Middle Eastern Journeys, Pt. 2

princess-sultanas-daughtersThis is the second post about the books selected by readers for a recent meeting of the Williamsburg Regional Library’s staff book group. The theme for the meeting was books set in the Middle East or South Asia.

Connie and Melissa read two of the works of Jean Sasson, which claim to be autobiographies “by proxy,” in which Sasson retells the stories a Saudi Arabian princess who told her about the travails of women in the upper levels of Saudi culture, particularly women married into the royal house of Saud. Princess; Princess Sultana’s Daughters; and Princess Sultana’s Circle, about a woman whose name Sasson changed to protect her identity, have been stirring up attention for years. On one side are those who believe the “biographies” are highly embellished or simply made up, on the other are readers who find the books moving, and indicative of something very wrong in Saudi culture, even if the stories may be exaggerated. Any book group that takes on these books should explore the various controversies, and perhaps take care not to stereotype whole cultures based on them, but at the same time, these and the many other “life-behind-the-veil” narratives don’t arise from a vacuum. They deserve the attention of readers concerned with human rights or the plight of women.inside-the-kingdom1

Connie also brought another of these works, Carmen bin Laden’s Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia. The former sister-in-law of Osama bin Laden, half-Swiss/half-Persian by birth, bin Laden eventually convinced her husband to move back to Switzerland, where after yet more bad behavior on his part, she separated from him and managed to avoid return to Saudi Arabia. While not as lurid (or as fun to read) as the Sasson books, it succeeds in painting a personal picture of a bad situation.

pirate-coastFinally, Cheryl from WRL’s Adult Services division visited a different historical period, taking up The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 by Richard Zacks. It’s a great historical tale about an American ship that ran aground in Tripoli harbor in 1803 and was captured by the Barbary pirates. The local Moslem ruler of the time took the ship’s contents and captured 300 U.S. sailors and marines into slavery. An unlikely diplomat named William Eaton created an unlikely coalition, made a brutal cross-desert march, and then formulated a civil war in Tripoli. Unfortunately, Jefferson negotiated a different solution, undercutting Eaton’s efforts and selling out his allies. It’s a fascinating, cinematic incident that makes for great reading (though not one of Jefferson’s finer moments.)

What books would you have brought to our discussion? Any recommendations for other groups interested in exploring literature set in the Middle East?



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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