New book by Ottawa’s Sonia Saikaley peels back the veil

Sonia Saikaley's latest book examines the ties that bind.

In an increasingly multicultural Ottawa, young women of Middle East descent are everywhere. They could be your neighbourhood pharmacist or your Tim Horton’s waitress. And they don’t have to wear a hijab to be the product of a home environment more rooted in their ancestral homeland than in contemporary Canada.

That is the situation of Adele Azar, the daring, rebellious Lebanese-Canadian heroine of Sonia Saikaley’s new novel The Allspice Bath (Inanna Publications). Adele longs for the freedoms her Ottawa classmates have. But her strict parents, especially her father, are determined to raise a “Lebanese,” not a “Canadian,” woman. Her father wants to control who Adele can date and marry. All suitors must be Lebanese.

That plot may sound familiar but Saikaley, author of the much praised novella The Lebanese Dishwasher, adds some startling twists like when Adele faces a medical emergency and her father tries to prevent a female doctor from performing a pelvic exam.

The father believes the exam would rob Adele of her virginity. No decent Lebanese man would want to marry her. The scene between father, daughter and doctor is shockingly intense and raw.

Adele’s medical condition prevents her from bearing children. Her father then hatches a plan to find her a husband willing to accept a barren wife. Unexpected, life-changing results follow. These scenes are written with great sensitivity.

All scenes are not as well-written. Sometimes dialogue is hackneyed. Sometimes sentimentality reigns. But sometimes the book offers brilliance.

The following is an interview with Saikaley, edited for brevity.

Q. Your book is sent in the 1970s and 1980s. Are young girls and women in the Lebanese-Canadian community in Ottawa and elsewhere facing the same dilemmas today as Adele did with conservative parents?

A. The women’s movement may have come around late in traditional Arab society but things have changed for the better for young women in my culture. The expectations of learning to cook Lebanese food, attending Arabic school and dating and marrying a Lebanese person have relaxed. There are many interracial marriages and some women choose to remain single. Furthermore, unlike my main character Adele whose parents are strict and traditional and want marriage for her above all else, young girls and women are encouraged to obtain a higher education rather than just focus on getting married. Living in your parents’ house until marriage is no longer the norm. Many Lebanese-Canadian parents believe that girls could do the same things as boys. However, one thing that is still present in Lebanese culture is family honour and upholding this honour applies to both men and women. Most parents just want their children to be happy and well. Today’s expectations are lower than what they were 20 or 30 years ago. Of course, there are still taboo topics, like sexuality, unless the Lebanese family is quite liberal.  

Q. What advice would you give to a young woman from a conservative Middle Eastern background who, today, finds herself wanting to live a “Canadian” life but her parents want a more conservative life for her?

A. Tell your parents what bothers you and discuss the restraints you might feel from them. But if you can’t speak with your parents, then share your feelings with a confidante. Communication is essential if change is to occur. I also think it’s important to find a way to live a “Canadian” life while at the same time embracing your heritage. 

Q. How autobiographical is this book?

A. The Allspice Bath is a work of fiction. However, there are some things that I have taken from my own life, for instance, my father’s yellow grocery store. I loved this charming store and I wanted its memory to live in the pages of this novel. My father was a lively and friendly shopkeeper and I have fond memories of working with him in that store. I have three older sisters just like Adele and I also took care of my ailing father. Besides those facts, the story is fiction. I would like to think that I was as strong and brave as Adele but I was a fairly timid child. However, like Adele, I found it difficult to live in two worlds and I questioned why girls were not given the same freedoms as boys. I refused to give into the expectations set upon me. But I also learned to accept the good things about my culture like the strong bond Lebanese families often have. And, of course, the delicious food.

Q. How have members of your own family reacted to this book?

A. My family loves the book. I am very fortunate to have a supportive family. They always encourage me to keep going even when the writing life is tough. Sadly, my father did not live to see any of my published books and my mother can’t read English. Hopefully, someday my books will be translated into Arabic and then my mother can see what I’ve been doing, but how she reacts, I can’t say, given the controversial topics I often handle. I wrote parts of this novel while I was taking care of my ailing father so it was fitting to dedicate the book to his memory. I miss him deeply.  

Q. What is your next project?

A. I am working on a novel set in Lebanon about a young and strong woman who finds herself in a tough predicament. It focuses on two sisters…ah, I love the theme of sisters! It is also a love story between this young Lebanese woman and a Jewish man. The story takes place before and during the Lebanese Civil War of 1975.

I am also shopping around a children’s picture book about a young Syrian refugee child working in the streets of Beirut.

In town: Sonia Saikaley launches The Allspice Bath at 7 p.m., June 11, at a public event at Octopus Books, 116 Third Ave.

Share Post
Written by