Saturday, July 27, 2013

Researching the lives of women of the Middle East, a guest post by Janice Weizman - plus giveaway

During my celebration of Small Press Month in March, Janice Weizman's The Wayward Moon was one of the titles I'd highlighted in a showcase of new historical novels from small and independent presses.  I'm happy to welcome Janice to Reading the Past today.  She has contributed a personal essay detailing how she got the idea to write about a young Jewish woman living through the Golden Age of Islam as well as her research into the historical background.  The unique concept and setting of The Wayward Moon interested me so much that I'd bought a copy several months ago, and I'm looking forward to reading it.  Thanks to the generosity of the author, we have a giveaway opportunity, too, for US readers.


Researching the Lives of Women of the Middle East
Janice Weizman

The year is 854. As the only daughter of a respected physician, Rahel, a young woman living in the Babylonian town of Sura, lives a comfortable and sheltered life, helping her father in his work and dreaming of marriage and a family of her own. On the day she is to meet her fiancĂ© for the first time, Rahel bathes in the town bathhouse, dresses in white, lines her eyes with kohl and colors her lips. Then, as she’s about to perfume herself with rosewater, a crazed assailant bursts into her home and stabs her father. In a wild rush of self defense, Rahel murders the assailant. And then she must flee. With the help of her servant, she disguises herself as a boy and takes to the roads.

Her adventure will take her to places she’s never imagined: to a life as a kitchen slave in the home of a wealthy Muslim merchant, to a remote Christian monastery, and to a wayside inn for travelers, where she meets a foreign traveler from the far west. As she makes her way through the fascinating and dangerous roads of Mesopotamia, Rahel, who has never lacked for anything, must learn how to survive on her own. So begins The Wayward Moon, my historical novel set in the 9th-century Middle East.

People often ask me how I conceived and researched this story –  very appropriate questions in light of the fact that I was born and raised in Toronto and there is very little in my background that prepared me to write it. The answer begins in the best of places – with my own curiosity.

I moved to Israel when I was nineteen, almost thirty years ago. I had always been curious about our Arab neighbors – about their culture, their history, and about the Muslim religion. I loved visiting local archeological sights, many of them within an hour or two of my home. And I enjoyed discovering other aspects of Arab culture – the music, the markets, the literature, the food.

But it was only about 10 years ago, when the phenomenon of suicide bombings emerged, that I felt a need to acquire a deeper understanding about Islam. Following the events of 9/11, I enrolled in a course entitled The History of Islam. It doesn’t often happen that something captures your imagination so fully that you are inspired to create a work of your own, but that is what happened to me.

As we read and discussed the development of Islam – from the tribes of Arabia to the cosmopolitan centers of Damascus and, Baghdad, I discovered a side of Islam that I had not known about. In its Golden Age (750-1250 AD), Islam was one of the world’s most sophisticated cultures, one which valued scholarship, music and poetry, scientific inquiry, and theological debate. I was intrigued to learn that it was in this period that Arab scholars, many of them Christian, translated the classical works of the Greeks, Romans, and others into Arabic, and then went on to engage with and develop new ideas about philosophy, alchemy, medicine, architecture, mathematics, astronomy and optics. The city of Baghdad, with its palaces, markets, hospitals and libraries, was the center of this explosion of learning, commerce and creativity.

As I learned more, I wondered about the lives of women in this society. Except for mothers or desired lovers, they are almost absent from the texts that have come down to us. Uneducated, illiterate, denied all freedom of movement, and forced to consign every aspect of their physical/sexual lives to the will of others, there is nonetheless no doubt that they were there, partaking in the life of their communities from the sidelines.

What would have happened, I wondered, if a woman of this time were suddenly free of all constraint? If she had no father or brothers to protect, or limit her? If she was given the opportunity to study, to use her mind, to develop her abilities? What if she were free to travel where she wished? If she slowly discovered what it means to have autonomy over your sexual experiences and relationships?

author Janice Weizman
The word “research” conjures up visions of long days at the library and hours in front of a computer screen. But much of the research I did for The Wayward Moon felt more like an adventure. As the story of Rahel took root in my mind, I had to augment what I had learned about Islam with all I knew of life in the Middle East. I sought out the sites of ancient churches, mosques, monasteries and inns. I recalled tours of old cities in Turkey, Egypt and Morocco, and revisited local markets, landscapes, religious schools and public squares. I read books by women from Arab countries, considering not only their stories, but their values, attitudes, conflicts and joys. I read Arab love poetry, listened to traditional Middle Eastern music, and studied classic works of Persian art. But above all, I listened to the sounds, words and rhythms of the languages of the Middle East, Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac. And as I opened my eyes and my ears, a vision of what the life of my heroine might have been like emerged.

One of the great things about writing and reading historical fiction is that it leads us to consider our own times from a different angle. How does our culture shape the way we see ourselves? Is there really such a thing as choice? How can anyone realize their full potential in a place that refuses to recognize it?

It is my hope that the novel not only provides a great reading experience, but also offers readers a new way of thinking about the opportunities, and limitations, of our own culture.


Janice Weizman's The Wayward Moon was published by Yotzeret Publishing in September 2012 ($14.95 trade pb/$9.99 Kindle, 328pp).  The novel was recently awarded Gold Medals in the Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Midwest Book Awards. For more information, see the author's website or the novel's pages at Goodreads and Amazon.

For a chance to win a copy of The Wayward Moon (US entries), please fill out the form below.  Deadline Monday, August 5th.

This giveaway has expired; thanks to all who entered.


  1. What a wonderful guest post -- I'm so curious about this book -- and even more excited after this post, as the author pretty much echoes why I love historical fiction so much. I'm always glad, too, for novels set in the Middle East. Thanks to both you, Sarah, and Janice for the giveaway!

  2. Anonymous7:16 AM

    This story sounds fascinating! I love that the Hand of Miriam/Fatima/Mary is on the cover (a symbol shared by all 3 Monotheistic religions in medieval Spain and elsewhere). What an interesting and important topic...I will definitely add The Wayward Moon to my reading list!