Monday, June 11, 2007

Nine Parts of Desire: Book Review

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, by Geraldine Brooks, is a book that I wish I'd read a couple of years ago.

My book club (and I) read March - Brooks' 2006 Pulitzer prize-winning novel - this year, and I really enjoyed it (despite the fact that I never liked Little Women all that much), but I thought that Nine Parts of Desire was every bit as good as March. Though as non-fiction, it is obviously a completely different animal. If you ask me (and it's my blog, so in a way you are asking me), Brooks is pretty damn talented, doing both of these things so very well.

The title is from a famous quote by Muhammad's son-in-law (founder of Shiite sect):

Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.

Part of the reason that I liked Nine Parts of Desire so much is because of the way that it complements all of the other books I've read about the Middle East over the last few years. Books that it seems that every second person in the US is reading right now. Books like Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Bookseller of Kabul, Kabul Beauty School, The Kite Runner, and (as soon as I move to the top of the library reserve list) A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Brooks' book gave me a much broader perspective on women in the Middle East, and a lot of history that helped make women's roles in the other books more understandable. As much as I enjoyed the other works (except for several parts of Kabul Beauty School, where I repeatedly wanted to ask the author wtf she was thinking), each of those books presents a glimpse of women's lives, while Nine Parts of Desire provides the range and depth that put the other books in context - both in terms of time, and culturally and geographically.

Although it's non-fiction, Nine Parts is quick, easy read. Since all of the chapters are short pieces on the women that Brooks met in the different countries where she worked as a journalist - including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, and Jordan - it is easy to pick the book up and then set it down frequently, as may be needed if you are trying to read while dealing with children or a job or any other pesky book distractions.

Brooks examines how these women feel about a bunch of different topics (with some skillfully placed interviews and anecdotes), such as dress (especially different forms of veils), marriage, sexuality, children, revolution, sports, and education in the different chapters. For example:

Like most Saudi homes, theirs had two entrances - one for men, one for women. I arrived at the high-walled villa one night for a party. White-robed men moved to the front door. Their wives, black-veiled and clutching colorfully dressed toddlers, made their way to an entrance at the side.

Each door opened on a large, sofa-lined salon, the women's decorated in floral pink cottons and plush carpet; the men's a more austere and formal room. The two groups didn't mingle. But there was one male guest the hosts particularly wanted me to meet....When I returned to the women's salon, the man's wife winked at me. "You just did me a great favor," she said. "My husband loves to talk politics. And talking politics to a woman is sure to have made him aroused. Now I can't wait to get him home. I know I'll have great sex with him tonight." I blushed. The woman laughed. "You Westerners are so shy about sex," she said. "Here, we talk about it all the time." (p. 40)

There is a useful glossary and a comprehensive index, in case you want to know the difference between a burka, hijab, and chador, or find the spot about Queen Noor's courtship. Furthermore, reading Nine Parts of Desire should go a ways towards stopping its readers from making sweeping generalizations about Muslim women.

The only serious drawback that I found is that Nine Parts of Desire was published in 1994 and obviously written a year or so earlier. It is interesting and rather depressing to see how well Brooks predicted current fundamentalism and strife in the Middle East. But it is also more than a little frustrating, because at the end of the book, you really want an update that covers the last 13 years. So Ms. Brooks, if you read this - how about a new edition? I'd say the time is definitely right for it.

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Sarah said...

I am a reader of a blog written by the wife of a Baptist minister. I use bloglines, so I thought I was reading her blog. I was very confused by the sudden change of heart.

I have put 75% of your books on (and received/read 3 or 4), no disappointments yet.

bleeding espresso said...

Absolutely looks like a book I'd like! Thanks!

happy said...

I think it should be mentioned among my favorite books for women:)