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Book Review: Behind the Veils of Yemen by Audra Grace Shelby

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If you’ve wondered what life is like for the veiled women of the Middle East, this book is a revelation. Author Audra Grace Shelby, along with her husband Kevin, were Baptist missionaries to Yemen for nine years. In Behind the Veils of Yemen, Shelby tells the story of that time. She describes in detail the friendship with her language tutor Fatima. She also tells about incidents that stretched her faith like the sickness of her husband and her daughter, and the birth of her fourth child.

I love Shelby’s creative non-fiction style. A skilled storyteller, she helps us experience Yemen and her Yemeni friends, their homes, celebrations, and customs through color, touch, sound, and smell. Using specific detail she recreates incidents in settings as varied as a hospital room, a beach-side vacation cottage, and the home of Fatima. Here we see a Yemeni market:

“We arrived at the suq, an open-air Yemeni market. On one side of the entrance women sat on the ground with round stacks of pancake-like bread. They wrapped them in newspapers and waved as we approached.

On the other side of the entrance four men displayed aluminum trolleys with mounds of glossy dates, pressed together in sticky cubes. They flicked swarming flies with rags tied to sticks and called to us to sample a date.” p. 75.

Her recall of events and details is quite amazing (she must have kept detailed journals), as is her ability to analyze people and situations. Of Fatima she says:

“She had a manner that was both transparent and secretive, faltering and arrogant, all at the same time”  p. 50.

When she attends a women’s wedding celebration and is coaxed to dance with the women, she reluctantly complies. After she makes her clumsy way across the floor, the reaction of the onlookers surprises her:

“Applause thundered from the crowd of women around me …. They were beaming at me. I realized they were pleased more by my willingness to dance with them than they were by my skills in dancing.”  – p. 68.

I enjoyed the book for a variety of reasons.

I loved the glimpse Shelby gave me into the world of veiled women. Never had I imagined that under their black burqas may be colorful caftans, bejeweled silk scarves, even the odd mini-skirt. She introduced me to a vibrant and cohesive female community which is devoutly religious and has its own colorful wedding and funeral rituals.

Despite the exotic setting, Shelby’s story showed me that mothers everywhere struggle with the same things. I ached for Fatima as she tried to find reasons why her almost year-old baby was still not holding up his head or sitting unsupported. One of Shelby’s own mothering crises resolved when she faced the question: “Do you trust Me (God) without having to know why?” It is a question Christian mothers are bound to face wherever they live.

Finally, I found Shelby herself inspirational. I admired the way she parented her kids, stifling her own anxieties in order to keep them feeling safe, distracting them with made-up stories instead of sweeping them into the vortex of her own tensions. Her sensitivity to her women friends’ customs and feelings along with her generosity, kindness, and passion to introduce them to Jesus were beautiful to witness.

I have one little beef with the book. It has no table of contents; thus it’s hard to locate passages one has read without using a bookmark or dog-earing the pages.

The end-matter alerts us to the fact that the name of the author and her family members have been changed to protect friends whose work goes on in the Middle East. You can find out more about the book, the author’s experiences in the Middle East, and her current speaking schedule from her website and Facebook page.

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