How beautiful this city was!
I’d seen it first when I was taken from my village and imprisoned in the fortress of al-Qahira as one of the hostages of the Imam. His soldiers had come, in their blue uniforms, and torn me from my mother’s lap and the arms of the rest of my family; then, not content with that, they’d seized my father’s horse too, in accordance with the Imam’s wishes.
In recent years, Yemen had a reputation among adventurous travellers (or would-be travellers) as a magical land which had preserved an Arabian Nights civilisation. The fly in the ointment was that you stood a good chance of being kidnapped. Even this, however, was made to sound like a bit of a lark – the kidnappees were apparently very well looked after, in the highest tradition of Arab hospitality – only, in this case, compulsory hospitality. Today the country is in a much sadder state, as I write being torn apart by civil war, starvation and Saudi bombing and blockade. It seems like Yemen (the other, forgotten, country which re-united in 1990, apart from Germany), is in danger of falling apart again, which is one reason why I have also chosen to read another novel to represent the past (and, who knows, future?) South Yemen.
Anyway, The Hostage is my novel for Yemen (or former North Yemen). This is another, but entirely different, instance of Yemeni compulsory hospitality. In this case the hostage is not a foreigner but a boy imprisoned by the Imam as a guarantee of the acquiescence of his father and his clan. Although he lives in a gilded cage and far better, materially, than most of his countrymen, he is still effectively a slave, and feels it keenly. He constantly longs to visit his family and home country. Despite his embarrassing situation, he fights hard to maintain his self-respect. He is stubborn and proud (perhaps most startlingly when he refuses to have his shackles taken off), and does not always try to understand what is happening to him. Like a pet bird, the door to whose cage has been left open, he does not try to escape – what good would it do? This work makes you understand what slavery truly is. And yet, everyone has someone that he can look down on – in this case, the menial servants.
He becomes the reluctant toy boy of the governor’s sister toys with him like a cat with a mouse.
This edition has two what I felt were excellent introductions to the historical and literary backgrounds of the strange and vanished world in which it is set, sometimes reminiscent of the Thousand Nights and One Night. Something of a classic, it’s well worth reading!
Zayd Mutee’ Dammaj (زيد مطيع دماج) (1943 – 2000), The Hostage, translated from Arabic by May Jayyusi & Christopher Tingley, New York, Interlink books, 1974, 1 56656 140 X
(originally published as Ar-Rahina by Dar al-Adab, Beirut, 1984)
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
‘“Why is such importance attached to identification cards? Since when do papers determine people’s fate?” Yussif still kept these words, which Uncle ‘Assim had once said, in his mind. Where could he now find his father-in-law, in order to be able to contradict him: “Yes, papers do determine people’s fates.” For years he had tried to rely on Uncle ‘Assim’s words. Now he had voiced what he had been frightened of all those years: that remembering would one day awaken, and he would become abruptly aware of how vain of his argument was. “Who carries whose guilt?” He carried this phrase with himself, since he had eaten and watched television together with Uncle ‘Assim , in this house in the Baladiyat Quarter, to which Sarab moved back to live with her father. For a long time he had pushed it into the back of his subconscious. Only from time to time this phrase appeared, in the last year continuously and since last night ever more strongly and urgently.
If people had their past paraded before their eyes, they disavowed it. If someone showed them documents carrying their names, they said: “Are there any people without a past?” This question was not easy to answer. “Oh past, what have you made of my life?” He could imagine how millions of men constantly repeated this phrase everywhere in the world, in east and west, north and south. Always there was a past; it was the hindrance. Whoever adopted a new name, also adopted a new past. No, this question was not as easy to answer as Uncle ‘Assim had thought. He who did not believe in the past would also not believe in the evidential power of documents. He who carries a document with him, must therefore be X, son of Y, he was born on this date, in this place, in this country; he has to add to the document the following phrase: “Who carries whose guilt?” Tell me your name, and I will tell you which history you carry with you, which history you have left behind you – or want to leave behind you.’
Iraq has just about the longest literary history of any country in the world, but I’m ashamed to say that the only other book I had read from there was from right at the other end of its timeline – the wonderful Epic of Gilgamesh. I read this one in German as, although it has apparently been translated into English, I found it hard to get. It was originally published Beirut/Casablanca, 2005, in Arabic. Anyway it’s appropriate as the author has lived in Germany for a long time. Najem Wali (نجم والي) was born in Iraq but in 1980 had to flee during the war with Iran to Germany, where he has lived ever since.
You won’t find much local Iraqi colour in this work; its themes are universal, although you could see the brothers’ identity and existential crisis as symbolic of the plight of this cradle of civilisation, which at the time of my reading was tearing itself apart and barely still existed. One of the continual refrains in the book (another is the description of the murdered girl) is the characterisation of the country as ‘The Land of the Triumphant and the Humiliated.’ Hopefully it won’t all end in a madhouse.
Wali asks the eternal question, ‘What’s in a name?’, but comes to a different conclusion from Shakespeare: Quite a lot. Here is a whole book’s worth. It is the story of two brothers, Jussif (Joseph) and Junis (John), who when they were young fell in love with the same girl. She preferred Jussif, so in revenge Junis gave her a cake with nails inside to eat and killed her. Junis opposes Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and disappears; Jussif adopts his name, identity, life and even wife. He only discovers too late that his brother is sought as a traitor. No one will believe his story, or his innocence. A dangerous struggle over names and identities follows. Even as kids, the brothers had played with their identities, with masks.
Yussif and Yunis are, of course, Koranic (and Biblical) names. (The Qur’an has surahs (chapters) named for both of these names). It is a complicated parable about names, identity, the past, and… Just what is reality?
For someone fascinated with translation, it’s interesting that the title in Arabic, s̪urat Yussif (صورت يوسف) ‘the Picture of Joseph’, which must be a play on the Koranic connection Surat Yussif (The Surah – Chapter – of Joseph) (سورت يوسف) has been cleverly translated into German not as ‘Jussifs Geschichte’ (Joseph’s Story) but as the almost identical-sounding ‘Jussifs Gesichter’ (Joseph’s Faces). For ‘Jussif’ (the name) has two faces – those of the two brothers who bear it at different times. The English title is ‘Joseph’s Picture’ (ISBN 978-1596923508), which is literal but not as imaginative as the German title.
Yussif asks the central question, ‘Who carries whose guilt?’ You are a prisoner of your past; if you adopt a new persona, you adopt a new past as well. He is totally alienated from the world. There is no truth and there is no past. Everything is a mirage (Fata Morgana). In fact, everything is a story.
A major theme is remembering and forgetting: ‘With the end of remembrance, pain comes to an end as well.’ Maybe, at least in some parts of the world, there is too much remembering, and it would be more peaceful if there was more forgetting, at least of the blandishments of history? But these separate histories are too much a part of each community’s identity for that to be able happen.
Wali’s novel is a dark, thought-provoking, well-written, exhausting and profound parable that deserves a much wider audience.
Wali, Najem (1956 – ), Jussifs Gesichter, Roman aus der Mekka-Bar, translated from Arabic to German by Imke Ahlf-Wien, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, München, 2010, ISBN 978-3-423-13850-5, [originally published in Arabic as Surat Yussif (صورت يوسف)]
Lakhdar has escaped from his cell.
At dawn, his silhouette appears on the landing; everyone lifts their heads, without any great emotion.
Mourad stares at the fugitive.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. You will get caught.”
“They know your name.”
“I don’t have any ID cards.”
“They’ll come and nab you here.”
“That’s enough. Don’t discourage me.”
The first book I ever read in French was “L’Etranger” (“The Stranger/Outsider” by the pied-noir (Frenchman who lived in Algeria) Albert Camus, a rather existentialist novel about another pied-noir who kills another man. My teacher chose it as a fairly easy read, and its shock lives with me to this day. Later I read his “La Peste” (about an outbreak of the plague in Oran.)
But this time I wanted to read something by an Arab Algerian. In a way Nedjma is both a complement and an antidote to L’Etranger. In Camus’ work the Arabs are a mere background effect, like the heat, and if one of them gets shot it seems almost meaningless there, just as today a terrorist couldn’t care less whether he is killing Christians or Muslims. In Yacine’s mythologised story of Algeria, on the other hand, it’s the French who are almost irrelevant.
It’s possible to get a feeling of why the Algerian war for independence was so brutal and callous on both sides. The war seems almost forgotten today but it was a seminal event. France treated Algeria very differently from most of its other colonies – it was to become part of La Métropole, north of the Mediterranean, and its départements were just like those of the mainland; and it was heavily colonised. The struggle for independence was very long and bloody until President De Gaulle shocked the French by giving in and granting freedom.
This major work of Algerian literature is set during the time of the French colony. The novel centres on the métisse (mixed-race woman) Nejma (’Star’), as a symbol of Algeria, and the dangerous lives of the four lovers who revolve around her.
I have to admit that I found the free-form French very difficult. Sometimes a single sentence will run over two pages! I was beginning to despair of my French, but now I feel a bit better after reading my much easier book from Burkina Faso. ‘Nejma’’s circular plotting, ending back at the beginning, also makes it hard to follow – sometimes I felt like a caged animal. (The snappy beginning which I quoted above is not typical!) Even though it was hard work, I know it would well repay reading again, and it is written in beautiful French.
YACINE, Kateb (1929 – 1989), Nedjma, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1996 (originally published 1956), ISBN 978-2-02-028947-4