This is an engaging, readable account of a young journalist’s experiences in the Arab world, and particularly the women she met. It’s not as fascinating or information-packed as Geraldine Brooks’s fantastic Nine Parts of Desire, which you should absolutely read if you have any interest at all in women’s lives in the Middle East. But it is fun and informative, a great introduction to the topic. And from her writing, Zoepf seems adept at breaking through cultural barriers to connect with individuals, with the result that the women she profiles sound like people you might actually meet.
Each topic has a different overarching topic and location, with Saudi Arabia and Syria getting the most page time, while Lebanon, the UAE and Egypt get a chapter each. Other reviewers have commented that the book overall seems more “excellent daughters” than “bringing change.” I’d say it’s about evenly split. Saudi Arabia in particular feels static in Zoepf’s depiction, and those chapters mostly cover life as it is, focusing on topics like female friendship and matchmaking (though with some hints of change). Other chapters deal more with social problems and change: the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt; honor killings in Syria; young women migrating to the UAE in search of work, a practice that would have been unthinkable not long ago. But it’s true that the change that’s chronicled here is incremental.
Meanwhile, the book is very readable, and if you’ve read many stories in the New York Times over the years, you might just recognize some of it (in one case I did, which made me feel great about my memory!), since the book is drawn from the author’s research as a reporter. But it works smoothly as a whole, and though I recognized some of the material, the book never felt cribbed together from articles.
Overall, while this isn’t the most in-depth account you’ll read, it is still a good book. It’s a bit like having a conversation with a smart, perceptive, nonjudgmental and extremely well-traveled friend. I recommend it.