Books

Namesake by NS Nuseibeh review – personal insight informed by Islamic myth and culture

Topics as diverse as feminism and patriarchy, motherhood and food, privacy and community through the lens of Islam

Namesake, the debut collection of essays from British-Palestinian author NS Nuseibeh, is a wonderfully inventive blend of personal insight and contemporary commentary with Islamic history, myth and culture.

Her family legend has it that they are direct descendants of Nusayba Bint Ka’ab al Kazrajiah, a famous women warrior who fought alongside the Prophet Muhammad at the dawn of Islam.Nuseibeh uses her ancestor’s life as a thread that runs through an eclectic and subtle collection dealing with her upbringing in East Jerusalem and many aspects of her life today in the UK. 

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Tackling topics as diverse as feminism and patriarchy, motherhood and food, privacy and community, she is direct and frank when needed, but intuitive and profound elsewhere. Throughout it all she compares her own experience to an imagined life of her ancient ancestor, often with funny and thought-provoking results. 

“I did not set out to write about Jerusalem,” she writes in the introduction. “But it turns out that it is impossible to write about early Islam without reference to Jerusalem, and impossible for me, as a Palestinian, to explore the personal without reference to the political.”

Some of the details of Nuseibeh’s upbringing in East Jerusalem under Israeli rule are shocking, but this is far from a polemical tirade, the author preferring to lay out the facts simply and clearly for maximum emotional impact. But overall this is and wonderful and essential varied collection, smart and self-deprecating, astute and amusing, disturbing and vital.

Namesake by NS Nuseibeh

Doug Johnstone is an author and journalist.

Namesake by NS Nuseibeh is out on 18 January (Canongate, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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