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A Woman Is No Man

Review

A Woman Is No Man

Isra Hadid lives in Palestine with her family. Since she was seven, she has prayed five times each day with her mother at home, while her father and brothers pray at the local mosque. Touching shoulders as they’re side by side in prayer is the only time Isra is in physical contact with her mother, or anyone for that matter (apart from the beatings she receives at the hands of her father when she has disobeyed). She prepares lentil soup and rolls, and stuffs grape leaves alongside her mother; attends a school for girls in her village; gathers walnuts; and practices hospitality for guests, serving them chai and chocolates.

But suddenly, the Hadids’ hospitality is being extended to those outside their village. Since Isra is almost 17, she is expected to marry. Her identity to her father is that of a burden, unlike her male siblings, who can work alongside him in the fields. He is anxious to marry her off, to hand her over to the family of her new husband.

So Isra marries Adam and plans to leave the only home she’s ever known for America, along with Adam’s mother, Fareeda, and his father. She moves into the Brooklyn home that houses them, along with Adam’s two younger brothers and sister. Although she barely knows her new husband and senses that her mother-in-law disapproves of her, she is hopeful that the love she read about in the novels that she hid at her childhood home might be part of her new life.

"Rum is a master storyteller who weaves agony, life and healing together into a beautifully written tale of a woman’s journey of learning that she does indeed have value."

What is Isra good for to her new family? She is expected, and pressured daily by Fareeda, to bear sons to Adam. She works inside the home each day for Fareeda, whose initial interest in her changes to disdain as she bears daughter after daughter (with no pregnancy resulting in male children). Isra believes that if she just tries harder and serves better, she can earn the love of her husband and mother-in-law. But her obedience and submission gain her nothing.

When Adam beats Isra for the first time (of many), and she enters the kitchen to begin breakfast preparation, Fareeda takes her upstairs. However, instead of offering help and protection, she covers the bruises on her face with makeup and tells her that no one must know what happens between a husband and wife. Isra realizes that her hopes for love, acceptance and a new life are just fairy tales. She is locked into an identity of the unloved wife, unvalued by her family, to whom abuse and ill treatment are a way of life, carried into their new country by men and women who have brought their own brokenness from their youthful lives and losses.

But help and hope are actually nearer than Isra believes. Her sister-in-law, Sarah, chafes at the life plans her family has for her. She loves novels and begins bringing them to Isra, who hides them and reads them secretly (just as she did as a girl). And the unloved wife begins to imagine that there could be a different life possible for herself and her girls. But then there is a car accident, and Isra’s daughters --- Deya, Nora, Layla and Amal --- are left to be raised by Fareeda. As Deya approaches the age of 18, she too is expected to marry, and potential grooms begin to visit and court. She would rather attend college, but Fareeda absolutely refuses. What other choice does she have? One day, though, Deya receives a note from an unknown sender. Her family’s hidden secrets are about to come to light.

Etaf Rum’s debut novel tells the story of three women in three separate timelines. Isra, Fareeda and Deya are Palestinian-Americans very much shaped by the cultures and traditions from which they came. They are very different women, with experiences and family secrets that brought shameful and damaging outcomes. As they walk through this story, pain and devastation are the strongest influences in their lives. But truth and healing may indeed change everything.

Rum is a master storyteller who weaves agony, life and healing together into a beautifully written tale of a woman’s journey of learning that she does indeed have value. A WOMAN IS NO MAN will break your heart even as it inspires hope; it’s a book you will never forget. Read it.

Reviewed by Melanie Reynolds on April 5, 2019

A Woman Is No Man
by Etaf Rum

  • Publication Date: March 5, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062699768
  • ISBN-13: 9780062699763