The View from Garden City
by Carolyn Baugh

Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2008. ISBN 978-0-765-31657-8.
Reviewed by Marion Mitchell
Posted on 09/05/2008

Fiction: Mainstream

If you have ever wished to visit Egypt, this novel provides an utterly satisfying glimpse of the city of Cairo and the lives of the people who live there. The author, Carolyn Baugh, translates observations of both Cairo and its people into words that aroused my curiosity and engaged my senses.

This is the story of an American student who studies Arabic and lives in Garden City, a district of Cairo. While she receives her formal education at the American University, she learns much more from the native women she meets and befriends. Ultimately, the stories of six Egyptian women emerge in the novel: captivating stories of arranged marriages, secret affairs, bigamy, divorces, births, deaths, love, pain, and personal sacrifices amid the unforgiving realities of a culture of female powerlessness. Yet, despite the difficulties of life in a highly patriarchal society that deprives women of power, these stories reveal a sisterhood of graceful strength.

The author's keen insight and expressive ability are reflected in the following passage. The American student and her friend Meg have been invited to the wedding ceremony of Huda, a despairing bride about to enter an arranged marriage. They have been asked to dance with other guests:

I am overwhelmed. I am the most discomfited of dancers. Simultaneously, chillingly, I am certain that the wedding guests sense it to be a sad occasion, yet all are in desperate conspiracy to produce a joyful atmosphere. They dance madly. As though if they were to stop, and cast a thoughtful eye on the bride and groom, the illusion would be dispelled. The party dresses and hairspray and starched collars and lipsticked lips would melt away, and all present would be left standing in the rags of Huda's despair...

Meg and I join the dance, but we cannot prolong the effort for very long...We are incapable of allaying the feeling that we have just witnessed the inflicting of a perhaps fatal wound, and we, along with all present, are guilty of dancing on a blood-slicked floor.

The author's clear, descriptive language, with its delightful poetic nuance, evokes the sights and sounds of modern Egypt. In the following passage, the American student describes the scene as she walks through the streets of Cairo toward the university:

Qasr al-'Ayni Street seethes with faces and bodies, and I walk it in a daze that despises the density while thriving on the sudden, forced intimacy of it all. A yellow-shirted man's arm brushes mine, leaving a film of sweat. The woman walking alongside me, her headscarf gathered at her chin by a purple plastic barrette, smells distinctly of onions frying in ghee. A peasant woman passes by with one child straddling one of her thin shoulders and another clutching at her hand in terror of losing it... I sidestep the lemon lady, who cradles a great basket of tiny green-skinned lemons on her wide lap... I am transfixed momentarily by the appeal of the heap of lemons, their skins still glistening with the oil of the hands that plucked them.

Through Carolyn Baugh's ability to enliven the senses through her writing, I felt a strong empathy for Huda, the victim bride of the arranged marriage, and could almost visualize those hand-picked lemons sitting in the lemon lady's lap.

After reading The View from Garden City, I find myself thinking about the lives of the women I met in the novel and the complexities of the issues they face. I also recall the colors, smells, tastes, and landscapes of the city of Cairo. Carolyn Baugh's book is worth reading, rereading, and recommending to family and friends.

Carolyn Baugh, a native of Indiana, studied Arabic and Arab literature at Duke University, graduating summa cum laude. She spent her junior year abroad studying at the American University in Cairo. She rowed crew on the Nile, where she met her husband, a member of the Egyptian national crew team. They live with their two daughters in Philadelphia. Ms. Baugh is now in her fourth year of the Ph.D. program in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, where her focus is gender issues in Islamic law.

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