Margaret Obank reviews


by Turki al-Hamad

Translated by Robin Bray. Saqi Books, UK, 2003, 302pp ISBN 0 86356 311 2

A young Saudi’s thirst for knowledge

In June last year Turki al-Hamad’s novel Adama was published in English to immediate acclaim. The second of the trilogy, Shumaisi, will be published this summer by Saqi Books, and will hopefully be followed by the final volume Karadib. Turki al-Hamad is a well-known and successful author and former university lecturer who had four fatwas pronounced against him in Saudi Arabia for his trilogy, as well as many death threats; the four fatwas were eventually withdrawn last December. When it was published in the Arab world in 1998, Adama very soon became a best-seller, selling over 20,000 copies even though it, and the other volumes, were immediately banned in the author’s own country as well as in a number of others in the Arab world.

In the English-speaking world, and beyond, there is a real thirst for a glimpse – and an understanding – of life for Saudi citizens and Adama has been eagerly and enthusiastically received, the author being interviewed on radio and television and the novel reviewed in national newspapers. Translator Robin Bray is to be congratulated on producing an excellent translation that makes the book an easy read.

The narrator, young Hisham al-’Abir (al-’Abir means “one who traverses”), is first encountered, as in the opening of a film, on a train coming into Riyadh. As it draws into the station, Hisham remains seated gazing around him, outwardly calm, inwardly “his heart churning”. He is beginning a new life away from his parents, and is off to enroll at the University to study political philosophy. He recalls the life he has left behind when he was at school, and so the film continues, flashing back to his earlier days at home, where a quite different story unfolds, with occasional returns to Riyadh and his new life.

In a few packed pages, Turki al-Hamad establishes the personality and driving force of his protagonist. As a young lad for whom education and making his parents proud of him are his life, Hisham reads everything he can get his hands on, particularly after developing an interest in history, politics and philosophy. But he is disconcerted that this involves deceiving his parents, the first deceptions happening on family holidays to Jordan, Syria or Lebanon when he would spend his pocket money buying books banned in Saudi Arabia, works by international heroes of the 1960s, Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon, and also Marx, Engels, Lenin et al, as well as classic international authors like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorky, Balzac, Zola, Dickens, Moravia.

His reading pushed him out into a wide world of excitement and passion, great open spaces where the entire globe became an object of interest for him without limits or restrictions. He became filled with a new spirit, eager to transform this world into an earthly paradise where everyone would live free from tyranny and prejudice, in complete fairness, equality and justice. The whole planet had become his new homeland, while his city was now a mere speck in the sea and his country simply one part of he great mass of mankind to which every true human being had to belong.

In an interview on Radio 3, Turki al-Hamad explained why he had written the novels: “Where I live there are three taboos: religion, politics and sex. It is forbidden to speak about these. The situation has been static for so long, I wrote this trilogy to get things moving.”
It is through the constant questioning, observing, probing and searching by Hisham for rational and “satisfactory” explanations for what he sees around him, what he both experiences and reads about, Turki al-Hamad has found a way of discussing the taboo subjects of his country. With his particular narrative technique he is able to raise those issues in a variety of contexts: Hisham’s immediate and wider family, the community of school and schoolfriends, the mosque, the banned political “movement” with its “brothers” and “comrades”, city and rural life, and Hisham’s relation with the neighbour’s daughter, Noura, whom he thinks of as “a raindrop on parched earth, a cool breeze on a hot night” and with whom he quickly arranges secret assignations.

At the time of the 1967 Setback [al-Naksa – defeat of the Arab armies in the Six-Day War], school students hotly debated all the major political and ideological issues, with Hisham becoming a regular speaker. He eventually agrees to join a movement that is against the government, and which turns out to be the banned Arab Ba’ath Party, even though at first he is terrified, frightened, unable to sleep at the thought of doing such a dangerous thing. It is one thing to talk, another to take action, and that, he is told, is what joining means. The young philosopher goes to weekly meetings of “comrades”, with passwords, total obedience to the group leader, and then “movement names”, all issues about which Hisham has serious misgivings. And throughout, he is in a panic that he is “such a disobedient son”.

In Riyadh, staying at his uncle’s home, Hisham discusses with his cousins the value of studying economics, politics and systems of government, attitudes towards government and traditional rulers. They in turn introduce him to alcohol, particularly a local hard liquor called “coffee”, prostitutes, pornographic films, driving around in cars, and different ways of dealing with their father’s demands that they perform regular prayers and visit the mosque. In the capital Hisham finds “everything was forbidden, and everything permitted”.

One of the secondary themes that links the taboo subjects is the issue of lying and what a lie is. Hisham’s mother saw the world as “black and white, Heaven and Hell”, whereas the “party” had taught Hisham to lie “easily and fluently”, telling lies that “from a certain angle might not be lies at all”. In thinking about this Hisham examines the element of lying in moral standards, politics, diplomacy and propaganda and in the end finds no satisfactory answer. He is constantly troubled by the fact that he has lied to his mother, and still feels guilty about the one time in his early childhood when he lied to her. In the final throes of his party membership, Hisham is disgusted to discover the duplicity of its leaders, who have prepared two different leaflets analyzing the situation in Libya, where Ghaddafi had just come to power in a coup – one for general circulation and one for members only. Hisham is told to “leave morals to prophets and philosophers” and learn the “difference between the struggle and utopian dreams” – and to distribute the leaflets round his school.

Another underlying theme is that of friendship. In the movement friendship is not allowed, all contact decided by the group leader. This is completely anathema to Hisham, who values his friends and those he loves above all else, although he tries to go along with it and at first breaks off contact with his dearest schoolfriend Adnan. But, finally, when he disregards party orders and restores his friendship with Adnan, he feels he has “recovered something that had been stolen from him”. Hisham was desperate to be released “from this nightmare from which he did not know how to awaken”.

Hisham and his family go to visit his grandmother and his father’s family in Qusaim. The description of the long journey there, driving through days and nights, sleeping in the desert, making tea over a campfire, is a great story in itself, and the reader gets an idea of the vastness of the country and the distances that separate one community from another. In Qusaim, Hisham meets other cousins and their friends and goes on a picnic out of town with them. Distressed by his new friends’ infatuation with Nasser when discussion turns to the Eygptian leader, he broaches the opinion that it is “ideology that makes man. and not vice versa”, and talks of the need for a “comprehensive ideology”, but discovers that it is impossible to discuss the merits of Marxism as a political philosophy with people who can only see labels, see black or white.

Hisham never gets to expound his views fully – to his friends or his “comrades”. He wants to explain that the “question is how we look at things, not the things themselves”, and is always interrupted -– but at least the question is asked. An aspect of this running quietly throughout the novel is that events in real life are there to make one think, that ideology is not an abstraction that will remain true for all time. Hisham is always reflecting on what others have said and pondering on what he himself has said.

Near the end of the novel, he turns to Freud’s The Future of Fantasy to get to grips with why he, having apparently embraced Marxism, would suddenly came out with the old expression “Whatever happens to us is only what God has preordained”. He starts to reflect on the question of fate, on a pre-ordained future, on coincidence, on the existence of God, on the need for a father figure . . . leading the reader also into contemplation.
Hisham is growing up, learning to think independently, to consider matters, and to take decisions, not just to react to what people say and to events, to follow the herd. When next we see him, in Shumaisi, he will be at University and . . .

Turki al-Hamad was born in Jordan in 1952 into a Saudi family, and has a Masters’ degree from Colorado University (1979) and a PhD from the University of South California (1985) – both in political science. He taught political science at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia for ten years before taking early retirement in 1995 to concentrate on his writing. Readers can now reap the fruits of this and Turki al-Hamad has indeed opened up a vital and important discussion through writing Adama. He has done this by writing an original and enthralling narrative whose young philosopher protagonist has such the wonderful passion for reading and thirst for knowledge that he gets hold of the books whatever the hindrances and obstacles put in his way. The right to read is truly an inalienable human right.

Adama is the first novel in the trilogy
Thairat al-Aziqa al-Mahjoura [Memory of the Deserted Alleys].

From Banipal 19 - Spring 2004

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