Susannah Tarbush reviews

The Madness of Despair


Ghalya F T Al Said

Translated by
Raphael Cohen

Banipal Books, UK, 2021. 256pp

ISBN Hbk: 978-1-913043-21-6

ISBN Pbk: 978-1-913043-12

ISBN eBook: 978-1-913043-13-1

Hbk £22.00, Pbk £11.99, Ebook £6.99




The love triangle that becomes a vicious circle


In this novel the Omani fiction writer, poet and museum founder Ghalya F T Al Said explores the love triangle between three Arab émigrés living in London: Maliha, her husband Nafie and their friend Nadim, an urbane and successful doctor. Nadim is secretly Maliha’s lover although he is married to an Englishwoman by whom he has several children.

The picture on the cover of The Madness of Despair hints at the psychological state of Maliha. It is a 2019 painting by Iraqi artist Afifa Aleiby entitled Silence of the Dwellings and portrays a young woman, an expression of anxiety and desperation on her face, standing in a darkened interior, an open window behind her. When Maliha first meets Nadim she tells him: “Since coming to this country, Doctor, I’ve lived a totally isolated and lonely life, skulking behind these walls. I don’t know a soul. Again and again, I’ve resolved to break out of my isolation. I suffer so much.”

Maliha had never wanted to marry Nafie. Back in her home country her brutal older brother had forced her into wedlock with this old friend who had been working in London. In revenge, Maliha decided that “her wedding night would be turned into her husband’s curse”. When she awoke at dawn the next day she “screamed for all to hear in the alleyways that her husband was impotent”. To escape this public humiliation Nafie fled back to London with his new bride.

Maliha is from a poor family and Al Said gives us poignant glimpses of her deprived childhood. She had some success as a pedlar of small items as a girl, but her brother snatched away the meagre earnings she had hidden in a box. She still cherishes dreams of becoming a businesswoman and from time to time in London she tries her luck as a street trader.

At the time of her marriage Maliha was deceived by Nafie into believing that he had prospered and lived a life of luxury in London. She is devastated to find herself living with him in a wretched run-down hostel and then in a cramped council flat in a block on cosmopolitan Goldhawk Road in Shepherds Bush, West London.

She spends much time gazing out of the window at the busy shopkeepers across the road: the Indian jeweller, the Sudanese draper, the Lebanese furniture seller, the Moroccan purveyor of shoes and bags, the British butcher, the Italian restaurateur. She wishes Nafie was an enterprising shopkeeper rather than having his “crap job in a shoe factory, whose smells of rotten leather, burnt plastic, and chemical dyes he brings home with him. Even his fingers and nails are dyed”.

Ghalya Al Said was educated in the UK and has a PhD in international relations from Warwick University. She is the author of six novels, but The Madness of Despair is the first to appear in English translation. Al Said uses her intimate knowledge of the UK and its Middle Eastern diaspora to good effect in her writing. Four of her six novels are set in the UK. They include her 2005 debut Ayam fil Jena (Days in Heaven) an excerpt from which was published in Banipal 51, in translation by Charis Olszok.

The Arabic original of The Madness of Despair was first published in 2011 by Beirut-based Riad El-Rayyes Books under the title Junoun al-Ya’s. Katia al-Tawil’s review of this edition appeared in Banipal 71 together with the first chapter of Raphael Cohen’s translation. Cohen is a professional translator and lexicographer who studied Arabic and Hebrew at the universities of Oxford and Chicago. He has translated many literary works from Arabic and his translation of The Madness of Despair, much of which is in dialogue, has a commendable naturalness and sensitive choices of colloquialisms.

In The Madness of Despair Al Said takes us into the world of marginalised Middle Eastern immigrants in London, surviving on poorly paid jobs and welfare payments. The couple’s neighbours in the council block are mostly Arab and Muslim, from traditional and conservative societies. They are simultaneously intrigued and outraged by the strange relationship between Maliha, Nafie and the Doctor. Nadim is the couple’s constant visitor, bringing them endless supplies of food and consumer goods and seeming to control the household. The neighbours speculate about his nationality and origins and come up with various outlandish theories in the face of his refusal to answer any of their questions. At one point they subject him to violence.

Al Said shows herself to be a gifted and inventive storyteller as she depicts the descent of Maliha from discontent into hysteria, depression and a loss of grip on reality. Maliha is no mere passive victim however and has a streak of obstinacy and rebelliousness. On his side, Dr Nadim resorts to ever more extravagant and manipulative behaviour to indulge his passion for Malia and to exert and maintain control over her and Nafie, partly through becoming their benefactor.

Although Maliha shares a bed with Nafie she refuses to have sex with him, employing various ruses and excuses. She meets Doctor Nadim for the first time when he arrives for dinner at her and Nafie’s flat before Nafie has returned home from work. For both, this encounter is a shattering coup de foudre. Before long they embark on a steamy affair, conducted in his surgery out of hours. Their physical union is described in rapturous, at times somewhat overblown, terms: “The planets stopped in their orbits, humanity froze, wind, rain and clouds stopped.”

Maliha and Nadim, swept along by powerful emotions, initially find their affair fulfilling. Nadim has reached a stage in his life where he longs to reunite with his culture – “He had a hankering for anything Arab and oriental: people, food, customs, climate, clothing, even the streets and alleyways.” He collects Middle Eastern artefacts and the walls of his waiting room are crammed with oriental prayer beads, and other mementos. “Maliha’s beauty evoked the beauty of his distant country” and she fits the bill as an idealised Arab woman. On her side, Maliha was “dazzled by his smart appearance, clean clothes, deep voice, easy smile and kind eyes.” She envisaged that her life would go from strength to strength with “the dear cultured man who encouraged her to move forward”.

But although Nadim’s marriage has grown cold and distant he refuses to consider divorce because it would break up his family and bring him financial ruin. As time passes Maliha realises nothing will change and the triangle becomes claustrophobic.

The trio spend many evenings eating, sitting and talking together in the Goldhawk Road flat, Nafie seemingly oblivious to the sexual relationship between Nadim and Maliha. She regularly berates Nafie for what she sees as his defects and failures as a husband. “As much as he could he avoided her gaze in fear of her hurtful words and blazing looks.” He retreats at one stage to a corner of the room in which he has placed a wooden trunk containing his personal treasures: dried food, photos, complete poems of Antara, tapes of old songs, and so on.

The Doctor is at his most devious when Nafie puts Maliha under increasing pressure to have a child. Nadim hatches a secret plan whereby Maliha will become pregnant without having sex with her husband. But motherhood brings Maliha no joy: she fails to bond with her baby son and his rearing is left to Nadim and Nafie.

Al Said has a well-developed sense of tragedy and comedy and she portrays the love triangle with many touches of humour, such as when Nadim tries to turn Maliha into his vision of the ideal woman. “I love you as an Arab woman, not anything else. Look how vivid and beautiful Middle Eastern clothes are and how funny modern Western blouses and dresses look. Just seeing you in them gives me a terrible headache, especially when you wear those damned blue jeans. Blue jinns more like!” In one episode, in an effort to please Maliha, Nadim buys a whole lamb’s carcass. When he is carrying it on the underground, wrapped in a cloth, blood starts to drip onto the floor and the police are called as the passengers suspect Nadim is transporting a human corpse.

Towards its end The Madness of Despair grows increasingly dark. “The three friends, Nafie, Maliha, and the Doctor continued living this bizarre vicious circle of despairing monotony for so long it verged on madness,” Al Said writes, as the novel builds towards to its dramatic and shocking denouement.

Click to get a copy direct from Banipal Books

Reviewed in Banipal 72 – Iraqi Jewish Writers, Autumn/Winter 2021

Back to all reviews