Friday, February 5, 2010

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women opens as Geraldine Brooks, foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, attempts to check into a hotel in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990's:

The hotel receptionist held my reservation card in his hand. "Mr. Geraldine Brooks," he read. "But you are a woman."
Yes, I agreed, that was so.
"I'm sorry, but our reservation clerk made a mistake."
"That's okay," I said. "Just add an s and make it Mrs."
"No," he said. "You don't understand. I can't give you a room. It's against the law for women." (page 1)

The receptionist goes on to explain to Brooks that a lady does not travel alone in Saudi Arabia. "There is no reason for it. Unless she is a prostitute."

Brooks winds up in a police station where her travel documents and press credentials are verified. The officer says, " I think the lady hasn't been in Saudi Arabia very long. She doesn't know our customs." He eventually issues a permit that allows her to spend the next few hours in the hotel.

In Nine Parts of Desire, Brooks offers a look at the lives of Muslim women through a series of vignettes gathered while on assignment in the Middle East. She is clear, insightful, and very careful to avoid "the sensational and the stereotypical." Enough historical perspective is included to help the Western reader understand culture and tradition. The book is divided into twelve chapters with each focusing on a specific aspect of life - from veiling, marriage, and education, to business, politics, and even athletic competition. An entire post could easily be written on each chapter.

The book's title comes from the quote:
"Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men," said Ali, the husband of Muhammad's beloved daughter Fatima and the founder of Shiite Islam. (page 39)

Brooks reflects on how this is the polar opposite of her Catholic school teaching.
"Women bear the brunt of fending off social disorder in the Catholic tradition because they aren't considered sexually active, and in the Muslim tradition because they are. It is this notion of women's barely controllable lust that often lies behind justifications for clitoridectomy, seclusion, and veiling." (page 40)

A chapter titled "The Holy Veil" ends with this summation:
"Getting to the truth about hijab was a bit like wearing it: a matter of layers to be stripped away, a piece at a time. In the end, under all the concealing devices - the chador, jalabiya or abaya, the magneh, roosarie or shayla - was the body. And under all this talk about hijab freeing women from commercial or sexual exploitation, all the discussion of hijab's potency as a political and revolutionary symbol of selfhood, was the body: the dangerous female body that somehow, in Muslim society, has been made to carry the heavy burden of male honor." (page 32)

One chapter is devoted solely to Mohammad - his wives, children, revelations, etc. A detailed account of the Shiite-Sunni schism is included here. Brooks' meetings with King Hussein and Queen Noor are the subject of still another chapter, and make for very interesting reading.

It's important to keep in mind that the treatment of and restrictions placed upon women vary widely among countries in the Middle East. Also very important is the fact that this book was published in 1995. The world has changed a lot in the last fifteen years and, after turning the last page, I was left wishing for an "afterwards". Where are these women now? How have their lives changed?

My book club had, as you might expect, a very lively discussion of this book. I highly recommend Nine Parts of Desire.

Update: Booksnyc of Books in the City sent me this link to a new afterword found on Geraldine Brook's website. Thank you!!


  1. This sounds wonderful! Thanks for the review.

  2. This sounds fascinating and I can imagine that it would make an excellent book club choice

  3. Hi! I have an award for you here:

  4. Joanne,

    So glad to hear that your group loved this book. It does sound like one book I would enjoy as well; thanks for mentioning it.

  5. This does look great. I've seen Geraldine Brooks around and have been wanting to try something by her. I'll make a note of this one.
    Great review :)

  6. I think I would find this interesting. I know virtually nothing about that part of the world. But what I do hear, I almost feel like my head is going to pop off! I can't imagine being so restricted.

    BTW, I am listening to Sarah's Key as well!

  7. Rhadsody - You're welcome. This was such an interesting book!

    Verity - It was... the whole group really liked this one.

    Laurel-Rain Snow - Thanks you! I'll be over shortly.

    Diane - We had an especially long discussion with this one. I think you would like it, too.

    Stacybuckeye - Thank you. I liked her novel Year of Wonders, but now I've learned she's really good with nonfiction, too!

    Sandy - I liked that much of this was presented in a very basic manner and included background info. Just started Sarah's Key this morning. How are you liking it?

  8. Now this one sounds truly interesting to me!!! I'm going to have to hunt it down!! What a wonderfully written review JoAnn!!

  9. great review! I recently read this for the Social Justice Challenge was was struck by the variety of practices throughout the Middle East and also the seeming contradictions in many of the rules.

  10. I have a copy of this, but haven't got around to reading it yet. You make it sound really interesting, so I'll push it a bit further up the TBR pile!

  11. This book sounds very interesting and very eye-opening. It's definitely going on my TBR!

  12. This is one of those books I want to read but am never in the mood for

  13. Sounds like a neat book. Context is so important when discussing a subject like this and I appreciate your caveats- nonetheless, it sounds like a great basis for a discussion and I agree that it would probably make a great bookclub choice especially if you had some Muslim folks in the club to shed some light on Brooks' treatment of the issues.

  14. It sounds like a fascinating book! I have a couple of friends from Saudi Arabia, and they tell shocking stories of the sorts of restrictions they face. This is a matter that needs to be spotlighted more.

  15. Staci - This was really a fascinating book. I hope you get to read it!

    Booksnyc - This is a perfect book for the challenge! The seeming contradictions were very difficult to understand.

    Farmlanebooks - Hope you enjoy it. It was so interesting!

    Dana - Oh, good! I hope you like it as much as I did.

    Bookmagic - You would need to be in the right mood for this...

    Marie - We were all wishing for Muslim reaction to the book or discussion input.

    Hazra - The book was just fascinating, and it seems that Saudi Arabia places the most restrictions on women.

  16. JoAnn - I found an afterword to the book when I was checking out the author's website. She provides an update in there for some of the women that she is still in touch with - it is interesting to hear how their lives have progressed.

  17. This sounds brilliant. I've enjoyed brookes' fiction, particularly Year of Wonders, so I'll keep an eye out for this.

  18. Booksnyc - That's so much for letting me know! I should have thought to check her website.., will update my post with the link.

    Jo - This book was excellent! I enjoyed Year of Wonders, but that is Brooks only fiction that I've read. It looks like she has one more nonfiction, Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal's Journey from Down under to All Over. I may look for it.

  19. I have a copy of this - thank you for reminding me of it. I really do want to read it.

  20. Tara - I hope you like it, too. It was on my shelf for at least a couple of years, and I'm so glad I finally picked it up.


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