Elsa Marston
children's author

Fiction, young adult
An adventure in ancient Egypt
poems inspired by animals depicted in Southwestern rock art
history, political science
a look at the variety of women's lives in the Middle East and North Africa
Stories in Y-A collections

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Some further thoughts on FIGS AND FATE....

"In Line"

What is a city family like Rania's doing in a village? In Egypt, many government employees are sent to rural areas to carry out social, technical, and agricultural programs. Salaries are low and living conditions very different from the city--even though, with Egypt's large and growing population, a "village" is often a good-sized town. Understandably, city people may find it difficult to adjust to the new way of life, which can fuel feelings of class-consciousness.

That's one reason why Rania's mother decides to wear her head-covering when Fayza comes to the house. In the past thirty years or so, many urban women and girls in Egypt have adopted the Islamic practice of "veiling," which earlier had been rejected by most educated Egyptian women. There are several explanations for this trend: religious, social, political, even "fashion." Mrs.Gamal's main reasons might be religious; but in this case she seems to be emphasizing her difference from the village women, who typically don't wear the Islamic covering but simply a small, colorful scarf as part of their traditional dress.

Friday is the "day of rest and prayer" in Islamic societies, so schools are closed on that day. Young boys and girls go to school together, but at about the age of twelve they are usually separated and sent to single-sex schools. Some progressive private schools in the city do have co-education, as do some villages that cannot afford separate secondary schools for girls and boys. Because of Egypt's dense population and economic difficulties, public schooling leaves a lot to be desired, even in Cairo. Many students in public schools go for shortened school days, and some poor chldren don't go at all, even though universal education is required in principle. Any family who can pay for it would probably send their chldren to private schools--but even there the quality varies markedly.

Exams are all-important, starting in first grade, and teachers focus their lessons strictly on preparing for the exams. Because teachers are very poorly paid, they supplement their income by private tutoring; and because most students can't get adequately prepared in school, they must supplement their schooling by being tutored privately. It's a troublesome and unfair situation, obviously very hard on families who can't afford the expense.

An Egyptian middle-class girl with progressive parents can aim at a wide range of professional careers. The educational system, however, steers students into different professions at the university level, according to their results on the major exams. For instance, a girl who passes the exams with highest marks usually goes into medical studies, even though she might prefer art or literature. In rural areas, a girl like Fayza can also aspire to a white-collar profession, but it will take a lot of determination on her part and strong support by her parents.

Egyptians are famous for their good humor and their love of laughing--it shines through the difficulties of their lives in a politically and economically straitened society. Even poor people will be generous toward a visitor, sharing whatever they can. And Egypt does have lovely flowers, which bloom all winter . . . although the roses do tend to droop too soon!

Some ideas for discussion.....

Is it better for parents to guide--or even determine--a young person's choice of career, since they know so much more about the world world? Or should parents allow their children complete freedom in this respect?

What would you think of a girl or boy who persisted in being friends with someone who did not meet her or his parents' approval?

How do you feel about the decision by Rania's parents to send her to an all-girls school? What would you say are the main advantages and disadvantages of going to a single-sex school?

If you had to move to a new place very unlike what you'd always been used to, would you try to fit in with the other young people and be like them--even if it meant major changes in your behavior, interests, values, etc.?

It's national policy in Egypt for students to take long exams to determine whether they have learned what they should and to qualify them for further education. How could a system like this improve American education?

"The Hand of Fatima"

Even high in the mountains, the soil and climate of Lebanon produce marvelous flowers. No wonder Sitt Zeina wants to build a garden to show off her rose bushes! All sorts of fruits, too, thrive in Lebanon: oranges, cherries, plums, grapes, apples--and of course, figs. Lebanese cuisine is among the world's most celebrated.

It takes a long time to prepare, however, especially an elaborate meal for guests. Sitt Zeina really needs some help for that purpose, and because she's busy with several social, cultural, and charitable organizations. Many Lebanese women also have full-time jobs in the professions, business, and education; this is true of educated women throughout the Arab world. If they can afford it, they'll probably have a maid.

But where do those maids come from? No longer will young Lebanese women work as maids: they want better jobs. Most domestic workers these days are from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, or Africa, imported by agencies. But there are unfortunate consequences to this international labor migration, and foreign maids can be mistreated. Aneesi is lucky to have been hired by a good family, and they are lucky to have found a girl who speaks their language--Arabic--and is part of the same basic culture.

But shouldn't Aneesi, a bright girl, be in school? Yes, she should. Syrian law calls for education of both girls and boys for at least six years. Poverty, however, makes other demands. And as we have seen, Aneesi has dreams of her own.

Middle Eastern society, especially in less educated, more traditional areas, is still strongly patriarchal. While marriage arranged by families strikes most Americans as undesirable, the majority of marriages in the Middle East are still made in this way--as in much of the world. Nevertheless, more and more girls insist on choosing their own husbands. Some urban young women decide to postpone or even avoid marriage altogether and concentrate on careers, in spite of the high importance that Middle Eastern cultures place on marriage and family.

In any event, marriage does not mean automatic "happy ever after" for an Arab woman, any more than it does in American society. Therefore, women like to acquire gold jewelry--and lots of it--because in case of divorce, by law they can keep all their jewelry and similar personal possessions. Those gold merchants with glittering displays in fashionable shops and exotic bazaars are actually selling a form of practical insurance!

Speaking of wealth, what about those amazing amounts of money that Maya, in the story, leaves in her pockets? For many years, the Lebanese pound was worth about 33 cents, three pounds to one dollar. During the Lebanese war of 1975-1991, however, the value of the pound declined--to about two thousand to the dollar! At present the currency is stable: 1,500 pounds to the dollar. Prices, therefore, are expressed in huge numbers--although actually they're similar to those in American cities.

The "Hand of Fatima" is a symbol used in jewelry and other decorative arts in many parts of the Islamic world. Usually a pendant in the shape of a stylized hand, it conveys the idea of both protection and power. Charms intended to provide blessing, good luck, or protection are popular, such as blue beads and Christian images that can be pinned to a child's clothing.

Some ideas for discussion....

Sometimes a young teenager--perhaps poor like Aneesi or perhaps exceptional in some way, such as sports--has the chance to earn money and possibly have better opportunities by leaving school. What might that person gain--and lose?

How can religious objects (such as a cross, pictures of saints, or a small book representing the Koran) really help a person? Can you think of any criticisms regarding such a practice?

Put yourself in Aneesi's shoes. How might she persuade her family to let her make her own decision about marriage?

If you lived in a place where most families like yours have a full-time maid, how would you feel about it? Can you think of any drawbacks?

In the story, Maya leads a carefree life. Why do you suppose she doesn't have any kind of a summer job or other respnsibilities? Would you like to spend your summer that way?


One of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth, Damascus is a fascinating place to visit. With a famous and beautiful mosque dating from the seventh century, "Turkish baths" in medieval buildings, and a large covered bazaar full of merchants and shoppers of every description, the central part of the city calls to mind the Arabian Nights. Newer sections boast wide boulevards, modern apartment houses, gardens, and luxury hotels.

Against this exotic background we meet Suhayl, with his emotionally trying life as the child of divorced parents. Divorce under Islamic law can be very easy--for the husband. Family members, friends, and religious leaders often try to help save a marriage, for the family is considered a vital social institution in Islam and in Middle Eastern cultures generally; but this will not stop a man who is determined to end his marriage. (Some Middle Eastern women's groups are working for comparable rights for wives.)

Unlike the practice in most Western nations, in Islamic countries the father typically claims the children. They bear his name and are considered part of his family. Many people feel that a woman with children will have a harder time making a second marriage: her new husband will not want responsibility for the children of another man. Although courts in some Middle Eastern countries are becoming more flexible in awarding custody to the mother, divorced women often suffer the cruel blow of losing their children.

Suhayl's growing awareness of himself and how he relates to others includes a closer connection with his Christian friend. Christians are a small minority in Syria. (In Lebanon, Christians are a much larger, wealthier, and more powerful group, around 35 percent of the population.) Generally speaking, the lives of Syrian and Lebanese Christians are much like those of their Muslim neighbors. While many Christians have pictures of Jesus and saints in their homes, Muslims would not have anything similar--even though they revere Jesus and earlier biblical prophets such as Abraham and Moses. Islam forbids representation of its founder, the Prophet Muhammad, and other holy prophets; therefore, a devout Muslim family would probably have pictures of holy places on their living room walls, such as the Ka'ba shrine in Mecca or the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem.

As in Egypt, some Syrian women have adopted "veiling" in recent years as an expression of their Muslim identity. The ones Suhayl notices in the market have chosen an extreme form, which is rare. Covering the entire body and face is required in the radically fundamentalist society of Saudi Arabia, but elsewhere in the Arab world most women who "veil" simply cover their hair and wear modest clothing. Throughout much of the Middle East, except in traditional villages, women and girls tend to dress very much as their Western counterparts do.

One inspiration for this story came from the author's visit to Damascus in 1999. The face of the long-time president of Syria, Hafez al Assad, appeared everywhere on huge posters in public places, a constant reminder of his power. Assad died in June 2000 and was succeeded by his son, Bashar; but the custom of plastering cities with the image of the national leader is not likely to disappear very soon, in Syria or elsewhere.

Some ideas for discussion....

After divorce, in most Middle Eastern countries, the father takes custody of the children. If you were in Suhayl's situation, what would you want to tell your parents?

What about teaching both boys and girls some basic home-making skills in school, such as cooking? Would that sort of educational reform be a good idea in a country like Syria, where people have strong attitudes about men's work and women's work?

Even in countries and communities where veiling is practiced, there are arguments both in favor of it and against it. If you were a girl in a society where the majority of women veil, would you do so, too? If you were in a position of power, would you order women NOT to veil--even if many wanted to?

If you were a member of a minority group in a society where discrimination may be likely, can you think of some ways in which you would try to adapt--or to assert your difference? If you were part of the majority, would you make much effort to be friends with a kid from a minority group?

Many people believe that patriotism and respect for leaders are important values. Do you think that emphasizing the importance of the president, or similar official, by making that person very visible in the public eye, and by restricting criticism, strengthens feelings of patriotism?

"The Plan"

Rami the dreamer tries hard to keep his hopes high. And that's a good thing, because there's not much else going for him.

As a Palestinian refugee,he is a tiny part of the longest-lasting, largest, and most difficult refugee problem in the world. Probably a few million Palestinians (it's hard to come up with accurate numbers)live outside what they consider their homeland of Palestine, most of them against their will. The problem goes back to 1948 when, with the creation of the new Jewish state of Israel in what had been the Arab state of Palestine, around 750,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes. Some had the means to settle down elsewhere and start new lives, but the great majority had no choice but to seek refuge in the neighboring Arab states.

At first they lived in camps of makeshift tents provided by the United Nations. When it became clear that they would not be allowed back to their homes, those tents were replaced by makeshift cinderblock buildings. Generations of Palestinians have been living in these camps ever since, in poverty and bleak, overcrowded conditions.

Some people argue that, just as Israel took in Jews from all over the world, the Arab states should have "taken in" the Palestinians. But that misses the point. Israel was founded for the express purpose of being a home for any and all Jews, whereas the Arab states see no reason why they should have to incorporate an additional--and very unhappy--population. (Remember, although the Arab countries are huge, most of that land is desert and cannot support many people.) Even more important, the Palestinians do not want to settle down permanently in other Arab states. They want to live in their own homeland--Palestine.

The problem in Lebanon is particularly acute. Some 400,000 Palestinians now live in that very small country, about half of them in twelve official camps. Because of the combination of religious groups in Lebanon, the Lebanese government is afraid that the addition of all those Palestinians would upset the complicated balance. Furthermore, the economy of Lebanon is weak and jobs are scarce. Palestinians are therefore not allowed to do anything but the most menial types of work outside the camps.

Since the nineteenth century, Palestinians have placed high value on education, and they do so today. Numerous organizations, both Palestinian and international, try to help the refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere. The United Nations, through the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), has provided schools and scholarships since the start of the refugee problem, although the schools are badly overcrowded and money is frequently cut back. Some groups teach women to do the beautiful embroidery for which Palestinian culture is renowned, and this earns a little income. Other organizations work with children on creative projects--art, writing, film-making, collection of oral history, music and folkdance--to help preserve and demonstrate pride in Palestinian culture.

But these efforts don't reach everyone--and an educated person in a camp has little chance of finding satisfying work. Rami's brother Marwan is already stuck in that trap. If the situation of the Palestinians continues as it is, many of Rami's classmates may lose all hope for the future and turn to extremist groups. This prospect is one of the most important reasons for Israel and the Palestinians to reach a resolution based on justice and security for all--and for the United States to help in the most effective way possible.

Much of the action in this story takes place in the souk--the traditional market area, full of shops and vendors. A frequent sight in the souk is a cafe where men sit smoking the narghileh. Also known as a hookah or water pipe, this colorful contraption allows the tobacco smoke, produce by burning charcoal, to pass through a water-filled container and be cooled before it reaches the smoker's mouth. Men also commonly carry a small string of beads, popularly called "worry beads" because the main purpose is simply to have something in one's hand to "fiddle with." The souk is a lively, fragrant, fascinating place in a traditional Middle Eastern town--much more fun than the orderly Western-style supermarkets now found in many cities.

Some ideas for discussion....

Is it a good idea for parents and relatives--like Marwan's--to choose a husband or wife for a young person? How do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages--or do they?

How would you like to visit a Middle Eastern souk? What do you think would interest you most?

If you and your family were forced to leave your home and bcome political refugees (that is, NOT because of some natural disaster but because you could not live under the government in power), what would you do to keep alive the hope of one day returning to your home?

What good is education (history, language, science, etc.) for a person like Rami, whos expectations of getting a good job later on are severely limited because of factors beyond his control? Wouldn't vocational training for everyone in this situation make more sense?

It's often said that families are extremely close-knit and important in the Middle East. Can you think of both strengths and problems in this? How would you like to live in such a society?

"Santa Claus in Baghdad"

It's hard to imagine a well-educated, middle-class family having to eat on the floor because they have no table. Yet that's the way life has been, in recent years, for a great many people in Iraq.

Following the Gulf War of 1991, the United Nations, at the insistence of the United States, imposed heavy sanctions on Iraq, prohibiting the importation of an immense variety of materials and consumer goods. The stated intention was to prevent the government of Saddam Hussein from building up a war machine, and ultimately to hasten the downfall of that dictatorial regime. The most striking effect, however, was the impoverishment of a great majority of the ordinary people in that once-prosperous country. Goods needed for everyday life--pencils, aspirin, clothes, food--became extremely hard to get, and the problem was made far worse by the drastic drop in the value of money. As an Iraqi friend told the author, "You can buy anything in Iraq. It's just that nobody has any money."

Families sold whatever they could manage to get along without, and an outdoor market for second-hand consumer goods filled several streets in Baghdad. Given the choice between food with which to keep alive and a dining table with nothing on it, families such as Amal's chose to sell the table.

An especially critical problem was the lack of medicine and medical equipment. Many hospitals did not have the most basic medicines for the appalling numbers of people, mostly children, suffering from malnutrition and diseases. Much disease was caused by contaminated water, because water and sewage treatment facilities were badly damaged during the Gulf War and could not be repaired. International health organizations estimate that this combination of problems caused over a million deaths.

Schools, too, were hard hit. Whereas education through university level had formerly been free to Iraqi citizens, eventually parents were required to pay--often from greatly reduced incomes. Children went to school only a half day because the schools had to run in shifts. Books and basic supplies were scarce or nonexistent. The school that Amal is lucky enough to attend is better off than most, largely because many of the students are from families with government connections or perhaps some income from abroad or from business deals.

For years it was against U.S. law to violate the sanctions by taking goods and medicines into Iraq. Some organizations and individuals managed to do so, on a very small scale. Uncle Omar in the story was inspired by one of the author's Iraqi friends, who made several trips to see family in Iraq, his suitcases bulging with medical and nutritional items and supplies for everyday hygiene.

The sanctions weakened the Iraqi people, especially the large middle class, without hastening change of government. In the spring of 2003, the U.S.-led war in Iraq brought down the regime of Saddam Hussein, only to be followed by a long period of military occupation, civil disorder, and violence. How soon the people of Iraq will be able to enjoy a better life is, sadly, anybody's guess at this time.

Some ideas for discussion....

Have you ever observed--or been part of--a situation at school where one person, like Hala, was the acknowledged center of a clique? In your view, did she or he deserve that leadership role?

By taking needed consumer goods into Iraq for his family, Uncle Omar was actually violating U.S. Government regulations. How do you feel about a person defying the law in a case like this?

Have you, like Amal and her father, ever had to give up something very precious, for a cause that seemed "the greater good"?

Do you think Amal's father was justified in giving Bilaal the little car, after the boy's bad behavior at the family gathering? What would you have done?

For thousands of years, literally, Iraq has been known for writing and books. Just before the U.S./​British attack on Iraq in 2003, a dramatic incident involving books occurred in one of the major cities. The woman in charge of the public library, with her neighbors' help, managed to save about three-quarters of the library's 40,000 volumes, which would otherwise all have been destroyed. (There are already two U.S.-published books for children about this event!) If you had to choose which public facilities should be protected first in the face of a disaster, what priority would you give to libraries?