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.
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.
EE: Your 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?
JJ: People 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.
EE: How 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.
EE: Was your book directed at any particular age group?
JJ: The 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.
EE: In 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?
JJ: There 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.
EE: What 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.
EE: How does that affect your writing?
JJ: In 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.
EE: I 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?
JJ: I 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?
JJ: I 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.