Destination: Middle East Book: Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks
“Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts, then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” –Ali ibn Abu Taleb, husband of Muhammad’s daughtger Fatima and founder of the Shite sect of Islam.
The Frontispiece of Nine Parts of Desire
What difference does it make what a woman wears? Geraldine Brooks discovers it can change her life. Practically and symbolically, the donning of hijab (head covering) or chador (full cover head to toe) becomes fraught with meaning. In 1995, Brooks published her first book, Nine Parts of Desire. In the book she relates her experiences in the 1990’s in countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and the Arab Emirates.
Although the conservative Muslim beliefs and practices regarding women are puzzling and at times downright repugnant to other women, Brooks plays the even-handed reporter, telling us the facts about life in the Middle East as she observed it. She chafes at having to listen to officials spouting official lines, and finds ways to talk to ordinary people. That goal is made difficult because many men only speak to women whom they are related. And women sequestered from the world may have to be very cautious about what they say. Brooks says,
“It took me almost a year to realize that I had arrived at a time when the events of the seventh century had begun to matter much more to the people I lived with than anything they red in the morning papers.”
Brooks’ enlightenment starts with her secretary in Egypt. The 26-year-old Sahar, “always dressed for a soiree,” says Brooks.
“I had imagined the Middle East differently. White robed emirs…Camels marking the horizon like squiggles of Arabic calligraphy. An Egyptian yuppie hadn’t been part of the picture.”
Suddenly Sahar scurbs off the makeup and dons hijab and then some. She had become part of the religious revival sweeping the mid-East. As I read the results of the rise of the conservative religious leaders, I frequently laughed out loud at the (to me) absurdity.
For instance a rural shiek wants to ban zucchini and eggplant because “the long, fleshy vegetable might give women lewd thoughts.” But I quickly stopped laughing when I realized how this kind of rule fit into a society where a woman could not travel without permission of her brother (who is responsible for her virture) and how this concern for virtue leads to murder of women accused of extramarital sex. Death without trial even though the Koran states there must be four witnesses testify to the act before it can be prosecuted.
While Brooks interviews women of many different traditions and beliefs, she also studies the Koran and literature about the Koran. She concludes that many of the hadiths (somewhat similar to Christian parables, but not part of the Koran itself) illustrate that Mohammad frequently pronounced new rules of conduct based on what was going on among his own large family of wives.
“I couldn’t check myself into a hotel room in the 1990’s because thirteen hundred years earlier, a Meccan named Muhammad had trouble with his wives.”
Brooks’ writing takes a sharp turn from reporter to opinion in the final chapter. She says that progressive Muslim leaders claim that the violence against women is rooted in history, traditions of the Bedouin and pre-Islamic African culture rather than actually part of the religion. Brooks is not buying the excuse.
“It becomes insufficient to look at Islam on paper, or Islam in history, and dwell on the inarguable improvements it brought to women’s lives in the seventh century.”
The book is enlightening in itself and you can do further exploration of women’s issues in Muslim countries with the aid of an extensive bibliography. From the reportorial first book, Brooks has gone on to write three novels based on history that I read and enjoyed enormously: Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague; March,(winner of the Pulitzer) a civil war book focusing on the father of Alcott’s Little Women ; and People of the Book an intriguing book of the Jewish disaspora that defies a short-phrase description.
I look forward to reading her latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing, where her historic research focuses on early America. You can see why I was intrigued to find Brook’s first book.
I came across Brooks first book when I was planning my trip to Carmel, and my sister-in-law suggested we go to a one-woman play called 9 Parts of Desire being performed at nearby Seaside. The materials promoting that play say it is based on the characters in Geraldine Brooks book, and that made me dash to Amazon to get a copy of the original. Turns out the connection between book and play are thin.
We saw Heather Raffo perform a chamber version of her work, enhanced by musical accompaniment on an Iranian instrument like a xylophone. Raffo morphed into various Iranian women–one surely her own younger self. As an Iranian American in her teens she suffers through TV reports of war in the Middle East. In a captivating performance, Raffo makes distinct characters out of minimal changes in a black garment and in her stance and voice. You Tube has some clips of performances of this play, some by more than one person, but the one-woman show better demonstrates the universality of the themes. If you have an opportunity, do see the stage performance of 9 Parts of Desire.
However, none of the play is based on characters in Brooks’ book, and the theme is quite different. The stage performance focuses on just Iran and Iraq and carries an anti-war message. Brooks’ book is set earlier and concerns women in several countries. The focus of the book is treatment of women under Islam. The play is about women in wartime. I hope that you will enter a conversation here about your own feelings about the effect of Islam on women.
Does Brooks have it right? Do other people have a right to intervene if a culture mistreats a part of its population? Or do you not see it as mistreatment at all? Discuss.
All photos here come from Flickr and are used with a Creative Commons license. Please click on the photo to learn more about the photographer and see more of his or her photos. The person who posted the top photo states that it was used in an advertising campaign by Vodaphone, so I am assuming that the rights are public, but do not have confirmation of that.