Fiction set in USA and EUROPE: the life of Maria Callas
A world trip with couscous
28th July 2023
The Couscous Chronicles by Azzedine T Downes, a world trip with couscous.
“A journey through time and place – with added donkeys”
Azzedine T Downes has had the privilege – or the challenge – of being present for some of the 20th century’s critical moments and he has lived in some of the most turbulent countries in the world. He has worked for the Peace Corps and is now the President of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The Couscous Chronicles is the first volume of his autobiography. Despite his accounts of some hair-raisingly dangerous situations this is not a dry political commentary, in fact it is a lively and often laugh-out-loud funny book. The title is a clue. Who knew there was so much religious tradition and etiquette attached to such a simple and ubiquitous dish as couscous? And then there is the hilarious episode with the donkey – but I don’t want to spoil the story.
Downes’ precise family background is never fully explained but suffice to say he is a blue-eyed, Arab-speaking, family-centred man with an American passport and an Irish father, living wherever his work takes him. The book explores the many ways that he has created change in his life; from travel, to an arranged marriage to ‘the girl from Tangiers’, to talking down violent situations and changing the attitudes of influential people, such as Yasser Arafat. Throughout it all we see that he is a pragmatic person with a sense of humour and a strong set of beliefs. We also explore a variety of countries including Yemen, Bulgaria, Morocco and ‘the Stans’: some of the less frequently visited countries of the former Soviet bloc.
I found the beginning of the book a little confusing: I wasn’t sure why this boy of mixed heritage was living with an adoptive Moroccan family and where his parents were. Maybe I missed something! I came to thoroughly like the author as a character and found his balanced perspective on world events and situations such as the division of Jerusalem very interesting. Equally, his criticism of bureaucracy and prejudice is even-handed and often quite amusing. He is a talented linguist, but he learns that there is more to communication than just a shared language. He describes himself as a time traveller, as he navigates his way through the traditions and beliefs associated with the medina in Fez or the old city in Jerusalem. Some of the situations described are hair-raising, as his family lives with the possibility of kidnappings and bus bombings. He mentions the Arabic concept of ‘maktub’, which says that everything is pre-ordained, but he doesn’t seem to rely on this to keep him safe.
The serious side of The Couscous Chronicles is leavened with light-hearted moments that make this a thoroughly readable account. It’s amusing to read of people’s confusion on meeting him, as they try to pin down his identity. His appearance suggests one thing, his accent another. He is suspected of being a spy, a different nationality, a different religion but mostly they decide he is Syrian – he is not. But he is an engaging and entertaining writer and I hope it isn’t too long before volume two of Azzedine T Downes’ story is published.
Catch the author on Twitter @azzedinetdownes
Sue for the TripFiction Team
Catch our reviewer Sue on Twitter @suekelsoryan
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