Q&A about my novel (1 of 2): What is education and enlightenment like for Syrian women?

Last week, I was thrilled when someone who read my book Dreams in the Medina emailed to ask if she could write a review. Of course, I said, I was honoured she asked!

In order to do the review, she said, she would like to ask me some background questions. I thought her questions were very astute so, with her permission, I am posting them and my answers here on CulturTwined. There are five questions, and I’ll put 2 answers up today and 3 tomorrow. Since today’s Imperfect Prose prompt was LIGHT, the questions I’m answering today hopefully begin to convey the enlightenment of university students in Syria, which is a theme of the book.
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First, so you know what we’re talking about, here’s a one-sentence introduction to the book: From the heart of Syria, Dreams in the Medina is a coming-of-age tale which explores the aspirations, passions and tragedies of a group of young Syrian women who, on the surface, have nothing in common but who are brought together in the deepest of bonds as they study and live together at the University of Damascus.

Question 1. Does the word “Medina” refer to the building where the young women live, or is it a broader term to cover the area where this dormitory is built?
Answer: “Medina” literally means “city”, and refers to the “University City”, which is a complex of about 15-20 buildings, housing approximately 14,000 students. Buildings were always in construction when I lived there (2002-2003) so these numbers were always in flux. Anyone who lived there called it the “medina” but the full name is “Medina Jamaye’a”. It is free housing for anyone registered at the University of Damascus or its affiliates, whose home address is considered too far for daily commuting. It is gated, across the street from the main campus of the university. Half of the buildings are for women and half for men, and there is actually a little canal and a footpath separating the men’s and women’s sides.

This is what the Medina looks like from one of its roofs. The pink and white building to the right is "Building 14", the setting for Dreams in the Medina

This is what the Medina looks like from one of its roofs. The pink and white building to the right is “Building 14”, the setting for Dreams in the Medina

Question 2. The character, Leila, in your book, seems especially naive. Is this typical of young women in the Sunni sect of Islam? The other young women seem a little more worldly.
(As a bit of background to this question: Leila is the main character and she is a Sunni Muslim. The other key figures in the book all come from different villages, different parts of Syria and different religious backgrounds.)
Answer: No, not per se. Many Sunni women in Syria, especially from villages or poor families, have been sheltered. But contrast her with the character Nisreen, who is well-educated and a bit of a political activist. She is also a Sunni Muslim girl and her mother is from a very similar background to that of Leila’s own mother, but she is far from naive.
Part of that had to do with the fact that Nisreen was from an upscale urban home, and part of it simply had to do with the fact that she was from a different family. Each family develops its own culture, and I think in a country where women are relatively secluded – not by necessity but often in practice anyway – women’s culture is highly influenced by family. So Leila’s worldview was shaped almost entirely by her mother and her sisters, until the day she moved to Damascus, where her horizons expanded exponentially.
But I also know Sunni girls from Damascus who are very sheltered, and girls from villages who are not Sunni Muslim and who are just as naive as Leila. In Syria, just as anywhere in the world, our religion is one of many factors that affects our worldview.

Tomorrow I’ll answer the questions the reviewer asked to the effect of: Who am I to write a novel about Syria?!

p.s. The book’s facebook page has regular updates with news and tidbits about Syrian women – ‘like’ it to follow along!

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