Friday, 19 September 2014

Under the Tripoli Sky by Kamal Ben Hameda

review by Maryom

Hadachinou is a boy on the brink of manhood. For now he's free to wander the streets of Tripoli - run errands for his mother, head off down to the sea or in and out of the women's quarters.Wherever he goes, he watches and listens. He sees his mother giggling and sharing confidences with her childhood friend Jamila, helps out and soaks up the flavours in the kitchen, notices the offhand and frequently brutal way the men treat their women. As happens to all children, though, he's growing up, discovering sexuality, feeling a change in how the women treat him. His privileged access to their world isn't going to last much longer...
In this short book, the last of Peirene's 'coming of age' series, the reader is taken back to the author's childhood, in 1960s Libya.  It's not a plot-driven narrative but more of a series of portraits, evoking the secret closed-door world inhabited by women. The Tripoli depicted is a multi-cultural society where Muslims, Christians and Jews, Arabs, Berbers, Italians and blacks rub shoulders and get along amicably. Segregation divides them though along lines of gender. Men and women live a compartmentalised existence - they rarely meet outside the bedroom, everything else including meals takes place separately. 

It's a very sensual novel - I could almost feel the heat, taste the food, feel the squelch of tomatoes as Hadachinou crushes them beneath his feet - but at the same time a thought-provoking one.
The biggest question it raised for me was how happy were the women in this world? Never having experienced anything else, they accept it as something that just is - and are ready to gossip about and criticise any woman who doesn't follow the approved pattern of behaviour. For some, life is fine, they're happy to leave their husband to his life of work and mosque or drinking with friends, but others are on the receiving end of their men's frustrations and anger. Towards the end of the book, Hadachinou becomes aware that not everyone is happy with the way things are and that under the seeming vulnerability of the women lurks a harder core that won't tolerate these attitudes forever.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press

Genre - Adult Literary Fiction, translated fiction

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