Nirzona (A Love Story) by Abidah El Khalieqy, translated by Annie Tucker


Nirzona (A Love Story)I have to admit that it took a while for me to decide whether this book was worth finishing. I was captivated by the first few pages but unsure how it was going to be a love story. When the love story did start to pick up, I was unsure if I was going to like it and then I fell in love with our female lead.

When Sidan’s family and village are swept away in the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Indonesia, he rushes home to Aceh, leaving behind Yogyakarta, his studies, and his beloved, Firdaus. Interrupting their plan to marry, Sidan promises Firdaus he will soon return to her side so they can spend the rest of their lives together.

But the unimaginable scale of loss and the political and cultural complexities that ensnare the recovery make it impossible for Sidan to abandon his birthplace and the graves of his family. Stoked by his love for Firdaus and their shared devotion to the poetic beauty of Islam, Sidan remains in Aceh, doing everything in his power to help the survivors while keeping in close contact with his beloved.

In spirit Sidan and Firdaus are one, but in body they are distant. Theirs is a love bonded in the transcendent fires of death and destruction, but is that enough to sustain the relationship?

Firdaus is amazing. It’s not that she’s gorgeous, though it’s obvious that all the men around her think so. It’s definitely not the lovesick way that she’s portrayed in Sidan’s POV scenes. It’s when the story shifted to focus on her that I started to really enjoy this book.

Don’t get me wrong, our male lead is a good guy too. They’re in the situation that they’re in because of his convictions about his home. Walking through the recovery of Aceh after the tsunami is heart-wrenching and sadly real. I’ve read more about how well-intended efforts and money donated  to causes like relief and recovery get sidelined and the people in these places don’t get much of it. Their leaders do, but not the people who were already poor or who lost everything unless they were well connected. I have to admire Sidan’s ethics, even when given the capability to leave it all behind. I appreciate his dedication and sticking to what he feels is the right thing to do in his hometown while I understand that it is a problem for his personal life. Unfortunately, I also understand the dangers that keep a woman like Firdaus away from Aceh in that time of turmoil. It really does set up an interesting problem for our young couple.

There were also several observations that Sidan makes along the way that were brilliant. He takes time to recognize what’s happening to his people and just who is taking advantage of them. I highlighted several passages the reflect on his feelings toward colonialists and those volunteers who make a profit for being there.

There are moments that were strange for me, like references to the A rchangel Michael and some of each character’s strange dreams. I liked their inclusion because I think we all dream about the things that are on our minds as much as their troubles are, but they were strange dreams that also read strangely and not in that Wonderland or Neverland kind of way. Just strange in that way that stress dreams are just strange.

Again, though, it’s Firdaus. It’s not just her but the way Sidan interacts with her.  There’s a scene, and it’s a flashback so it doesn’t spoil anything, where they were hanging out and it’s time for her go home. Sidan offers to escort her home and she refuses that she needs to be escorted. After she beats him up about it a bit, he responds with this:

Fine. Whatever you want, Lady Feminist. So that I’m not mistaken for a colonizer, so that I’m not thought to be exercising my power, so that I’m not accused of marginalizing anyone or subordinating anyone, I won’t interfere.

I loved it. There are a few more scenes that I just loved her for and there’s also these great references that he makes when admiring her and comparing her to the women of his home. I don’t know anything about Indonesia, so it makes for quite the history lesson, especially for the feminist in me. I fell right down the rabbit hole on it with one thing leading me to another. Here they are:

Admiral Keumalahayati – the first female admiral of the modern era in the world (modern because it excludes Artemisia, or so it says in the Wikipedia page.

Inong Balee are mentioned but don’t have a Wikipedia page or really anything that explains them in a similar way. They’re explained throughout the book and mentioned in the Keumalahayati page as the group of women warriors, made mostly of war widows, who fought in the Aceh wars against the Portugese under the admiral.

There was a mention of the 4 sultanas of Aceh and this is the article I found on them.

Finding those led me to these:

Cut Nyak Dhien – a leader of the Acehnese guerrilla forces.

Semiramis – legendary female ruler of Assyria

Artemisia I of Caria – Greek admiral who fought alongside Xerxes I

This article about the 4 Muslim women who ruled the Maldives

Getting back to the book at hand, I did appreciate the way it ended and the final chapter really made me love Firdaus all the more. I won’t say more, lest I spoil it!

I got this book as a Kindle First, but it’s still available from Amazon here and now the Book Depository too.

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