Friday, December 19, 2014

‘Diary of a Jewish Muslim’ (Book Review)

The best thing a new story has going for it is an unusual character, circumstance, or setting. Diary of a Jewish Muslim: An Egyptian Novel (AUC Press, 2014), written by Kamal Ruhayyim and translated by Sarah Enany, had all three, making it treat to read. I doubt there are many fictional books about Jews in Arab countries, and even fewer readily available in English. Add in an inter-religious marriage, and this is definitely not your typical coming-of-age novel.

I’ll say right off: Don’t believe the inside book cover. The story actually dates from the 1950s to the 1970s, not the 1930s to the 1960s mentioned in the publisher’s description, causing me some unnecessary confusion. The Suez War has ended, and Egypt’s Muslims and Jews live in a world of bigotry, hostility, and antagonism coming from both sides. Because of the worsening political situation, many Jews are immigrating to other countries like France for asylum. This is the world in which Galal is born and raised. The only son of a Muslim father he’s never met and a Jewish mother, he takes us on a journey of laughter and tears through his formative years, as he tries to discover his true identity.

I liked this book straightaway for three reasons. First, it isn’t shy about the religious tensions. The reader has to learn how to like, or at least empathize with, the characters despite their bigotry, rather than being treated with a watered-down version of it. Second, while popular culture likes to focus on the love of the Romeo and Juliet and their right to get together, few people care to talk about what happens to the children of mixed unions, who often grow up confused about who they are, unable to really hold on to anything permanent or confidently pursue love of their own. As the outcome of an inter-racial marriage, I could identify with Galal as he constantly feels out of place in both sides of his family and not fully accepted by his peers. A lot of readers might find this depressing, but it’s arguably realistic.

Third, I thought the diary approach was particularly entertaining for the early years. The reader is told what happens from the baby’s, toddler’s, and child’s perspectives, not from a grown man’s perspective looking back on his past. The reader sees the religious and cultural conflict, not as the adults who perpetuate them see them, but as a child just learning how to navigate through life sees them: confusing, unfair, and often contradictory.

What didn’t I like about Diary of a Jewish Muslim? At times, the book can be a rough read. Some religious and cultural references are explained, while others are sort of left to the reader to figure out. Once or twice, I was confused about who was speaking, possibly a flaw in the author’s writing style, possibly an error in the translation. And I had to reread the last three chapters to make sense of the ending. I think I know where the author was trying to go with it, but I don’t think he was successful in getting his main character there. So while I enjoyed the beginning and middle, I was left unsatisfied with the close. However, I don’t want that to keep you from at least checking it out. The book’s unique elements might be enough to win the hearts of many a reader.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Titus 2 Woman Loves Her Husband

“The Oldest Love Poem” (8th Cent. BC)
(İstanbul Archaeological Museums)
How does a “Titus 2 Woman,” as a teacher of good, carry out that mission? First, she can train younger women to love their husbands:

[Π]ρεσβύτιδας ὡσαύτως ἐν καταστήματι ἱεροπρεπεῖς, μὴ διαβόλους μὴ οἴνῳ πολλῷ δεδουλωμένας, καλοδιδασκάλους, ἵνα σωφρονίζωσιν τὰς νέας φιλάνδρους εἶναι, φιλοτέκνους σώφρονας ἁγνὰς οἰκουργοὺς ἀγαθάς, ὑποτασσομένας τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν, ἵνα μὴ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ βλασφημῆται. – Titus 2:3-5 (NA28)

Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. – Titus 2:3-5 (ESV)

The key word here in the Greek is φίλανδρος (“man-loving”), derived from φιλεω (“to love”/“to kiss”) and ἀνήρ (“man”/“husband”). It should be familiar. That’s where we get our modern word “philanderer.” In ancient times, φίλανδρος was used in a number of different ways. It signified the love of men in general, such as for the citizens of one’s country, or friendliness towards the male sex. This is consistent with how we understand and use the words “philanthropy” (“love of people”) and “misogyny” (“hatred of women”) today. Still, the word was also used to indicate the general direction of a person’s sexual attraction or romantic affection. That is, φίλανδρος was used for homosexual men and heterosexual women, in contrast to φιλογύνης (“woman-loving”) for heterosexual men and homosexual women. And specifically, when used for women, φίλανδρος could indicate either fondness for their husbands or lewd behavior.

It is in the sense of loving one’s husband that we normally understand this biblical passage. While it appears to make the most sense considering the immediate context, I wouldn’t necessarily rule out all other definitions, because those could be applied more generally to all women, regardless of marital status. (I would, of course, exclude lewdness regardless, not only because the Bible explicitly condemns it, but also because it is inconsistent with the concern for the reputation of God’s people we’ve seen throughout the Book of Titus.)

Many Christians argue that “love their husbands” is the best interpretation, on the grounds that marriage was the social norm at the time and, therefore, practically every woman had a husband. That argument never made sense to me, even as a child. We know quite well that there were many unmarried Christian women in Early Church, as well as in Jewish and Roman societies in general. Expecting that every woman under Titus’ pastoral oversight would eventually find herself with her own man to love is rather naïve, especially if we consider that they were in a religious subculture that was known at the time for life-long virgins, devoted widows, and divorced women resolved to never remarry. So again, while I would say that “husband-loving” is probably the best choice, I’m not sure that “man-loving” in general can completely be ruled out.

Now, assuming we have the correct interpretation, we can ask, why would the author be concerned about women expressing love towards their husbands? Loving is something that many Christians assume should come easy to women. In fact, noting that two other Pauline letters charge husbands – and not wives – to αγαπατε their spouses (Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 3:18-19), many Christians argue that loving comes naturally to women, hence they don’t have to be told to do it. For the record, ἀγαπάω (“to love”) is more commonly used than φιλεω in the Septuagint and Greek New Testament. While not strict synonyms, they both can refer to having feelings or sexual desire for someone. (See my post about Amnon raping Tamar.)

Now, I don’t mean to suggest the command given to women in Titus 2:3-5 is equivalent to the command given to men elsewhere. What concerns me is the false assumption that it’s easy to follow. Despite the loving reputation, it can be difficult for a woman to always be affectionate towards her husband. At times he might be difficult. Disagreeable. Annoying. He might embarrass her. Ignore her. Even hurt her, emotionally or physically. And in ancient times, there was the added problem that she might’ve found herself unwillingly betrothed to someone distasteful, who could often legally cheat on her, but not her on him. Doesn’t sound like she’d always be in the mood to kiss him!

This is the context in which I believe we should interpret the instruction for the older Cretan women. I doubt the author was concerned about women passing down the secrets of an exciting sexual life or hints on how to be a perfect 1950’s “Good Wife,” with homemade dinners, a spotless house, and perfect hair. Instead, I think he was hoping that experienced women could help new brides smoothly navigate through the rockiest parts of marital life. The Christian community’s reputation would’ve improved, as couples would’ve shown each other more affection and learned to be patient and understanding with each other.

Certainly, a little love can go a long way in the home. However, we should acknowledge that women can go overboard with this, with or without urging from the pulpit. Wisdom on that point is found in one of the letters of Basil “the Great,” bishop of Cæsarea (b.329/30-d.379). He uses φιλάνδρους when writing a consolatory letter to the widow of the General Arinthæus, urging her to moderate her feelings for her deceased husband lest she become ruled by them (Epistulae 269: Perseus; CCEL). Those of us who’ve witnessed the blind and unrestrained devotion some women can have towards the men in their lives can appreciate the bishop’s concern.

In addition, we need to beware of turning our husbands into idols. Many Christians like to overstate a woman’s duty to love her husband such that their definition comes into conflict with her duty to God. As the Emperor Julian of Rome (b.331/2-d.363) wrote the priestess Callixeine, “Now who would rank a woman's piety [φιλόθεον] second to her love for her husband [φίλανδρον] without appearing to have drunk a very deep draught of mandragora?” (Epistulae 42: Perseus; Wikisource). That is, literally, who but a drunk would prioritize φίλανδρος (“men-loving”) over φιλόθεος (“god-loving”)? Pagan words, yes, but they echo an overarching theme found in the Bible: God is more important than man, and our relationship with Him is more important than our human relationships. A woman’s devotion to her husband certainly has no business surpassing her devotion to God. Rather, as Titus 2:3-5 implies, it is to reflect this devotion to God.

Translation of “The Oldest Love Poem”
[This poem dates from the Ancient Babylonian Era (8th Cent. BC), reflecting Sumerian beliefs and customs. Especially note the last stanza.]

Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.

Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey-filled,
Let me enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey.
Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.

You, because you love me,
Give me pray of your caresses,
My lord god, my lord protector,
My SHU-SIN, who gladdens ENLIL's heart,
Give my pray of your caresses

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

‘Made in the USA: The Sex Trafficking of America’s Children’ (Book Review)

A social justice issue that for many years has been close to my heart is human trafficking. So I was grateful for the opportunity to review one of the most recent books on the subject, Made in the USA: The Sex Trafficking of America’s Children by Alisa Jordheim (HigherLife, 2014). The author is Founder and Executive Director of the Justice Society. No, not DC Comics’ team of superheroes, but a nonprofit that has taken up the cause against modern day sexual slavery.

While most media tend to focus on these crimes committed outside our country, Made in the USA brings the topic uncomfortably close to home, featuring the dramatized stories of five trafficking survivors. Each serves as an example of how American minors get forced into the pornography and prostitution: the emotionally-controlling boyfriend, the abusive family member, homelessness, recruitment, and kidnapping. Some of the content was expected, such as the common themes of broken homes, drug abuse, physical abuse, and emotional manipulation. Other parts opened my eyes, such as the rape culture of rodeos that apparently doesn’t get publicized often. It’s hard to come away from this book still thinking of prostitution as solely an urban problem.

Because of my concern for this social problem, it’s tempting to just offer praise for Made in the USA, but I need to be honest: I was really disappointed by it’s disorganization. The pages were cluttered with stock photos and the text padded with lengthy quotes, distracting me from the book’s central message. While tear-inducing at times, the testimonials didn’t always read smoothly; often it seemed as though important parts of the stories had gone missing. In addition, it would’ve been nice to begin each chapter with more background information about the featured victim, and to save the commentary about the key themes for afterward. By discussing the themes first, I felt like the stories – the main attraction of the book – were relegated to supporting evidence. I closed the book wondering if it had been a rushed job. Yes, it’s difficult to critique a book like this, when you know the contributors must have relived a lot of pain to share their experiences, experiences that haunt their dreams and continue to cause them to feel shame. I’m extremely grateful that they went for it anyway, taking the chance to help others entrapped and spread the word about these terrible crimes. But because I believe their stories are important, I wish more effort had been put into their presentation.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.