A debut novel, “Dreams in the Medina,” by Kati Woronka offers surprising insights into Syrian culture. Woronka has crafted a story revolving around the lives of young women at the University of Damascus, with startling clarity. An academic, with her roots firmly planted in reality, Woronka draws her characters to reveal the similarities and the differences among their respective cultures. The term world traveler does not do justice to Woronka, as she has lived in a number of different countries as a child and as an adult. She resided in Syria for a year and a half, followed by extended visits back over the next few years. With a doctoral degree in sociology focusing on identity and community in the Middle East, she herself lived in the Medina during part of her residence in Syria.
The novel focuses on Leila, a young Sunni Muslim woman, who is studying English literature at the University of Damascus. As the story unfolds, the reader will be introduced to many facets of university life which are based in fact. The juxtaposition of the disciplined and sheltered life of many Syrian women to the academic offerings of English classics such as D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” is startling. The academic culture in Syria is quite different from what is the norm in the United States. Memorization seems to be the basis for a successful academic career. Leila and her friends spend hours studying and memorizing lectures in order to spit back the information on exams. College students in the United States who are accustomed to luxurious dormitory rooms and apartments would be uncomfortable in the dormitory arrangements in the Medina, where rooms accommodate as many as twelve students.
Leila’s friendship with other Syrian women from different villages and family cultures introduces her to many dissimilar ideas and practices. Prior to entering the university, Leila led a sheltered life, accepting her family’s and village’s views on women and religion. At the University, Leila befriends Huda, a law student; Maha, a Christian; and Roxy, a Muslim, who is married without her family’s knowledge. She also enters into a romantic relationship with Ahmed, although readers will be surprised at just how chaste the relationship is. Leila finds particular comfort and privacy on the roof of the Medina, where she can contemplate her friendship with these women, and how her philosophy is changing as all of the young women face conflicts and hardships in their lives. Leila risks censure from her own family as she helps Roxy escape an abusive marriage, not an easy thing to do in Syria. She must also come to terms with her own future, whether it means marriage to the suitor in Damascus or to someone of her family’s choosing.
Woronka sometimes strays from the plot development of the story with too much minutiae, especially when describing the preparations for a meal. The author also is a little too didactic in a dialogue between Huda and Leila, differentiating between human rights and the laws of Islam. A glossary of terms was included at the end of the e-book. It would have been helpful to have that at the beginning. If the book is released in print form, it may be easy to flip back and forth to determine a meaning, but it is too cumbersome in the electronic format to access the glossary at the end of the file.
The novel offers insights into the lives of women in Syria today. While fictional, Woronka has drawn on her own experiences and relationships to define the characters in the novel. As news of conflicts in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries filters to readers in the United States, “Dreams in the Medina” succeeds in offering another perspective on this culture. This book is currently available in an electronic format from major online retailers.