Guest House for Young Widows by Azadeh Moaveni
What might make a woman – perhaps an educated woman from a stable family situation – travel to Syria to join the Islamic State? This is the foundational question of the brilliantly provocative and genuinely eye-opening Guest House for Young Widows. This book follows the stories of thirteen women and girls who travelled from abroad to join ISIS. These women’s stories are told not as exemplars of a type, but rather as the unique experiences of individuals whose circumstances differ and whose motivations are personal and particular; however, they find their ways to a common destination. We discover that these women are all seeking a form of belonging to alleviate a deep sense of disenfranchisement, and their attempts to locate that feeling and that community come at a huge cost. This book does not deal in dichotomies like right and wrong, victim and perpetrator, good and evil, but rather dwells in the uncomfortable inbetween spaces that produce the everyday lives of real people. It’s a humane project which generates understanding about those drawn to a conflict whose enormity and complexity deems it almost incomprehensible to those of us living an existence of relative safety.
Author Azadeh Moaveni has been writing about and reporting on life and politics in the Middle East for twenty years, and her expertise really shines in this book. Moaveni offers crucial historical context throughout the book, as well as a sense of what daily life is like amidst its instability. She also gives biting critiques of US and European foreign policy, the failure of dominant feminist discourse to engage adequately with the lives of Muslim women, the poor attempts by Western governments to ‘manage’ radicalisation, and the shocking prejudices of media reporting about Muslim communities, as well as exploring the nuances and varieties of Islamic faith. It is truly fascinating as well as being an incredibly well-written work of narrative nonfiction, and is a highlight of my 2019 reading year.