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Norbert Hirschhorn reviews
A Land Without Jasmine
by Wajdi Al-Ahdal
translated by William Maynard Hutchins.
Garnet, London, 2012. ISBN 9781859643105, 82pp.
Violation and murder in the world beyond
A beautiful, twenty-year-old Sanaa University student named Jasmine has gone missing; possibly raped and murdered. In what begins as a crime story, Al-Ahdal continues an extreme of erotic writing that forced his temporary exile from Yemen for previous fiction, notably Qawarib Jabaliyyah (Mountain Boats), reviewed in Banipal 19 (Spring 2004, pp. 152-154).
The book comprises six chapters, each with a different narrator, Rashomon-like, the titles revealing his or her character. The first is voiced by Jasmine (‘The Queen’) who keeps a detailed diary. Although fully veiled, she feels under constant siege by men who ogle and touch her: a grocer, a bus driver, and a pederast professor. Her diary reveals both revulsion about sex, as well as highly charged dreams of sexual gratification (‘I sensed that the phalluses of billions of men were ejaculating into my vagina simultaneously as I climaxed along with all of them’). A police inspector tells the second chapter in pulp fiction parlance, but he is unnerved by the spooky turns his investigation uncovers; and a well-connected suspect cannot be touched. Next comes the proprietor of the University café, who after twenty years of observing students and faculty knows all the dark and dirty secrets within. He is a realist whose eyewitness testimony uncannily matches Jasmine’s dreams. The fourth narrative is from the adolescent, Ali (‘The Sacrificial Lamb’). From age twelve to sixteen he was Jasmine’s playmate whose games included ‘playing doctor’. In puberty his hormones are roiling. He is a ‘sexual volcano’, infatuated with and stalking the now veiled Jasmine. It is he who discovers her school notebook and underclothes in a hollow at the root of a pomegranate tree on campus. Although he denies ever touching Jasmine, her brothers kidnap, torture, and dismember him in revenge. The police inspector’s deputy (‘The Sceptic whose Scepticism Disappears Like a Scattering Cloud’) is so haunted by the spectre at the core of the story that he must seek Qur’anic exorcism.
The spectre has been seen or sensed or dreamed of by all the main characters. Jasmine’s mother, who reads and relates Jasmine’s diary in the final chapter one year after the disappearance, finally understands its identity. It is an ifreet, a malevolent spirit oft-told in Arab and Islamic tradition, including the Qur’an. This ifreet manifests as a handsome, well-built, middle-age man with glistening white hair, who carries a white book with entirely blank pages. He comes as a bridegroom ready to woo Jasmine in her dreams, and perhaps also in reality. He comes to claim her. She is never found. As William Blake wrote, ‘And his dark secret love/ Does thy life destroy’ (The Sick Rose).
The author makes abundant use of symbolism. In the Qur’an the pomegranate tree is considered to bear the forbidden fruit of Eden. A colourful, crested bird, the hoopoe, hovering near the tree stands as a guide to the invisible world. The jasmine flower symbolizes modesty and grace, but also sensuality. Thus the author’s message is that sexual frustration, affecting men and women alike, can only lead to violation and murder, whether in this or the world beyond, political and sexual repression being cut from the same cloth. Unfortunately, here is where the novella fails. In part this is due to the chopped-up narrative; but more that the author makes his characters into mannequins to exhibit his point. For western readers, the story and caricatures may, inadvertently or not, reinforce orientalist fantasies about Arabs.
Published in Banipal 46 - 80 New Poems
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