Bettye Hammer Givens,
The Diaries of Emily Saidouili
(Paris American Academy, 2001)

In a press release accompanying the publication of this book, the publicist states -- in hindsight I am tempted to say "has the audacity to state" -- that in view of the antagonism between America and the Islamic world in the wake of 9-11, readers puzzled by the phenomenon of Islam would do well to read The Diaries of Emily Saidouili. So when I took up this book I had high hopes. Unfortunately, I must issue a warning: Reader, beware!

In the first 10 pages or so the author manages to lose all credibility. The text is rife with factual errors, inconsistencies and improbabilities. Just a few examples: Ramadan (actually the Islamic month of fasting) is the celebration of Allah's prayer to Muhammad. Since when does God worship his prophet? On the same page devout Muslims serve a meal that contains alcohol. Half a page further a pious and modest Muslim mum starts to bellydance in front of her husband and son. Later on we are supposed to believe that the first name of the main character's spouse, a Muslim hailing from Morocco, is Benjamin -- a biblical name of Jewish origin. This same individual, who has grown up in this former French colony in North-Africa, conducts his conversations in "clipped English," rather than Arabic or French, because his father, the "minister of the post office" (what kind of a position is that?), prefers it. But the moment Benjamin (or Ben for short) loses his temper, his linguistic ability is reduced to the kind of pidgin English spoken by stereotypical Arab terrorists in B-movies. By the way, the evil father-in-law is also deeply involved in the conspiracy to overthrow the Shah of Iran because of his western ways. So here is a Moroccan cabinet member who insists his son speaks English at home, plotting to overthrow the pro-Western ruler of a country more than 2,000 miles away?

Instead of helping us to make sense of the complexities and tremendous differences within the Islamic world, we are presented with a caricature. The Islamic world is a menacing monolithic bloc peopled by buffoons, adulterous misogynists and sultry courtesans. But the book has further shortfalls that cannot be attributed to faulty knowledge about the Middle East or Islam. From the background information provided on Betty Hammer Givens, I deduce that she has been to Morocco, because she has worked with the American writer Paul Bowles, who resided there for decades. She also holds a degree in writing and has conducted writing workshops for almost 20 years.

That makes a number of other strange mistakes all the more irritating. Although a proud independent nation, the Moroccan currency is erroneously given as the franc, but later it has miraculously (and by the way correctly) converted into the dirham. I also fail to understand why the Spanish ambassador is not resident in the Moroccan capital Rabat, but in the northern port of Tangiers, where this novel is situated. From a professional writer I would have expected some more likely characters as protagonists. Not only are they one-dimensional, but they are also presented in odd combinations. Emily's bigamist husband, an educated, multi-lingual scion of a rich business family, is also married to a boorish peasant woman. She is not even beautiful, so what can possibly have been the motivation in this land of arranged marriages? The mother-in-law is on one page a demure, homely housewife, but overnight she turns into a liberated, bellydancing partygoer. When we first meet the main character, Emily, she relates that she was left pregnant by her insincere college sweetheart, only to give the child up at birth for adoption and jump in bed and then elope with the first "oriental prince" that crosses her path....

I have struggled to find something positive to say about The Diaries of Emily Saidouili, but regretfully I must confess that -- in all respects -- this book is just a gross disappointment.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 6 April 2003

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