an additional resource to more general Arabic textbooks. Most of these tend to use just one or maybe two styles of Arabic script, so a book concentrating on script is a useful way of seeing how other fonts and styles of writing may look very different to someone new to the alphabet. For those new to the Arabic alphabet, it's also useful to have exercises and examples specifically aimed at developing good handwriting practice, and I found that working my way through this book speeded up and improved my own handwriting, which then made other written exercises easier and more satisfying. I would, however, agree with the first reviewer that some examples of ordinary Arabic handwriting would also be useful, especially in illustrating the ways in which many native writers/speakers skip some aspects of formal writing such as tanweens, the dots on final ya or writing 'seen' as a straight line.


1 2 3 Soleils
1 2 3 Soleils
Price: 17.44

5.0 out of 5 stars What a great album..., 23 Jun 2010
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This review is from: 1 2 3 Soleils (Audio CD)
I'm not always a fan of live albums, but this is beautifully recorded and feels incredibly atmospheric - being in that hall must have been amazing! The version of Abdel Kader is one of the most infectious pieces of music I've ever heard. Brilliant stuff.


Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation
Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation
by Eyal Weizman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 17.62

11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful and essential, 23 Jun 2010
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This is an incredible book. It's hardly a snappy read, and it's frustrating that Verso insist on only publishing it in hardback, making it even weightier and more expensive, but it's worth every moment and penny. In cool, lucid prose Weizman describes not the direct, bloody violence of, for instance, Sharyn Lock's Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, but the precise, insidious ways in which the Israeli state, its forward troops, the right-wing settlement movement, and corporate interests such as the Orange mobile phone company have colluded to appropriate Palestinian land and reduce the West Bank, the supposed basis of a 'two-state solution' into a tattered fragment of land. Depressing stuff, but this book is vital reading for anyone who wants to understand the recurrent failures of US/UK-supported 'peace processes.'


Palestine with Jerusalem (Bradt Travel Guides)
Palestine with Jerusalem (Bradt Travel Guides)
by Henry Stedman
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good coverage but out of date, 23 Jun 2010
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It was great to find a conventional travel guide for this area, but having been published before the beginning of the Second Intifada in autumn 2000 this version is now out of date on a lot of things - no Separation Wall and few settlements in this version! Bradt seem to be planning a new version, so watch this space...
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 8, 2012 11:40 AM GMT


Rock El Casbah - The Best Of
Rock El Casbah - The Best Of

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great starting place, 30 April 2010
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I discovered Rachid Taha through the 'Rock the Kasbah' compilation album of a whole range of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African artists. This Taha 'best of' covers a wide range of his output, and is a great place for someone new to this amazing performer to figure out which eras and albums they might want to explore next.


Alabama (Live)
Alabama (Live)
Price: 0.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Completely beautiful, 3 Feb 2010
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This review is from: Alabama (Live) (MP3 Download)
I'm not a big jazz fan, but this lament for the girls killed by white racist bombers in 1963 at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was played at an event on jazz and the civil rights movement and I was blown away. It's a devastatingly sad and beautiful piece.John Coltrane: Jazz, Racism and Resistence: the Extended Version
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 8, 2010 7:22 PM GMT


Potters Antitis 84 tabs
Potters Antitis 84 tabs

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A work of genius..., 26 April 2009
This stuff is fantastic - I'm a bit sceptical of a lot of herbal remedies but this stuff clears up cystitis fantastically fast and without the side effects of antibiotics. Couldn't live without it.


My Brother's Road
My Brother's Road
by Markar Melkonian
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.70

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving, balanced, insightful, 11 Mar 2009
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This review is from: My Brother's Road (Paperback)
I bought this book by chance, partly because I'm interested in the injustices inflicted on the Armenian people by the Turkish state during WWI but also by subsequent states, such as the refusal of the Israeli state to acknowledge the Armenian genocide and the problems faced by Jerusalem's Armenian population. And partly because I'm currently working on my own book, a biography for Pluto Press of Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled (who makes a very small cameo appearance in this book), so other people's biographical treatment of militant political activists is very relevant to my own tasks.
I was, however, surprised and delighted with how readable and moving I found Markar Melkonian's account of his brother's life. He by no means condones much of the terrorism carried out by pro-Armenian movements during the 1970s and 1980s, but as many books fail to do places it in a proper context. I've never seen the point of outright condemning armed struggle without some kind of attempt at understanding what drives it - how can we hope to build peace without finding out what makes people desperate enough to carry out appalling acts against other human beings? Melkonian never glamourises his brother's acts and honestly depicts the agonies Monte went through over some of his earlier, most violent and unforgiveable actions. He also gives an honest account of the painful splits and power-seeking, corrupt behaviour that often grows within movements which profess progressive aims.
I'd recommend this books to anyone who wants to broaden their knowledge of radical armed politics in the 70s and 80s, or of the complexity of the Middle East and its many repressed peoples, or of the forces which drive some people to sacrifice everything - including their lives - for causes which to many in our post-modern lives might seem antiquated and outdated.


Some of Us Did Not Die: The Selected Essays of June Jordan
Some of Us Did Not Die: The Selected Essays of June Jordan
by June Jordan
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly inspirational, 20 Oct 2002
A friend read me the opening essay to this collection, and I cried my eyes out, but also felt terrifically strengthened and encouraged by June's words. As a Brit with an acute awareness - and first-hand experience - of the atrocities committed by the USA throughout the world, to hear the words of such an amazing woman, who spent her entire life fighting the inequalities of the American system both at home and abroad, on the subject of September 11th, was an incredibly important experience. It gave a subtlety to my understanding of that world-changing event that should be acknowledged by people on all sides of the war/terrorism debate. And the other essays in the book - some of them new, some of them compiled from June's other works - together provide an emotionally, intellectually and politically beautiful and vital portrait of the ways in which one women struggled to make the world a better place, and a valuable insight for anyone seeking to follow in her footsteps, and well as an invaluable picture, at times chilling or heartening, of US society. An honourable memorial to a great woman.


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