Reviewed by Catherine Batruni
The processes of self-discovery, inner growth, and understanding oneself and the world are only a handful of the numerous intrinsic rewards of traveling. Every so often, something in our hearts stirs us in a kind of epiphany and encourages an abandonment of our monotonous routines. This is exactly what happens to Maliha Masood, author of "Zaatar Days, Henna Nights", when she quits her tech job in Seattle and buys a one-way ticket to the Middle East. She spends approximately a year and a half exploring Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. What some may find unusual is that a Muslim woman-and an American at that-was sufficiently footloose to brave the Middle East alone.
Throughout her travels, however, Maliha Masood makes many new friends, breaks harsh stereotypes, and learns about different cultures. Sometimes her days are jam-packed with activities; other days are spent more serenely in reflection. The places she visits span a wide spectrum of ancient cities, new beach resorts, uninhabited deserts, trendy nightclubs, quiet cafes, ordinary peoples' homes, religious sites, jagged mountains, and bare wilderness.
Her vibrant descriptions of Egyptian sand dunes transport the reader to a position of being an eyewitness on her incredible journey. "Away from the camp, the land began to curve upward in a series of frozen waves. I climbed a dune, fascinated by the sight of my footprints etched in the slithery grains. Reaching the crest, I looked out into a featureless space of sand and sky. There was no need for privacy...Black volcanic mountains, pyramid-shaped with rocks tumbling like chunks of coal, came into view and merged with a flat medley of earth and sky." Masood brings the countries and their people alive through her writing. Her honest portrayals of all aspects of her trip, whether positive or negative, are humorous and thoughtful. In a Syrian bathhouse, she says, "The bathing chamber had creamy marble walls and a row of brass spigots where women, young and old in all shapes and sizes, were mixing hot and cold water into plastic containers and splashing themselves with ladles. A heavy-limbed but sweet-looking woman with a fuzzy mustache motioned us over and proceeded to scrub my back with a coarse loofah in a sawlike motion that released dreadful black shavings of dead skin cells...This hammam was nothing like a seventh grade locker room."
The author also depicts her struggle to reconcile her identity. She was born in Karachi, Pakistan and immigrated to the United States at the age of twelve. Her dual Muslim and American characteristics, a mix of East and West, dichotomously serve in helping her blend into the culture while she stands out simultaneously. For instance, when she first arrives in Cairo, she wanders around the city without wearing a headscarf, receiving disapproving looks from the locals. She is assumed to be an ignorant and disrespectful foreigner. Eventually Masood begins veiling her hair. This causes people to presume that she is an Egyptian native. They then become very frustrated with her when she is unable to speak Arabic with them or when she unintentionally breaks the rules of ticket purchasing at a Cairo subway station. Upon discovering she is an American, they step back and examine her facial features, surprised that these features do not match the Egyptian prototype of an American woman (ivory skin, blonde hair, blue eyes).
"Zaatar Days, Henna Nights" conjures such vivid images upon the mind that one ends up feeling like they are watching several film reels retelling a romantic tale. Masood's travel memoir leaves the reader inspired to embark on their own Middle Eastern adventure. In a post-9/11/01 world this notion may not cross most peoples' minds. This book changes the way its readers preconceive the Middle East and leaves us wishing she had explored more Middle Eastern countries for us to read about.
Author Maliha Masood read from "Zaatar Days, Henna Nights" in the Spring of 2007 at the Levantine Cultural Center. Stop by to pick up your own copy. To read an excerpt, click here.