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This article was published 26/12/2015 (1891 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Book of Sands powerfully captures the Arab Spring experience of 2011 with grit and heart.

A novel about clashes -- of cultures, religions, ideologies, politics, and generations -- Book of Sands illustrates the tensions that led to massive demonstrations, extreme violence and ultimately a coup that changed the face of the Middle East. Through incredible storytelling, Karim Alrawi walks us through the human experience of tumultuous change.

Book of Sands is Alrawi's first novel, the winner of the inaugural HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction.

The Egyptian-born Alrawi was in the Middle East during the Arab uprisings, and his experiences of state censorship, interrogation and arrest are paralleled in Book of Sands. Tarek, a young father, is forced to leave his home and pregnant wife behind after the threat of arrest, fleeing with his daughter Neda.

On the road, Tarek and Neda encounter Tarek's old friends, who are on a curious quest. Joined in past and present, bound by love and loss and united by family and friendship, this ramshackle troupe embarks on a journey to find lost loved ones, new mothers, and answers to age-old questions.

Tarek is an unexpected character, a mathematician who interprets the world around him through equations and theories. He's also a storyteller and artist, relying on traditional stories and legends to explain life and the circumstances unfolding to his daughter. In Tarek, we see the tension between modernity and tradition so prevalent during the Arab uprisings. He's a harsh critic of religious ideology and a staunch supporter of logic, but is also a believer in myth and legend.

We see this tension of modern versus traditional -- this clash of ideologies -- again through Mona's brother Omar. A devout taxi driver, he earns his living driving around clients with questionable, sinful morals. What comes across as ironic and hypocritical behaviour is really Omar's struggle to find sense in a world that is falling apart.

The uprisings themselves are explained -- not in political terms, but through myth. A mysterious plague of birds haunts the city, with some condemning the pesky flocks for the dissidents and their barricades. Also bizarre is the inability of pregnant women to give birth, the protests apparently to blame. It's as if time is standing still for these women, while everything around them is in flux.

Book of Sands centres on one key theme: the enduring impact of storytelling. As each character's story is revealed, and as each character tells stories to relate to one another, Alrawi unveils the importance of narrative and how it brings us together. Again, Alrawi's life parallels Tarek's. Both tell stories through theatre; Alrawi is an accomplished playwright, while Tarek runs the Karagoz puppet theatre.

Both recognize that stories help us better understand each other, the world and ourselves. Simply put, stories are, as Tarek says, often all that's left when we're gone.

This is a story you don't want to miss.


Katrina Sklepowich is a lover of all things literary, and creator of the Literally, Katrina podcast and blog at LiterallyKatrina.com.