04 November 2007

Muslim Meanderings [book review]

I remember clearly the feeling I had after I’d stepped off of the container ship and walked into downtown Auckland. I stood on a corner weighed down by both my heavy backpack and the unexpected question “What do I do now?”

The simple answer is that I spent the next nine months exploring New Zealand, Australia, and Southeast Asia. The deeper questions, to some degree, haunt every traveler (and perhaps a few tourists): “Why am I here?” “What pushed me to leave home?” And then, there’s “Where will I sleep tonight?”

In her travels through Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, Maliha Masood faced additional questions. A Pakistan-born American Muslim woman, she ponders in her travel journal Zaatar Days, Henna Nights additional questions about the meaning of identity, religion, home, and friendship.

Masood frequently ruminates on her ambiguous standing. As an American (and as a woman defying local norms by traveling without a plan, and without male supervision) she’s an odd outsider. As a Muslim and by the grace of her ethnically ambiguous looks, she’s often able to fit it visually and culturally better than any tourist.

Striking is Masood’s willingness to be swept along by spontaneous events. A dinner invitation here, a new friendship with a student there. I cringed a little at each such story, imagining the worst. Masood does get into some sticky situationson: She's mistaken for a Kurdish militant in Turkey, and has to escape the home of one over-eager admirer via a hasty jump from a rooftop. But overall her openness to synchronicity serves her well, resulting in close friendships and a number of tour guides considering her more a friend than another customer.

This is Masood’s first book, and it shows in the occasional clunker of a sentence. Overall, however, the writing is fresh and honest and engaging. It’s important to bear in mind that her travels took place before the 9/11 attacks, and in her epilogue written back in her Seattle-area home, Masood includes a caution in her promotion of travel as a way to get to know the Middle East and its people.

“…I believe that the Middle East I once knew and loved can still be found in spirit if you only take the effort to go there and look. Maybe not in a crazy sort of way that blindly hurls you halfway across the world on a one-way ticket, but given the undeniable dangers in certain places, at least in a way that still is responsible, considerate, and open minded.”

And if you aren’t yet ready to go there, Zaatar Days, Henna Nights will certainly give a hint of the people and places of the Middle East, beyond the common newspaper headlines.

Zaatar Days, Henna Nights
by Maliha Masood

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