This book was a recommended read of Janel a book blogging friend who blogs at The Keeper Of Pages Here
Started reading A Woman Is No Man at 9 pm one evening, couldn’t stop reading. By 2 a.m. had already read half of it.
This is the heartbreakingly sad story, told from the perspective of three people – Isra herself, her daughter, Deya and Kaseeda, her mother in law.
It’s the story of a woman called Isra and her daughters.
Isra, while still living in Bersait, Palestine, marries a man, originally from Palestine whose family had emigrated to America in search of a better life for their family. Isra returns with Adam to America and lives with him and his family, his mother Fareeda, father Khaled and brothers Omar and Ali in a three storey faded red brick house in the culturally diverse immigrant community of Bay Ridge, two blocks east of Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn NY.
Fareeda rules the roost within her own family The other women in the family are expected to obey the harsh rules of the insular patriarchal society Fareeda herself and the Palestinian Arab friends and contacts in her circle are expected to conform to.
Harsh experiences of living in a refugee camp in Palestine have given Fareeda, enough bravery to eventually stand up to her husband Khaled and not accept harsh punishment including beating from him any more yet still expects the women in her immediate family to be mere chattels to their own husbands, her precious sons. Fareeda turns a blind eye when daughter-in-law Isra shows signs of being physically abused by Adam.
The daughter’s in law in Fareeda’s family were expected to spend their days helping her with the chores of cooking, washing clothes and cleaning. Although their work and skills doing the chores were appreciated by Fareeda, Fareeda’s sons’ needs always came first. Isra, Adam’s wife was supposed to know her place, not answer back and be the mild complacent wife that was expected of her.
Isra had always taken solace in book reading back in her own home in Bersait and from her reading choices of fiction she had developed a romanticised view of how married life might be for her.
‘Some nights she had dreamed she’d marry the love of her life and that they’d live together in a small hilltop house with wide windows and a red-tiled roof. Other nights she could see the faces of her children—two boys and two girls—looking up at her and her husband, a loving family like the kind she’d read about in books’
When her husband Adam, the hardworking elder son of the family running the family deli and working long hours takes his frustrations out on her at night by beating her even though she cooks his favourite meals and tries endlessly to please him. Isra believes it is all her own fault. She’s not trying hard enough. Sometimes he returns home in a pleasant mood and he might take her out sightseeing in the evening but at other times everything she does irritates him
Isra would never stand up to him, just tried to be the person and the wife she thinks he wanted her to be despite his exhaustion and unpredictable nature.
Isra’s spirit continues to be broken bit by bit after bearing Adam’s children, all daughters and therefore displeasing Fareeda to whom daughters are a burden and a grandson would be a blessing. Another daughter is, according to Faseeda, a balwa—a dilemma, a burden.
Faseeda’s own daughter Sarah, a free spirit and lover of books has her own mind and views and by her stance of non conformity to her mother’s standards has no expectations of meeting a suitor by the usual arranged marriage ritual that was expected of her. Sarah would like to attend college rather than be in an arranged marriage from an early age.
Sarah and Isra become friends and Sarah brings home books from school for Isra to read.
Once again, books bring Isra joy and take her imagination away from her own unhappy life. She reads to her daughters and reads her own precious supply of books whenever she can between chores.
When it’s Fareeda and Khaled’s son Omar’s turn to find a wife they once more return to Palestine and then come back to the USA to with Omar and his new wife Nadine
‘Forget all this American nonsense about love and respect,” Fareeda said to Omar now, turning to make sure Isra was setting the table. “You need to make sure our culture survives, and that means teaching a woman her place.‘
As she grows up, Deya has come to terms with the loss of her mother Isra and accepts the story told to her by Fareeda of a car crash in which apparently her mother and father were killed. That is until she is passed a note by a mysterious stranger telling her that she needs to go to a bookshop called Books and Beans
At Books and Beans Deya learns of the true fate of her parents and realises there is much she has been unaware of, although her memories of violent conflict between her parents remain.
Deya wishes to attend college but her grandmother Fareeda tries to dissuade her
“College is out of the question, besides which, no-one wants to marry a college girl
This book is an extreme fictional example of an Arab family who did not integrate into American society and didn’t wish to be a part of it. The book has its critics and especially so from members of those with Muslim/Palestinian origins whose families did integrate successfully, attending college and doing well.
Books have an important role in this story as any book lover will appreciate. Opening minds to possibilities and the education found within them lead to some of the characters wanting to live more independently in a freer situation
I found it to be a gripping interesting story and it held my interest right until the ending that I thought was a bit of a surprise and unexpected.