Sweet Dates in Basra by Jessica Jiji takes you back in time to 1940s Iraq, at the height of World War II. We meet Kathmiya Mahmoud, a young Muslim girl from the marshes of Iraq, longs to be married. Marriage could lift her out of the poverty she has known since childhood. Despite her beauty, no one wants to marry Kathmiya, leading her to believe that she is cursed in some way. Her older sister Fatimah is allowed to get married, leading to internal jealous for Kathmiya. Her parents, Ali and Jamila, believe Kathmiya is destined to the life she is already living -- as a maid in Basra.
In Basra, Kathmiya is just another servant. A servant whom no one pays attention to except when they want their tea served. Only one person, Shafiq, a Jewish boy, takes the time out to notice Kathmiya. "That boy who had asked if she was okay was the only person in Basra to really look at Kathmiya, to see beyond whether or not she could iron shirts. Her longing, she told herself, was for the forbidden friendship that scared Jamila into violence but just for the simple chance to have a conversation." Anything beyond a few words between Kathmiya could be dangerous. She comes from another culture -- Midaan -- and a relationship between the two could prove deadly. She and Shafiq could be killed for "dishonoring" the family.
Before Shafiq became smitten with Kathmiya, his everyday life was an adventure with his best friend, Omar, who is also Muslim. During this era, such a friendship was considered taboo, but to the two boys they are brothers. A bond that stands up during a time of war. Omar's father dies, and Shafiq's father steps right in to provide financial support. Jewish people, their homes and businesses come under attack, and Omar's family opens their home to Shafiq's. Shafiq's brother Naji is suspected of supporting the Communist part, and Omar is still there providing support. When Shafiq is torn apart by his feelings for Kathmiya, Omar is right there.
The novel is told from Shafiq and Kathmiya's perspective. Kathmiya's mind is consumed with finding a husband and a life beyond poverty. It's all she can talk about with her mother, who is also a maid. From Kathmiya's perspective you would never know a war is going on. Perhaps that was Jiji's way of showing how differently men and women think. While Shafiq is completely in love Kathmiya, he is also more aware of the dangers in Iraq. He worries about his safety walking the streets, being accused of Zionism or if he can every escape Iraq. The romance, which is at the core of the novel, didn't grab me. Sometimes the romance felt very one-sided. Shafiq is the one who longs for Kathmiya, while she explores other options. She tells Shafiq to his face that she has found a potential husband, and at that same time doesn't seem to realize his anguish. It's only when all those options are gone, does Kathmiya explore her feelings for Shafiq. From a cultural perspective, Jiji builds a vivid portrait of what it's like to live in a multicultural society. People didn't know who they could trust then, and in the present day I don't think it's all that different.
Rating: Give it a try
Notes: I received a copy of Sweet Dates in Basra from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information on the author and book visit: http://www.sweetdatesinbasra.com/
I am still hosting a giveaway for Mara's Flowery Arrows. For more information visit: http://asiturnthepages.blogspot.com/2010/06/book-giveaway.html
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