Friday, December 19, 2014

‘Diary of a Jewish Muslim’ (Book Review)

The best thing a new story has going for it is an unusual character, circumstance, or setting. Diary of a Jewish Muslim: An Egyptian Novel (AUC Press, 2014), written by Kamal Ruhayyim and translated by Sarah Enany, had all three, making it treat to read. I doubt there are many fictional books about Jews in Arab countries, and even fewer readily available in English. Add in an inter-religious marriage, and this is definitely not your typical coming-of-age novel.

I’ll say right off: Don’t believe the inside book cover. The story actually dates from the 1950s to the 1970s, not the 1930s to the 1960s mentioned in the publisher’s description, causing me some unnecessary confusion. The Suez War has ended, and Egypt’s Muslims and Jews live in a world of bigotry, hostility, and antagonism coming from both sides. Because of the worsening political situation, many Jews are immigrating to other countries like France for asylum. This is the world in which Galal is born and raised. The only son of a Muslim father he’s never met and a Jewish mother, he takes us on a journey of laughter and tears through his formative years, as he tries to discover his true identity.

I liked this book straightaway for three reasons. First, it isn’t shy about the religious tensions. The reader has to learn how to like, or at least empathize with, the characters despite their bigotry, rather than being treated with a watered-down version of it. Second, while popular culture likes to focus on the love of the Romeo and Juliet and their right to get together, few people care to talk about what happens to the children of mixed unions, who often grow up confused about who they are, unable to really hold on to anything permanent or confidently pursue love of their own. As the outcome of an inter-racial marriage, I could identify with Galal as he constantly feels out of place in both sides of his family and not fully accepted by his peers. A lot of readers might find this depressing, but it’s arguably realistic.

Third, I thought the diary approach was particularly entertaining for the early years. The reader is told what happens from the baby’s, toddler’s, and child’s perspectives, not from a grown man’s perspective looking back on his past. The reader sees the religious and cultural conflict, not as the adults who perpetuate them see them, but as a child just learning how to navigate through life sees them: confusing, unfair, and often contradictory.

What didn’t I like about Diary of a Jewish Muslim? At times, the book can be a rough read. Some religious and cultural references are explained, while others are sort of left to the reader to figure out. Once or twice, I was confused about who was speaking, possibly a flaw in the author’s writing style, possibly an error in the translation. And I had to reread the last three chapters to make sense of the ending. I think I know where the author was trying to go with it, but I don’t think he was successful in getting his main character there. So while I enjoyed the beginning and middle, I was left unsatisfied with the close. However, I don’t want that to keep you from at least checking it out. The book’s unique elements might be enough to win the hearts of many a reader.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.