20 January 2011

Sweet Dates in Basra by Jessica Jiji

Flap Copy from ARC: "When two Iraqi families - one Jewish and one Muslim - break through a wall in their adjoining courtyard to accomodate a shared water pipe, two young boys, from two very different cultures, begin passing notes through the hole. As the world disintegrates around them, these boys become fast friends and their families become a microcosm of the brotherhood many Jewish and Muslim families nurtured during the era following Iraq's independence. In that period of promise and peril, the Jewish boy succumbs to a romance as timeless and fraught as Romeo and Juliet when he falls in love with, and compromises, a beautiful Marsh Arab maid, whos emother is determined to preserve her daughter's honor in a land where its loss is punishable by death.

Set during the tumultuous years surrounding World War II, this book is the redemptive story of an unlikely friendship and a forbidden love amid two converging worlds as well as a powerful reminder that human solidarity holds the potential for deliverance."

When I began this book, I was afraid that my complete ignorance of the history of Iraq during WWII would hinder my enjoyment of the story - I worried that I would need background knowledge I didn't have. I needn't have been concerned. Jiji seamlessly wound a history lesson into her story of forbidden love, educating the reader while at the same time spinning a creative tale of fmaily and friendship.

Kathmiya, a young teen sent to town from the marshes to work as a maid and earn money for the family, cannot understand why her father doesn't love her as much as her sister, or why he will not permit her to marry and live a normal life. In her loneliness, she turns to a friendship with Sharif, a young Jewish boy, though it would mean a death sentence were anyone to discover their relationship.

The novel starts with a barrage of characters that take a bit of time to sort out; once the family trees are clear, however, Jiji's story is a depiction of culture both beautiful and terrible. The ending is unexpected, as is Jiji's lack of sentimentality - her voice is strong and delivers a vibrant read.

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