Monday, March 15, 2010

Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb

Title: Sweetness in the Belly
Author: Camilla Gibb
Paperback: 368 Pages
Publisher: Penguin
Accolade: Trillium Award winner

'Sweetness in the belly' is such a fascinating novel that portrays the life and turmoil of an English-born nurse Lilly who was raised in a Sufi Shrine in Morocco. Her travels take her from Morocco to Harar to London. In an engaging story, the chapters transports the readers back and forth between her life in Ethiopia and London. Lilly's circumstances of upbringing are rather odd. Born to an English-Irish nomadic couple, Lilly accompanies them in their travels. When her parents get killed mysteriously in an alley way, Lilly comes under the loving care of 'Great Abdal', a Sufi philosopher and Bruce Mohammed, an Islamic convert and her guardian. Her life flourishes and blossoms and Lilly relishes learning about the mystical ways of Islam. She memorizes and recites verses from 'Quran' and adapts herself to the Sufi ways in no matter of time.

When a new regime in 1960's threatens the existence of shrines in Morocco, Lilly takes on a pilgrimage to Harar to seek blessings and protection for this is the city that houses the original shrine of the first Islamic muezzin Saint Bilal Al Habash. Her Islamic veil and Quran knowledge fails to mask her white skin and British accent. Labeled a 'farenji', a despised foreigner, Lilly's struggle in gaining a foothold among the Harari's. She is forced to live with Nouria, an Oromo, in a ram shackled house amongst dead cockroaches, goat feces, flies and putrid smell of urine. After much struggle, Lilly gains the affection of Nouria, by helping her with her daily chores. She does laundry, cooking vats of stew and injera, making 'berber' - a fiery cocktail made of chillies and most of all teaching Quran to children. She also witnesses some horrific events like female circumcision. She falls in love with Aziz, a doctor, who himself is an outcast with his black skin and Sudanese upbringing. His radical practices and attitude drew her towards him. Yet, their love is short-lived and the 'sweetness in the belly' is only a fleeting experience. When the Dergue regime rises to power after ousting the Emperor Haile Selassie, she is forced to flee once again to London.

The story also focuses on her post-ethiopian life in London, where she longs for a reunion with Aziz, even after 7 years of exile. She befriends Amina, another Ethiopian woman, who flees from Africa when Yusuf, her husband, was taken hostage from a camp in Kenya. Amina's story is heart-wrenching and quite extraordinary as well. As both these women begin their quest in seeking their love and regain their lost lives, they also come face to face with their sufferings, misfortunes and a troubled past. The novel takes the readers as far away as what happens to Aziz and Yusuf thus bringing the story to a perfect closure.

This book was such an engaging read for me. It was not just a story of two struggling women with a troubled past, it was more of a story of Ethiopia itself. African poverty and famine was nothing surprising to me. However, to read about the abysmal living conditions of the poor was such a heart-wrenching experience. Since I was as much a 'farenji' as Lilly, her tragic experiences horrified me. The hardest part was reading about the tribal practices of female circumcision performed on young girls as young as 5 or 6 years old. My heart ached, eyes welled and tears came streaming down my eyes. I was enraged with anger, mad with their superstitious beliefs and customs. Some of the tribal practices were barbaric, especially the infibulation. However, it was astonishing to see how they attribute everything to religion or god. It made me wonder, just like Lilly, if Quran really endorsed the practice of female circumcision. Also, I wondered how much knowledge it really imparted on the people who followed it. For all the recent wars waged in the name of 'jihad', it was illuminating to read about the true meaning of 'jihad' from Quran as an internal struggle for 'purity'.

My knowledge about Ethiopia reached greater heights after reading about many political issues like Ethiopian revolution post, life in refugee camps and prison cells, migration of people from North Africa to the more government-controlled south, deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie and Dergue campaign. Anytime I read about African stories, my heart never failed to swell with gratitude for my American life and its more modern western practices. It made it hard for me to drink my sparkling cup of water, without thinking about the murky brown water the Harari's drink or cook with. That night, my three-course dinner meals kept churning in my stomach, as I pondered about the millions of people who suffered in poverty and famine. I tossed and turned in my ultra-soft mattress, wondering how they slept in rough, patchy floors caked with dirt and mud. It all just seemed so unfair, somehow.


Lotus Reads said...

Hey again Chitts, lovely to see you reading so voraciously and blogging about the books too! I remember owning this book ages ago and although I gave it several tries I remember not being able to get past 50 pages. Ofcourse, at the time Africa didn't mean as much to me as it means now, so maybe I should give it another whirl?

Happy Reader said...

Lotus, This is such a fantastic book, you should definitely read it. It was kinda slow at the start, but it picked up pace after that. Please do give it a try once again.
Btw, did you read 'The Saffron Kitchen'? It has such a dragging start too. I couldn't get past the 75 mark :(