Book 44: Saudi Arabia (English) – Wolves of the Crescent Moon = Fikhakh al-ra’ihah (Yousef Al-Mohaimeed)
The young ticket clerk was busy sorting the banknotes into the till according to their denomination. When he heard no answer he raised his head and peered through the round opening in the glass at the man standing in front of him. White hairs twitched on the customer’s chin, his eyes bulged slightly, and a thick mustache covered his upper lip.
Turad hadn’t yet decided where he was going.
Off to another Arabic novel from the opposite end of Dar al-Islam. This nicely written novel begins and ends over one night at the bus station where the protagonist Turad is trying to decide where to escape to. The confusion throughout the book reaches its apogee in the subtly asked question ‘Where is Allah?’ in the sometimes horrific episodes – a breathtaking question to ask in Saudi Arabia. One of the cruelest acts is carried out by a caravan of hajjis, who are supposed to be ritually pure before carrying out the pilgrimage to Mecca.
There is an interesting Arabian take on Van Gogh’s ear-cutting-off from the equally ear-less narrator, who can’t believe the artist did it for a mere WOMAN!!
Despite the grim incidents, this is a very readable, engrossing and insightful inside view from one of the world’s most impenetrable societies. You will probably not be surprised to learn that it was banned in the Kingdom itself. Well worth reading, if you can!
AL-MOHAIMEED, Yousef (1964 – ), Wolves of the Crescent Moon, translated from Arabic by Anthony Calderbank, New York, Penguin, 2007, ISBN 978-0-14-311321-8
(originally published in Arabic in Beirut by Riyadh al-Rayyis, 2003)
This is a beautifully poetically written novel about a woman who was brought up as a man due to the bias against girls (as recounted in L’Enfant de sable – The Child of Sand), who escapes the past, as if ripping a curtain, and dramatically changes back, at the death of her father. She enters into a rather strange and fraught triangular relationship with an eccentric sister and (blind) brother. It centres on a rebellion against the sex and gender roles set in a traditional Islamic society.
The novel begins in Marrakesh with a fading storyteller (one of that sadly disappearing breed).
The narrator first encounters the sister in a hammam:
Only the main hall of the hammam is dimly lit; the other two are in darkness. In the penumbra someone blessed with good sight could just manage to make out a piece of white string from a black one. If the ambiguity of the spirit had a light, it would have to be like that. Steam clothes the naked bodies. Humidity, flowing in little grey droplets down the walls, feeds infinite discussions that continue endlessly in the chamber.
After committing a murder, she ends up in prison, quite contentedly, and voluntarily herself joins the lonely world of the blind and makes peace with the crazy mixed-up world.
By the way, the Sacred Night (Night of Destiny), during the holy month of Ramadan, is when believers’ fates are supposed to be sealed.
I was reading these words of the protagonist on the day of the Charlie Hébdo massacre in Paris and was moved:
‘… But you see, I’m like you, I love the Qur’an as superb poetry, and I’m horrified by those parasites who exploit it and who limit freedom of thought. They’re hypocrites.’
The book has strong elements of magical realism and/or mythology, and was sometimes hard to follow. But, apart from the intriguing tale, I loved its poetic language. Yet another great writer who deserves to be better known by the world at large!
BEN JELLOUN, Tahar (1944 – ), La Nuit Sacrée, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1987, ISBN 978-2-02-0-25583-7
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. the bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens… They’d said Laura had turned the car sharply and deliberately, and had plunged off the bridge with no more fuss than stepping off a curb.
Moving on from a tale of two brothers, in my Iraqi book, I come to this tale of the equally fascinating relationship between two sisters. I’ve long been intrigued by this book – even more than by its intriguingly paradoxical title, because of its cover, featuring a slinky woman in an elegant ‘20s party dress, with only one arm. Or so I thought… Now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading the book, as well as studying the cover closely, I see that she does actually have two arms! It’s true, you can’t judge a book by its cover! However, the female characters in this novel, especially the central two sisters, really are endlessly intriguing.
This is clever, finely written novel. I love the narrator’s (Iris’) cynical, sarcastic take on her family’s trials, and on the world in general. It is interwoven, matryoshka-like, with a science fiction/fantasy story (’The Blind Assassin’ proper) supposedly improvised by a pair of lovers (who in turn tell each other a pulpy SF story), that the dead sister was writing. The complicated relationship between the two sisters is wonderfully portrayed. Atwood’s intricate plotting is rife with clever devices. In fact it has so much in it that it’s hard to grasp everything at a single reading, and it is continually leaping across genres – family history, science fiction, detection and romance, so trying to categorise it would be hopeless.
This is one that I will definitely read again, as soon as possible! And I will have to read more Atwood!
ATWOOD, Margaret (1939 – ), The Blind Assassin, New York: Anchor, 2001, ISBN 0-385-47572-1
[originally published 2000]
Three final images flashed across Serenity’s mind as he disappeared into the jaws of the colossal crocodile: a rotting buffalo with rivers of maggots and armies of flies emanating from its cavities; the aunt of his missing wife, who was also his longtime lover; and the mysterious woman who had cured his childhood obsession with tall women.
I know the title sounds misleading, but this novel isn’t about Ethiopia (once known as Abyssinia), but Uganda. (This is sort-of-explained by the narrator’s father (Serenity) thinking that the ancient land called Abyssinia should really be the modern land of Uganda, but I wasn’t sure exactly what Isegawa was thinking of here – obviously not Homer’s “blameless Ethiopians”).
When I was growing up just about all we heard about Uganda was about its crazy dictator, Idi Amin Dada, who was an endless source of both jokes and horror to the rest of the world (Uganda seemed a safely small and remote place). A great novel (and film) about his time is The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden. Obviously being a bigoted buffoon doesn’t stop someone from being powerful (I’m writing this on Donald Trump’s inauguration day). But I should say that although I haven’t visited Uganda – I’m hoping to, perhaps on my next trip – those who have been there seem to universally find the country beautiful and the people great, and say that it’s one of their favourite African countries.
Isegawa is a fluent writer who spins an interesting tale of a family interwoven with Uganda’s turbulent history. However, I have to admit that I couldn’t get my hooks into this novel. None of the characters are really sympathetic, and the narrator (Mugezi), especially, although he is an understandable product of his unattractive parents (the family is like a microcosm of a dictatorial regime), is not a nice piece of work – an admirer of the Idi Amin at the beginning (later he acquires a bodyguard called Amin who “was reprisal himself”), with pretty racist opinions of the local Indians whom the dictator expelled from their country, who seems to despise almost everyone and resorts to some ugly stratagems to get ahead in his quest to gain control. The complete modus operandi of the despot is on display – intimidation, bullying, censorship, torture, protection, power struggles and lies. He seems to hate everyone and even contemplates using his would-be fiancée as a means of getting revenge on his father.
Although Isegawa wrote the book in English, it was first published in Dutch in the Netherlands where he was living then (he since moved back to Uganda.
As others have said, the novel strangely amoral, I’d say even sometimes immoral. It’s also often quite earthy, as you might gather from the opening quotation above (but not magical realist, as I first thought). Nevertheless, it is quite readable. I just wish there was someone in it I could like…
Isegawa, Moses (1963 – ), Abyssinian Chronicles, New York, Vintage, 2001, ISBN 0-375-040613
[originally published in the Netherlands 1998 as Abessijnse kronieken]