By Ashourina Slewo
Written by first generation Assyrian-American sisters Josephine Attisha and Mary Zomayah, “Before There Were Borders” is a “coming of age” story about Sara Georges, a young Assyrian-American woman who shares her story of growing up in Iraq with her American-born granddaughter. Sara tells her granddaughter about how she dealt with Iraq’s culture, patriarchy, and limitations. Unaware of the harsh truths of her grandmother’s homeland, Sara’s stories are eye-opening for her granddaughter.
Taking place in Christmas eve in present-day America and in Iraq during the 1950s, “Before There Were Borders” sets out to paint a picture of a time when Christian and Muslim neighbors lived in harmony. The book includes everything from romance and drama to magic and superstitions.
As a first generation Assyrian- American, I was excited to read “Before There Were Borders”, especially considering it is written from the perspective of a woman. It is no secret that women in Iraq, and the Middle East, were not always highly regarded and I believe the book does a good job of addressing this. Early on, Attisha and Zomayah tackle this with Sara, their lead character, discussing marriage and how she would rather pursue her education first.
Unsurprisingly, Sara recalls her mother being taken aback by this statement. “Please don’t think like that. If people hear you talk like this, they will think something is wrong with you,” her mother said.
The idea that all women were called to marriage and that ultimately, that is all their life really is about, is a theme that is prevalent in the stories of all the women in the book.
While slow to start, as the book progresses, we see the story go from being Sara’s story to Hayat’s story.
Hayat was the Muslim woman who Sara eventually grew to become very close friends with. The unlikely friendship between the two started when Hayat was set to marry Sara’s neighbor, Lieutenant Colonel. An anomaly in those times, Hayat was 25 years old and still had not been married. Even more unusual to Sara was that Hayat would be marrying a married man who already had six children.
She would eventually learn from her mother that marrying multiple women while still being married was a normal practice among the Muslim community in those times.
As I mentioned, the book was slow to start. I found myself really trying to push through the first 50 pages or so. It was not until the story totally took Hayat’s perspective that I got lost in the book. Hayat’s story is beautifully written and compelling from start to finish. I didn’t realize just how enthralled I was by her story until an hour later when I reached the end.
Reading the description for “Before There Were Borders”, I thought the book’s goal was to illustrate the then harmonious relationships between two religiously different groups of people, Christians and Muslims. If that was the goal, I’m afraid the writers did not achieve it. The book was largely about Hayat’s journey, with two or three brief moments that allude to her friendship with Sara even though Sara ultimately leaves Iraq with Hayat.
Above all else, though, the Attisha and Zomayah accomplished so much more. Through their captivating style of writing, they have given a fresh, and more importantly, unbiased look at what Iraq used to be. And, along the way, they told the stories of several very different women, all strong in their own way. Except Fatima. I think anyone who has read “Before There Were Borders” can agree that Fatima was a deplorable human.
I commend Attisha and Zomayah. As a first generation Assyrian-American, it can be hard to have a firm understanding of your identity, let alone a country, as you grow up between two worlds. They have done a stellar job in laying both out for everyone, Middle Eastern or not, to understand. I highly recommend “Before There Were Borders”.