Sunday, December 26, 2010

Review of Sweetness in the Belly

I wasn't too excited about reading this book when I started - it was chosen for my book club and the back cover was not too compelling. But I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting I found the narrative and how thought-provoking its content was.

Sweetness in the Belly
follows Lilly, an Englishwoman orphaned in Morocco as a little girl and raised by a Muslim Sufi called the Great Abdal. The book switches between the present tense (1980s London where Lilly is a nurse working to reunite displaced Ethiopians) and the past (1960s Ethiopia in the years leading up to Haile Selassie's deposition). Lilly becomes highly educated in the Qu'ran under the tutelage of the Great Abdal, and when she is a teenager he sends her on a pilgrimage to Ethiopia. However, upon arriving in the ancient walled city of Harar she is banished by the head sheikh to live with Nouria, the impoverished sister of one of his wives. While living with Nouria and her two young daughters, Lilly becomes the de facto teacher of the slum, educating both boys and girls in the Qu'ran's teachings. She also witnesses the barbarity of female circumcision, and falls in love with the doctor who treats a little girl dying from a resulting infection.

What I found most interesting about this book was that it opened my eyes to my own ignorance about Islam and how easy it is to stereotype Muslim women. Lilly was as devout as they come and extremely educated in Islam when she lived in Ethiopia, but knew very little of the outside world. She adhered to the role that she was expected to play as a Muslim woman, but because she was English I found myself surprised by her devoutness and passivity. Had she been Ethiopian I don't think I would have had the inherent expectations that I found myself having for her as an Englishwoman, and this realization forced me to accept that I was stereotyping the women in this book based on their origins, regardless of how they had been raised.

Camilla Gibb did a nice job weaving the history of Haile Selassie's reign and deposition, and the takeover by the Dergue into the story in a way that educated the reader but didn't take over. I learned a lot from this novel, and my interest in Ethiopia and its history was piqued.


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