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Sweet Dates in Basra by Jessica Jiji

Sweet Dates in Basra (2010)

by Jessica Jiji

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There was a lot in this novel - the situation of the Jewish community in Iraq in the 1940s, the struggles endured as a maid coming from a poor background in the Marshes to work in bustling Basra, and the problems of friendships between different cultures and between unmarried men and women.

There are two main charcters, Shafiq, a young Jewish-Iraqi, who starts to feel the effects of anti Jewish sentiment in Iraq as he reaches his teens, and Kathmiya, a beautiful young girl from the Marshes who should be entering into marriage at this age but finds herself shipped off to work as a maid in Basra.
Kathmiya can't understand why she is not getting married like her sister Fathima, and why her father seems to hate her so much. But she makes the best of her life in Basra and works hard.
There she is noticed by Shafiq, who is stunned by her beauty. In this society it would mean certain death for Kathmiya if her friendship with Shafiq were ever discovered and the relationship can have no future.

The other main relationship in the book is between Shafiq and his Muslim neighbour, Omar. Not only are the boys best friends, but the families help each other in numerous ways over the years in a society where such friendships are becoming increasingly problematic.

Jessica Jiji has never lived in Iraq but learned of this time in history from her father who left the country in 1947 as an 18 year old. HIs love for his homeland is reflected in her warm feelings towards this place and time. In spite of all the problems, I felt this affection and became involved in the narrative as it unravelled.

I listened to the unabridged audio version of this book, excellently narrated by Adriana Sevahn Nichols, but I have to admit I struggled with the names of all the secondary characters, which can't be back referenced on audio.
Possibly better to read this than listen to it, but certainly recommended. ( )
  DubaiReader | Jan 6, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Set against the backdrop of World War II and its effects on the people of Iraq, Sweet Dates in Basra traces the developing relationship between a Marsh Arab girl, Kathmiya and a Jewish boy, Shafiq. Coming from very different cultures and backgrounds, each with their own difficulties in life, they nevertheless manage to forge a connection and fall in love. A second, but equally important, backdrop against which the story’s events play out is the relationship between Shafiq and his Muslim next door neighbor, Omar, who grow up as brothers in all but name.

The thing which elevates the book to a point way above that of a love story set in an exotic location is the multiple themes which Jessica Jiji develops throughout. Friendship, family, sacrifice, tolerance, identity – both religious and national – unification and idealism are all addressed. This might seem way too ambitious for a single story, but Jiji handles each one with sensitivity, allowing each theme it’s moment in the spotlight. The multiple themes echo the confusion of the times, but the writing itself is in no way confused. Instead it highlights the way the all intertwine with each other, much like the personal relationships in the book.

There are a large number of supporting characters in the book, which may seem confusing to some readers at first, but a little patience allows for each one to take their place in the narrative. Then there are beautiful details of the links and connections between seemingly disparate persons, underlying the theme of unification and the sense that we are all one people at heart.

I particularly loved that I got a history lesson along with the story, yet I never felt like I was being lectured to. Instead, Jiji has seamlessly woven historical information and personal emotion into a beautiful, smooth, well-paced narrative. Of particular interest as well was the information about the Midaan people and culture, written so as to allow the reader to understand Kathmiya’s motivations and actions, while leaving the desire to know more about this fascinating people.

The difficulties surrounding the partitioning of Pakistan are echoed in the troubles faced by Shafiq and Kathmiya, written with an intensity that left the sense that both sets of events were tumbling to their particular conclusions.

Overall, while certainly not as popular as some of the recent stories coming out of this region, Sweet Dates in Basra is a beautiful, moderately easy read, with a powerful story to tell.
  sangreal | Jul 31, 2011 |
Just when her family should be arranging her marriage, Kathmiya Mahmoud, a young Marsh Arab maiden, is sent from her home in Iraq's idyllic countryside to the unfamiliar city of Basra, where she must survive on her paltry earnings as a servant. Worse, her mother appears to be keeping a secret about her own mysterious past, one that could threaten Kathmiya's destiny forever. ( )
  jacki | Mar 3, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
When I began this book, I was afraid that my complete ignorance of the history of Iraq during WWII would hinder my enjoyment of the story - I worried that I would need background knowledge I didn't have. I needn't have been concerned. Jiji seamlessly wound a history lesson into her story of forbidden love, educating the reader while at the same time spinning a creative tale of fmaily and friendship.

Kathmiya, a young teen sent to town from the marshes to work as a maid and earn money for the family, cannot understand why her father doesn't love her as much as her sister, or why he will not permit her to marry and live a normal life. In her loneliness, she turns to a friendship with Sharif, a young Jewish boy, though it would mean a death sentence were anyone to discover their relationship.

The novel starts with a barrage of characters that take a bit of time to sort out; once the family trees are clear, however, Jiji's story is a depiction of culture both beautiful and terrible. The ending is unexpected, as is Jiji's lack of sentimentality - her voice is strong and delivers a vibrant read. ( )
  smileydq | Jan 20, 2011 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I always make an extra effort to finish Early Reviewer books but I just couldn't muster the fortitude to make it past 50 pages of this one. I chose this book because I thought the story would give me a glimpse into a time, a place, and a way of life. And maybe if I stuck with it, I would have got that. Unfortunately, I couldn't overcome my initial impression which was characters based on stereotypes, simplistic prose, and an unduly slow pace.
  khuggard | Jan 10, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
Jiji does a remarkable job of evoking 1940s Iraq in her novel, from the colorful markets to the remote marshes, making for a vibrant read.
added by khuggard | editBooklist
This chaste historical romance is densely populated and has trouble finding its way through a thicket of subplots, but the cultural perspective and setting are a nice break from the wartime norm, as is the unexpected ending.
added by khuggard | editPublishers Weekly
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Dedicated to Daisaku Ikeda, for many years of encouragement and inspiration.
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Omar slipped the note through a hole in the wall that separated his house from Shafiq's.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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After two Iraqi families, one Jewish and one Muslim, break through a wall in the 1930s to accommodate a shared water pipe, a Jewish boy falls in love with an Arab girl, whose mother is determined to preserve her daughter's honor in a land where the loss of it can be punishable by death.… (more)

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