In these paired posts, Abda and Mandy, members of the Nisa-Nashim West Midlands Book Group, reflect on learning from reading Jewish and Muslim books, and from each other.
Over twenty years ago, my Jewish reading group started, reading Jewish writers – mostly fiction, poetry, and memoir. We are reading our brothers, fathers, and grandfathers (and a handful of our mothers and grandmothers too). We read our Ashkenazi origins, our Sephardi cousins, our Israeli relatives, the diaspora and its yearning and its wounds. We have read a lot about the Shoah, in the company of the last of the refugees who escaped from Nazi Germany.
About a year ago, we started a Nisa Nashim book club here in Birmingham. Jewish and Muslim women come together (recently online) to read and discuss Muslim and Jewish authors. I was delighted when you attended our first meeting, about your own novel, Razia, and then became our co-chair. We’ve gone on to read Allegra Goodman, Kamila Shamsie, Dara Horn and currently Elif Shafak. We haven’t yet read a book with LGBT characters, or by Israeli and Palestinian writers, but I hope we will.
And Abda, it’s so different! In my Jewish reading group, we’re reading ‘us’. It’s familiar, mostly a known world, with our losses and fears, our familial broigus, communal kvetching. But in our Nisa Nashim group, as I’m reading, I’m aware that ‘you’ are reading ‘us’, and ‘we’ are reading ‘you’. So paradoxically, we share a mirrored experience. Each of us is baring the complexities, rabbit holes, fierce schisms, and shames within our own community – and recognising each other’s too. We can ask questions that are hard to ask elsewhere. It’s obvious that neither of us inhabits the single, harmonious ‘community’ that outsiders often assume. It feels very familiar.
I think of the ‘Golden Age’ (as we wistfully call it) of 13th century al-Andalus Spain, that precious moment when Jewish and Muslim scholars together brought lost scholarship back to Europe to birth the Renaissance. Abda, I wonder whether this Golden Age features in your history? I see that we should be cherishing our own golden age, here now in Brum, where we cohabit peacefully with people of many faiths and none, and women can read together. We know there are many places where this is impossible.
We are starting to be able to speak our differences too. We hear our different narratives, especially over Israel/Palestine. We see each other’s bonds, strong feelings of pain, solidarity, justice, vulnerability, and see that we need to find a way to continue this conversation.
So, Abda, we are cousins, after all, as the offspring of Abraham/Ibrahim. In this family, there is feuding, broigus, suspicion, disagreement, rage and pain. We can’t erase past and present wrongs, including in Israel/Palestine. We recognise how we’re each sometimes held responsible for acts in the name of our religion, which we may deplore. But we are hearing each other, and recognising what we share. We can step into the characters we’re reading, and imagine and understand more about other lives and experiences.
We hear the resonance of similar concerns in our different communities, about identity, assimilation, insularity, shifts between the generations, about feminism and its relationship to religion.
We are hearing women’s voices as writers and readers in male-led traditions, maintaining religious traditions while finding our way in our modern, western world diasporas. We share the accusatory tropes of divided loyalties – rootless cosmopolitans or the cricket test. We see that from generation to generation, we live in the close scrutiny of our families, communities, history. Dear Abda, we are becoming friends as we are reading each other! Let’s keep going.
You can hear Mandy and Abda talk more about their book group on the Birmingham Literature Festival Podcast.
 Nisa Nashim is a national network of grassroots groups bringing together Jewish and Muslim women to inspire and lead social change.