On Tea, Arab Women, and Radical Islam

First published May 3, 2009 in IslamOnline.net’s Art & Culture section.

I have always romanticized about reading the literature of a country I am visiting. This month I traveled to Turkey and bought two books: Traditional Turkish Arts, and A Millennium of Turkish Literature.

On a bright spring day, with just a hint of chill in the air, I visited Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. I decided to sit on the pavement, among the blooming tulips, with the blue waters of the Bosphorus Strait on my left, and with the book about Turkish literature in my hands. Ah, could there be a more romantic thing to do as a reader?

I could not get past the first two pages. With a sigh, I closed my book and surrendered to the beauty of the place and the moment. Sometimes, a book just is not enough.

Arriving back in Cairo, I caught up on my reading with a vengeance. I started with Kazuo Ishiguro’s unsettling novel, Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro, a British author of Japanese origin, is more known for The Remains of the Day, which won a Booker Prize in 1989 and was made famous by the movie adaptation. This month, filming has started on the movie version of Never Let Me Go, itself a Booker Prize finalist in 2005.

The title, Never Let Me Go, appealed to my imagination. I thought it would be some heart-wrenching love story. It took only the first paragraph to dispel that notion, although by the end of the book, I realized it was in fact, a love story, albeit a strange one.

The story follows the life of Kathy H. and her friends, from a unique, secluded, and exclusive boarding school in Britain, to their adulthood.


Ishiguro allows the reader to experience the main character’s realization of the purpose of life, or at least the lives of those like her, by unfolding the story little by little. The teachers, or guardians, at her boarding school hint at the children’s future and purpose of life, and the reality of it eventually seeped into my conscience, knocking the breath out of me.

A word of caution, though. Never Let Me Go is certainly not light reading. It is a small book with a big comment on a new and cruel world that can result from the abuse of scientific and medical advancements. Enough said.

It was a huge leap from a futuristic Britain to the historical Arab world, but Jean Said Makdisi’s Teta, Mother and Me took me on a journey of the private and social history of the Arab world as lived by Christian Arab women. Makdisi, the late Edward Said’s sister, tells the story of three women: herself, her mother, and her maternal grandmother.

It is a tremendous work that gives us a fascinating look into the lives of three generations of Arab Christian women from bilad al-Sham, which is the area that comprised of Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. There were times, however, when I felt that the author was trying too hard to analyze her life, to prove something, to defend herself. For the first 200 pages, I felt that she wrote with the feeling that some Western feminist critic was looking over her shoulder, judging her words and her story.

In the end, while discussing her grandmother’s and mother’s lives, Makdisi realizes how Western influence and colonization have made Arabs re-imagine their culture and history through the eyes of the West. This re-imagination took Arabs steps backwards, when their own heritage is what can take them to their own best possible future.

Makdisi writes:

It is our task to renegotiate the nooks and crannies of our own history, to understand our past, to ground ourselves firmly in it, and then to move consciously towards a modernity of our own deliberate making. Only then will we be able to lay full claim not only to the future ahead, but also to the present and the past. (402)

Earlier in the book, Makdisi speaks about the influence the British had in undermining the position of the traditionally powerful matriarch in Arab society. In fact, she points out that the British “actively discouraged the advancement of women during the mandate, and encouraged their marginalization” (260).

She continues her discussion of the impact of European colonization of the Middle East:

For women, the price of the European incursion was even more unjust. The notion of female citizenship, as understood by the British and French in 1920, was imposed on constitutions and public institutions, and this legacy of ‘modernity’ survives to this day: nationality is still passed only patrilineally, and a woman may not pass on her nationality to her children. (335)

She also devotes a large part of the book to the role that Western Christian missionaries played in the education system of the region, and as an Arab Muslim, I found this exposition interesting. All in all, Teta, Mother and Me is a poignant eye-opener into a different history of the Arab world, and definitely worth a read.

The book I read fastest this month was Three Cups of Tea, subtitled One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time. Although non-fiction, this book was so fascinating I could not put it down and read it in one day.

Three Cups of Tea is a book that was lived by Greg Mortenson, but written by journalist David Oliver Relin. I am a sucker for stories about the power of the individual to bring about change for the better. Each of these stories is, I believe, a tribute to the enormous potential God has put in every human being.

Three Cups of Tea tells the story of a simple, dedicated man with a good heart. American mountaineer, Mortenson, the hero of the book and indeed a real hero in today’s world, stumbles into a Pakistani village, sick and hungry after a failed attempt to climb K2 in the Karakoram mountains in Pakistan. The villagers, although desperately poor themselves, generously take him in and nurse him back to life.

After his recovery, Mortenson vows to help them, and decides that the best way to do so is to build a school for their children. This is the beginning of a captivating tale of how one man literally changed the lives of thousands.

Despite some misinformation given to Mortenson about Islam, the book is just too good and heart-warming to dismiss. Mortenson never failed to amaze me with his refusal to stereotype and his ability to see the good in people. In one incident, while working with a Muslim scholar to alleviate the sufferings of refugees, Mortenson says:

I wish Westerners who misunderstand Muslims could have seen Syed Abbas in action that day… They would see that most people who practice the true teachings of Islam, even conservative mullahs like Syed Abbas, believe in peace and justice, not in terror. Just as the Torah and Bible teach concern for those in distress, the Koran instructs all Muslims to make caring for widows, orphans, and refugees a priority. (219)

Equally intellectually stimulating was his discussion of Helena Norberg-Hodge’s book, Ancient Futures. In her book, Norberg-Hodge discusses her observations of traditional societies, coming to the conclusion that preserving the traditional way of life in these societies would benefit them much more than “unchecked development” (112).

Although she used to believe in the Western paradigm of progress, Norberg-Hodge’s experience changes her preconceptions, and realizes that “community and a close relationship with the land can enrich human life beyond all comparison with material wealth or technological sophistication. I have learned that another way is possible” (112).

This book confirms that, yes, helping people build a future they want will make them love you more than dropping any number of bombs and saying it was for their own good. It is a book I wish everyone would read, but especially those who make policies, whether in the US or elsewhere.

I could go on forever about Three Cups of Tea, but this article is getting too long as it is, and I must wrap it up.

Finally, this month I read My Year Inside Radical Islam, by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. There really is not enough space here to say everything I have to say about this memoir, and for that reason, I will have to write a review about it.

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