Wolves of the Crescent Moon Paperback – Dec 18 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Three tales of Arab outcasts make up this fresh-voiced debut novel by Saudi Arabian author Al-Mohaimeed. A one-eared Bedouin tribesman named Turad quits his humiliating 13-year job as a low-level ministry servant and ends up at the Riyadh bus station with a plan to flee, but no destination in mind. While he figures out where he wants to go, two additional voices join the narrative. One is the memory of Turad's elderly co-worker at the ministry, Tawfiq, whose sad story begins when he was a child and his Sudanese village was attacked by slave traders. Tawfiq was later captured, raped, castrated and performed the services of a eunuch until he grew too old to be of use. The other voice is from a discarded official file Turad finds at the bus station. It involves a one-eyed orphan named Nasir, who is sexually abused by the staff at the orphanage where he grows up and is eventually denied his ambition of becoming a soldier. Al-Mohaimeed's work, assisted by Calderbank's faultless translation, beautifully captures the frustrations and resentments of his tormented characters. (Jan.)
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"At last an authentic voice from Saudi Arabia."
-Hanan al-Shaykh, author of Women of Sand and Myrrh
"Brave and brilliant . . . A novel that sneaks up on you with its power to make you see, hear, and live the complexities of another world."
-Uzodinma Iweala, author of Beasts of No Nation
"An irresistible novel."
-Nuruddin Farah, author of Links and Knots
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The book unfolds in short chapters which alternate between the lives of three men, each of whom has suffered a grievous bodily loss which in many ways has determined their fate. Turad is a one-eared Bedouin tribesman from the Saudi desert who moves to Riyadh to avoid becoming an outcast among his own people. There, the proud hunter and highwayman ekes out a life as a servant in a government ministry, enduring endless humiliation. One of his coworkers is Tawfiq, a elderly Sudanese man who was captured by slavers in his homeland and taken across the Red Sea. Castrated as a child, he works in a palace until 1962, when slavery is abolished and he is turned out into the streets with no prospects. Finally, there is Nasir, an orphan who lost an eye to a cat as a baby and can never overcome that tragedy.
The stories of the three men unwind in a variety of styles, from memories, storytelling, official files, and so on -- some parts are even imagined by others. Besides the physical scars, there are other recurring motifs, such as the absence of a true father to any of the three, as well as issues of naming. In Saudi society, one's name bears a great deal of information, such as class, rank, tribal affiliation, and soforth. None of the three men here can retain their true name, and this encapsulates their total disenfranchisement from society. Though the brief chapters can make for a slightly choppy read, it doesn't diminish the power of this window into the lives of Saudi Arabia's underclass. To be sure, there are tales of much greater woe to be told about the kingdom, such as the lives of those poor laborers who come from around the world to work at the lowest rungs of Saudi society, but this is a step in the right direction.
None of the above characters had their physical deformity at birth. I did however compare their fate with two characters who did, both having a "club-foot," Phillip, in W. Somerset Maugham's "Of Human Bondage," and Manal, in Jocelyne J. Awad's "Khamsin." Their deformity is central to their existence; their longing to be "normal," is a persistent theme in their life. In the case of the characters from Maugham and Awad, it was a matter of nature "dealing a bad hand." For Al-Mohaimeed's characters the tragedy of their deformity is compounded, since each is due to the cruelty, greed, and callousness of humans, and need never have happened.
I love the author's prose-- his technique and style. Certainly the metaphor of the pixels being added upon each scan of the object, bringing the entire picture into focus is appropriate. At one point I wanted to shout "No" -- that is not sufficient motivation for what happened to Nasir, but then in the next chapter, on the next "scan," the motivation was amply provided. In addition, comparisons with the "magic realism" of Marquez have been made, appropriate I believe, and I would add Isabelle Allende to the list. I found the dramatic tension high throughout the novel, and it served to pull the reader inexorably from chapter to chapter. Comparisons with Paul Auster are also fitting. I loved Al-Mohaimeed's emphasis on the importance of smells, and making yet another comparison, remembered the prose of Thomas Wolfe, in "Look Homeward, Angel." I'm not surprised that another of Al- Mohaimeed's novels is entitled: "The Lure of Scent." In no way though, by making these comparisons, would I like to suggest that Al-Mohaimeed's style is derivative --- his voice is authentic, and at least for Western readers, resonates easier than, say Al Munif, who can be too ponderous and verbose. In part, this could be due to the excellent translation provided by Calderbank, but certainly not entirely.
I found one mistake in the novel, which could not be excused even by the "magic realism" technique: Tawfiq's age when he was emancipated did not jive the actual proclamation in 1962. (p 154)
Overall though, Al-Mohaimeed has written an excellent novel; to make yet one more comparison; he has portrayed the underclass in Saudi Arabia much like John Steinbeck did with America's underclass, in "The Grapes of Wrath." It is beyond the edge of sadness that his great novel is yet another book that is banned in the Kingdom; the country desperately needs great, authentic writers--they should be encouraged. Positive social development occurs when a country's authentic writers are nurtured.
As a final point, Al-Mohameed's portraits have a specific attribution to certain aspects of life in Saudi Arabia; more essentially though, he portrays the universal human condition. His book is a reminder that similar characters exist, right here in what with some conceit, we like to call "The Land of Enchantment." With the deteriorating economic conditions, there is an increase in the "Tom Jodd's" rolling along the old Route 66, hoping to find salvation in California, hoping to remove themselves from the "Hell" of their current situation. I think Al-Mohameed would understand it all well.
Al-Mahaimeed's perspective, a 'greater Middle East' classist point of view, is invaluable. Placed in Saudi Arabia, it's expressed through three men excluded from a reactionary middle-class who serve (as menially as you can imagine) the few with untold wealth.
But the novel reflects his roaring stream of thoughts about his own life and that of a number of persons he is or was associated with. Two deserve special mention because they are losers in life, like Turad, who is a Bedouin who robbed caravans in the desert and has since been disowned by his tribe. He has lost his standing, his place in the world. The second character is Tewfik, born Hasan, an elderly eunuch captured as a young boy in Sudan and smuggled into Saudi Arabia as a slave. He lost his parents, his manhood, his land of birth, and when slavery was abolished, the relative security its status provided…
The third person is the person in the official file, Nasir, a foundling whom a state agency provided with a name and fake parentage, which disqualifies him from ever attaining full citizenship, which require deep tribal roots and a family name starting with Al-. But what if he were adopted?
Strange and intriguing, highly re-readable, passionate, occasionally lyrical or furious, the author exposes indifference and hypocrisy in a closed conservative society thriving on exclusion and exploitation. A cry for compassion, not a political manifest. Given its modest size also highly recommended for reading groups/clubs.