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Women of Sand and Myrrh

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A powerful and moving novel, by the Arab world'sleading woman novelist, about four women copingwith the insular, oppressive society of an unnameddesert state. A powerful and moving novel, by the Arab world's leading woman novelist, about four women coping with the insular, oppressive society of an unnamed desert state.


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A powerful and moving novel, by the Arab world'sleading woman novelist, about four women copingwith the insular, oppressive society of an unnameddesert state. A powerful and moving novel, by the Arab world's leading woman novelist, about four women coping with the insular, oppressive society of an unnamed desert state.

30 review for Women of Sand and Myrrh

  1. 5 out of 5

    Aubrey

    The first time he asked how to say 'good morning' in English and American and found they were the same, he exclaimed in surprise, 'Praise the Lord! They're the same as each other inside and out!' Whenever I see a book by a woman of color with a super low rating and/or reviews littered all over with a variation on the theme of "didn't like the characters = main reason for not liking the book", I sigh and crack my fingers and pull on my gloves. More often than not this "didn't like the The first time he asked how to say 'good morning' in English and American and found they were the same, he exclaimed in surprise, 'Praise the Lord! They're the same as each other inside and out!' Whenever I see a book by a woman of color with a super low rating and/or reviews littered all over with a variation on the theme of "didn't like the characters = main reason for not liking the book", I sigh and crack my fingers and pull on my gloves. More often than not this "didn't like the characters" business translates to "didn't understand the book", and since the author's neither white nor male she doesn't get the benefit of the doubt of "oh I didn't understand so the fault must be with me and the book will still get a shiny high rating", bending the sentiment of Catholic guilt into such an impressive cross-categorization of peer-pressured faith that it's as much a marvel as it is a goddamn annoyance. Seriously, though. What's not to like about the characters? What could possibly sideline that unspoken taboo of not shitting on a book cause the main character's a rapist/murderer/pedophile/accomplice of genocide/midlife crisis white boy with a penchant for boundary violation and really pitiful attempts at philosophy? You tell me. The front cover says The Handmaid's Tale, which is associative in one sense and really insulting in a more important other. A review on this site compares this to Woolf, which I have to thank both for my moment of "Aha!" and the resulting fruitful pursuit. See, the narrative viewpoint in this is super super close first person that switches enough to keep one on one's claustrophobic toes, sidewinding through each character in such a way that jostles complicatedly enough against sociopolitical anathema for extremely complex discussion. I'm probably forgetting some main academic tenet or another, but a great deal of Modernism in the likes of Loy and co. felt akin to that same breed: solipsistic yet glancing, covert yet nakedly revealing, plotless yet so entrenched in the train of one at a time self-reflecting minds that it's nigh impossible to look away. Add in the "unnamed desert state" (most likely Saudi Arabia), characters that have no time for pandering to reader's views of "nice" when there's flesh and blood to live out, and a culture clash that the further one gets one will begin to make sense of whether they like it or not, and you get this modern psychological thing that's about as centered around feminism as The Golden Notebook. I originally started reading this so as to counterbalance the happy-go-lucky archetypes that show up without fail in nearly every one of the The Arabian Nights. There's some of that, as well masculine romanticism succumbing to the late 20th century realities of STDs, sexual awakenings of the queer variety counterbalanced with mental stagnancy to the extreme, whatever the -phile term is for the Middle East when it comes to white US women escaping their issues with suburbia, and some really strong overtones of Rebecca in the last parts. Not the unnamed second wife, mind you. The one who wouldn't play by the rules and, here in this novel, is hellbent on staying alive and kicking for however long it takes to get what she wants. Dislike the first person pov characters all you like, but I can easily imagine all of them skateboarding in a burqa towards their intended destination. One of them may come to this conclusion by the tenets of Islam, another by memories of the land of Tony Hawk, but it's not as simple as an "Arab woman surmounts oppression" headline. It never is, of course, but this really drives it home. I wonder if some readers didn't like this cause they've nursed fantasies of what it would be like to be female and obscenely rich in the land the pages of this book describe. Or maybe they expected a single tone of stoic endurance or Oriental escapade instead of bits of humor and pieces of overwhelming horror and a psychological immersion that never ever quits. Ah well. Whatever the case, this is very much a "modern" novel, where the Itches That Must Not Be Scratched are scratched, the results of said scratching are recoiled from in favor of social conformation, and the scratcher lives long enough to repeat ad nauseam. Thank god for politics and the Internet, amiright? I pictured myself sitting in front of the television explaining to Batul and my aunt and my mother what was really going on in the foreign films: the woman whom Mr Rochester kept shut away in Jane Eyre was his mad wife, not his mother.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Rusalka

    It took me a while to pin down my feelings for this book. It raises so many, it was really hard to wade through them all and work out what I thought of the book as a whole. The book is 4 intertwining stories about 4 different women within a very strict, restrictive Islamic society within the Middle East. The best I can find is Saudi Arabia is probably the closest with these restrictions. I loved that this was from the women's perspective which gave us an insight into a world half of us would It took me a while to pin down my feelings for this book. It raises so many, it was really hard to wade through them all and work out what I thought of the book as a whole. The book is 4 intertwining stories about 4 different women within a very strict, restrictive Islamic society within the Middle East. The best I can find is Saudi Arabia is probably the closest with these restrictions. I loved that this was from the women's perspective which gave us an insight into a world half of us would never see. The book is split into 4 parts, each part with a different woman telling their story. The women pop up in other women's stories as they are all connected but your perspective is changing throughout the book. We have Suha from Lebanon who's husband has a contract in this country and they have moved there for him to work for a while. Tamr, who is the daughter of a sheikh and his concubine from Turkey, but is a native to this 'country' and a student of Suha's at the local womens' TAFE. Suzanne, an American housewife who again's husband has a contract in this country, yet she finds all men find her exotic and desirable in this country and never wants to leave. And Nur, who is incredibly spoiled by her very wealthy husband, but there is so much more to that relationship. Some of these women I completely empathised with. Some I was appalled with. But I understood most of them. They were all products of this restrictive society. And it made me so glad that I could drive and go where I wanted, when I wanted, without a man, I can work, I can be educated, I can leave my house without a man I'm related or married to, I can wear what I like and so much more. It was one of those books that immersed you in were you were and I think that's really important, as so many of us write off these places. We don't think about them. We know about them but we don't think about them, as they make us angry and so it's easier not to. And we forget the women within them. It's important to remember. For more reviews visit http://rusalkii.blogspot.com.au/

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sookie

    The lives of four women intertwine in this unknown desert state somewhere in the middle-east. The author's colloquial use of language and metaphors gives the novel a post-modern feel. The author gives voices to four women from various socioeconomic classes. The issues addressed varies from what today's society would call archaic or pedantic; the contrasting nature of complexities the women face makes up the overarching arc. Understanding the clash of modernism and culture is these parts of the The lives of four women intertwine in this unknown desert state somewhere in the middle-east. The author's colloquial use of language and metaphors gives the novel a post-modern feel. The author gives voices to four women from various socioeconomic classes. The issues addressed varies from what today's society would call archaic or pedantic; the contrasting nature of complexities the women face makes up the overarching arc. Understanding the clash of modernism and culture is these parts of the world is necessary for a better appreciation of the novel. The everyday stories of women isn't all that different and it somehow drastically is. Be it sexual diversity or economic freedom, women have to claw the walls to make a superficial dent let alone an everlasting one. With these struggles playing in the background, the author picks some and makes her characters face them. I, we, need to understand; the superficiality of a narrative doesn't necessarily mean the issues don't exist. Its just that the characters have chosen not to play it in this space and time.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Methodtomadness

    So Women of Sand and Myrrh is a better book than most people are giving it credit for, albeit not a fantastic one. Read it more like a Middle Eastern Virginia Woolf novel, and it makes more sense. The news here is not that "hey, women living in unnamed generic Islamic countries can feel oppressed," but that Hanan Al-Shaykh, in 1980-something, was writing such a nuanced account of the very specific ways that female sexuality could be circumscribed and/or redirected in such a world. The internal So Women of Sand and Myrrh is a better book than most people are giving it credit for, albeit not a fantastic one. Read it more like a Middle Eastern Virginia Woolf novel, and it makes more sense. The news here is not that "hey, women living in unnamed generic Islamic countries can feel oppressed," but that Hanan Al-Shaykh, in 1980-something, was writing such a nuanced account of the very specific ways that female sexuality could be circumscribed and/or redirected in such a world. The internal focus of the characters mimics the inward-looking cultural mores of Al-Shaykh's setting; it's a feature, not a flaw, of her style. That said, no, there's not much plot, the pacing is painfully slow and roundabout, and the frustration one feels with the characters doesn't exactly endear them to readers.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Estridge

    Many of the reviews, I believe, are unfair. The English translation was heavily edited. The name of the book, and therefore, the meaning of the story was altered. Even the order of the perspectives were swapped around! This definitely changed our idea of who was the protagonist and who's story we should really be following. If this book was read as it is told in its original form, we would have seen it as Al-Shaykh intended. This story is very important for Middle Eastern feminism, identity, and Many of the reviews, I believe, are unfair. The English translation was heavily edited. The name of the book, and therefore, the meaning of the story was altered. Even the order of the perspectives were swapped around! This definitely changed our idea of who was the protagonist and who's story we should really be following. If this book was read as it is told in its original form, we would have seen it as Al-Shaykh intended. This story is very important for Middle Eastern feminism, identity, and sexuality, and I hold it as a very important book to women all across the globe.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Nissy

    I cant believe they edited the English version of this book for marketing purposes, this is like when Arab translators edit Simon De Beauvoir books claiming its too hard for us to understand . this rating is for the english version, the original book is 4.5 stars.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Tia Gonzales

    revelatory, 4 women who live life 'behind the veil', so much boredom, so much pain, so must thwarted desire, so much pent-up emotion....found the book very sad.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Renee

    Good concept: poor execution. Four disparate Middle Eastren women -- who know or know of each other -- tell their stories about women's lives in a fundamentalist male-dominated society. Each woman's story adds another POV to what's going on with all the other characters. I thought it would be an interesting approach to first-person narrative. The idea, I assume, was to give the reader a view of each character from internal and external POVs. Unfortunately, the writer failed to deliver. The Good concept: poor execution. Four disparate Middle Eastren women -- who know or know of each other -- tell their stories about women's lives in a fundamentalist male-dominated society. Each woman's story adds another POV to what's going on with all the other characters. I thought it would be an interesting approach to first-person narrative. The idea, I assume, was to give the reader a view of each character from internal and external POVs. Unfortunately, the writer failed to deliver. The narrative voice is the same for each woman in spite of their different socioeconomic classes, education levels and experiences. it became difficult in some places to remember which character was telling the story. Toss in one-dimensional male characters, massive doses of angst, overblown descriptions of wealth, dull and resentful descriptions of sex (primary as a means of control -- and not always by men), and the whole thing became a snooze-fest. I'm not into angst, so this did nothing for me. I did finish the book, but it was more because I kept hoping it would redeem itself than out of any real interest.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jordan

    I would venture to say that this is now one of my favorite books. I enjoyed it because the characters were complex and their individual stories were interesting. Contrary to what others might think, this is not just the story of Middle Eastern women, but portrays a very woman experience in general. Though some of the same things may not currently occur in Western society, they once did. I'm not great at writing reviews, but I just wanted to share that this book is not given enough credit. Read it I would venture to say that this is now one of my favorite books. I enjoyed it because the characters were complex and their individual stories were interesting. Contrary to what others might think, this is not just the story of Middle Eastern women, but portrays a very woman experience in general. Though some of the same things may not currently occur in Western society, they once did. I'm not great at writing reviews, but I just wanted to share that this book is not given enough credit. Read it with open eyes.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Amari

    Spectacular. Al-Shaykh is a powerful writer and draws the reader very quickly into the world(s) of her unhappy, unfulfilled characters. The technique of dividing the novel into four sections, each in first person and narrated by a different character, made it feel more like a collection of connected short stories, especially because of interruptions and overlap in the sequence of events. Al-Shaykh's group of four is extremely diverse in all the important ways. They share little more than a Spectacular. Al-Shaykh is a powerful writer and draws the reader very quickly into the world(s) of her unhappy, unfulfilled characters. The technique of dividing the novel into four sections, each in first person and narrated by a different character, made it feel more like a collection of connected short stories, especially because of interruptions and overlap in the sequence of events. Al-Shaykh's group of four is extremely diverse in all the important ways. They share little more than a location and a disconnection from one another and from society -- which is not to say that they are sociopaths (though actually I would say that at least one of them is) but that the society in which they are living does not permit them the sorts of lives they imagine themselves living. [An aside: the exception to this is the sociopath, who is American and rather ordinary but for her blue eyes and pink skin. Her desire to be unusual and desirable leads to a strong attachment to the unnamed middle Eastern country in which she finds herself, and she ignores and fights her unpleasant discoveries about the men and women around her.] Part of Al-Shaykh's genius, as I see it, is the fact that she managed to make all of her characters reflect and inspire in the reader the feeling they all share about each other. The reader experiences the process that each woman goes through: meeting a new acquaintance with excitement and hope, then arriving at disillusionment and boredom coupled with a sometimes frantic striving to connect emotionally in spite of the obvious disjuncts, finally settling into a neurotic dislike of each maladaptive, ambivalent, disappointing so-called friend. While we finish each section glad not to be stuck with such a crazy or boring or passive-aggressive or obsessed friend or lover, the book itself retains its allure to the last -- like the imaginary companion each character so unsuccessfully seeks.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Cecilia

    I liked it, though bits of it were not that interesting but the one where the spoiled princess chick is using uppers and downers to get through her day because life was that boring and at the end of the book , all that they could offer her to make her feel better was a stuff load of PUNK outfits and PUNK hairspray to color her hair ....well...that got me interested in PUNK and then I ended up doing some art gigs with the real PUNK people that inspired her allusions to the outfits in the I liked it, though bits of it were not that interesting but the one where the spoiled princess chick is using uppers and downers to get through her day because life was that boring and at the end of the book , all that they could offer her to make her feel better was a stuff load of PUNK outfits and PUNK hairspray to color her hair ....well...that got me interested in PUNK and then I ended up doing some art gigs with the real PUNK people that inspired her allusions to the outfits in the book...so there you go! All because while we were backpacking my friend Danuta, picked this book up in Canada and then gave it to me to read when she was done, I discovered who those people from Souxsie and Banshee, Public Image limited, Sex pistols etc....were in the course of exploring my art, so thanks...NUR.....I did remember her name from the book! btw. Met a real life Saudi Princess and had coffee with her once, she is not like that, she was not bored or unaccomplished, she had a PH.D in psychology, her own charity and wanted me to paint the royal Pet Cockatoo on her bag and laughed when I told her,"hmm...I am not a royal pet portrait type of artist!"...so maybe Princess NUR in the book should just, cultivate an "inner life" and the book though very important for feminism, should also see that Women in most cultures have great sense of humour and are not always just victims of external circumstances....there are internal stuff that are subject to individual accomplishments and spiritual maturity! :)

  12. 5 out of 5

    Rykia

    Taking place in an unnamed desert state, Women of Sand and Myrrh takes the reader through the lives of four very different women who are in the desert - and seeking to escape from it - for differing reasons. There is Suha, the educated but chronically bored Lebanese exile; Tamr, the rebel who wants to learn and open her own business; Suzanne, the white American who is cheating on her husband with a violent man; and Nur, the wife and mother who is unhappy in both roles and seeks to cope with her Taking place in an unnamed desert state, Women of Sand and Myrrh takes the reader through the lives of four very different women who are in the desert - and seeking to escape from it - for differing reasons. There is Suha, the educated but chronically bored Lebanese exile; Tamr, the rebel who wants to learn and open her own business; Suzanne, the white American who is cheating on her husband with a violent man; and Nur, the wife and mother who is unhappy in both roles and seeks to cope with her loneliness and the luxury of her abandonment through the numbing effects of sex with strangers. Hannan al-Shakyh explicitly explores female sexuality in a society that forbids and denies its existence (which only serves to bring it even more into focus) and gives a voice to and tells the stories of those who are usually kept voiceless. Her prose style is sensuous and lyrical, beautiful and frank.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Friederike

    I read this novel for a literature class ("Literature in Translation") and learned about the changes the translator made to the original text, as well as how the book was "packaged" for the Western market (starting with the cover). This significantly changed the representation of Arab women's agency and empowerment (i.e. completely changing the original title "Misk al-Ghazal" = "The Gazelle's Musk", the re-ordering of the chapters, framing the story within Suha's narrative, while the original I read this novel for a literature class ("Literature in Translation") and learned about the changes the translator made to the original text, as well as how the book was "packaged" for the Western market (starting with the cover). This significantly changed the representation of Arab women's agency and empowerment (i.e. completely changing the original title "Misk al-Ghazal" = "The Gazelle's Musk", the re-ordering of the chapters, framing the story within Suha's narrative, while the original ended with Tamr, etc.). I recommend an excellent article by Michelle Hartman "Gender, Genre, and the (Missing) Gazelle" Arab Women Writers and the Politics of Translation" to learn more about the ideological change the novel undergoes in the translation from Arabic to English.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Zillah

    l must admit l expected a lot more from this book, especially after reading reviews on the cover when l was buying it.. it's composed in an interesting way, divided into 4 parts, each telling a story of one woman, while all four are connected in some way.. the writing style didn't impress me one bit though, and sometimes l struggled with following the story since it jumps from past to present without giving a clear impression of the time..

  15. 5 out of 5

    Heather

    Was disappointed. The author conveyed the clastrophobic atmosphere of being a woman in an Islamic country rather well but I just didn't like the characters. I understand how stunted their lives were and how that molded their personalities, but it went on and on and on.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    Really intresting to read the thoughts and feelings as well as the daily life of what it may be like to live in a land so different from what we're used to, the story line was great and I really was invested in the women's lives.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Nadia

    I went in expecting this to be messy (it was) but still found parts of it interesting in spite of it.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    I really enjoyed this book. A fascinating look into the lives of women in a part of the Middle East. Beautifully written, too!

  19. 5 out of 5

    Daryle

    I loved the idea of this book, but just couldn't get into it. I'm not sure if it was the writing style, translation, or story. A bit of a disappointment.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Rhoda

    An amazing view into a foreign world, sensitively translated

  21. 4 out of 5

    Olivia Moffitt

    I do not really know how to describe this book. It can be a bit confusing as the book covers four different lives, and some or all of them intertwine at some point. I do not know how women from Middle Eastern countries view the book, but it seemed to be very accurate to the experiences I have both heard and observed. But, all of the women's lives have heavy burdens in some ways, and a few rather gruesome descriptions of a few events. The major point I took away from it all was that it is hard to I do not really know how to describe this book. It can be a bit confusing as the book covers four different lives, and some or all of them intertwine at some point. I do not know how women from Middle Eastern countries view the book, but it seemed to be very accurate to the experiences I have both heard and observed. But, all of the women's lives have heavy burdens in some ways, and a few rather gruesome descriptions of a few events. The major point I took away from it all was that it is hard to live in a desert like country, and doubly hard when the individual is a woman in a country with limited rights for women. I also kept on having flashbacks of Tunisia while reading this book. Mainly due to the desert atmosphere, some of the descriptions, and the way life, even in Tunisia, is heavily controlled for women (compared to the US or Europe).

  22. 5 out of 5

    katie

    Amazing book. Written by a woman from Lebanon, set in an 'unnamed desert state', but since the author lived in Saudi Arabia for a while, it's pretty clear it's supposed to be set there. She does such an incredible job telling the story of women in Saudi Arabia from the perspective of several different women, a Lebanese refugee, an American expat, a daughter of a wealthy Saudi family, which shows that there isn't one single experience of women in oppressive Muslim societies. And how women can be Amazing book. Written by a woman from Lebanon, set in an 'unnamed desert state', but since the author lived in Saudi Arabia for a while, it's pretty clear it's supposed to be set there. She does such an incredible job telling the story of women in Saudi Arabia from the perspective of several different women, a Lebanese refugee, an American expat, a daughter of a wealthy Saudi family, which shows that there isn't one single experience of women in oppressive Muslim societies. And how women can be complex, and have different perspectives on the same experiences. It was amazing, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to have their minds open about women living outside of Western countries.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Irwan

    One of the good reads of the year. Picked this up randomly in a huge book fair. No expectation. It reveals the experiences of women in an unnamed dessert country, with all known cultural and religious restrictions. It makes you think, how those restrictions could influence other faraway cultures - nowhere near any desert communities. How odd it can be, with all the adjustments and justifications that happens along its evolutionary path. I also wonder, how the society portrayed in this book has One of the good reads of the year. Picked this up randomly in a huge book fair. No expectation. It reveals the experiences of women in an unnamed dessert country, with all known cultural and religious restrictions. It makes you think, how those restrictions could influence other faraway cultures - nowhere near any desert communities. How odd it can be, with all the adjustments and justifications that happens along its evolutionary path. I also wonder, how the society portrayed in this book has changed over the years since it was written. Not to mention how strange its faraway adaptations have been as well...

  24. 5 out of 5

    Cody Stetzel

    What a great novel. The myriad of characters all had such unique depths, motivations, and personalities; nobody felt like a foil; and there is so much to be learned about the choices and commitments one makes to their selves. I'll be considering the rich array of characters here for months, assuredly, and hope to go back to it soon.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Robin

    I wanted to like this book much more than I did. Conceptually, it’s great. However, one must wade through very murky and ambiguous prose to figure out exactly what the author is attempting to convey, and I often found that my efforts were not worth the cliche.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Debbie

    I was disappointed with this read, as it promised do much. I was interested in life in the desert, but it was written and translated in a very dispassionate way, which made the four women seem somewhat flat.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Joan

    4 stories of women living in the desert of Arabia. All miserable in their own way, virtual captives of their men and lifestyle- not going out unless accompanied by their husband or driver. Wouldn’t recommend it to anyone and threw away rather than recycling it

  28. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Easy to read, hard to comprehend, harder still to forget; this book made me uneasy, as I began to empathise and fear for the characters whilst still maintaining an omniscient perspective on their lives.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie

    Pretty good read, I liked the idea of telling the stories of these different women and how they are linked, and that it ends with the woman whose story was first told. In one of the stories, I found the protagonist a pretty annoying character. But then I guess that's also good writing.. :)

  30. 5 out of 5

    Lauriek

    This is difficult to review. It was choppy and cla. It confusing on what happened when. I was hoping to learn of culture but am not sure if it's a story

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