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Sweetness in the Belly, by Camilla Gibb.

November 17, 2014

Sweetness in the Belly, by Camilla Gibb.  Penguin Books (2007), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 368 pages.

A heart-warming novel about a young Sufi woman living as an outsider in a walled city in Ethiopia and later in the community of East African refugees in London.

Camilla Gibb is a Canadian anthropologist who lived in Harar, Ethiopia, for a year and a half doing research for her Ph.D. dissertation. When she received her degree, she turned back to her real love, writing novels. Part of Sweetness in the Belly is set in Harar where Gibb lived with families like the ones she describes. Her experience gave her unusual insight into the community as a participant/observer. Her book is full of details of daily life and empathy for people like those she lived among.

The novel is narrated by Lily, an English orphan raised by a Sufi scholar, and alternates between her life in Harar in the 1970s and her life more than a decade later among Ethiopians in London.   Lily was daughter of nomadic white parents who left her as an orphan in Morocco. Her background story is rather improbable, but it works for Gibbs, allowing her the distance to write about people for whom she is an outsider.

When Lily was a teenager, violence leads her to go to Harar, Ethiopia, a city full of shrines to Muslim saints. Although rejected as both a woman and a foreigner, she makes a place for herself teaching the children to recite the Qur’an. She and Aziz, a young doctor, fall in love, but famine and unrest threaten the stability of life in Ethiopia. Hali Selassie is overthrown and civil war ensues. Lily is forced to leave the country alone. As a refugee in London, Lily makes new friends and a new life for herself, but her memories of Aziz make it hard for her to create bonds with another man.

It is his absence that is part of me and has been for years. This is who I am, perhaps who we all are, keepers of the absent and the dead. It is the blessing and burden of being alive. . . .None of us are orphans even if everyone we’ve ever loved has died.

Her narrative illuminates the difference between being a hopeful immigrant and a refugee cutoff from the places and people you once knew and loved. Like several books I have read recently, Sweetness is about loving and letting go.

In comments about her book, Gibb notes that she wanted to present a version of Islam that was gentler and more varied than the one often projected. Her novel certainly enriched and expanded my understanding of Islam, and especially of women and Islam. The religious leaders rejected Lily as a woman and a foreigner, but her faith and its rituals sustained her. With Aziz, she gradually moderates her religious practices. Among refugees in London, Lily observes that Muslim refugees tended to relinquish cultural differences to find unity in a simple commitment to the Qur’an. She also notes the rise of a stricter, harsher version of Islam being preached in the city by imams who discount the possibility of any version of Islam other than their own. Lily is unwilling to give up the colorful and vibrant Islam that grounds her. She and the other refugees are determined to go on fully participating in life.

For all the brutality that is inflicted upon us, we still possess the desire to be polite to strangers. We may have blackened eyes, but we still insist on combing our hair. We may have had our toes shot off by a nine-year-old, but we still believe in the innocence of children. We may have been raped repeatedly by two men in a Kenyan refugee camp, but we still open ourselves to those we love. We may have lost everything, but we still insist on being generous and sharing the little that remains. We still have dreams.

I strongly recommend Sweetness in the Belly to readers interested in Ethiopia, refugees, and Islamic women. Gibbs is a strong and talented author, able to remain gentle while taking readers into painful places we seldom see.

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