Perceptive Travel Book Reviews March/April 2007
By Anastasia M. Ashman

In this issue: Zaatar Days, Henna Nights: Adventures, Dreams, and Destinations Across the Middle East, Jungle Child, and Mexico, A Love Story: Women Write About the Mexican Experience.

Zaatar Days, Henna Nights: Adventures, Dreams, and Destinations Across the Middle East
by Maliha Masood

Travel can be transformative. Change was certainly on Maliha Masood's mind when she set out on a 10–month journey through the crescent of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey. Perhaps the souqs, mosques and nightclubs would hold a key to her conflicted existence as a Muslim American Gen–Xer.

At the start of her reflective tale Maliha is two distinct and dissatisfied people: a Pakistani–born twenty–eight year old coming unmoored from her Eastern roots and faith, and a depressed dot–commer bored of living in her parents' suburban Seattle basement. By the end she's bruised from love and battered by cultural missteps but also a blossoming writer whose next book I'd like to read, a proponent of the Middle East, and a woman newly confident in both Islamic faith and feminist philosophies.

This promising debut has bald patches. For a stretch she travels with an Australian girl crush––and crutch. When Maliha relies on the footloose beauty to attract people and opportunity, both the reader and narrator become testy from lack of attention to her stated goals. Uneventful weeks spent dancing in Beirut discos are condensed into a few lines, while a date–drugging incident in Damascus is weathered lightly as an unconvincing Masood tries to match her Aussie friend's cool.

When she's on her own, personality and purpose surfaces. Struggling to reconcile her religious devotion with Pacific Northwest slackerdom, Maliha gravitates to issues of Middle Eastern faith. She prays at venerated mosques, attends Sufi concerts, and detects the echoes of Islam in the hospitality she enjoys in the most humble homes. It's significant that Masood's position on the religious spectrum shifts depending on where she is and with whom: Muslim religious custom is diverse geographically, politically, ethnically and individually. Sometimes the author is more observant, such as when a Kurdish family (whom she met when they were hanging out at a Syrian mosque) simply watches as she prays before bedtime. Other times she's equally engaged in progressive ijtihad (religious inquiry), questioning a group of Egyptian academics about Islam's view of women. In Istanbul she's unexpectedly conservative when a secular Turk admonishes her for choosing to veil.

To me, (and I imagine many people with culturally melded backgrounds, presents and futures), the most intriguing thread of Zaatar Days is the essential conflict of Masood's identity. It causes trouble everywhere she goes––for her, and for people unable to categorize Maliha or grasp her idiosyncrasies. In Cairo, passing for a local with her dark looks and veiled hair doesn't afford her foreign privilege when she mistakenly tries to use an expired metro pass. Brazen, she heads into the Sahara alone with an unknown Bedouin guide and a cultural abyss suddenly yawns between her and her Egyptian friends. In Jordan, trudging through the streets with her overladen Western–style backpack while sporting what she judges is respectful local attire (head scarf and harem pants) sends mixed signals to natives and fellow travelers. Later, the identity crisis takes a perilous turn. Treating her faith as a security pass, she introduces herself as a Muslim woman and boldly follows a stranger into his Aleppo home, leading his family to assume Masood wants to become his second wife. A scary hostage situation develops! In Turkey, military officials at Mount Nemrut calculate that her photographs of Kurdish friends and dozens of passport stamps means she must be a spy.

These aren't just travel hijinks. Masood's battle for self–knowledge promises to be life–long, and current affairs only compound it. Returning home days before 9/11/01 politicized the account as she dutifully contrasts her realities with American media coverage of Muslims, Arabs and Islam. A much more affecting voice (and verdict) appears when, after a month's chaste romance with a penniless poet in Aleppo, Maliha grows deeply honest: "I didn't want to leave, but I wasn't brave enough to stay."

Jungle Child
by Sabine Kuegler

Translated from its original German, this is not your average tale of culture shock. Thirtysomething Sabine Kuegler is in an earnest struggle to find a home in the modern world––a place made incomprehensible by her Tarzan upbringing. Categorized as travelogue, it's probably of more interest to anthropologists.

Born in Nepal to parents who were linguists and Christian missionaries, in 1980 the 7–year old Sabine left Germany to settle with her family in Irian Jaya, Indonesia – the Western half of Papua New Guinea. The Kueglers were to school the newly discovered Fayu, a Stone Age tribe she describes as being known for "cannibalism and unbelievable brutality." Sabine's parents planned to teach the Iyarike clan "love instead of hate, to forgive instead of kill"––as well as things like math and the Indonesian language. Over the course of nine years, the missionaries' second daughter went native.

On her first day in the rainforest Sabine traded her primping mirror for a child's bow and arrow set. Soon she was eating grilled bat wings and fat white grubs like her Fayu friends Ohri and Faisa. Meanwhile her father created a Fayu dictionary and presided over and abated blood feuds, and her mother taught school and provided medical attention for the tribe. She reports that for the first time in decades, warring clans made peace on the Kueglers' watch, while the indigenous children learned to laugh. "With us, they discovered the childhood that had been stolen from them by hate, fear, and tribal war," declares Kuegler in typical black and white fashion.

Dependent on her parents to explain the world, she becomes a young woman who accepts without question the value of her family's work in the jungle. Left unaddressed: Would a self–sufficient tribe need the Kueglers' tutorial in anything at all? Was it wise to raise European children in an isolated environment without a future?

Eventually Sabine wonders how she can become a German adult, pursue a college education, find a man to marry. The journey back begins at Swiss finishing school, where she tries to shed her jungle manners. But underneath, the girl is dangerously naïve. She doesn't realize how barbaric the civilized world can be. Hard–knock lessons in modern realities lead to a suicide attempt.

Kuegler is now a mother of four with a media production company in Munich. She lies awake at night pondering the psychological stresses of current life (salary caps, time management and retirement planning). Despite all the labor–saving contemporary conveniences Sabine claims she yearns to be back in the jungle with its more challenging physicality and simpler set of social demands (protect and help the tribe at all times). Yet when the clock radio blares at dawn, her hypocritical dreams shift to the automatic coffee maker she wants to buy.

Sabine cannot return to the jungle because she knows she does not belong there––but her melancholic transition to life in the twenty–first century seems incomplete. The heartfelt urge to reveal her strange trip is underlined by the fact that her pregnant elder sister traveled from America to help finish the simply–written memoir, and her younger brother translated the book into English. Apparently all of the siblings yearn to make sense of an unorthodox childhood in "a land lost to time."

The gap between them and the rest of us may be too far to bridge. Primitivity still exists in Kuegler's voice. In 2007 it's hard to relate to a missionary tale in Mama and Papa language reminiscent of wholesome Little House pioneer Laura Ingalls Wilder. Stilted storytelling and wide–eyed value judgments weigh down Kuegler's views of the contemporary world, as well as the Lost Valley of Irian Jaya. Understandably antiquated in style, Jungle Child is a much less satisfying read than it could be, given the author's dramatic experience of cultural immersion.

Mexico, A Love Story: Women Write About the Mexican Experience
Edited by Camille Cusumano

Mexico is the third in Camille Cusumano's Love Story series for Seal Women's Travel, following perennial destinations Italy (2005) and France (2004). Perhaps because her prolific formula concerns such popular locales, and the fact that this nation south of the border is within traveling reach of multitudes of norteamericanos, there is a familiar air about the way the Mexican collection is treated.

However, the country only seems well known. As a 20–year resident of border state California I have no idea where Cuchefauche or Ciudad Obregon are located, not to mention what these towns are known for, and it's doubtful that people from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas would know either. Unfortunately, Mexico doesn't tell us or provide a map. As travel literature the collection could have benefited from more orientation to situate the reader geographically, socially, politically and historically. A few tips on pronunciation wouldn't have hurt either: how does one begin to sound out the name of the lizardy Aztec god of chocolate Quetzalcoatl? (It's "kets–ah–kwah–dul".)

Among the 22 backpackers, artists, teachers and volunteers whose reminiscences appear here, Mexico lacks the flashy contributions of notable expatriates like those who grace the France volume. The most revealing and finely observed pieces come from women in love with Mexicans. Sophia Raday, a Stanford grad currently writing a memoir which explores her topic in depth, shares a picaresque tale of the six weeks she spent with an "alternative to the Peace Corps" in border–town Tijuana. Living in an abandoned school bus on the grounds of a squatter settlement, she washed dishes for the kitchen of a metal recycling plant which employed some of the country's poorest people. In the process, she fell in love with a charismatic and one–legged man. Karin Finell contributes a Technicolor tale of doomed, aristocratic romance in Guadalajara circa 1958.

Mexicans also become preferred family and friends for a slew of other writers. Kathleen Hamilton's coming of age in Acapulco in the '70s is tenderly humorous while Linda Grant Niemann, who takes a vacation with the cop girlfriend she's on the verge of dumping, finds her reason south of the border. Upon arriving in the capital Mexico City with its population of 25 million, the policewoman is impressed that tear gas is for sale, yet is compelled to view everyone as a potential perp. In the southern state of Oaxaca, Kathy Jo Brisker takes part in a Day of the Dead memorial ceremony–– the playful, reverent blend of indigenous Aztec, Mayan, and Christian beliefs–– and writes movingly of honoring her colorful Brooklyn Jewish mother who had a "Mexican soul".

Mexico effectively evokes iconic images of the land: adobe and white washed walls, bright embroidery, shiny blue–black hair and clean pressed shirts, vultures on a Spanish church steeple, red chilies laid out to dry, beaten silver jewelry glinting in the sun. Sand, sea, and cactuses. And the tastes: limes, steamed cornmeal tamales, guacamole, cinnamony chocolate, the milky almond–flavored drink horchata, pan dulce sweet bread, savory mole, and mezcal with its drowned worm.

The anthology also touches on the frictions at play when gringas go south. For superpower Americans, economically disadvantaged Mexico is a destination rife with social conflict. (One writer calls the border "a terrible and beautiful scar".) The culture of Mexico bleeds into the USA, while the American way of life taunts like a mirage to the north. Rather than understanding, bilateral prejudices often grow. Yet for Mexicans and Americans with family and lives on both sides, it will always be simply a line in the sand.

Disclaimer: Seal Press released my anthology Tales from the Expat Harem; Mexico contributor Kathleen Hamilton appeared in my collection. –AA

Anastasia M. Ashman co–edited the #1 internationally best–selling Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey, a nonfiction anthology recommended by National Geographic Traveler and Lonely Planet Turkey. A native of Berkeley, California, she holds a degree in Classical Greek, Roman and Near Eastern Archaeology from Bryn Mawr College. Anastasia currently lives in Istanbul with her Turkish husband, where she is at work on a travel memoir Berkeley to Byzantium: The Reorientation of a West Coast Adventuress.

Anastasia last appeared in Perceptive Travel with a review of Romance on the Road.

See Perceptive Travel's review of Tales from the Expat Harem here.

Also in this issue:

Zaatar Days, Henna Nights

Buy Zaatar Days, Henna Nights in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Jungle Child

Buy Jungle Child in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

Mexico, A Love Story

Buy Mexico, A Love Story in your local bookstore or online here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK
Fishpond (Australia)

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