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Munira's Bottle [Hardcover]

Yousef al-Mohaimeed , Anthony Calderbank
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Jan. 15 2010 American University in Cairo Press
In Riyadh, against the events of the second Gulf War and Saddams invasion of Kuwait, we learn the story of Munirawith the gorgeous eyesand the unspeakable tragedy she suffers as her male nemesis wreaks revenge for an insult to his character and manhood. It is also the tale of many other women of Saudi Arabia who pass through the remand center where Munira works, victims and perpetrators of crimes, characters pained and tormented, trapped in cocoons of silence and fear. Munira records their stories on pieces of paper that she folds up and places in the mysterious bottle given to her long ago by her grandmother, a repository for the stories of the dead, that they might live again. This controversial novel looks at many of the issues that characterize the lives of women in modern Saudi society, including magic and envy, honor and revenge, and the strict moral code that dictates malefemale interaction. Yousef al-Mohaimeed is a rising star in international literature. Muniras Bottle is a rich and skillfully crafted story of a dysfunctional Saudi Arabian family. One of its strengths lies in its edgy characters: Munira, a sultry, self-centered, sexually repressed woman; Ibn al-Dahhal, the bold imposter who deceives and betrays her; and Muhammad, her perpetually angry and righteous brother, a catalyst who forces the events. Western readers will welcome it for its opening door into Arab lives and minds.Annie Proulx Mohaimeed writes in a lush style that evokes a writer he cites as an influence, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. [He] takes on some of the most divisive subjects in the Arab world.

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"Mohaimeed writes in a lush style that evokes a writer he cites as an influence, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. [He] takes on some of the most divisive subjects in the Arab world." - [Washington Post] Western readers will welcome it for its opening door into Arab lives and minds." - [Annie Proulx]

About the Author

Yousef al-Mohaimeed was born in Riyadh in 1964. He has published several novels and short story collections, and has studied English and photography at Norwich University in the England. He is the author of Wolves of the Crescent Moon (AUC Press, 2007). Anthony Calderbank has translated several works of modern Arabic fiction, including Haggag Hassan Oddoul's Nights of Musk (AUC Press, 2005) and Yousef al-Mohaimeed's Wolves of the Crescent Moon (AUC Press, 2007). He lives and works in Saudi Arabia.

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3.0 out of 5 stars Not Particularly Riveting June 18 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Honestly, it took me longer to read this book than average because it was a bit dull. It has an excellent plot that could have been executed better; although I won't blame that on the author. A text usually loses most of its essence once it has been translated, which is made evident by the seemingly off metaphors. This is better read in its native language.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "It was written..." Dec 10 2010
By John P. Jones III - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
... 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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I am a female. Just a female with clipped wings...My purpose is to receive, like the earth receives the rain...and the plough." April 19 2010
By Mary Whipple - Published on
In this intense and moving story of love gone wrong, Munira al-Sahi, a beautiful thirty-year-old Saudi woman, has been studying for her graduate degree and working at a counseling center for abused girls and women in Riyadh. She also writes a once-a-week column for a local newspaper. Though she has heard all manner of terrible life stories from the women she counsels, she never suspects she herself will become another sad statistic: the man who has been courting her is an impostor, someone who is using her to gain revenge on one of her brothers by ruining her life.

Through his focus on Munira, Yousef al-Mohaimeed reveals a much larger purpose, recreating the lives of many seemingly typical Saudi women in 1990, when American Patriot missiles and Russian Scuds are streaking through the sky in response to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. The country is also beginning to feel the first effects of the growing jihadist movement even as some women have been pushing for more freedom. Though Munira has been attending graduate school and has many women friends who are much more rebellious than she is, she remains true to the cultural traditions of her family and religion, rejecting the plea that she join thirteen women who plan to demonstrate by driving cars in Riyadh.

Evocative descriptions of the natural world create moods, atmosphere, and the kind of detail which will be new and absorbing to most western readers. Moving back and forth chronologically, al-Mohaimeed tells stories within stories, enlivening the jottings about life which Munira pens and places in a painted bottle given to her by her grandmother. Through changing points of view, the reader journeys through the lives of Saudi women of all classes, even as Munira's own disastrous engagement to Ali al-Dahhal is rocketing back and forth between the catastrophe at the end of the relationship and the passionate lead-up to it. These personal stories assume additional power through the author's creation of parallels to aspects of the Gulf War against Saddam Hussein and Kuwait.

Munira's world becomes infinitely more complex and more restricted when one of her brothers, who also lives at home, returns from helping the Afghans fight the Russians and commits himself to a fundamentalist view of Islam and the establishment of an Islamic state. His reading aloud of fatwas by the mufti reveal how much more restrictive the lives of women will become if the strictest interpretations of the Koran become law. And when Munira goes to court to resolve her difficulties with Ali al-Dahhal, her true position in society, relative to that of Ali, will stun western readers. With a strong story involving Munira and her duplicitous suitor and surprising revelations regarding issues that western women take for granted, this novel excites even as it teaches. Readers interested in other cultures will find this book one of the most specific and least sugar-coated novels about the Middle East available in the US. Mary Whipple
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