Blog tour: Daughters of the Nile by Zahra Barri

Daughters of the Nile

This post is part of a blog tour organised by Random Things Blog Tours. I received a free copy of the book in return for an honest review.

‘Paris, 1940. The course of Fatiha Bin-Khalid’s life is changed forever when she befriends the Muslim feminist Doria Shafik. But after returning to Egypt and dedicating years to the fight for women’s rights, she struggles to reconcile her political ideals with the realities of motherhood.

‘Cairo, 1966. After being publicly shamed when her relationship with a bisexual boyfriend is revealed, Fatiha’s daughter is faced with an impossible decision. Should Yasminah accept a life she didn’t choose, or will she leave her home and country in pursuit of independence?

‘Bristol, 2011. British-born Nadia is battling with an identity crisis and a severe case of herpes. Feeling unfulfilled (and after a particularly disastrous one-night stand), she moves in with her old-fashioned Aunt Yasminah and realises that she must discover her purpose in the modern world before it’s too late.

‘Following the lives of three women from the Bin-Khalid family, Daughters of the Nile examines the enduring strength of female bonds. These women are no strangers to adversity, but they must learn from the past and relearn shame and shamelessness to radically change their futures.’

Daughters of the Nile

Daughters of the Nile, by Zahra Barri, hops across space and time to tell the stories of three bold and complex women: Nadia, her aunt Yasminah, and Nadia’s grandmother/Yasminah’s mother, Fatiha.

Both Fatiha and Yasminah fought the patriarchy in their own ways back in the day. The former wrote for the feminist magazine Bint Al Nil (from which the novel takes its title) and was a key campaigner for women’s rights in Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s. The latter defied sexual strictures at home, then was part of the LGBTQ+ scene that briefly flourished in Iran before the 1979 Revolution.

Working as a runner in a TV studio, frequently over-indulging in drink, and transmitting herpes to ‘half of Bristol’, Nadia is unfulfilled and yet to find her true voice or calling in life. She solves half of the mystery by realising that what she wants most is to write, but the first step towards this involves an internship at a lads’ mag edited by a complete gammon, and moving in with Yasminah – whom Nadia mistakenly believes is repressed and homophobic.

Will she finally connect with her aunt and find a way to publish words that align with her own values?

Daughters of the Nile is an absolute triumph. I adored getting to know this trio of distinctive, multilayered women who fight for different things in different times and situations, but nonetheless have a lot more in common with one another than they initially think.

I loved how the author drew out the parallels between the characters’ stories and personalities by showing them acting in similar ways and/or being in similar situations, usually in consecutive chapters, but also at longer intervals across the book.

A particular trait all three women share is that they’re all deep thinkers who bring fresh perspectives to established narratives. While we only get a hint of Nadia’s future contribution to cultural discourse, both Fatiha (in Bint Al Nal) and Yasminah (in an abandoned PhD thesis) respectively make cases, based on semantics and the historical context in which it was written, that the Quran doesn’t necessarily oppose women’s or gay rights.

As a lapsed humanities scholar and enthusiast for the written word and the power it can have, reading about their work – and learning lots of new things about history – naturally made my heart sing and gave me warm feelings towards the characters! But I was also drawn to their individual narrative voices (each speaks in the first person).

Fatiha’s voice is pragmatic; Yasminah’s starts out impulsive and irresponsible, but acquires a more serious tone as events weigh her down; and Nadia’s is quirky and off-beat – but all three are absolute queens of observational and dark humour.

This, as well as the sitcom-like scenes that frequently transpire in Nadia’s presence (especially when members of her Egyptian/Irish/British family convene), had me laughing a lot over the course of the book. At the same time, there are things that happen that are sad or terrible, and by allowing these to just be dark without humour, the author heightens their impact.

The characters’ engaging voices and capacity for reflection and change also mitigate their less likeable traits. For example, at first, by knowingly spreading herpes and describing her symptoms in eye-watering detail, Nadia doesn’t come across as a very nice person at all, but I found her so funny that I just had to read on (plus, I suspected she might be dealing with trauma).

Also, I could very much relate to her experience as a young woman in the 2000s/early 2010s – there was such a toxic, misogynistic culture at that time – as well as her preoccupation with Advantage Card points.

Similarly, despite her own campaign work, Fatiha is mortified by Yasminah’s promiscuity and support for gay rights. While this detracted from my sympathy towards her, it raised interesting questions about how far her vision for women’s liberation actually went, and how compatible it was with her expectations for her own daughter, and she remained entertaining to read about.

Other themes I enjoyed reading about in this book were the compromises and adjustments various characters made, and new interests they took on, to assimilate and enjoy themselves as first- and second-generation Egyptian Muslim immigrants to the UK; and the importance of supportive, enriching long-term female friendships across the main characters’ lives.

Daughters of the Nile is a mesmerising, multilayered, and darkly humorous novel.

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About Alice Violett

Writer of blogs and short stories, reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK