This story told through diary entries is a tale of one woman and the consequences of the life she chooses for herself.
Emily is from Texas and at university when her boyfriend leaves her, and she must give her baby up for adoption. Shortly after, she meets Ben Saidouili and is so smitten that she agrees to marry him just two days later.
So on this whim for love, or possibly for acceptance and belonging, she travels with him to Morocco, not even knowing where in the world it is let alone anything of the Muslim way of life.
The author knows about both Texas and Morocco; she has lived in both locales. An award-winning author who has won the Prize Poesy and a fellowship from the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Bettye Hammer Givens is a poet, playwright and novelist. Her titles include Phoebe Mae Said and Farewell Gift.
In The Diaries of Emily Saidouili, the author may have wanted Emily to appear naive to better emphasize the culture shock awaiting her in Morocco. Yet Emily is not stupid and soon realizes that life for a woman in Morocco is nothing she could have prepared for. What follows is a struggle to belong, to understand a new, unfamiliar way of life, and most of all a struggle to love and be loved in just the right way.
Emily befriends her mother-in-law instantly while being wary of her strict father-in law. She is astounded when Ben works long hours without telling her where he is or what he does. When he says he is building her a house, she is happy until he informs her she will not get any say in it nor see it until it is built.
Emily makes one friend, the Spanish Ambassadorís wife, who encourages Emily to go dancing and out for tea and to not be so obedient to her husband. Still, Emily wants first and foremost the love of her new husband and the acceptance from this new country she has made her home.
The relationship between husband and wife is interesting. Ben obviously loves Emily and sees her as an intelligent human being, yet he does not know how to express it because of his upbringing. He does not make her wear the traditional Muslim outfits when she goes out but is happy when she does so. He is constantly telling her she does things his father does not like even though he knows this upsets her.
For her part, while Emily tries to adapt to this new exotic world and understand its people and their beliefs, she does not express herself well to her husband. She seems to think he will automatically understand how she feels, even though he cannot possible understand how a Western woman would feel being in the country he has known all his life.
Emily discovers a secret about Ben that sends her reeling, betrayed. She almost escapes to America with her son but changes her mind at the last minute, unable to leave without letting Ben see his newborn son. In time she will forgive him, but the shock forces her to grow up suddenly and realize what she is truly faced with.
Emily shakes things up somewhat yet at the same time is eager to fit in. She manages to find a kind of balance as she encourages her mother-in-law to not be so much of a doormat to her husband and son while at the same time learning the Koran and wanting to learn French to communicate better with other Moroccans. Emily does not hate or resent her new country and its restrictions, even after being put in jail for eating candy during Ramadan, but rather comes to love it.
She helps some locals learn to read, teaching them passages from the Koran as well as the Bible. She enjoys sewing things for herself and her new home and seems not to miss the old shops of America, instead falling in love with the busy, noisy, hot market.
As she grows from girl to woman in a country where women have few rights, she challenges within herself these rules made to keep women in check and in the process discovers much about her self. This she might never have done had she remained in the US and not had to fight for any vestige of independence in a foreign land.
This book could so easily have ended badly. At times it appears impossible that the marriage will work under the circumstances, yet love can perhaps conquer all. The couple learns to deal with each other and accept each other. When Emily sees the beautiful house and they move in together with their son, things start to go well for the couple. No in-laws underfoot make for a happier life - that is the same no matter what country you live in or what religion you are.
Yet does Emily compromise her herself for the love of this man? Perhaps she does. Not every woman would be able to stay in what will always be an unequal partnership.
The author wrote this book to give a better understanding to Americans of life in Morocco. How far she succeeds is debatable; Ben is from a wealthy family, so the reader visits the life and homes only of privileged Moroccans. Some characters represent the poor of Morocco, but this is not dealt with in any depth. This a story gives an impression of Morocco from one womanís point of view, but there is still plenty to learn about the country after reading this book.
Givensí Morocco is described with passion and spirit. The desire to visit the Medina and seek out the shops with vibrant cloth and hot spices is overwhelming as you read through this book. But there are problems as well. Muslim culture is not entirely well represented, nor as stated is the diversity to be found among the inhabitants of Morocco.
I am not totally sold on the diary format; the book really just reads like a tale told in the first person and could just have easily be done in chapters. Books like The Nanny Diaries, Bridget Jonesís Diary and especially The Diary of a Country Priest by George Bernanos work far better with the diary format. In these books, the reader really is taken on a journey day by day with different musings and jottings depending on the mood of the day. In The Diaries of Emily Saidouili the reader feels as if she is being told a long story.
The story ends quite abruptly, as though the Emily who is reading through the diary suddenly slams the book, not wanting to read anymore. The epilogue does not really sum anything up, either, leaving the reader to wonder what happens next; I prefer a book to end with some sort of conclusion.
These complaints aside, I do recommend this book for avid readers interested in a woman's struggle to be loved and be accepted.