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Fighting for Uncle Sam: Buffalo Soldiers in the Frontier Army, by John P. Langellier.

April 29, 2016

Fighting for Uncle Sam: Buffalo Soldiers in the Frontier Army, by John P. Langellier.  Schiffer Military History (2016).  224 pages.

3 stars

A collection of information and photographs about the African American soldiers who served in the American West.

John Langellier is an amateur historian who has long been fascinated with the Buffalo soldiers.  He has collected numerous stories and photos about them which he includes in his new book.  He should be commended for what he has found, but his ability to organize his material creates problems, especially for casual readers.  His book does not follow an overall narrative structure, and does not include shorter narratives of significant individuals.  Regimental assignments to different locations in the West shape the first section. These are followed by chapters highlighting topics like life in the garrisons, enlisted men, officers, and chaplains.  Langellier discusses African American men in military service in the early twentieth century and praises their contributions. Excellent photographs, some of them unfamiliar even to those familiar with Buffalo Soldiers, add to the value of the book.

The African American troops who fought for the US Army are an important part of our national past.  They deserve to be better known and understood, but many other books, both scholarly and popular, do a better job of telling their story than Langellier does.

Fighting for Uncle Sam will appeal primarily to those who share the author’s admiration for the Buffalo Soldiers.

Threading My Prayer Rug, Sabeeha Rehman.

April 22, 2016

Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim, Sabeeha Rehman.  Arcade Publishing (2016), 336 pages.

5 stars

A valuable and informative account of a woman’s religious journey from Pakistan where she was raised, to New York where she came as a young bride and gradually became involved in the creation of a moderate American Muslim community.

Sabeeha Rehman was born and raised in Pakistan.  Although her parents were rather liberal, all those around her took the Muslim faith for granted. Her world was immersed in Islam. After an arranged and very happy marriage to a young doctor, she came to New York in 1971. Other Muslims seemed invisible. As her two sons grew, she wanted to ensure they were grounded in Islam. Her first step was to find and create a Muslim community to celebrate the faith and teach the children.  She and her husband began a Sunday school and later a Mosque. After her experience of the Haji, a trip to Mecca, her faith deepened. Rehman became a leader in the group as they worked through what was essential to Muslims as a minority religion in America and what should be discarded or reshaped, such as the attitudes toward women.  She also became deeply involved with Christians, Jews, and Hindus who shared her hopes for a pluralistic nation.

As a woman who has known Islam in both Pakistan and New York, Rehman is able to write knowledgeably about its basic practices and local differences.  She provides readers with some of the texture of living as a Muslim woman and offers valuable examples about the practical aspects of how Muslims pray and celebrate.  She describes how traditional arranged marriages are giving way to practices that give young people more chances to meet other Muslims and still prioritize the existing families.  She discusses differences among Muslims and the Islamophobia in the United States in recent years as well as her growing role in interfaith work.

I enthusiastically recommend Threading my Prayer Rug as a fine introduction to what it means to share our country and our world with Muslims.

The Mediterranean World: From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Napoleon, Monique O’Connell and Eric R Dursteler.

April 17, 2016

The Mediterranean World: From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Napoleon, Monique O’Connell and Eric R Dursteler.  John Hopkins University Press, 2016

4 stars.

An excellent overview of how Christian, Muslim, and Jewish peoples interacted in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea from 500 to 1798.

Most of us know about the peoples around the Mediterranean from a European perspective. And the narratives have usually featured nation states.  Like other recent scholars, Monique O’Connell and Eric R. Dursteler are moving beyond the limits of this approach. They center their narrative on the diverse ethnic, political and religious groups that intersected in the lands surrounding the body of water.  During the Medieval and Early Modern periods surveyed in their book, they recount how Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders competed for domination of the region, while none gained long-term domination. Battles took place between the groups, but these authors move beyond the violence to reveal complex patterns of accommodation and co-existence that were even more common than the clashes of the rulers.  Their book offers excellent proof of the inadequacy of the “clash of civilizations’ that is sometimes claimed.

The authors are respected scholars.  They are meticulous in the discussion of the scholarship of others and why they agree and disagree with their claims. Their account is clear and well-written. What was most remarkable to me was the way the authors have brought together such interesting narratives of how people of differing beliefs and values lived together in various degrees of harmony. For the first time I could follow the ebb and flow of events involving different cultures. At times I bogged down in the numerous unfamiliar names, but these are unavoidable in surveys like this one.

The book has a largely chronological structure with recurring sections addressing issues of population mobility, state development, commerce, and changing frontiers.  In it we see the sometimes tenuous connection between the ruler and the ruled. To say a leader from one religion conquered another region did not mean that people followed his lead.  Mercenaries from all the countries and religions fought on all sides. Some tolerance for different religions was common even when all were not treated equally.  Commerce overrode faith commitments. In addition, within major religions divisions existed.  Roman Christians opposed Byzantium Christians.  When Muslims dominated the shores of the Mediterranean, they were divided into separate empires.

O’Connell and Dursteler have produced an important book showing us how the inclusion of a wide variety of people can result in a more complex understanding of a given time and place.  The wonderful illustrations, dating from the periods discussed, and the clear maps enhance the book’s value.  I gladly recommend to others, especially those struggling to understand the core interactions of our history.


Uncovered, by Leah Lax.

April 11, 2016

Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, by Leah Lax.  She Writes Press (2015), 256 pages.

 5 stars–FAVORITE

A moving, compassionate life story by a woman describing why she was drawn into ultra-conservative Judaic life, what that life was like, and how she slowly rejected it.

Leah Lax is an excellent writer, one who is able to write about her own life with clarity and grace.  She brings readers inside her experiences, allowing us to empathize with choices that seem strange and exotic from the outside.  The story she tells is fast-paced and full of tension as she conveys the inner contradictions with which she lived.

The book opens with Lax’s wedding and her farewell to the life she had known as the daughter of a successful Jewish family in north Dallas.  From there Lax flashes back to her earlier life and the dysfunctional family that she saw as leaving her ill-equipped and helpless as an adolescent in the 1960s.  When she encountered Hasidic Judaism with its extensive rules, she felt she had found the father and mother, the ordered family, she had never known.  This section of the book is particularly well-written, identifying the distress of many young people in recent generations who feel adrift and respond by seeking authoritative groups.

After her marriage, Lax found much she cherished in her religion and its rituals.  She particularly loved the distinctive music, sung in public only by the men.  Her new religion taught her that she would be safe if she simply obeyed all its rules, a claim she later came to doubt.  It also required her and the other women always to be “covered,” in body and in voice.  She even covered her beloved cello.  While attentive to her faith, Lax observed and resented the ways she and other women are excluded and humiliated in the religious community.  At first her husband was kind and attentive until he got caught up in his own need to do everything right and to make enough money to support their ever-growing family.  She became pregnant eight times in ten years.  When the seventh infant was premature and she was dangerous ill, her doctor advised her against having another child.  When she got pregnant again, the thought of an abortion left her torn between the unborn infant and the needs of herself and her existing children.  Anyone who issues blanket condemnation of abortion needs to read this section.

As Lax moved through her internal and external crises, she gradually came to challenge the demands patriarchal religions made on her, particularly as a woman. Only after her children are grown was she able to leave the cocoon of her religion.  Even then she moved slowly.   Part of her way out is finding fulfillment in her long-buried lesbianism.

In a recent interview, Lax fleshed out some of the points in her book and provided some clues about why the book is so good.  She had started writing before leaving her husband and community, but  as she put it, she waited until her anger had cooled enough for her to write about the people in her life in three dimensions to finish and publish.  She urged women who felt bound in restrictive religious communities to realize that deciding to leave is a slow process.  She advises them to start by reading books by women, making one small step at a time, and finding a supportive woman friend outside the group.

I was initially hesitant to read this book group choice because I expected it to be grim and oppressive.  The life described is so different than my own that I doubted that I would be able to relate to the author.  I was wrong.  Although my life has taken a different path, I understood all too well what Lax was saying about patriarchal religion and the need to make difficult moral choices yourself.  And this is a warm, loving book in which pain is faced and deep spiritual growth takes place.

I gladly recommend Uncovered to other readers, especially those who care about women’s spiritual journeys in patriarchal religions.  it is an important book that deserves to be widely read.



Marriage on the Street Corners of Tehran, by Nadia Shahram.

April 9, 2016

Marriage on the Street Corners of Tehran: A Novel based on True Stories of Temporary Marriage, by Nadia Shahram.  Unhooked Books, 2016. (An imprint of High Conflict Institute Press, Scottsdale, Arizona.)

4 stars

An informative novel about a woman who had ten temporary marriages, allowed by Islam, in order to retain her independence.

Nadia Shahram was born and raised in Iran, and came to Canada to complete her education. The Iranian Revolution thwarted her plans to return to Iran. She now lives in the United States where she practices family law and divorce mediation; her experience spans Islamic as well as U.S. law.  She is a major activist for equal treatment of Muslim women.  In writing this novel, she interviews a number of women and included their stories. Unhooked Books, which published this novel, is an innovative press with a range of books about marriage, divorce, child-rearing and other social and personal issues.

The narrator of Marriage on the Street Corners of Tehran is Ateesh, an Iranian woman in her thirties who has had ten marriages.  She had been a besiqeh, a woman involved in temporary marriages acceptable for Muslims.  These involved marriage between a man and woman based with a contract stating the amount to be paid and when the marriage will end, usually a year.  Although often abusive for women, Ateesh chose to use this path to support herself while attending college and law school and to retain her independence in face of the gender inequality she witnessed in the Muslim society around her.  She kept her private life secret because of the stigma of being a besiqeh.

At the age of twelve, Ateesh was married to a man who abused her in extreme ways.  Her mother and grandmother had to work hard to get her a divorce and even then she had to remain invisible in her village.  Eventually she was able to go to the University of Tehran. She had little money and needed a way to support herself.  Her first temporary husband was a cleric who helped her figure out how to protect herself as a besiqeh. She already knew how to protect herself emotionally by retaining her distance. Because of her precautions, several of her partners were good men, and none were disastrous.  Eventually she fell in love and had to choose between staying in Iran where her family was or going to the United States in a permanent marriage.  She also became involved in projects to help other Muslim women.

Through Ateesh, readers learn a great deal about the problems that women face in traditional Islamic societies, especially around marriage.  But Ateesh is no victim, and her story inspires hopefulness.  She uses what is available to be true to herself.  She does not glamorize what it means to a besiqeh, but also does not let herself be stopped by guilt.  Importantly, she notes that the Quran does not justify the gender inequality and abuse that many Muslims practice.

I recommend this book to a wide range of readers, especially those interested in how Islamic traditions restrict woman and how a woman can thrive in face of them.



The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

April 6, 2016

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.  London : John Murray, 2011.

4 stars

A factual account that reads like fiction, by an American writer about a woman in Kabul who created a business to ensure the survival of her family and those of other women when the Taliban controlled the city.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon left her position at ABC to earn an M.B.A. at Harvard and research women entrepreneurs in war zones.  In 2005 she went to Kabul where she met Kamila Sidiqi, a young woman living in the Khair Khana section of the city, who had organized her own sisters to sew in order to survive after the Taliban took over the city.  As the Taliban stay lengthened, other women, desperate to find ways to support their families, joined in a network of clothes makers.  A sewing school emerged from the project.  With her young brother acting as a chaperone, Sidiqi moved around the city negotiating the sale of the clothes.  Eventually she was asked to join an UN-related effort to extend such enterprises.

Sidiqi’s story is full of examples of the use of the Islamic religion to control women.  Upon taking Kabul, the Taliban leaders decreed in God’s name that women should stay at home.  If forced to appear in public, they must wear a burqa or chadri which covered the entire body and face. She must also be accompanied by a male relative, even if he was only a younger brother. Foreign agencies working in Afghanistan were told not to employ local women.  These rules came as a shock after decades in which Muslim women in Kabul had put down the veil and dressed at times in European clothes.  With local men killed or away fighting, the loss of employment was devastating to women who were supporting their families.  Like many others, Kamila and her sisters were forced out of school with nothing to do while the family used up its resources.

We need to remember, the Sidiqi’s were Muslims themselves who had never known such restrictions from their religion.  The Taliban and ISIS are the exception to the rule regarding the treatment of women in Islam.  Islamic woman may also find deep meaning and peace in their own religious rituals, traditionally practiced at home separate from men’s assemblies at mosque.  While those of us from other cultures may be bothered by Islamic practices, like polygamy and the veil, many Muslim women find our individualism and lack of covering equally shocking.

Lemmon has written the story of Kamila Sidiqi in a clear narrative, complete with dialog and reading like a fiction.  As a good journalist, she has researched and uncovered a story that is too often overlooked–that of the ways women find to support their families in times of civil war and unrest.  In chaotic times women’s work may be invisible, but it is present and vital all the same.

I strongly recommend The Seamstress of Khair and Khana to readers everywhere seeking to understand what happens to women and families in war and the relationship between women and Islam.    By chance three fine books on this subject have recently appeared on my desk: this one, The Guest of the Sheik, and Marriage on the Street Corners in Tehran.  I have also post a bibliography of my own reviews about Women and Islam. I believe this is a critical subject for all of us and I hope my reviews are useful.

Guests of the Sheik, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea.

April 3, 2016

Guests of the Sheik: Ethnography of an Iraqi Village, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea.  Anchor/Doubleday, 1989.  (First published 1969) 

 4 stars

An excellent account of Muslim women by an American woman who stayed for two-years in the 1950s in a tiny, traditional village where she and her husband were conducting anthropological research.

Elizabeth Fernea (1927-2008) was a young bride when she accompanied her husband in 1956 to an isolated village in southern Iraq where he was conducting research for his doctoral dissertation.  Activities in the village were sharply divided along gender lines, and she made friends with the women and kept careful notes about their activities and attitudes.  A warm and sympathetic listener, she gives us an unusually clear account of what life was like for them as they existed on the edge of modernization.  Fernea went on to become one of the first scholars to focus on women in the Middle East. She and her husband lived in other parts of the region and returned to the United States to both be part of the faculty of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, where she also served as Director of Women’s Studies.  She has written other books and directed films in her attempts to explain women from different cultures to each other.

In Guests of the Sheik, readers are brought inside polygamous marriages and shown the daily struggles and joys within them.  We see the negotiations around marriage and why the women believe that any marriage is better than remaining single and isolated.  Because the village is Shiite, we learn the particular rituals of grief which they practice, separately as women led by a women mullah.  Yet Fernea was aware of how shallow her knowledge of the Iraqi women was:

How little I really knew about the society in which I was living!  During the year I had made friends, I had listened and talked and learned, I thought a great deal, but the pattern of custom and tradition which governed the lives of my friends was far more subtle and complex than I had imagined.  It was like the old image of the iceberg, the small, easily recognizable face on the surface of the water giving no idea of the size or shape or texture of what lies beneath.

She realized that her Iraqi friends did not desire her own way of life.  She had no children, was too thin, and could barely cook rice.  But they accepted her into a culture that was dramatically unlike her own.

I have no idea the degree to which Iraqi women still live as they did when Fernea stayed with them almost fifty years ago.  What is clear is that she describes patterns from which present-day Iraqis have come.  She has done so with grace and appropriate humility.  She has given us all valuable insight and information about the seldom-understood topic of Muslim women.  And her book is a delight to read.

I enthusiastically encourage other readers to read Guests of the Sheik.  I hope I can find some of her other books.



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