I have been reading a lot of mainstream best sellers lately which made me a bit uncomfortable. I absolutely love reading the best sellers but I also want to read those less known books, set in places around the world that I don’t know much about. I also want to hear the voices of those less popular authors who have something unique and interesting to say. So, I randomly picked a country that I want to know more about and it just happened to be Jordan. I belong to a group on goodreads that is committed to reading books around the world. They have a wealth of resources for people like me who want to find good books set in various countries around the world. I picked the Jordan thread and looked at the latest recommendations there because I wanted to get a feel of the current atmosphere there. I happened to pick Siobhan Fallon’s ‘Confusion of Languages’ from that list just because it was published only last year and her first book won a few literary awards. I just finished reading it and I am totally blown away by the writing, the story, the place setting, etc. What an AMAZING book! Wow! This will definitely be one of my favorite books for a long time to come.
This is a story of two American women, both married to army men, who are deployed in Jordan. Cassie and Dan have been living in Jordan for a couple of years. Margaret, Crick and their toddler son Mather are newbies to Jordan. While the men are busy with their work responsibilities, a unique friendship develops between both women who are very different from each other. Cassie is someone who strictly follows the rules. Margaret is a free spirit, someone who follows her heart boldly, without much concern for the rules. Their personal situations add more complexity to their friendship. Cassie and Dan have been struggling to have children for years. Whereas, Margaret and Crick get pregnant accidentally and then got married.
Siobhan Fallan writes beautifully, choosing her words carefully, with the purpose of connecting the reader to each of the two main characters. Not just the two main characters, every character in this story, from the Jordanian boab, Saleh, to the macho army husband, Crick, are meticulously carved out. The story itself has an element of suspense that is maintained all the way to the end, which keeps the reader fully engaged in the story.
I fell in love with Margaret. She is an unforgettable character. Someone who has gone through a lot early on in her life, but still manages to practice kindness with every one she meets in her daily life, from the stray cats to her Jordanian boab. Her internal conflict, as she continues to follow her heart while breaking the established norms of the expat society in Jordan, and struggles with the effects of her actions on the people she touches, is explained beautifully by the author. As Cassie perceives, “Margaret is a force of minor collisions, setting off small earthquakes, never thinking about what her tremors might rearrange or crack.”
Going back to the main reason why I picked up this book, which is to learn a bit about Jordan…Jordan is always in the background in this book. It is described in simple statements scattered all over the book that I gathered with utmost care. Jordan reminded me a lot of India, where I grew up, more so in one aspect than others. There are rules but people are not so inclined to follow them. It is frustrating but it is also fascinating to see how the place feels so alive amidst all the chaos. The Jordanian hospitality also reminded me of Indian hospitality, where a guest is equivalent to God, no matter who they are.
This book has a very important spiritual message to humanity. It is a message of kindness, of oneness of human beings. The teachings of great spiritual leaders like The Dalai Lama, Eckhart Tolle, Pema Chodron, all convey the same message. Margaret is a fictional spiritual hero in that sense. People are people everywhere. We are all the same under our exteriors. Our basic needs are the same. Our daily struggles are similar. Ultimately, we all need food, shelter, love and acceptance. The way we struggle for them may be different. This is a simple fact that is almost forgotten in today’s world. Also, small acts of kindness do add up and make a difference in the world that we live in. If each one of us deliberately chooses to practice kindness in every situation that we encounter in our daily lives, we would all be living in a different world altogether.
As I mentioned already, the prose in this book is absolutely beautiful. There are a lot of sentences that I really, really liked but here are a few that I was able to copy:
“Kindness, a derivation of Kin, Old English cynn, for ‘one’s relatives‘ or cynde, for ‘natural‘. She treated everyone as kin. She knew the line I drew between us and them might be crossed after all. I had always assumed kindness was too fleeting, too weak and insubstantial to make a lasting difference, but again, maybe I’ve been wrong. It is not something I am good at, but from now on I will try Margaret’s brand of kindness. I will see if acts so small can actually be enough. It is so easily destroyed, kindness, but isn’t that what all of us are looking for, every moment of our sad and sorry lives? It might have been the one thing that saved her.”
“Margaret only smiled slightly, as if she had already been indoctrinated into the whole inshallah/If God Wills it mentality that seems to run the country. Everything is inshallah. We order a pizza without any sense of when the delivery man might arrive, inshallah. We call a plumber hoping he might actually come to fix the overflowing toilet, inshallah. It’s hard to figure out if this phrase is a nod toward willful ignorance or if concepts like yes and no, that seem so inexplicably ordinary to Western minds, are really so difficult here.”
“People don’t wait in lines here. If you leave a space between you and the person in front of you someone will wedge himself into it. Lines represent a democracy, everyone waiting for their turn, for things to proceed fairly and with order. That’s our Western way of thinking. But Jordan isn’t a democracy. There is no promise of everyone getting a turn here. People exert pressure for every single thing they want, and that’s the only way they know.”
“The unpaid piper came back with his song and took everything. One hundred thirty children gone. That’s how it comes around. All those sins wait to see if you’ll pay your penance, and when you don’t, they strike. Punishment comes out twisted, so much harsher than the original crime, hurting the innocent more than anyone else.”
“That’s the true original sin, that’s the spark that separates us from the beasts, not opposable thumbs or reason or language or even the ability to walk upright. But desire. Insatiable in every way. It makes us cross continents, build airplanes and submarines and trains, topple rulers and dig for oil and fall in love even when it’s doomed. Always reaching, needing. More. I’m so tired of reaching. I’m so tired of needing.”
“I find a taxi in less than five minutes. Mather sleeping in my arms has helped, I am sure. In the backseat I wrap him in a blanket and manage to get a seat belt around both of us. Absolutely not legal in America. Here, I’m not so sure what is legal or not; I have seen children sitting on the laps of fathers driving, talking on cell phones, and smoking cigarettes all at the same time.”
” ‘While Jordan is very safe–It has a crime rate much lower than the America’s….However, there are always exceptions to the rule. In September 2005, four militants were arrested for plotting assassinations of Americans in Jordon….’ ‘In 1995, Timothy McVeigh killed one hundred sixty-eight Americans with a bomb at the Oklahoma Federal Building.’ I couldn’t shut myself up, no.”
Last but not the least, this quote from the author’s acknowledgements page:
“To Jordan and her people, who showed my family and I such beauty and generosity, thank you. To my readers, please go to Petra and Jerash, and if some kind soul comes out from his home, pulls a fig from a tree in his garden, and splits it open with his thumbs, eat it. It will be the most amazing fruit you have ever tasted.”