Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Turning the Page

Two years ago, when I first moved to Kenya, I made a commitment to myself – a literary commitment. I felt that if I were to truly understand what it meant to live in an African country then I had to do my homework.

I made a pact with myself to read at least one book a month (fiction or non-fiction) about Africa or by an African author. Initially, I tried to narrow my scope to Kenya but quickly realized that my somewhat voracious reading habit would not be satisfied by such constraints. My subsequent selections took me from pre-Apartheid South Africa through Mugabe’s torturous reign in Zimbabwe, to white Kenya’s checkered past and the battle for the souls of child soldiers in Sierra Leone.

I have kept more or less to my resolution and during those months where finding time to read was difficult, I made up for lapses by reading an extra “theme” approved book the following month. Since I usually read my fair share of books each month, my challenge simply expanded my literary horizons to a genre with which I am now obsessed.

Curiously, I have recently discovered that my small reading convention has taken on a wider audience. The “African Reading Challenge” has provoked hundreds of readers around the world to do what I’ve been doing – travel Africa through literature. Despite inadvertently participating for the last two years, I haven’t joined the Challenge but would like to recommend some of my favourite applicable titles.

Keep in mind, that as a temporary Kenyan, I allowed at least some of my choices to be determined by geography. So in no order in particular I would like to recommend:

A Long Way Gone – Ismael Beah (Sierra Leone)
Last King of Scotland – Giles Foden (Uganda)
White Mischief – James Fox (Kenya)
Facing Mount Kenya – Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya)
House of Stone – Chistina Lamb (Zimbabwe)
Swahili for the Broken Hearted – Peter Malone (trans-continental)
Where We Have Hope – Andrew Meldrum (Zimbabwe)
God’s Bits of Wood – Sembene Ousmane (Senegal)
Emma’s War – Deborah Scroggins (Sudan)
The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith (Botswana)

Early next month, I will continue my real-life African adventure and move to Cairo. Because of this impending move, I decided to focus my reading on a part of Africa I had not yet read about in my literary journey – Egypt – and the Islamic world in general.

This morning, I finished the first of my initial selections – “The Yacoubian Building.” Written by the man who will soon (I’m told) become my dentist, Alaa Al Aswany, the book tells the tale of the residents of the titular block of flats. From the troubled son of the doorman to the numerous rich businessmen with libido issues, the characters are drawn vividly and sympathetically, urging the reader to discover the twisted roots at the base of the Yacoubian Building.

The building, we are told, actually exists in Cairo exactly where the author placed it; so too do the conflicting and intersecting worlds of Western values and excess and Islamic traditions and fundamentalism. These different faces of Cairo live together not only in the author’s early 1990’s Egypt but also inside the Yacoubian Building and on its roof where the majority of the people who call the building home live.

My follow-up book, which Hubby picked up as a surprise, has thus far proven to be magnificently interesting. “Nine Parts of Desire” by Geraldine Brooks explores the outwardly silent world of Muslim women. Only a few chapters in and I can already say with conviction that it is definitely in the running for my top ten “Best Reads of the Year.” The current reigning number one is Reading “Lolita in Tehran” which I have recommended and happily gushed about ad nausem to any and all who will listen.

So what does any of this mean? Am I recommending that you join my reading safari through Africa? Perhaps – if that’s where your books take you. More importantly, I urge you to discover your own backyard or immediate universe through the books it has inspired. You never know – you may even find new heroes to exalt or new dreams to chase.

5 comments:

jack said...

I strongly recommend, "Cairo, the City Victorious".
It is an entertaining history of Cairo, from ancient to modern.

Don't cringe, it is a very good read and not at all like a history book.

Ok, the first chapter can be daunting for some people, but of the pace in which he covers ancient egypt, throwing names around.

But still a great read. I recommend reading it earlier, rather than later, in your time in Cairo. It helps to frame the city and its history well.

kaddee said...

Also interesting, in regards to Egypt and Cairo, is "The Emperor and the Linguist". Historical fiction, lots of history but some fiction, about Napoleon's brief stint in Egypt and the translation of the Rosetta Stone.

Also, thank you for posting about your favorite books. I've been looking for a "source" for reading suggestions. :)

Anonymous said...

There is also the Elizabeth Peters (Amelia Peabody) mystery series. I found an interesting site: http://www.middleeastbooklover.nl/crime_egypt.htm
that you (and I) might enjoy!
merthyrmum

Lynn One, Purl Two said...

you're coming back soon!
i look forward to seeing you and your mom! it's been a long time! i'll be sure to save some cloud cotton for you.

Nairobi Typ0 said...

Jack and Kaddee: Thanks for the suggestions, guys! I've just added your books to my Amazon list so that i can pick them up when we arrive in the States! :)

Mum, i've read the first of the Peabody series, and must admit that i'll probably be picking up a few more when i go home. See you in a few days! :)

Lynn, looking forward to seeing you and your mum too. :) My husband is already quoting baggage allowances in preparation for my yarn spree. LOL