Sweetness in the Belly: Camilla Gibb

Tessa: I am currently slogging my way through a book I hate, in fact, I haven’t touched it in two weeks, which has given me an even greater appreciation for Camilla Gibb’s Sweetness in the Belly, a little light read I picked up this summer.

I didn’t know anything about this book when I first picked it up. I didn’t even read the back jacket copy so when I started reading the book I really felt like I had been plunged into a completely different world. And I had.

Gibb tells the story of Lily, a little girl English/Irish girl who is orphaned in Morocco when her parents are killed. She is raised by Sufi’s and ultimately led to Ethiopia in the 70s when she is still a young teenager.

She earns her keep with a single woman and her family in Harar, a muslim enclave in predominantly Christian Ehtiopia, by doing household chores and teaching the Qu’ran to the local children who are too poor to attend school.

Here she is deeply immersed in the life, customs and the daily rituals of a rich muslim society where time has almost stood still. Gibbs paints such a vivid portrait of the muezzin that you can almost see the colourful headscarves, smell the coffee, incense, and feel the local customs. Sweetness in the Belly brings the reader close enough to this world that they can almost smell it. It’s this familiarity that allows you to understand the dynamics of how certain customs like female castration take place and the tribal, religious and cast differences that both divide and unite this culture. It also allows you to understand Islam as a faith and a way of life

Because faith is how Lily has protected herself from the changes and losses in her life she guards it fiercely. But it is tested  when she falls in love with Aziz a half Sudanese doctor. “The desire to remain in his company overwhelmed common sense; I would pick up my good Muslim self on the way home.” Although he is Muslim he is a moderate muslim who seeks change particularly where women’s health and politics is concerned.

But their relationship comes to a bittersweet end when Haili Salasie’s regime is overtaken by the Dergue, Aziz like thousands of others disappears and Lily finds herself a refugee in her native England.

What I love about this book is that for the first time I was able to understand the cultural dynamic of why and how certain cultural customs take place, and how cultural customs mix with religion to create an entirely unique social mix.

The Islam we hear about in the west is through the lense of post 9/11 where media and propaganda have created a fearful portrait of a militant islam that doesn’t reflect the reality of most of the islamic world.

Gibb’s portrait of Lily’s experience in London as an outsider also really brought home the difficulty and some of the hostility people face when coming to a new country.

On a lot of different levels Sweetness in the Belly succeeded in giving me an insider’s view not only of a woman’s journey to finding her home but also to a world and culture I know very little about. And she told the story in a way that touched my heart.

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