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Book Review: The Stoning of Soraya M.: A Story of Injustice in Iran by Freidoune Sahebjam (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

October 22, 2013 2 comments

Picture of a woman in a niqab.  The title of the book and author's name are in gold and black banners across the top and bottom.

Summary:
Sahebjam, a French-Iranian journalist, was traveling through Iran in the 1980s when he had to stop in a small village.  An elderly woman, Zahra, asked him for tea so she could tell him the story of what happened to her niece, Soraya, mere weeks before.  Sahebjam grants narrative to her tale to get the story of injustice out.

Soraya was a typical rural Iranian woman.  Married to a villager at a young age.  Her husband, Ghorban-Ali, became less and less invested in his family and more and more likely to beat them.  He also became increasingly interested in young women in the city.  When a criminal posing as a mullah comes to town, Ghorban-Ali sees the perfect opportunity to be rid of his wife without any costs of divorce.  He, the mullah, and an easily swayed widower friend corroborate to falsely accuse Soraya of adultery and sentence her to death by stoning.

Review:
Things can easily go awry when the powers of justice are held in the hands of a select few.  A lot rests on whether or not those few are good people.  This book tells that tale, and it tells it movingly, regardless of whether or not all the facts of the story are precisely correct.  The biggest facts are accurate, and that is what matters.

Sahebjam is a French-Iranian journalist.  He thus has both the perspective of insider and outsider, which is the ideal one for a story like this.  He understands the people and the village but he also knows how to present and explain things to the non-Iranian reader.  Sahebjam clearly and honestly states from the beginning that he got this tale from one eyewitness.  Some might argue that this story thus isn’t researched well enough or thoroughly vetted.  It is indeed one eyewitness account passed through an author (and for English speakers, a translator).  But the core of the injustice is verifiable: the handling of adultery in Islam.  Combine this with religion and state being one and the same, and it’s easy to see how if this story didn’t indeed already happen how it could easily come to be.

The first half of the book introduces us to Sahebjam, Zahra (the aunt), and Soraya, as well as the organization of the small town and the adultery laws as followed by fundamentalist Islam.  Sahebjam does a good job introducing all the people and explaining the context of the injustice without overwhelming the reader with info dumping.

Essentially, in Islam, when it comes to adultery, the woman has to do all the proving.

When a man accuses his wife [of adultery], she has to prove her innocence [in Islam]. This is the law. On the other hand, if a woman makes an accusation against her husband, she has to produce proof. (location 1079)

If the woman is wealthy, she can pay off the mullah (think of it as paying a penance in Catholicism).  But:

In most cases the woman [accused of adultery in Iran] is poor—which means she is a virtual slave to her husband. She has no rights, except for the meager right to remain silent. All the husband needs to win his case of infidelity is two eyewitnesses, who are generally friends and accomplices. As for the accused woman, she has to prove her innocence and that is impossible: no one will come to her aid; no one will bear witness on her behalf. (location 129)

Regardless of whether or not Soraya was a real person (and I do believe she was), these are problematic laws that leave the door wide open for abuse by a few corrupt people.  This book demonstrates that danger eloquently.

Sahebjam clearly made a choice to make the tale flow better by giving it some narrative qualities.  He inserts dialogue he clearly wasn’t there to hear, and he even talks about what was going on inside people’s heads.  I didn’t like that he did the latter, especially.  I understand dialogue can help make a nonfiction book flow a bit, and I’m ok with that.  But claiming to know what was going on inside people’s minds turned me off the narrative a bit.  It leaves the door open for criticism of a story that needs to be taken seriously, and I wish he had made other narrative choices.

At first, it is easy to be irritated by Soraya’s choice to remain silent when accused.  She gives up so quickly, one wonder why she never advocates for herself.  But in retrospect, it’s a clear, yet subtle, depiction of what can happen to a victim of abuse over time.  Eventually their spirit is just beaten out of them.  Soraya demonstrates what happens when abused people are left to deal with the abuse and abuser on their own.

Overall, this book highlights the inequality innate is Muslim adultery laws, as well as the dangers of leaving justice to the hands of a few.  The narrative structure doesn’t precisely suit a nonfiction account of an event, but the bones at the core of the injustice are still verifiably true.  Readers who prefer a dry, precise nonfiction might not be able to look past the narrative structure.  Those who can will find a moving tale of how easy it is for injustice to take over a community.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: The Rabbi’s Cat 2 by Joann Sfar (Series, #2) (Graphic Novel)

People sitting around a fire with a cat and a lion.Summary:
The talking cat with the big ears who offers insightful commentary on his rabbi master and life in Algeria in the early 20th century is back.  The rabbi’s daughter is fighting with her husband (also a rabbi), and the cat is quite happy with that.  It means more snuggles from his mistress, Zlabya.  Of course, the talking cat also has a couple of adventures.  First he and a snake tag along with the famous Malka and his lion on a trek around the desert.  Then, a stowaway Russian Jew shows up in Zlabya’s house, and he understands the cat!  Soon a rag-tag bunch are off looking for the mysterious lost city of Jerusalem.  We thus get to see a lot of Africa through the cat’s eyes.

Review:
I have to say, I didn’t enjoy this sequel quiiite as much as the original.  I suspect that the fact that I was less familiar with the topics the cat is offering snarky commentary on had something to do with this.  I really don’t know much about Northern Africa or the “lost city of Jerusalem,” so I’m sure I missed some of the inside jokes.  Whereas the previous book was mostly about Jews in Algeria and the French occupation, this book seems to talk a lot more about the relative merits of the various monotheistic religions and why can’t we all just be friends.

While on their various treks, the groups run across some Muslim tribes who state that Jews are their brothers who they respect, but it is still their duty to attempt to get them to convert.  The rabbi eloquently states that he is too old to learn a new language for prayer, and he is sure god will understand.  Similarly, the Russian Jew falls in love with an African woman (I am uncertain from which country), and they ask the rabbi to marry them.  He says he can only marry two Jews, and she states she is glad to take her husband’s god as her own.  Exasperated, the rabbi states it is not that simple, she must study for years, but then relents when seeing how in love they are and says that god will understand.  The cat too has learned when to hold his tongue around extremists, although he still offers commentary to the other animals, whether over an obsessive Muslim prince or a Kabbalistic elderly rabbi.  What is incited repeatedly in this book is extremism in favor of tolerance and love, which is certainly always a good message.

The other message is never to judge someone as less intelligent than you simply because they speak a different language or their ways are different.  I really like how this is carried over into the animal kingdom where the cat even seeks to understand the snake.  At first the cat thinks the snake just willy-nilly bites people and animals, but then he realizes that this is his only tool of friendship.  And yet although we should seek to understand, the cat also doesn’t hang around too long anyone who is extremist or annoying.  The Muslim prince and the English explorer (who thinks the Algerians don’t bathe) are both quickly dumped by the traveling group.

While these are all good messages, I must say I missed the no holding back talking cat of the first book.  I suppose he’s older and wiser, but I like him precisely because I can’t imagine a talking cat ever actually holding his tongue.  Seeing him do so in this book made me kind of sad.  Also, I feel like the story of Zlabya and her husband got dumped partway through and never picked back up.  We know they’re fighting a lot, but then we just leave them and go off on an adventure across Africa.  It felt like a final chapter was missing from the book.

Overall, this is an interesting look at the intersection of many cultures, religions, and races on the continent of Africa through the unique eyes of a rabbi’s cat, a wandering lion, and a friendly snake.  If you enjoyed the first book, you shouldn’t skip this one.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Previous Books in Series:
The Rabbi’s Cat (review)

Counts For:

Specific country? Algeria, primarily

 

Book Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

People flowing through tubes and standing in line.Summary:
In the near-future humanity is increasingly facing over-population and all its consequences.  In reaction to this, most world governments have established population laws and eugenics boards.  In this overly crowded, information overloaded, perpetually on the brink of war society exist Donald and Norman, healthy bachelors who must live as roommates due to the housing crisis.  Donald is a dilettante, an information specialist on reserve to be activated as a spy when needed for the US government.  Norman is a Muslim African-American working his way up the corporate ladder of the most important technology firm in the world–GT.  GT houses the world’s most brilliant computer named Shalmaneser.  The intertwining lives of these two oddly well-suited roommates gradually unfold amid digressions into the lives of those they come into contact with and information from the modern-day philosophies and advertizing.

Review:
What is most memorable and striking about this book is not so much the story, although that is fairly unique, but the way in which it is told.  Brunner does not simply tell the main storyline, he also immerses the reader into the world the characters live within.  To that end, the main storyline (continuity) is interspersed with chapters focusing in on minor characters (tracking with close-ups, essentially short stories), plunging the reader into the middle of the advertizing of the time (the happening world), and works of importance to the world (context).  The result is that, although it takes a bit of work to get into the book, in the end the world these characters exist in is much more vivid and clear in the reader’s mind, thus allowing her to more fully understand the characters.

Sometimes this method of writing is a bit difficult to read, of course.  For instance, one chapter takes place at a party, and Brunner simply streams all of the conversation together as you would hear it if you were at the party yourself.  You catch snippets of bits of different conversations taking place, but never an entire one all at once.  It’s the most immersive party scene I’ve ever read, but also took me an inordinate amount of time to get through.

It was also refreshing to have one of the main characters in a futuristic scifi book be a minority.  This in and of itself made Stand on Zanzibar a unique, interesting read, and I believe Brunner did a good job portraying both Norman’s struggles with still prevalent racism and presenting him as a well-rounded character.

The major themes of the book, beyond the incredibly meta presentation style, are the very real threat of the loss of privacy and the dehumanization of dependence upon artificial intelligence.

The dehumanizing affect of overpopulation is evident in the language employed by the characters early on in the book.

Not cities in the old sense of grouped buildings occupied by families, but swarming antheaps collapsing into ruin beneath the sledgehammer blows of riot, armed robbery and pure directionless vandalism. (page 52)

These are no longer human cities.  They are crawling ant-piles.  The vision of piles of swarming ants is simply not a pleasant one.  This concept of humanity as a pest is carried even further in a poem from one of the context chapters entitled “Citizen Bacillus,” which begins:

Take stock, citizen bacillus,
Now that there are so many billions of you,
Bleeding through your opened veins,
Into your bathtub, or into the Pacific
Of that by which they may remember you. (page 115)

Not only is this poem taking into account the increasingly suicidal tendencies of the human population in this future society (something that is seen in the animal kingdom when a population becomes overcrowded), but it also is blatantly calling humans a bacteria (bacillus).

The book repeatedly addresses through vignettes, samples of books of the time period, and the lives of the main characters that overpopulation leaves people without enough room to think and figure themselves out in.

True, you’re not a slave. You’re worse off than that by a long, long way. You’re a predatory beast shut up in a cage of which the bars aren’t fixed, solid objects you can gnaw at or in despair batter against with your head until you get punch-drunk and stop worrying. No, those bars are the competing members of your own species, at least as cunning as you on average, forever shifting around so you can’t pin them down, liable to get in your way without the least warning, disorienting your personal environment until you want to grab a gun or an axe and turn mucker. (page 77-8)

In the book “turning mucker” is when a person inexplicably loses their mind and attacks strangers near them.  This happens increasingly throughout the book.  Thus Brunner’s main point that humans are our own worst enemy is repeated throughout the book.

Added on top of this is the fact that artificial intelligence is outpacing humans.  The characters literally cannot keep up with the information overload.  They have nightmares about it.  They simultaneously depend on the computers and dread them.  When one goes awry, they hardly know how to continue on, but simply flounder around.  Chad Mulligan (one of my new favorite literary characters) sums it up eloquently:

What in God’s name is it worth to be human, if we have to be saved from ourselves by a machine? (page 645)

Thus, Stand on Zanzibar through postulating an overpopulated future that is overly dependent on technology demonstrates the very real dangers humans pose to ourselves if we outpace either our own minds or our environment’s ability to house us.  It is a brilliant read for the meta-literature aspect alone, but the content is also challenging and thought-provoking.  I highly recommend it to scifi fans.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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The Rifqa Runaway Case

September 17, 2009 6 comments

Maybe through all the hubbub of the Yale murder this week you heard about the teenage girl named Rifqa.  Rifqa ran away from home.  She told the authorities her parents had threatened to kill her.  Child custody cases happen a lot, so why did this one get picked up by Newsweek?  Rifqa’s parents are Muslim; she converted to Christianity and says this is why they threatened her.

I am angry about this.  I am angry at the way the media is handling the story.  I am angry that representitives from both religions are using this to argue over religion.  I am angry that the court is even considering giving Rifqa back to her family.  In fact, that is what I am the most angry about, because this case should not be about religion.

We have a frightened, terrified child who gathered up the courage to run away from home and tell someone her parents were threatening her.  Most children fear their abusive parents far too much to ever do such a thing, and what is the court saying?  They’re saying there is no evidence.  Rifqa’s testimony is hearsay.  Her father seems genuinely upset.  He was just like any other concerned parent when she went missing.  The Newsweek writer keeps pointing out how nice he seems.

Newsflash!  Abusers don’t seem like abusers!  If they did, we wouldn’t have so many cases of adults raised in abusive homes who never escaped.  Ask any person who was abused as a child.  They will tell you mommy/daddy was a real angel around everyone else.  Only the child ever saw the monster inside.  Abusers can be the most upstanding citizen in your community.  They can be active participants in your local church/mosque/temple/whatever.  They can seem perfectly holy.  Why?  Because abusers are masters of deceit, whether they are deceiving themselves or others around them.  Some abusers actively work to deceive the community.  Others deceive themselves into thinking they never abused their child.  I know people whose parents who abused them claim to this day when confronted that it never happened.  The child is lying.  The child is crazy.

It is awful, terrible that in cases like this, in abuse cases, rape cases–cases where the victims are predominantly women and children–the victim is the one being put on trial.  It is assumed the victim is lying until proven otherwise.  This is wrong!  I am not saying in cases like this where there is no physical evidence that the parents should go to jail, but the child should be removed from the home and placed into protective custody!  That is the very least a terrified victim deserves.  The trust of the authorities that she actually is in danger and the guarantee of protection.