Review – “Jasmine Days” by Benyamin

After I finished high school, I went away to another city for my graduation. Though I never stayed in a hostel or a PG, I never felt myself belong to the house, which was my maternal grandparents’, or the place I was living in. In fact, the 4 years that I was there, I spent each day terribly missing my own home and my city even when I used to visit at least twice a year. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to leave behind an entire life and move to someplace else entirely and try to begin afresh. I am not cut out for that. Are you?
Jasmine Days by Benyamin, translated by Shahnaz Habib, originally a script in Arabic by Sameera Parveen, is a tale of family and friends, of self-love and selflessness, of slavery and freedom, and of life and death. It follows the life of the protagonist as she struggles to cope with her newfound identity in a middle eastern country as an immigrant while it boils in the fire of the Islamic revolution.

Sameera has just lost her Baba to the revolution. A revolution which she isn’t a part of, nor was her “coolie soldier” Baba. A cause that she doesn’t recognize with, because she doesn’t belong to this country. An uprising, if successful, will leave her with no job and subsequent deportation. Who is Sameera? She is a Pakistani immigrant like her almost entire family, and folks from countries neighboring hers and elsewhere.
When Sameera had arrived in the City, she hadn’t known what lay in store. Working as an RJ, she began to find her place within peoples’ hearts with her lively attitude and her life finding its place in the City. Her life revolved around her job, her friends from the radio station, the music group that she was a part of – the String Walkers, and her mundane life at Taya Ghar which she managed to liven up with her inside “Harami”. All was well until the revolution reached the City. The City suddenly divided into protestors and pro-His Majesty. While Sameera’s police family were loyal to His Majesty, her friends had other thoughts. The gradual rise in the protestors’ hold on the City leaves everyone worried about their own future. After all, an immigrant is always less important than a true-born citizen. It was a choice between family and friendship for Sameera which saw her being propelled into the limelight later.

When my husband gifted me with this book, I never had imagined the kind of impact it would have on me. Profound. That’s the only word that describes what this book is, but without over-burdening. What writing! It’s a master who wrote this story, so simple, yet so impactful. The sheer weight of the topic would have been enough to weigh down the first few itself, but no, not this book. It’s as light as a feather, touches and creates ripples. A twice translated story could have so much to offer, I didn’t know. I can only imagine what it would feel like to read it in its primary language. And here I wish, I knew all the languages of the world!
Back to the book, the story deals with a lot of topics. Social, political, economic, personal, professional, you name it, it has it. But before I proceed to write about them all, let me ask you if you are aware of the problems in the middle east. For me, I knew there were problems, but unaware of the extent. Syria, yes, because of it being propelled into the world news for reasons well known. But others, no. I didn’t know, and I never even cared. And I am ashamed, yet again. Ashamed that we live in a world where a privileged few don’t know what the rest of the world goes through. And ashamed that we don’t/can’t do anything about it. You know, in a parallel universe am an avenger or the Wonder Woman, fighting the baddies of our world. 
So, the main plot of this book revolves around the revolution. I’ve done a little bit of research on this revolution, the Islamic/Arab spring revolution. Apparently, people weren’t happy with their “Majesties”, so they revolted in hopes of a better life. But I don’t understand, the monarchy that was there, supposedly oppressing people or the Islamic parties that have come into power after successful revolutions, which is better? The “His Majesty” law or the Sharia law, which is better? Initially, when the revolution began, it bore the flag of secularism. Why, when, and where it changed its course and became a fight for power between the Muslim Shias and Sunnis, it is difficult to fathom. Shias killing Sunnis and proclaiming themselves above and vice versa became a common sight. The end result, bloodshed, and despair. For both.
The life of immigrants is probably the second most important topic that this book talks about. Immigrants from third world countries are looked down upon everywhere, and when the country they’ve immigrated to is a monarchy where the subjects aren’t happy, they become the reason for hate, and thus, fuelling the anger further. What do you think about such immigrants? Those who work for lesser pay than a true-born citizen, eventually rendering a segment of those citizens unemployed/forced to work at lesser pay than they deserve, what do you think of them? Opportunists? Or mere ill-fortuned people escaping their own countries for a better life? What would you think/do if you were in either’s shoes? It’s difficult, extremely difficult to sit back and preach than to be in action and make wise decisions.
Also dealing with emotions, this story explores the fragile relationship between the protagonist and her father. Having stayed miles away from her father most of her life, Sameera’s relationship with him is strained, to the point where she and her siblings seem to forget his importance in their lives. More than anything in the story that had me choking were the moments when she recalls herself making fun of her Baba when he came to visit them in their village. I had a flashback of sorts, a personal one, from my own past. Teenage rebels, anyone? Her little moments with Baba in the City filled me with joy though, their gradual bonding, which could have bloomed into a long-lasting relationship, alas, is cut short. This was not something I could relate to, but I fear it.
Something which I found underlying in the pages of the story and which stuck to me throughout was hypocrisy. Coming from a conservative Pakistani family whose females use the abaya, Sameera has the guts to call a turbaned Sikh “old-fashioned in these modern times”. Now, this sounds really hypocritical. But then, it’s my review and opinion on the book, not to be created an issue of 🙂
If we think life during a war is bad, one must read about/talk to persons, normal citizens, who have survived it. It’s gruesome. Living with regrets is not easy. Living with despair is not easy. Living with grief is not easy. Living when your loved ones are dead is not easy. Living alone is not easy. Living with hatred is not easy. Living without love is not easy. Living is not easy.
My heart goes out to all those who have suffered, suffered because of a selfish person/group of persons whose only motto is their own selfish purpose. Like our very own Kashmir, I feel ashamed of living in such a world and much more when I think of what legacy are we leaving behind for our children.

P.S. There is a lot more to this book, a lot more that I can write. But I would rather that you read it yourself. After all, you don’t want only me to do all the talking, err, writing.


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