Munira's Bottle Hardcover – Jan 15 2010
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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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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.
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