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by Ali al-Muqri
translated by T M Aplin
London: Darf Publishers, 2015.
ISBN: 9781850772774. Pbk,156pp, £8.99/$8.53. Kindle £4.00/$6.13.
Life behind a name
Ali al-Muqri is a Yemeni writer born in 1966 in Taiz. He started writing at the age of 18 and soon gained a controversial reputation as a cultural editor for mainly progressive and oppositional publications. His first novel, Black Taste, Black Smell [Ta‘m Aswad, Ra’iha Sawda’] was published in 2008 to high acclaim and was long-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009; another novel, The Handsome Jew [al-Yahudi al-Hali] was long-listed for the same prize in 2011. An extract of Black Taste, Black Smell was published in Banipal 36 – Literature in Yemen Today.
The present work, Hurma, was published in Arabic by Saqi in Beirut under the same title in 2012. The title itself deserves a brief discussion, for Hurma – etymologically related to both harem and haram (which both appear in the book) – will by the nature of things mean considerably more to an Arabic-speaking potential reader than to an English-speaking one. The book’s brief glossary attempts to remedy this by providing a definition of the term, though the wording is arguably less than satisfactory, failing to note that in many contexts hurma is used quite happily as a more or less straightforward equivalent of either ‘wife’, or a woman in general; while at the same time providing scarcely a hint of the nuances of meaning (including potentially offensive ones) that the word may carry according to the context and the speaker involved.(for a flavour of the various connotations of the word, see http://saudiwoman.me/ 2009/09/17): Hurma: literally ‘sanctity’. An entity to be protected from violation or dishonour, usually by a male guardian.
The term implies ownership of the woman, and a lack of agency (p. 155).
That said, al-Muqri’s work – though relatively short – approaches the traditional ‘three taboos’ of politics, religion and sex (mainly the last two) with a directness and vigour that are all too rare in contemporary Arabic writing. Against the background of the lyrics of an Om Kalthoum cassette, an anonymous young woman relates in the first person the story of her coming of age in a traditional Sanaa environment. This is, however, no straightforward Bildungsroman. In the oppressive atmosphere of her dysfunctional family, al-Muqri’s heroine discovers her own sexuality largely through the medium of ‘cultural videos’ (aka cheap, local porn) – her own sexual and emotional development (or lack of it) highlighted and offset by the contrasts that al-Muqri draws between her and her elder siblings, Lula and ‘Abd al-Raqeeb. Unlike the anonymous narrator, Lula both flaunts her sexuality and is openly indulged by the father of the family; while her initially atheist, Marxist brother, ‘Abd al-Raqeeb, experiences a dramatic conversion on his marriage, burning the revolutionary pamphlets and cassettes he had collected during his ‘wayward years’ and filling the house with religious recordings and books instead.
For her part, the narrator – variously known by the nicknames ‘Little Mama’, ‘Pipsqueak’ and ‘Ruza’ (after Rosa Luxemburg) – is married off to an impotent friend of her brother, whose attempts to consummate the marriage take second place to the recitation of prayers and verses from the Qur’an. Subsequent chapters see her transformed into a mujahida, journeying to Sudan. Afghanistan and Iran, before returning to the family home where she is reunited with her brother ‘Abd al-Raqeeb on his return from Chechnya with a new wife, Valentina. The final chapters record her increasing despair, as attempts to find sexual fulfilment with, first, the elderly Sheikh Abu Surur, then with her neighbour Suhail, come to nothing, before – miraculously, and despite being still a virgin – she discovers she is pregnant. Her ravings in the final paragraph (‘I’m in a rubbish dunp . . . A hurma in a rubbish dump . . . A rubbish dump in a hurma . . . etc.’) suggest that, unsurprisingly, she has by now lost her mind.
The above few snippets can give little sense of either the complexity or the power of this novel, the anguish of which is (mercifully) mingled with a good deal of humour. Not all the narrative seems equally successful: the ‘domestic’ parts of the narrative, to my mind, have a more convincing ring to them than the wanderings of the heroine-as-mujahida, and the last few pages struck me as a little contrived. Not having seen the Arabic original, I cannot comment on the accuracy of the translation, but Aplin’s vigorous English gives it an almost ‘un-put-downable’ feel, and indeed it is short enough to be read at a single sitting. As a critique of sexual frustration, domestic violence, patriarchy and religious hypocrisy rolled into one, it can have few rivals: it will certainly win the author no friends in the religious or political establishment, but it is well worth the read.
Published in Banipal 54 - ECHOES