Author weaves interwoven stories of Palestinian women

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Book Reviewer

Sunday, March 10, 2019

This masterful saga tells the story of a family whose women are torn between their inner voices and the strict mores of a closed cultural Arab world. This beautifully wrought debut novel is a profound and unflinching tale about three Palestinian women living in Brooklyn during two periods and spanning three generations.

The heart-wrenching tale, written by Etaf Rum, born in Brooklyn, a daughter of Palestinian immigrants, was brought up to believe there were limits to what a woman could do in society and was frequently reminded that “A Woman Is No Man” (HarperCollins; $29.99) in the Middle Eastern milieu. Rum herself flouted custom when she used her voice to write a novel about age-old customs still alive and thriving in a changing world. This fascinating story of love, honor, betrayal, violence, and deaths is seamlessly woven into a saga of mental anguish and dark family secrets.

The author creates the story of protagonists — Isra, who preferred books and reading to entertaining her father’s choice of suitors; Isra’s mother-in-law, Fareeda, the keeper of a dreadful secret; and Deya, who thought as a woman she would never have a legitimate claim over her own life.

This intergenerational saga begins in the spring of 1990 in Birzeit, Palestine, as Yacob Hadid is choosing a wife for his 17-year-old daughter, Isra, who is to marry a Palestian-American, Adam Ra’ad, and be whisked away to an unfamiliar culture. Through her reading, Isra had hoped that life in America would be less confining for women. However, Isra, with Adam, is trapped in a loveless marriage and living with their Hadid in-laws. Adam simply wanted to marry a woman who would cater to his wishes, cook and clean for him, care for his physical needs and give him sons to carry on the family name. Isra lived in constant fear and shame because she has only girls. She loves her four daughters and protects them, always in the shadow of her critical mother-in-law.

It wasn’t until months after the Islamic marriage ceremony to the American, that Isra and her mother-in-law had a chance to talk. “Do you think maybe women have more respect in America?” she asked. Freeda responded by telling her that no matter how far away from Palestine she went, “A woman will always be a woman. Location will not change her destiny.” Living with the strict mores of Arab culture, it wasn’t long before Isla felt shame and guilt when her in-laws punished her for not being properly subservient.

It didn’t take Isra long to see the destiny of her life in Brooklyn and she had to struggle with a deep melancholy. She had hoped things would be different for women in America. On some days, her sadness was worse when she thought of the trees, fruit and flora of Palestine and looked out at her drab city walls. When Isra helped Freeda with the food preparation and cleaning, they might sit at the kitchen table and talk. Their intermittent dialogues give the reader an insight into an unfamiliar community that lives among us in contemporary American, yet in many ways keeps its roots deep in another culture.

As the narrative continues to unfold, the action alternates at times between the lives of Deya and Isra. Deya learns tragic family truths from a mysterious stranger who had asked her to meet in a bookshop in Manhattan. The stranger was her estranged Aunt Sarah who has guilty secrets of her own — she had run away from home on the last day of school when she was 18. When she didn’t return, to save face the family said she had gone back to Palestine. In fact, Sarah had never left America. Books had been her salvation when she was afraid of the consequences if she returned home.

Now owner of a bookshop in Manhattan, Sarah has more than one reason to reach out to her niece. She wanted to advise and warn Deya from her own life experience that Deya did not have to choose between college and marriage. Sarah also thought it was time after all these years that Deya know the other truth. Her mother had been beaten to death by her father in 1997, then he took his own life. Her grandparents had managed to keep the lies hidden from Deya and her sisters.

The plot works around a number of scenarios that have the women struggling with their inner insecurities as they are caught up in the realities of living in two worlds. All three of the women find respite in books. Through those books, they are able to temporarily escape the harsh reality of their lives.

The author skillfully weaves together pages of wonderfully developed characters who blend into a chorus of strong, self-determined women who will force men to listen, then take up an act that is fearless and hopeful.

Etaf Rum was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has a master’s degree in American and British Literature as well as degrees in philosophy and English composition and teaches college English and literature in North Carolina where she lives with her two children. Etaf also runs the booksandbeans Instagram account and is a Book of the Month ambassador. She now lives in Rocky Mount.

An Excerpt

“Here,” Fareeda said, her fingers finally producing what she had been searching for. She pumped a few drops of liquid foundation onto the back of her hand. Isra winced when Fareeda touched her skin, but she didn’t seem to notice. She continued smearing the makeup on Isra’s face, coat after coat over the bruises, until satisfied. “There,” she said. Isra risked a peek at herself in the mirror: every inch of shame, every shade of blue and purple and red, had disappeared.

As she turned to leave, Fareeda grabbed her elbow and pulled her close, thrusting the bottle of foundation into her hands. “What happens between a husband and wife should stay between them. Always. No matter what.”

The next time Adam left bruises, Isra covered them herself. She had hoped Fareeda might notice her efforts, that it might bring them closer somehow, maybe even back to the way things were, before Deya was born. But if Fareeda did notice, she didn’t let on. In fact, she pretended as if nothing had happened, as though Adam had never hit Isra, as though Fareeda had never covered her bruises. It bothered Isra. But she willed herself to remain calm. Fareeda was right. What happened between a husband and wife should stay between them, not out of fear or respect, as Isra had initially thought, but out of shame. She couldn’t have Sarah or Nadine suspecting anything. How foolish would she look if they knew Adam beat her? If she were back home, where a husband beating his wife was as ordinary as a father beating his child, Isra might have had someone to talk to. But Sarah was practically an American, and Nadine had Omar wrapped around her finger. Isra had to pretend nothing was wrong. But pretending only worked on the outside. Inside, Isra was filled with a paralyzing shame.