I first encountered Dreams in the Medina by Kati Woronka when Lisa reviewed it. We discussed how fiction can sometimes make things more real to us or cause us to care more than we otherwise would. Later Lisa said the author had given her a voucher to share the book with one other person, and since she knew I liked fiction, she graciously offered it to me. Thank you, both Lisa and Kati!
The Medina is a student housing complex of the University of Damascus, and Dreams tells the story of four women students. Most of the story focuses on Leila, a practicing Muslim whose world is expanding by what she is learning in her English literature courses and exposure to other cultures. Huda is excessively studious, but the others don’t realize the extent her family is depending on her to do well, and the pressure almost has tragic ends. Huda is a Muslim by culture but is largely untaught about it and doesn’t mind questioning its teachings. Maha is a Christian but doesn’t seem to know a whole lot about her faith (for example, she can’t answer why offerings are taken at her church when another girl thinks she has to “pay” to come), but she seems the most stable of the group. Roxy is a free spirit, and unbeknownst to her family is a second wife to a Muslim man.
There are recognizable college activities common to most any culture: trying to cram studies in, visiting each other’s rooms, socializing, girl-talk, thrills and sorrows with the opposite sex, and questions and struggles on the road to becoming an adult.
But of course there are differences as well. They make tabouli in their rooms rather than ordering pizza. Conflicts come from things like washing one’s feet for ablutions before prayer in the same sink where food is prepared. Family expectations carry more weight than one’s personal desires. And the various degrees of their faith and practice affect them in a myriad of ways.
I was surprised at first by the different practices of Muslims from different villages, but then realized that they might be surprised by the variation in professing Christians here as well.
Since the book is written primarily from Leila’s point of view as a Muslim, there are statements I wouldn’t agree with as a Christian, like the assumption that the Bible and the Quran agree (in a few minor things, maybe, but not overall), but I can understand such statements coming from her, and her perspective as she gets to know Maha better and even attends her church once are interesting. One statement stood out that the prominent display of a cross in the church “was completely unapologetic in its declaration that Christians are all about the cross.”
Overall this was a nicely-written window into a world I knew very little about. I ashamed to say that before this book I wasn’t even aware that there was a civil war in Syria. Though the setting of the book is before the war (I think — I don’t remember a mention of it), the pictures of these women and the country have made the people more real to me now and raised my awareness, and I think those would have been some of Kati’s goals.
Dreams in the Medina is available for Kindle or for various e-readers. Though not an expensive book, it is on sale half-price for a few days at Smashwords. You can follow Kati’s blog and read more about the background of the book here.