First up a confession – I didn’t read this book, I listened to it! I still count it, others would not. You make up your own mind.
Nine Parts of Desire is written by one of my personal favourite authors, Geraldine Brooks (it was also read be her if you’re interested in seeking out the audio book) but to be honest I actually knew very little about her, and had only read her stunning historical fiction novels up until now. Brooks began her writing career as a journalist and in the 1990s ended up as foreign correspondent working in the Middle East for a major US newspaper. This was a pretty big deal at the time! Firstly, she was a women working in the Middle East, imagine the difficulties she faced trying to get important leaders and public figures to talk to her. I imagine the world of foreign correspondent (as with other ‘heavy’ journalistic roles) would be pretty male centred to begin with, add the location of the Middle East and that just ramps it up another few (hundred) notches. To make matters even more interesting, her husband made significant sacrifices to his own career to go with and support Brooks in her new role. That must be a concept so totally foreign (pardon the pun) to many Middle Eastern people – and many Western people as well I could add. Anyway, there you have the setting for this works by Brooks.
However, this is not a book about being a foreign correspondent, it is about the many and varied lives of women living in Middle Eastern countries for which Brooks had a unique insight into. No male journalist could have entered this world as Brooks did. I say many and varied because that is exactly what is highlighted in this work. There is no one size fits all approach to the lives of Muslim women. I found it most interesting that she describes women you might expect to be severely oppressed to not be so, and those you would assume to have more freedom to be the ones living under the strictest of male-dominated rule. There are also the cases we are more familiar with, the women not allowed out without male supervision, the lack of educational opportunities for women and the strict dress-codes requiring varying degrees of body and face coverings. This matter is explored in some depth and Brooks attempts to find just the right approach for each professional and personal occasion made for interesting commentary about the issue more generally. I was up to this part of the book as the whole ‘Ban the Burqa’ debate raged here in Australia and Senator Jacqui Lambi had her rather loud say on the matter. Strange backdrop indeed.
Brooks discovered the lives of women we would never normally hear about, and this made the books so deeply intriguing. She wrote about women in the military, women in sport and how women circumvented some of the restrictions – like learning to drive – placed on them. She delved into the battles women forged in trying to improve their position, she told of the triumphs and also of the failures, of how freedoms won were later taken away.
What becomes clear from Nine Parts of Desire is that the Middle East and Islamic culture more generally is incredibly complex (I think we all know this) and that there is no generalizations that can be made to capture the nature of the culture, the politics of that part of the world, or the role women play in either. The spectrum is wide, very wide, and where any one person, community or country fits on it changes… frequently.
Nine Parts of Desire is not light bedtime reading. It requires concentration and lots of it. I did find some parts hard to follow, and I did drift a little at times (a definite problem with audio books), but it was utterly fascinating and given the political climate we now find ourselves, yet again, one that I am immensely glad I ‘read’.