Monday, April 19, 2010

Review: Sweet Dates in Basra

Sweet Dates in Basra, by Jessica Jiji, takes place in Iraq during and soon after WWII.  It begins with two best friends- Omar (Muslim) and Shafiq (Jewish- this confused me as Shafiq to me sounds much more like a Muslim name)- whose families live next door to each other and are very close.  One day, running away from trouble, Omar and Shafiq escape into the house of a friend and Shafiq meets the beautiful housemaid, Kathmiya, and their lives are never the same.

The story winds through the remainder of the war, the riots against Jews as the Germans come in, hints at the threats of Communism and the large, unexpected changes that occur in Iraq following the war.  Through it all, Shafiq & Omar's families support each other, and Shafiq & Kathmiya grow closer and closer.  But there is a secret in Kathmiya's past, and Shafiq's future in Iraq is uncertain.


This is one of those books for which I had very mixed feelings.  I really enjoyed getting to know post-WWII Iraq.  I know very little about the country at that time, and it was great to read a story about it.  I also loved that Jiji presented the Muslim and Jewish families as standing so stoically by each other through so much turmoil.  There was never any comment on religion between the two families; there was just complete and utter acceptance and friendship and kindness, which was lovely.  In that way, this book was a large contrast to Mornings in Jenin as there wasn't really any sense of victimization.  Yes, the Jews faced some discrimination, but Jiji also made sure that readers knew that many (if not most) Muslims treated them fairly, and that everyone viewed themselves as Iraqi.

I also liked the way the author showed how completely vulnerable women were in this era and this place.  For example, Shafiq's sister, Marcelle, is introduced via matchmaker to a man that no one likes or trusts.  Marcelle's parents dislike the match and walk away from the marriage.  But then somehow, the would-be-in-laws contrive to get Shafiq's family to attend a party, at which they introduce Marcelle as their future daughter-in-law, and Shafiq's parents stand by and do nothing because it would be too horrible to have a daughter who was "engaged" and then broke it off- no one would want to marry her after such a situation.  So instead, they let her marry a completely corrupt and ridiculous man.

This is pretty horrifying, but it is also in contrast to the very happy marriage between Marcelle's older sister, Leah, and her husband.  And it stands out so much because Marcelle's parents do love and care for her.  They are kind and good people who don't want their daughter to suffer; to them, her ending an engagement would be worse than her marrying such an ingrate.  It was revelatory to see such a situation occur, and to see how helpless Marcelle was in the proceedings.

I think readers were also supposed to feel sympathetic towards Kathmiya, but honestly, I didn't at all.  The entire book, Kathmiya was whining about how her parents won't help her find a husband (even though her mother tries very hard).  Her parents made her leave her marsh home and work as a maid in Basra- she complains about that, ignoring the fact that she is given more freedom and has Shafiq there to be her friend and help her learn how to read and write.  Every time she sees her mother, she complains to her about her single status, and whines and whines and whines.  And her family seems to know a dark secret about her, but Kathmiya doesn't know what it is (though I feel it is fairly obvious).  Honestly, Kathmiya made this book drag for me from the middle to the end.  I started skimming all her sections because she annoyed me so much.

I wish there had been more Omar in the story as the children all grew older.  He was just the sort of solid, kind and understanding person everyone wants around.  Exactly the sort of friend I'd want- especially as he seemed always to have an excellent Khalil Gibran quote to share when things got tough.

Overall, I enjoyed learning more about Iraq and the Middle East through this book, but I definitely started skimming quite a bit in the second half, and I never warmed to Kathmiya.

This review is based on an advanced reader's copy.  I received this book for free to review.

26 comments:

  1. I wonder if I would warm to Kathmyia. I'm very interested in reading this book, so I hope that I will.
    The whole Muslim/Jewish best friend thing sounds like it could make for a very interesting story. And I know that I would enjoy learning more about the middle east.

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  2. Sounds interesting, if not brilliant. Any man who can quote Gibran, fictional or not, is appealing.

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  3. Hm, I'm kind of anti-whining right now, but this sounds interesting otherwise. LOVE the cover. I think I'll have to think this one over and maybe give it a try at a later time. (ie when I haven't just been reading an angst-and-whine-ridden book)

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  4. I really do think that Iraq is somewhere that I need to learn more about. I don't tend to venture down that route during my reading.

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  5. Sounds good, but too bad she was whiny, I am not a fan of whiny women

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  6. Sometimes a novel is good for introducing a new subject, but not a great novel. When that happens I always add the non-fiction sources you sometimes find in the acknowledgements to my reading list (although getting round to reading them is another matter). That character does sound so whiny, not sure I could stand her.

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  7. Brizmus- That's what drew me to the book initially, too.

    Claire- Agreed :-) I have to read Gibran at some point!

    Amanda- I think the cover has changed designs. This isn't the one I have on my ARC.

    Vivienne- Neither do I! Neither do most, I'll bet.

    Blodeuedd- Same!

    Jodie- That's a good point. I may have to try to find something else more interesting for me.

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  8. Oh no! I am sorry to hear that Kathmiya was so whiny! The book does intrigue me, and I am looking forward to reading it, but I am pretty sure that I will be skipping the whiny bits as well. It does sound like it's got a lot of potential, so I will have to see what I make of it. Wonderful and honest review. I always appreciate the honesty!

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  9. I think I am interested in this book. The themes it explores sound captivating, and like you, I would love to explore post WW2 Iraq as well. The issues you mentioned are likely to bother me too. But I'll still give it a try.

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  10. Argh, I'm angry just reading your recap of what happens to Marcelle :\ That's absolutely horrifying.

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  11. Sounds like an interesting book, although I think I'd be in the mood to read it later rather than immediately.

    Incidentially, pre-Israel, there actually were a lot of Iraqi Jews so I'm not sure that the name "Shafiq" is actually an odd choice for an Iraqi Jew character.

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  12. Zibilee- I look forward to chatting about this one with you! I am glad you got it to read, too :-)

    Aths- Yes, I think it is worth a try, as it's one of the few books I've seen that explores this region at this time.

    Nymeth- I know! It was so disturbing.

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  13. Until you got in to your thoughts on the book I thought this looked like an incredible book. It's too bad that Kathmiya's character is so whiny - that would turn me off as well.

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  14. This sounds like something I'd enjoy. I don't know anything about the history of Iraq before our country first went to war there in 1991. That's really kind of sad.

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  15. I am interested in reading this, even if it does have an official "Heroine that annoys me" in it :)

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  16. You've left me undecided on whether or not I want to read this. :p

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  17. Like Eva, now I'm not so sure about this one. I love the concept, but the whininess? Meh.

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  18. too bad. It sounded interesting until i read the part about the end dragging. Good concept though

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  19. Amy- Yes, but maybe she wouldn't annoy you?

    Stephanie- I don't even know about the 1991 war, so you're ahead of me!

    Sudha- Figures ;-) You're always so contrary!

    Eva & softdrink- I myself am undecided on whether I liked it!

    bookmagic- Yes, it's definitely a good topic.

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  20. Too bad you found her whiny - I read her more as desperate, since she would be forever lonely if she didn't get to get married (we know what happened to the girl who had a love affair without being married...). It's not like she could make a match for herself either - culture prevented that. Also, she didn't want freedom, she wanted to be at home, so being sent away was the worst ever punishment for her.

    I had more problems with the first part of the book where I was confused about the characters - I should have made a diagram over all the families! LOL!

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  21. Eva- She was definitely desperate, but she was also very passive about her situation. I suppose her culture kept her from making a match, but the way she just kept railing at her mother every time they saw each other got pretty exhausting.

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  22. I love reading books like this about other cultures, especially if they are from a woman's point of view. I could see how reading about one character's whining would get annoying after a while.

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  23. True - I guess I was more upset with her situation in society than with her as such, so I didn't think of it too much. And, I thought her mum had quite a bit of blame, maybe... :)

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  24. I had such high hopes for this one and I'm disappointed to see it doesn't live up to them.

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  25. Sounds like a lot going on ... but if you can't really warm up to the main character, that is a problem!

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  26. This sounds like a really interesting book, though the issue you had about Kathmiya sounds like it would bother me as well, but it still seems like a both worth trying out. Thanks for the review!

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