There’s a lot going on in this book, so it’s going to be a bit difficult to try to sum up in a paragraph. Sweet Dates in Basra takes place in 1940s Iraq in a time of political and religious conflict. The rest of the world was embroiled in conflict – World War II, the Nazi campaign against Jews, the rise of Communism – and all of that took its toll on Iraq. The story centers around three people. First, there are Shafiq and Omar, Jewish and Muslim (respectively) neighbors who have grown up like brothers and who would stand by each other no matter what. Then there is Kathmiya, a poor girl from the marshy regions of Iraq that is sent to Basra to work as a maid when she is a young teenager.
These stories weave in and out of each other. Sometimes Basra is peaceful, and sometimes full of riots. Sometimes outside influences (primarily the British) come in and try to stir up hatred between the religions. In particular, the prejudice and discrimination against the Jews grow, so that they have a hard time getting into college or starting up businesses. Shafiq’s family and friends all form different opinions on what the Jews should do. Some are pro-Zionism, some pro-Communism, and some think everyone in the country ought to be considered Iraqi first and foremost. All of this creates a turbulent atmosphere to grow up in.
Set on this atmosphere is a romance. The first time Shafiq and Kathmiya see each other, they are mutually intrigued by each other, which eventually grows into a friendship and more. Of course, any sort of relationship between them would be impossible. Kathmiya comes from a part of the country where honor is everything and honor killings are both common and praised. If she’s caught even talking to a boy, she could be killed, and him as well. In her culture, girls are married off before they are fifteen years old, and if you reach the ripe old age of eighteen, you’re pretty much destined to be an old spinster, or at best the third or fourth wife of an old man.
Kathmiya wants more than anything to marry like her older sister, but her father seems to hate her and forces her to go to work in the city. She does everything she can for her family, only to be rejected again and again by them all. Her story was the most interesting to me by far. First there was the rich and evocative setting that she lived in – I had no idea there were marshes in Iraq! Then there was the old fashioned, impoverished background that she came from – the strict religious morality, the honor code, the horrific plight of the women. Lastly there is her convoluted relationship with an unsympathetic mother who seems bent on thwarting her every chance at happiness. Kathmiya’s past is steeped in secrecy, though it’s a secrecy that’s pretty predictable, and her life becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. It was both fascinating and horrifying to watch it unfurl.
I loved that this book didn’t end neatly. Situations like this are never neat in real life. They are messy, and scary, and filled with both hope and unhappiness. Jiji did an excellent job putting this all together, weaving all the storylines together without ever making them feel like separate plots or narrations. She did a great job making me feel this country and historical setting.
I only really had two qualms with the book. One is very esoteric: there seemed to be this idea that Kathmiya was “too beautiful” to be from a poor background in the swamps. I don’t like the idea that beauty is born of money, opportunity, or location. I understand that severe poverty can be detrimental to a person’s physical appearance, especially if they have no access to proper medical care, sanitary living conditions, and decent nutrition, combined with constant labor and exposure to the elements. However, the idea that beauty cannot ever emerge from this setting or that it somehow “belongs” to the richer or “more civilized and/or sophisticated” elements of society is something I can’t deal with. It’s a very class-centric idea. It’s also an old-fashioned idea that would not have been out of place in the time period the book is set in, but there were times when it felt like the narrator/author was expressing this opinion, rather than the characters, and that’s what bothered me.
My other qualm is a spoiler: I have difficulty believing that two people who have spent years restraining themselves around each other would finally break those restraints – as well as those of their religion, culture, and upbringing – and end up sleeping with each other right away. I can see breaking and holding hands, or even kissing, but to go from no contact at all to having sex seems a little extreme given the circumstances. End spoiler.
However, despite those minor quibbles, this was a really good book. It was interesting to read within the framework of Arab Jews when most of what I’ve read before has been about the new non-Arab Jewish population that immigrated to the Middle East (particularly in Palestine). I also loved the way Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet became a thematic element all throughout the text, and I’m glad I just read it recently! I highly recommend this book.