LIKE THE BIBLICAL story of Christ’s birth, Geraldine Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women begins with a woman refused a room at an inn. In Brooks’ tale, the ‘inn’ is a modern hotel in the Saudi Arabian city of Dhahran in the early 1990s, where the Australian journalist is on assignment for the Wall Street Journal. She is refused a room not because she is pregnant – she isn’t – nor because the hotel is fully booked; rather, it is contrary to the laws of the desert kingdom for a woman to travel without her husband. Only a prostitute would do so, as the male receptionist implies. When the affronted traveller tries to bed down on a sofa behind a plant in the lobby, the police are called.
Nobody is fined, jailed or beaten, but a foreigner’s eyes have been opened and don’t much like what they see. Shocked by injustice, Brooks embarks on an investigation into the roots of gender discrimination in Islamic cultures. Yet her surprise at being rejected by the hotelier, which serves so well to set up the story, appears on reflection to be somewhat studied. At the time of the incident, Brooks had been living and working in the Middle East for three years; she must have known what was in store.
Welcome to the artful world of literary and narrative non-fiction, where the author’s experience is shuffled and edited in ways that dramatise and personalise the story for readers. Nothing is invented, but reality must be re-ordered if the intended effect is to be achieved. Life rarely imitates art; moments of significance are punctuated by long periods in which nothing very interesting happens. But in narrative non-fiction, as in photography, reality is focused and framed, and the choice of subject determines what is included and what is left out. We do not get ‘the whole story as it happened’.
The way the narrative is arranged, and the voices in which it is told, are as important – if not more important – than the story itself. The narrator, for example, should not be confused with the author. The latter constructs the former, editing reality as they go, selecting those aspects of their own experience and character that will be shared with the reader. This narrator need not always be likeable – revealing a few flaws often works better than relating a litany of heroic or superhuman exploits. But we do need to trust the narrator, or at least have a reasonably firm grasp of who they ‘are’ and where they are coming from, lest confusion about this distract us from the story.
Readers generally have little interest in the finer points of literary genres. We scan the labels of processed foods with far greater attention. Yet, in complex democratic societies where public opinion matters and the work of explaining reality is so often contracted out to writers, the forms in which writers work, and how those forms function in representing reality, should be viewed more seriously. Narrative non-fiction should not be taken at face value.
In Nine Parts of Desire, penned some twenty years ago and a decade before its author won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel March (Viking Press, 2005), Geraldine Brooks is properly sparing when it comes to personal disclosures. The book, after all, is not primarily about her. As Islam is the topic, disclosures about her religious faith are sensibly offered. We learn of her Catholic upbringing in Sydney, and her conversion to Judaism as an act of solidarity with her husband’s often oppressed people.
She is much more generous with her opinions, or more precisely her convictions, which can be problematic. But a narrative logic underpins this choice. Brooks is uncomfortable not just with contemporary Islamist attitudes toward women, but also with educated Muslim women who choose freely to conform to traditional Muslim practices such as wearing hijab.
It is this discomfort – not some incident in a Saudi hotel – that actually drives her narrative. Like Helen Garner in This House of Grief (Text, 2014), she struggles mightily with her material and herself in a harrowing quest to resolve such irreconcilable contradictions. But Brooks goes further by giving the reader a carefully researched and properly contextualised history of Islam and survey of its contemporary practices. She delineates the status of the faith’s various religious texts and traditions, with the Qu’ran (the literal word of God) at the apex, and the meticulously sourced hadiths (the Prophet Muhammad’s life and sayings) and sunnat (things he said, did or allowed in his presence) forming the basis of many different interpretations of what is haram (forbidden), wajib (obligatory), makruh (discouraged) or sunnat (desirable). So men, for example, may emulate the Prophet by growing a beard, but doing so is not obligatory.
In many cases, Brooks notes, the medieval practices for which Islam is nowadays condemned, such as female genital mutilation, have no provenance in the Qu’ran. Nor can the contemporary Islamist injunction that all women cover themselves and live in seclusion from all men except male relatives be sourced to the Holy Book. Originally it applied only to the Prophet’s wives, but was extended to all Muslim women by the third caliph of Islam, Omar. Even today, this injunction is ignored in Iran where women participate in many areas of public life, although only men are allowed to publicly swim.
There is a contract – ironically, an unwritten one – between journalists and their audiences. It requires that news journalists back any proposition they advance with facts, and exercise fairness in their interpretation of those facts. When journalists branch out into longer forms of non-fiction writing the contract, inevitably, undergoes a variation that takes account of the authors’ deeper engagement with their subject, an interaction that erodes objectivity and unleashes personal quirks and biases.
Brooks honours the contract while taking advantage of the waiver that allows personal opinions to intrude. She is pleasantly surprised by Islam’s progressive aspects. The five pillars of the faith, she tells us, include not just giving alms, but donating 2.5 per cent of one’s net worth every year. Islam also celebrates sex in ways that might make other religions blush. Attending a conference of radical Islamist women in Iran, Brooks is invited to join them for tea in a hotel suite. What she finds amazes her.
The woman in front of me had frosted blond hair streaming to her waist. She wore a silk negligee with a deep plunge neckline. On the bed behind her, another woman lay languidly in a bust-hugging, slit-sided scarlet satin nightgown. Through the filmy fabrics, it was obvious that their bodies were completely hairless, like Barbie dolls. It was, they explained, sunnat, or Islamically recommended, for married women to remove all body hair every twenty days...Muslim men, they said, also should remove their body hair. For men, the recommended time between depilation is forty days.
This vignette reminds us how one-dimensional our Western understanding of Islam has become, framed narrowly as it is around political and religious violence.
As a writer, Brooks is organised and economical. Like a sensible, well-maintained car, her compact prose doesn’t let you down or get in the way. As a person she means no harm, and tries to understand. The Islamist upsurge, with its return to roots and rejection of the West, is contextualised as a reaction to the failure of Arab nationalism to produce much more than wars and failing economies. Brooks empathises by recalling her own youthful opposition to Australia being drawn into America’s Vietnam War in the 1960s.
Eventually, however, the crimes committed against women in the name of Islam exhaust her tolerance. She cites a British study that found women married to men from Muslim backgrounds were eight times more likely to be killed by their spouses than other women in Britain. She quotes research at the time of her writing, which found that one-fifth of Muslims lived in communities that sanctioned some form of interference with the genitals of women and girls. Barbarous punishments for adulterers and homosexuals, such as stoning and immolation, leave her aghast. She sums up Islam’s ambiguous relationship with sex in words attributed to Muhammad’s son-in-law, Abu Taleb: ‘Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.’
Great title for a book.
Towards the end of the story, Brooks writes, ‘At some point, every religion, especially one that purports to encompass a complete way of life and system of government, has to be called to account for the kind of life it offers the people in the lands where it predominates.’ This is, of course, true, yet in the context of this book it strikes a jarring note. We applaud the author’s bravery and aplomb in her role as an insistent and unwelcome question on two legs; however, the only religion being called to account here is Islam, a faith that inspires much that is right and wrong, but which rules no nation in the world today.
More importantly, this is dangerous territory for a literary form that privileges impressions over analysis. By slipping off the strictures of formal history and journalism, writers of literary and narrative non-fiction are able to enrich their stories with texture and depth. But along with the benefits there is a price to be paid for the alchemy that is creative non-fiction. Robyn Davidson’s camel trek across the Red Centre in Tracks (Jonathon Cape, 1980), or Nicholas Bouvier’s 1960s journey in a Fiat Toplino from Europe to Afghanistan in L’Usage du monde (Payot, 1963), or even my own dip in the Ganges at Varanasi in Inhaling the Mahatma (HaperCollins, 2006) are not analytical acts, but acts of immersion in the Other, crossing cultural, religious and political lines to challenge and perhaps change one’s own beliefs. Bouvier’s aphorism – ‘If one does not accord the journey the right to destroy us a little bit, one might as well stay at home’ – captures its essence.
Brooks, too, immerses herself in the Other, but emerges with her high-minded principles unscathed.
The stories she tells and the way she tells them beautifully evoke her personal hejira (mystic journey or pilgrimage, in Arabic literally ‘to leave one’s own land’), her struggle to understand and the joys as well as the problems she experiences in her engagement with Muslim people and cultures. The captivatingly mawkish chapter in which she learns belly dancing and heads off to the seedy New Arizona Nightclub in Cairo to perform, wearing an outfit with ‘enough beading to buy a small Pacific atoll’, is touching, funny and unforgettable. Yet, having succumbed to the urge to judge, she saddles herself with an obligation to suggest a solution to the problem of Islam and women. She proposes that women from any country where men claim a religious right to inhibit women’s freedom should have the right to asylum in other countries.
There is, unfortunately [added emphasis], no chance that granting of automatic asylum to women suffering such gender persecution would lead to a flood of refugees. Only a minority have the means to leave behind their country… But such a step would send a signal to regimes whose restrictions have nothing to do with the religion they claim to uphold. And that signal would be that we, too, have certain things we hold sacred: among them are liberty, equality, the pursuit of happiness and the right to doubt.
At this point, the literary form in which Brooks is writing staggers like a camel whose knees buckle under an unsustainable load. With her powers of analysis and empathy exhausted, an emotional author intervenes in the narrative with a frankly barmy plan to save the world.
Every reader will have their own response to Nine Parts of Desire. For me it’s a case of mixed feelings. I respect the author’s sincerity of purpose, her great energy and determination, tremendous research, good writing, sturdy values and plain chutzpah. But in literary terms, this book is a struggle between a journalist, a creative writer and a moralist.
Unfortunately, the moralist wins, undoing the good work of the other two. Had she listened more attentively to her own sublime creation – a narrator as fetching as you will ever read – the problem might have been avoided. The narrator could have told her that no book, no author and certainly no moralist can ever solve the problems of an entire religion.
Instead, we are left with a not unusual surplus of concern afforded to a Western sensibility injured by an East whose suffering is beyond compare. By travelling widely and curiously in the region, Brooks has managed to avoid ignorant generalisations about her subject. But Islam has clearly failed her. The more important question, surely, is whether it fails Muslims. It’s a question only they can answer, but when it comes to women who choose hijab, Brooks finds it difficult to listen.
There is a sense of tragedy in this end: a quest lost at the pilgrim’s own over-reaching hand, its outcome an ironic testament to the limits of the developed world’s understanding and empathy, and our preference for solving other people’s problems while ignoring our own. We are stranded, lost for words in our incomprehension. We have tried, but ultimately failed to walk in their shoes.
Christopher Kremmer lectures at the University of New South Wales. He is the author of The Carpet Wars: A journey across the Islamic heartlands (HarperCollins, 2002), a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Canberra and a Fellow of the Australia India Institute, based at the University of Melbourne.