The Shadow of Ghadames by Joëlle Stolz is the fictional story of twelve year old Malika and her life in late nineteenth century Ghadames, a city that still exists in Libya today. Malika is on the cusp of womanhood, at least by the customs and standards of her culture and day. Malika also longs for her life to be different: she longs to travel, to learn to read, to have the freedom that her half-brother, Jasim, is growing into. Of course, just as she longs for these things, her life is about to grow much, much smaller. As an adult woman, her sphere will mostly consist of her home. In Ghadames, women view their world and participate in it, even, from their rooftops, leaving their homes only at specified times and for specific reasons. However, a dangerous and accidental visitor threatens to upset Malika’s household and even her life, while at the same time holding out hope to Malika that she might be at least free in her own mind.
I really enjoyed this story of life in Libya over a hundred years ago. At fewer than 120 pages, this story offers a brief but powerful glimpse at a repressive society and the mechanisms the women put in place to make their lives more bearable. Honestly, had I not read in the author note that this story takes place in the late nineteenth century, I would’ve thought it is a modern tale because it fit the expectation that I have of the women’s lives in a modern Islamic state thanks to the media. (Right or wrong, this is just my impression.) In some ways this is a classic coming-of-age story because Malika feels like many young people feel–closed off from the world by her surroundings and family, and longing for change and self-realization. However, her experience is compounded a hundred-fold by her society and its traditions. Stolz captures Malika’s feelings beautifully and paints a picture of Malika’s circumscribed but fortunate life. This description encapsulates Stolz‘s style and the sort of word pictures she paints of Malika’s dusty and restrained existence:
I’ll only be allowed to taste a tiny bit. Coffee is a luxury for us; it comes from very far away, from the mountains of Yemen and Arabia. Part of our pleasure in drinking it derives from the long journey the caravans must make to bring it here. They cross landscapes so different from ours, and bivouac for weeks under the stars, the men sleeping on top of the sand-covered embers of the campfire to protect themselves against the cold desert nights. All these aspects of the journey are contained in those few black drops. (72)
Do you hear the longing in Malika’s voice? Reading this story helped me to really picture just what life was like not just emotionally and relationally but physically, as well:
I accompany my father down the stairs to the narrow entryway that gives out into the street. Jasim, glowing with pride, helps my father with his two large saddlebags. My mother and Bilkisu [her father’s second wife] stand side by side. They have taken off their jewelry. Their bare faces, one lightly tanned, the other dark, blend with the design of red palm trees and flowers–the magnificent garden taht all the women of Ghadames paint in red, on the walls of their houses, to protect them against misfortune. (9)
Although I usually have a hard time visualizing things, Stolz‘s descriptions of the homes, streets, and alleyways of Ghadames are precise enough that even I have an inkling of the physical surroundings of Malika’s life. Of course, pictures help, too. After reading this book, I have a real feel for the landscape and culture of Ghadames.
The Shadows of Ghadames provides an interesting, beautifully written, and ultimately hopeful look at the life of a young girl in Libya. This would make an excellent and accessible selection for upper elementary and young teen readers who are interested in what life is like for just such a young person. My only quibble with it is that I was never clear about why Malika’s mother seemed to have so much less freedom than Malika’s father’s other wife (who is admittedly much more daring and even rebellious), unless it is by choice. Of course, such are the disparaties of real life, right? I give this little story a Highly Recommended. (Delacorte Press, copyright 1999 and translated in 2004)
This book won the Batchelder Award , the award “given [by the ALA] to the most outstanding children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States, and subsequently translated into English for publication in the United States,” in 2005. I’m entering this review in this month’s database for the Award Winning Books Reading Challenge at Gathering Books . I’ll also be linking it up later this month for the North Africa Reading Challenge at Semicolon.