Thursday, June 3, 2010

Review: Sweet Dates in Basra

Summary: Just when her family should be arranging her marriage, Kathmiya Mahmoud, a young Marsh Arab maiden, is sent from her home in Iraq's idyllic countryside to the unfamiliar city of Basra, where she must survive on her paltry earnings as a servant. Her only asset—her exquisite beauty—brings more peril than peace. Worse, her mother appears to be keeping a secret about her own mysterious past, one that could threaten Kathmiya's destiny forever.

In this lost Iraq of the 1940s, a time of rich traditions and converging worlds, Kathmiya meets Shafiq, a Jewish boy whose brotherhood with his Muslim neighbor Omar proves that religion is no barrier to friendship. But in a world where loss of honor is punishable by death, the closeness that grows between Kathmiya and Shafiq becomes dangerous as a doomed love takes root. When British warplanes begin bombing Iraq and the country's long-simmering tensions explode, the power of an unbreakable boyhood bond and a transcendent love must overcome the deepening fractures of a collapsing society.

Set during the tumultuous years surrounding the Second World War,
Sweet Dates in Basra is the redemptive story of two very different cultures, and a powerful reminder that no walls can confine the human spirit.-- Avon

I love multi-cultural novels so SWEET DATES IN BASRA by Jessica Jiji definitely appealed to me. When I read the description of this book, I thought it sounded fascinating. I've enjoyed quite a few books that take place in Iraq; however, I don't remember ever reading one that took place during the 1940s, the time period surrounding World War II. Needless to say, I was intrigued by the concept of this novel.

I actually finished SWEET DATES IN BASRA on my way to BEA. I definitely enjoyed the novel and I found it very interesting, but I'm not sure that I'd go so far as to say I loved it. I was extremely excited on my train ride, and maybe I should have read something a little lighter. When I reflect on this novel, it seems like everything worked -- the writing was good, the story was intriguing, and the characters were complex. I can't explain why I didn't love it. I think I might have been expecting the book to resonate more deeply with me than it did.

As I mentioned earlier, there were many good things about this novel. I especially thought the author did a wonderful job with bringing 1940s Iraq to life for the reader. I admit that I knew little, if anything, about Iraq during this time period; and I found their role in WWII to be fascinating. I also loved reading about the Iraqi culture and seeing what a marvelous country it was. In addition, it was extremely interesting for me to see the cultural and religious differences that were present during the 1940s and how things have changed (and stayed the same) today.

I also appreciated how Ms. Jiji developed the characters. I thought she made the characters of Kathmiya and Shafiq very complex, and I thought their relationship was well developed too. While some reviewers have mentioned that they didn't really relate to Kathmiya (and some even called her whiny), I actually thought she was portrayed very realistically. I know if I had been in her circumstances, I would have had many of the same thoughts, feelings, and concerns that she did. I especially enjoyed how Ms. Jiji showed the growth and maturity that both Kathmiya and Shafiq gained throughout the novel.

While I definitely loved the cultural aspects of this novel, I still think that SWEET DATES IN BASRA is a love story at its heart. It's not a gushing romance type book by any means, but it is one that demonstrates the power and beauty of first love -- Kathmiya and Shafiq were almost like star-crossed lovers. As a reader, I couldn't help but want them to be together; and I thought the author did a great job of showing the many cultural barriers that existed for them. I really liked that this novel demonstrated to me how much I take for granted and really how lucky I am to be born in the United States when I was.

This is the first book that I've read by Ms. Jiji and I wouldn't hesitate to pick up another one. I enjoyed her writing style and I think she came up with a beautiful story. I especially enjoyed all of her beautiful descriptions of Iraq. Without a doubt, she allowed me to picture the beauty of the country. Ms. Jii mentioned in the A+ Section at the back of the book that parts of this story are based on her father's life. I think knowing some of the information about her family made me appreciate this book even more.

SWEET DATES IN BASRA would make for a very interesting book club discussion. There is a reading guide available both online and in the back of the book which has some great questions. Some of the topics from this novel that warrant further discussion include cultural differences, religious differences, political issues, self-discovery, friendship, love, sacrifice, honor and hope.

I do recommend SWEET DATES IN BASRA if you are interested in learning more about Iraq because this book is rich with details about the country, the culture and the history. I also think readers who enjoy a touching love story will like it too.

Make sure you check out Book Club Girl's Blog Talk Radio Show with Ms. Jiji where they discussed SWEET DATES IN BASRA. It was a terrific show, and as always, it definitely enhanced my appreciation of this novel.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy of this book.


Beth F said...

I have had this one on my wish list. I wonder if reading it on the train to BEA affected your feelings -- half your mind must have been on getting to the city and seeing people and all that excitement.

Sandy Nawrot said...

It is funny how that happens, but it does. You like something, but it seems to be missing that extra little spark. And yes, it could be mood too. The plot definitely has alot going for it - sounds interesting.

The Many Thoughts of a Reader said...

twice this week you have interested me with just the first paragraph of the description! adding this to my goodreads tbr!

S. Krishna said...

I really enjoyed this one, but I was expecting something very heavy so was pleasantly surprised by its lightness - funny, huh? Anyways, I'm glad you at least liked it!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

You might be right that maybe you would have liked it more had you not been on the train all excited to go to BEA. Definitely a book and a mood need to match!