... and with the subject phrase repeated, Yousef Al-Mohaimeed neatly summarizes the unlikely but plausible chain of events, and the lost opportunities that might have saved the novel's protagonist, Munira al-Sahi, from her fate. This is a novel of love, duplicity and revenge. Surely these are universal themes, that transcend cultural specifics, yet Al-Mohaimeed's tale is deeply rooted in the particulars of life in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The time period is the six months centering on Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Not only does this provide unique background for the novel's action, as well as "cover" for the actions of the anti-hero, but it also provides a metaphor that Al-Mohaimeed uses several times in depicting Munira's fate. Ali Al-Dahhal, or is that really his name, receives a kick in the chest from his superior at work, and his wounded ego decides to exact revenge by entrapping his superior's sister, Munira, in a disastrous love affair. That is the central thread that ties the novel together, and there are several sub-plots that illustrate the particulars of life in Riyadh.
Munira's work at the Remand Center (for women in various troubles with the law) is a useful mechanism for the author to present some vignettes, which includes the wife who killed her husband, and would gladly do so again, and the unwed pregnant woman who couldn't help herself, as well as the tale of Bandar (a/k/a Mueed) who seduced a young girl, but made a classic mistake of letting her discover his true identity. It is a story that foreshadows Munira's, but she is too blind to realize that this young girl's fate could also be her own. And there is an unforgettable vignette concerning why a woman who washes the dead prior to burial refuses to enter a car with an unrelated man, even though he is accompanied by his wife. The invasion of Kuwait served as a catalyst for a famous incident, known even throughout the West, of the women dismissing their drivers, and driving their own cars, and this is another event that Munira barely missed.
The Al-Sahi family is composed of individuals who reflect the various Saudi character types, certainly including Mohammad, back from jihad in Afghanistan, shedding his iqal (the black coil which sits on the head over the gutra, which is eschewed by the fundamentalists), and who sets to work making a lot of money promoting the fundamentalist vision. His brother, Saleh, is much more secular, a major in the military, and off to England for six months of training. The father, Hamad, desires domestic tranquility, escapes via his perfume shop in the souks, yet is liberal enough to be supportive of his daughters' education and their desire to work. He even supports Munira when she wants to write a column in the local paper using her own name.
Didn't Rod Stewart once have a song entitled: "The World is Going to Riyadh"? It sure wasn't Paris, nor did it pretend to be, but for those who considered themselves fortunate to have spent some of their youth in Riyadh, be they Saudis or expats, this novel will certainly resonate. The backdrop of the city is carefully woven into the tale, be it the Khuzama coffee shop, the Al-Nakheel restaurant on Olaya street, Takhassusi Ave., the Deira souks and the clock tower; all rivals in their own way, for another generation, to the Café Flore and the Boulevard St. Germaine. And who else but Al-Mohaimeed has ever evoked the desert of Al-Samman?
The novel was first published in Arabic in 2004, and has only now become available in English, thanks to a masterful and lively translation by Anthony Calderbank. I detected only one mistake, be it in the original, or in the translation. The American Army no longer has "conscripts," and certainly not female ones, if you exclude the economic variety (p. 4).
I thoroughly enjoyed Al-Mohaimeed's Wolves of the Crescent Moon, and this novel confirms that he has the deft touch for authentic portrayals of life in Saudi Arabia which serves as a useful counterpoint to the numerous "fantasy versions." Furthermore, he has the empathy, and has obviously listen well to his own sisters, relatives, as well as, hum, other females, which has provided him with the background to write sensitively about the issues that they face. I'm currently finishing Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls: A Novel, and am struck by the parallels between the two novels: groundbreaking authentic portrayals of the lives of a country's ordinary citizens. Al-Mohaimeed is now the preeminent Saudi novelist who hopefully will be honored in his own country, including by the Ministry of Information. A solid 5-stars plus.