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A Glimpse of the Middle East through Fiction Part I

Amy E. Robertson By Amy E. Robertson Published on May 8, 2017
This article was updated on October 23, 2017

Sometimes it feels like I have never studied modern Middle Eastern history. Certainly, there was a mention of it in high school, and at least a chapter in my college class on modern international relations. But I don’t remember much beyond the barest of bones facts. At that point in time, the “Middle East” wasn’t much more to me than a name in a newspaper.

It’s easier for me to remember history say, of the Ancient Egyptians, I suspect because it is chock-full of memorable characters: King Tutankhamun, the boy king. Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh. Gods with the head of a jackal or a falcon.

There are a few non-fiction authors who have a gift for bringing historical figures to life on the page (looking at you here, Laura Hillenbrand). The chance to peek into someone else’s mind and understand their innermost thoughts is often what makes a book so compelling. But for me, that often means looking to fiction for stories that help me better grasp the history and people of a place.

So, since moving to the Middle East five years ago, I have turned to historical fiction to flesh out my understanding of the region. Stories of families torn apart yet stitched back together with persistence (and often with a bit of delicious food). Forbidden romances, and lovers separated by conflict and misunderstandings. Daring adventures and remarkable resilience. Here are two tales of audacious women whose paths crossed with important moments in Middle Eastern history.

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Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

When “spinster” school teacher Agnes Shanklin receives a windfall inheritance, she splurges on a trip of a lifetime to Egypt and the Holy Land—an extraordinary decision for a single woman back in 1921. Arriving to Cairo as the Cairo Peace Conference is about to begin, Shanklin crosses paths with the likes of Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence and Lady Gertrude Bell. Friendships and flirtations arise, as Shanklin finds herself keeping company with both the legendary Lawrence and a German spy.

Russell deftly inserts Shanklin into real historical events, from this famous afternoon camel ride during which Churchill, Lawrence and Bell finalized their plans to carve the Middle East into nation-states, to accompanying Churchill to Palestine where he met with protestors in Gaza.

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Churchill, Lawrence, Bell and others in Giza, Egypt, 1921

We started again toward Gazirah. “So!” I said briskly. “Miss Bell wants to rule the Arabs, but sneakily. Colonel Wilson wants to rule right out in the open. Mr. Churchill wants to save money and rule on the cheap. What do you want, Colonel Lawrence?”

He took a deep breath and let it out, glancing at the moon riding low over the deep blue geometry of Cairo’s cityscape. “A state for the Kurds,” he said, “and one for the Armenians. Separate kingdoms for Basra and Baghdad. A national home for the Jews in Palestine. And biff the French out of Syria!” Embarrassed, he sniggered in recognition of the absurdity: big ambitions, little me.

“And what do the Arabs want for themselves?” I asked, since no one else seemed to have.

Transforming dates and actions into lively conversations, emotional relationships, and human stories, Russell kept me rapt.

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The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

Sure, I remember the Ottoman Empire was part of world history in high school. But anything about the 1.5 million Armenians that were slaughtered by the Turks between 1915 and 1917? Nope, not taught in my school.

Western Armenia is not the Middle East, but many of the survivors made their new homes in Syria and Lebanon. I first heard about the Armenian Genocide when I moved to Lebanon in 2012, where some 230,000 Lebanese claim Armenian descent. You may have first heard about the genocide in 2015, when it was in the news for the commemoration of its 100-year anniversary. Prior to the current crisis, there were another 100,000 Armenians in Syria, primarily in Aleppo, where The Sandcastle Girls takes place. They still speak their own language (as well as Arabic), have their own schools, and have strong communities in certain towns and neighborhoods.

As in Dreamers of the Day, the narrator is a spirited young woman defying the norms of the day. Elizabeth Endicott arrives with her father to Aleppo, Syria, ostensibly to provide succor to the hundreds of thousands of Armenians who have been marched out of Turkey and into the Syrian desert to die.

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Armenians being force-marched out of Harput in April 1915

Elizabeth’s primary responsibility is to report back to the Boston chapter of Friends of Armenia, and provide a bit of nursing services if possible. Although Elizabeth’s ability to help the masses is limited, she does make an important difference in the lives one woman and one girl who survived the forced march and its atrocities. And as in most good stories, romance crops up for Endicott as well, a complicated story with an Armenian engineer who has lost his wife and daughter in the chaos.

In her letter, she tells the Bostonians about the Armenians and the Turks she has met: Nevart and Hatoun. Dr. Sayied Ackam. Armen. She does not describe the condition of the Armenian women when they arrived in Aleppo or the young guards with their truncheons and their whips, because Ryan has warned her that such honesty will only result in the document being destroyed and her possible—perhaps even likely—deportation.

So instead she tells of the new guests in the American apartments. She writes that Nevart is a widow whose late husband studied medicine in London. She writes that Hatoun is an orphan whose older sister perished in the desert with their mother. She writes that Armen is a widow and an engineer and his eyes…

No, she tore up the description of his intense, fathomless eyes. She shredded the page on which she had written that he was gone and she missed him.

The Sandcastle Girls was first published in 2012, written before Syria’s current crisis erupted. Syrian-Armenians have been forced once again from their homes (their numbers dwindling from 100,000 in Syria to an estimated 15,000), and their story has not yet been resolved. The Sandcastle Girls left me hoping, more than ever, for a stable future for the Armenians. (See the article Enduring Exile: Syria's Armenians by Alia Malek for a compelling piece of writing on the fate today of this community.)


Reader, writer, globetrotter. Seattle native who has lived in six countries (current home: New York). Food obsessed. Bylines in NPR, Wall Street Journal, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel and more.


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