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Friday, January 2, 2015

The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice: The Honor Killing of a Woman Artist



In The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice American journalist Fereby McCullough Jones investigates the killing of  a woman in the Druze community of Israel who had become her friend.  Reviews of this book often remark that life for Druze women is so terrible, but they don't get the larger point that author Amy Logan is making.


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 We like to think that honor killing is something that happens in other countries, and in cultures other than our own.  In first world cultures, honor is considered an old fashioned concept.  Yet if you replace the word "honor" with the word "reputation", then you see that honor killings happen everywhere.  If honor were about personal integrity, then no one would kill another person for it.  If you don't maintain your own integrity and do things that you believe are wrong, there is no one to blame but yourself.   It's the idea of externalizing honor and making other people responsible for maintaining it that has brought about this worldwide legacy of murder. It is important to emphasize that the people who are most often held responsible for maintaining the honor or reputation of families are women and children.   Their actions don't just reflect on themselves, but are seen as reflecting on the entire family unit.   The punishment for actions that are seen as injuring the family reputation is often a lifetime of abuse rather than murder, but abuse can become murder when emotional control is lost in a moment of fury.

When Fereby starts stirring up trouble in Israel, her parents in the United States become irate.  They believe that her actions reflect on them.   Fereby searches for the cultural basis of honor killing among the Druze, but the thoughtful reader may notice that she could look a good deal closer to home.  Fereby  eventually realizes how her parents' attitudes have damaged her, and begins to see connections between her own life and that of her dead friend, Leila Azzam.

It seems to me that this urge to kill for reputation actually goes far beyond family.  Political and religious murders happen when individuals are seen as injuring the reputations of their country, ethnic group or religion.  Some individuals  have been killed because they have injured the reputations of powerful corporations by calling attention to illegal or unethical actions of those corporations.  These are all honor killings.

Another aspect of this novel that I loved is Leila's art.  Leila created paintings that are rich in symbolism drawn from ancient esoteric philosophy and from folk traditions of Goddess worship. Leila's work was concealed from her family because the Druze religion is an offshoot of Islam which forbids images.  Some of these paintings are described in detail so that I could see them in my imagination.  I wished that she were a real artist so that I could see them in actuality at a real museum or gallery. The fictional character  Leila Azzam is presented as a genius equivalent to the widely admired Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo.  I would also compare her to Chaim Potok's fictional artist, Asher Lev, who challenged the beliefs of the anti-image Hasidic Jewish community through his work. Potok's novel, My Name Is Asher Lev, is an old favorite of mine.

In addition, I was interested in learning the role that reincarnation plays in Druze beliefs, and in Leila's tragically short life.

There were some wonderful characters in this novel other than Fereby and Leila.  I particularly enjoyed Fereby's  gay cross-dressing translator, Moshe.  Leila's brother, Fadi, is eventually revealed as a character of great depth and pathos.  So this is not a book that condemns all men as villains.  Amy Logan shows all her characters as individuals who are responsible for their choices.  In fact, I'd say that the central theme of this novel is that individual lives have value.

The powerful emotions and reflections provoked by The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice are the reasons why I consider this novel the best book I read in 2014.

                                                            
                                                           





 

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