& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Harem

Safia Fazlul
 TSAR’s 2012 fall launch was grand and exciting – an occasion to meet and make friends.

Of the bunch of fiction and poetry collections released at the launch, I picked up Safia Fazlul’s TheHarem.

It is a boldly told story of a young woman’s daring attempt to escape poverty and family restrictions.

Farina is a Canadian of Bangladeshi origin. She has grown up with nothing but contempt for her constrictive upbringing, her parents, their regressive ways, and her ghetto where women are abused by their men.

She runs away from this unending nightmare as soon as she turns 18. But it isn’t easy making money on survival wage jobs.

Sabrina, her childhood friend, with whom she was forced to attend the Islamic school, has turned into a stripper, not out of choice, but willing to make the most of her adversity to push her way out of poverty.

An exchange between the friends brings alive the dilemma they face - the stranglehold of tradition that keeps them poor but also helps retain their sense of dignity.

 “The bare-knuckled punches to my pride, Farina – that’s my big problem.” (Sabrina tells Farina)

I hear her loud and clear. Although I’m desperate for money, I’d never risk hurting my pride over it. For two insignificant brown girls like us, pride is much more important than money. We’re born to please our parents, raised to please our neighbours, and married off to please our husbands. Pride is all there is to remind us that we belong to ourselves.

For Farina, Sabrina’s decision to be a stripper is the ultimate surrender, and she can’t help but observe, 

“Our nudity – the shell of our sex – was the only thing we always had complete control over. While our parents and neighbours could watch what we wore, they couldn’t watch whom we got naked for. If Sabrina’s going to give up this control, then she might as well as settle for an arranged marriage and learn how to make samosas.”

She and her friends Sabrina and Imrana have nothing but disdain for their Islamic rearing and go out of their way to defy the traditions their parents hold dear and revere. In an act of ultimate defiance, they start Harem – an escort agency.

Money flows in, and with prosperity comes a sense of freedom. However, notwithstanding the derision she reserve for the values her parents tried to inculcate in her, ultimately there is no escaping these values.

So, even as she makes more money than she can keep track of, Farina is besieged with guilt. She also can’t avoid the ghetto completely, and falls in love with a boy who is nearly a mirror image of her father.

Harem is graphic and leaves little to imagination. It is also a sensitive and touching portrayal of Farina’s frailties that are normal for any 18-year-old. The relationship between the mother and daughter is raw, emotional and heart wrenching, for instance, when narrating her family history, Farina’s mother tells her, “We didn’t realize then that there is more than one way to lose a child.”

Many of the passages in the book are biting, pithy and depict with unrelenting accuracy the unbending social realities of the ethnic ghettos in Canada’s cities. 

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