I just finished reading a book today - Love in a Torn Land - by Jean Sassoon, an American author who spent twelve years in the Middle-East and chronicles the lives of women there. The first book of hers that I had read was Princess - a biographical account of a woman belonging to the Saudi Arabian royalty, Princess Sultana. The book described the oppressed, suppressed and repressed lives led by the women in the Muslim oil-rig amidst an environment of chauvinism, sexism and plain favoritism towards the male child. It spoke of young girls wedded away to men old enough to be their grandfather, of women who who bore their husbands many children only to find themselves cast way for a younger concubine, of fathers who married girls who were once their daughters' best friends, of brothers' friends who terrorize others with their apparent moral policing authority and then go about raping 11 year old girls just for the thrill of it!
Love in a Torn Land was the story of Joanna and her Kurd (a native tribe in the northern mountainous part of Iraq) family and their travails of being a Kurd in a country ruled by a Kurd-hating-megalomaniac (in)famous to the rest of the world as Saddam Hussein. Born to deaf-mute Arab father and an exceedingly beautiful Kurd mother and living in Baghdad, Joanna was always fond of Kurdistan and longed to be one with her Kurd relatives. She describes how Kurds were looked at with disdain by the rest of Iraq and were even fighting for survival against Saddam's desire to wipe them out completely from the face of the earth. A fiesty girl, unlike her timid sister Muna, she often voiced her desire to fight for Kurdistan freedom. When she was fifteen, she fell madly in love with Sarbast, a Kurd revolutionary and a cousin of her sister Alia's husband Hady. Infact the warm relationship that she shares with Hady is really charming. The book talks about the humiliation that her brother Ra'ad and Hady that to go through during their unwarranted (pun intended) arrest - their only crime being that they were born Kurds.
The story then goes on to Iran's attack on Iraq in the late eighties that led to daily bombing at Baghdad. The Kurds sided with Iran in their fight against Iraq (much like Bose trying to garner German for the Indian freedom cause). It was around this time that Sarbast also fell in love with Joanna and through letters sent her a proposal for marriage. The centrepage of the book consists of photographs of Joanna's family and Sarbast. The rest of the story is about how Joanna joins Sarbast in Kurdistan where they lead a difficult life of a revolutionary (peshmerga), in difficult climates and difficult terrain. The crux of the book is the chemical attack (chemicals released from bombs and canisters by enemy planes)all over Kurdistan (a plan masterminded by the devious Chemical Ali, Saddam's cousin) that leaves Joanna temporarily blinded and her devout Aunt Aisha murdered. Times are dangerous for Kurds and treacherous too - with many Kurds turning informers for the Iraqi Arabs (jahsh). But Joanna shows extreme courage and valour in supporting Sarbast (who drafts propaganda for the Kurdish freedom movement) and his belief and finds herself contributing to the cause in her own way.
But things worsen and the couple have to leave their hut (a transition from the comfortable and relatively luxurious life she led at Baghdad) and are on the run to save their lives. Enroute to Iran, they face continuous bombardments, terror of being caught by jahshs, a miscarriage of their unborn fetus and rocky, unfavorable mountainous climb on the Kandil mountains. But Joanna describes how her love for Sarbast and his affection for her enable her and strengthen her to pull through this trial. Finally, with the help of an old Kurd revolutionary and sitting on his mule, Joanna reached Iran with the love of her life Sarbast and his jovial cousin Kamaran.
In Iran, Joanna delivers their son Kosha (meaning struggle) in a hospital that is hostile to Iraqi refugees - the nurse-midwife tells Joanna rudely that Iran cannot afford anaesthesia for Iraqi refugees and proceeds to suture her torn vagina without local anaesthetics. (Having been a witness to a similar situation in our very own Mumbai, I shuddered to think of the pain that poor Joanna must have endured stoically).
In the epilogue, Sassoon writes about how most Iraqi Kurds including Joanna's family have left the country and are scattered all over Europe. Joanna, Sarbast and Kosha themselves seeked and received political asylum in England.
I was telling one of my friends how I like to read books with geo-socio-political themes. It is not about reading the atrocities that women face in these Muslim nations - gender discrimination, female infanticide, honour killings and dowry deaths are still very much a part of our comparatively progressive Indian society even today. It opens my eyes to different realities across the world. I doubt I would visit any of the Middle-eastern countries for a long stay and these books give me a peek into the lives of the women there.
Here I must say, while The Princess painted a very negative picture of men in Saudi Arabia, Love in a Torn Land does exactly the opposite. It describes men who are extremely sensitive to their women, love their women with all their heart and most of all give respect to their women and treat them with equality (well almost). The book pictorially depicted an Iraq where women were allowed to frolic in frocks and skirts and colorful scarves - only later when they grew up, did the religious and conservative Sa'ad insist on his sisters donning the hijab. Women were allowed to educate themselves, even seek a professional degree in engineering and work alongside men.
Those were the seventies and eighties. Today in 2008, the Times of India carried a small article of a Pakistani Canadian father killing his daughter for not adhering to the conservative dress code. The early 2000s had the Taliban relegating women to the status of an object. (The Kite Runner gave an insightful account of life in Taliban times). Kashmiri girls today are faced with threats for not covering themselves in a burqa. Tamil actress Khushboo has her effigies burnt when she sensibly advices girls to indulge in pre-marital sex only with protection - who is society kidding when it denies that its girls and boys do not succumb to their lust? Hindus hate Muslims who hate Hindus and Sikhs who hate Christians - we say we're secular, but tell me, how many parents would agree to their Hindu daughter marrying a Muslim.
Was society intolerant earlier or are we getting intolerant now? Only time will tell.