Monday, June 4, 2007

Reviewing ‘My Name is Salma’ by Fadia Faqir

This is the story of a young unmarried woman from the Levant who becomes pregnant and flees the mountains of the Middle East and the bullet of her brother who plans to kill her to save the family’s honour.

Her escape to Exeter in England traces the projected transformation of ‘Salma’ to ‘Sally’ as she encounters a quaint range of people, many of whom are experiencing different states and degrees of being marooned and exiled.

Written by Jordanian/British writer, Fadia Faqir, this novel incessantly darts from dream to reality, one period to another and from place to place in the space of a few lines. This becomes frustrating and confusing for the reader to follow, yet it symbolically displays the mental barometer of a person with no fixed abode and the crazy world of an asylum seeker who feels “released and imprisoned at the same time.”

My Name is Salma is about being black, Bedouin and Muslim amidst the racism and xenophobia of Britain and the feelings of exasperation and anger at “being so foreign.” One enters into Salma’s skin to experience the cultural differences when she attends a wedding and a funeral or does everyday things like drinking tea, going to the pub or using cutlery in a cafĂ©. Very naturally, readers receive fascinating insights into the Arabic and Bedouin cultures in which Salma was raised.

This novel is about the experience of being a Muslim while living in a culture that is generally unsympathetic to head scarves and in a country where “religion is as weak as tea.” Salma questions her religion, adopts a ‘when in Rome’ approach but in the process of seeking acceptance, feels agonizing shame and crippling guilt.

This volume powerfully confronts readers with the practice of honour killing. One feels through these pages a measure of the terror and injustice endured by this Islamic woman who is judged to have “stained her family” in a way that may only be erased by her death. Fadia Faqir also gives a glimpse into the way this practice slowly sucked the life out of Salma’s separated family.

My Name is Salma is not only a book to read but a novel to inhale and savour. Chapter headings like ‘Sage Tea’, 'Lilac or Jasmine’ and ‘Butter, Honey and Coconuts’ are suggestive of the many ways that fragrances arouse, transport memories and are powerful in their capacity to summon.

This story is spiced with a humour that helpfully lightens the mood and relieves for a few moments the crushing pain of losing homeland, culture, language, freedom, identity, name, customs, family and most excruciatingly, the loss of a daughter.

This is a heavy story but a most important book to read.

Fadia Faqir, My Name is Salma, (London: Doubleday, 2007). This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 66.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front Cover of My Name is Salma.