New York Times

First Novels Tackle Sexism and Prejudice, Past and Present

By JAN STUARTNOV. 22, 2017

“It has always been the same — what men enjoy, women endure.” So says a character in this microcosmic portrait of the contemporary Middle East, where the generational shifts among the members of one Jordanian clan showcase a patriarchal order in slow-motion decline. Halasa’s pungently witty and occasionally uneven novel contrasts the ways in which the women of the Sabas family embrace or push back against tradition. Their progressive face is shown by outspoken Samira, who performs covert missions for a group of Syrian women activists. Representing the old school is the matriarch, Mother Fadhma, who, having derived her primary sense of self-worth from the raising of 13 children and stepchildren, finds an odd ally in the prolifically pregnant sow acquired by her butcher stepson to replenish his pork inventory. Frightened by the town’s Islamic fundamentalism, Fadhma rails against the man who put him up to it: her own brother, who scavenges contraband merchandise from the detritus of war.

While the Samira episodes are freighted by her earnest propensity to editorialize, the chapters showcasing Mother Fadhma, her brother and her fractious daughter-in-law exhibit some of the verve and complexity of Naguib Mahfouz’s incomparable “Cairo Trilogy.” Halasa, a Jordanian Filipina American who has written extensively on Syria, Iran and Lebanon, has an eye for the comic paradoxes of provincial Arab communities whose elders were once forbidden to utter the word “Israel” and whose children now listen to recordings of the emir of Kuwait’s marching band performing melodies from “Fiddler on the Roof.”