Fic­tion

Sweet Dates in Basra

Jes­si­ca Jiji

By – September 26, 2011

Peo­ple often express long­ing for the good old days” when par­ents ruled absolute­ly, and chil­dren were meant to be seen but not heard. How­ev­er, in Sweet Dates of Bas­ra by Jes­si­ca Jiji, those days do not look as heav­en­ly. The chil­dren con­trolled so rigid­ly by their par­ents in this nov­el are, like Romeo and Juli­et, wis­er than their parents.

The sto­ry takes place in Iraq in the 1940’s, span­ning the time of the Sec­ond World War and the estab­lish­ment of the State of Israel in 1948. Two strong cul­tures are the back­ground for the love sto­ry between Kath­miya Mah­moud, an Arab girl, and Shafiq, a Jew­ish boy, and the friend­ship between Shafiq and Omar, a Mus­lim friend. The rare attribute of this book is the lack of stereo­typ­ing of these characters.

Omar and Shafiq live in almost iden­ti­cal hous­es and feel total equal­i­ty with one anoth­er and com­fort­able in each other’s homes. Their under­stand­ing of each oth­er needs no words at times. They share pranks and try to escape the rules when­ev­er they can, like all ado­les­cent boys.

Kath­miya presents the sad ele­ment of liv­ing with­in the con­stric­tions of a girl in a tra­di­tion­al Arab world.

She is part of a poor fam­i­ly, unloved by her father, a drunk­ard, and must fol­low the rules her moth­er, also under the thumb of the father, sets down. One of those orders is that Kath­miya must be sent away to work in the city of Bas­ra, far from her home. And she must sur­vive on the lit­tle she earns there work­ing as a maid and gov­erness. The ray of sun­shine which appears in this sit­u­a­tion is the glimpses she gets of Shafiq, a fre­quent vis­i­tor to this house. It is love at first sight for both of them, although they feel help­less about bring­ing it to fruition.

Even­tu­al­ly, the sit­u­a­tion brings about unfor­tu­nate, but not hope­less, con­se­quences for both of them. This is where the resem­blance to the sto­ry of Romeo and Juli­et ceas­es. Kath­miya is not the ogre she appears to be at the begin­ning of the book and Shafiq is more real­is­tic than the hero of Shakespeare’s play. And so, this is an exot­ic sto­ry of teenagers which young read­ers should also enjoy.

Inter­view

Jes­si­ca Jiji’s sec­ond nov­el, Sweet Dates in Bas­ra, uncov­ers the mys­tery of what it was like grow­ing up in Iraq dur­ing the 1940’s. I had imag­ined it a place of vio­lence and ter­ror. But this sto­ry reveals a fair­ly nor­mal place, where Jew­ish and Mus­lim fam­i­lies lived side by side peace­ful­ly, inter­rupt­ed only by exter­nal forces, like the British rulers, who tried to stir up ani­mos­i­ty between them. 

Jiji, a grad­u­ate of Brown Uni­ver­si­ty, is a speech­writer for the Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al of the Unit­ed Nations, Ban Ki-moon, and lives in Man­hat­tan with her hus­band and three sons.

Eleanor Ehrenkranz: You grew up in New York City on the Upper East Side; how did you man­age to cre­ate such a real­is­tic Iraqi world?
Jes­si­ca Jiji: It is from the many sto­ries I heard from my father about how he grew up there in the for­ties that allowed me to envi­sion this world. 

EEYour first book, Dia­monds Take For­ev­er, was a tri­an­gu­lar love sto­ry set in New York City. What trig­gered the need to write this his­tor­i­cal nov­el about Iraq?
JJPeo­ple who knew my back­ground seemed inter­est­ed in know­ing more about Jew­ish life in ear­li­er times in Iraq. My father grew up there and felt imbued with Iraqi spir­it,” defined as nation­al pride, which he felt uni­fied his friend­ships as a young man. It was not until 1951, when most Iraqi Jews saw that they couldn’t get into col­lege or start busi­ness­es in their coun­try because of emerg­ing anti-Semi­tism, that they left. My father came here when he was 18. And I felt that my sons need­ed to know more about his his­to­ry as well, although they are still too young to read the book. 

EEHow old are your sons?
JJ:They range in age from four to eleven and go to pub­lic school in the Mur­ray Hill area of New York, where we live. What is inter­est­ing to me is that if my elevenyear- old were to describe his best friend, he would tell you that he had black hair, was good at bas­ket­ball, and was intel­li­gent. It would nev­er occur to him to say that he was a Mus­lim. That is impor­tant to me. 

EEWas your book direct­ed at any par­tic­u­lar age group?
JJThe theme of my book was that friend­ship plays an impor­tant role in life and I direct­ed it to teenagers who share that view. In addi­tion, boy­hood inno­cence, por­trayed by Shafiq, the Jew­ish boy, and Omar, his Mus­lim friend, was anoth­er aspect of life I wished to empha­size. Much of the book is told from Shafiq’s point of view as he becomes more aware of life in his tran­si­tion to man­hood. 

EEIn the book, Shafiq’s broth­ers turn to dif­fer­ent philoso­phies, one toward com­mu­nism and the oth­er toward Zion­ism, depend­ing on which men­tor they encounter. These men­tors seem much more influ­en­tial than their parents.Were there any sub­stan­tial men­tors in your life?
JJThere were. When I was 17, my best friend’s broth­er was a Bud­dhist Jew, who felt that I could escape from some of my emo­tion­al tur­bu­lence and find seren­i­ty that way. And Daisaku Ike­da, a Bud­dhist writer, is also an influ­ence. 

EEWhat is it you like about the Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy? 
JJ:The spe­cif­ic chant­i­ng has a tran­quil effect on me. And I like the Bud­dhist idea that each per­son has the same potential. 

EEHow does that affect your writ­ing?
JJIn my books char­ac­ter dri­ves the action. The plot is not pre-deter­mined. I start­ed out writ­ing screen­plays where action and dia­logue were the major facets, but real­ized that major works of art derive from the char­ac­ters. 

EEI know that you have a full-time job as a speech writer at the Unit­ed Nations and are a full-time wife and moth­er as well. When do you find time to write?
JJI write all the time — when there is a spare moment or two at work, after the chil­dren are in bed and when my hus­band gives me some hours on the week­ends and takes care of the boys. But he (Jeff Rubin­feld) has decid­ed to write a sports nov­el so we will have to coor­di­nate writ­ing time now. 

EE: What do you plan to write next?
JJI have already writ­ten anoth­er nov­el about a twelve-year-old girl, called Super­mod­el UN and I am in the midst of writ­ing The Princess and The Par­ty Girl NYC, which I can’t talk about; it will take away from the surprise.

Eleanor Ehrenkranz received her Ph.D. from NYU and has taught at Stern Col­lege, NYU, Mer­cy Col­lege, and at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty. She has lec­tured wide­ly on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and recent­ly pub­lished anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish poet­ry, Explain­ing Life: The Wis­dom of Mod­ern Jew­ish Poet­ry, 1960 – 2010.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Harper­Collins

1. Shafiq is born into a dif­fer­ent reli­gion from Omar’s, but as a boy he is bare­ly aware of this fact, think­ing only that the var­i­ous pas­tries their moth­ers cook on hol­i­days prove that reli­gious diver­si­ty is good for dessert.” How do his feel­ings change over time? Did you have any child­hood friends with very dif­fer­ent back­grounds — and if so, did your feel­ings evolve as you got old­er and became aware of soci­ety’s attitudes?

2. Despite the immi­nence of war in Iraq, Shafiq and Kath­miya find a mea­sure of peace in their ear­ly friend­ship; but after he hears Ezra’s warn­ing, he stays away from her. Was Shafiq right to keep his dis­tance from Kathmiya?

3. Dur­ing the riots, The sound of the prayer com­pet­ed with the bang­ing of the men mak­ing weapons. Both dis­turbed Shafiq in equal mea­sure.” Why?

4. When Shafiq hears about the Mus­lims who helped Jews dur­ing the riots, even at their own per­son­al risk, he thinks of the Kurds at his father’s ware­house. These were peo­ple of faith, but it did­n’t divide them, just made them stand for what was right.” What role does faith play in the nov­el? Do peo­ple of true faith by def­i­n­i­tion act to help oth­ers who are suffering?

5. After Leah gives birth to a girl, she tells Kath­miya about expres­sions in her tra­di­tion meant to con­vey that it is bet­ter to have a boy. What oth­er ways does the soci­ety por­trayed in the nov­el favor boys over girls? How do the girls cope in response?

6. Ezra says to Shafiq, You have to ask your­self, am I an Iraqi who hap­pens to be Jew­ish? Or a Jew who hap­pens to live in Iraq?” What does this mean? What does Shafiq decide?

7. Try­ing to get infor­ma­tion from her old­er sis­ter about the three mys­te­ri­ous objects she finds, Kath­miya is exas­per­at­ed to learn that Fatimah thinks she had a more dif­fi­cult child­hood. Do you sym­pa­thize with Fatimah’s point of view? In the long run, is Kath­miya bet­ter off for all of the suf­fer­ing she endures?

8. As Shafiq’s fam­i­ly deals with Mar­celle’s estrange­ment and, lat­er, Naji’s dis­ap­pear­ance, his moth­er adheres more and more to tra­di­tion­al trib­al prac­tices. Why does she behave like this? Is it an appro­pri­ate way to cope with loss?

9. When Naji decides to escape, Shafiq real­izes that the dan­ger comes not from any per­son but from Com­mu­nism, this out­sized cause that had stolen his broth­er’s soul.” Is Naji’s ide­al­ism admirable or harm­ful? How does Shafiq deal with his broth­er’s fanaticism?

10. Shafiq’s father, Roobain, lives by the phi­los­o­phy that in Iraq, neigh­bor leans on neigh­bor and friend on friend; these ties of inti­ma­cy were all that was mean­ing­ful. With­out them, soci­ety’s fab­ric would be com­plete­ly torn.” How do the char­ac­ters in the nov­el forge ties by lean­ing on one anoth­er? Is this the best way to hold soci­ety together?

11. Shafiq has mem­o­rized a state­ment by Iraq’s found­ing king: There is no mean­ing in the words Jews,’ Mus­lims,’ and Chris­tians’ in the ter­mi­nol­o­gy of patri­o­tism. There is sim­ply a coun­try called Iraq, and all are Iraqis.” Was that true of the soci­ety where he lived? Is it true for Iraq today, or any oth­er country?

12. Jami­la tells Kath­miya that Ali does­n’t accept her because she was spoiled by for­eign mis­sion­ar­ies when she was very young. Even though this is only part of the real sto­ry, is there any truth to the link between Kath­miya’s unusu­al upbring­ing and her rare outspokenness?

13. Shafiq has two men who influ­ence him to be patri­ot­ic. Sayed Mustapha believed in his stu­dents, what­ev­er their reli­gion — believed in a plu­ral­is­tic Iraq. Sal­im put this doc­trine into prac­tice, min­gling freely with any­one inter­est­ing — to him that meant every­one. Both loved Iraq, and both had encour­aged Shafiq’s future there.” But both are even­tu­al­ly silenced by the author­i­ties. Does Shafiq lose his patriotism?

14. When the old wid­ow Nafisa tells Kath­miya to just accept her sta­tion in life, Kath­miya feels end­less­ly grate­ful.” Why should she feel grate­ful to some­one who is sug­gest­ing that she give up on a bet­ter future?

15. When Shafiq tells Kath­miya he is going to Amer­i­ca, she becomes angry, but he feels no sym­pa­thy for her, say­ing, You act like you have no idea that you are bril­liant and beau­ti­ful.” Is he show­ing her respect and com­pas­sion, or is he being cal­lous and unsym­pa­thet­ic giv­en the con­straints she faces?

16. Shafiq’s moth­er explains why the sap­phire ring is so spe­cial: it only becomes pink because it tries to be a ruby. It does­n’t suc­ceed, but it does­n’t fail, either, because in the process it becomes even more rare and beau­ti­ful.” When he gives it to Kath­miya she feels under­stood for the first time in her life because she may nev­er have the rewards that soci­ety prized, but rather than mak­ing her less wor­thy she could be more rare, more pre­cious, more beau­ti­ful.” Is Kath­miya like the ring? Is it mag­i­cal, or does its sto­ry just inspire her?

17. Hon­or is a pow­er­ful con­cept through­out the nov­el. A girl is killed because she dam­aged the fam­i­ly’s hon­or. Shafiq gets into a fight over a man’s hon­or and has to go to court. When Jami­la calls Shafiq a man of hon­or” at the end of the nov­el, he can only think: Hon­or. What they had all lived through in its name, what they had all near­ly lost.” Is the empha­sis on hon­or ben­e­fi­cial to the soci­ety, or harmful?

18. When Sal­im’s friend helps Shafiq obtain an exit visa, he tells the offi­cials to do it for his nephew.” Shafiq calls Omar his broth­er” and Sal­wa his aun­tie.” Roobain calls Sal­wa his sis­ter,” telling her son, We are not strangers, we are rel­a­tives.” What is the sig­nif­i­cance in their soci­ety of call­ing some­one a rel­a­tive? What does it say about them?

19. When Shafiq hugs Omar good­bye before leav­ing for the Unit­ed States, he thinks to him­self, Even Amer­i­ca could not com­pete for this affec­tion.” How is the sig­nif­i­cance of their friend­ship greater than the pull of adven­ture and success?

20. When Shafiq says good-bye to Kath­miya, he tells her, The world is chang­ing. Some­day, all of us can live in peace, and I can come back to Iraq, to rejoin my fam­i­ly and return to you.” What makes him say this? What future can they have?