Zuzana Kratka reviews


Wolves of the Crescent Moon

by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed

translated by Anthony Calderbank

AUC Press, 2007, ISBN: 978-977-416-049-3

Penguin USA, December 2007, ISBN 978-0-14-311321-8,

180pp, pbk, US$14, CAN$16.50

Three young men take on the wolves

It always feels very refreshing to discover new writing on the Arab literary scene and especially coming from a country with a long tradition of censorship and social taboos. This is why I was delighted to read Wolves of the Crescent Moon – a novella by Saudi writer and photographer Yousef Al-Mohaimeed.

In his novella, Al-Mohaimeed manages to raise a number of the most serious issues in the contemporary Saudi society, ranging from slavery and human rights to the omnipresence of tribalism in civil society, arranged marriages and social conditions of orphans, to name but a few. What is even more exciting about Al-Mohaimeed’s work is that such taboos are not treated as the series of stereotypical images that we are used to seeing in commercial Arab novels, such as Girls of Riyadh that make us believe that the only heroes a Saudi novel can ever produce is a young Saudi woman falling in love with a foreign or non-tribal man and being persecuted by her family. You will be pleasantly surprised to discover that Wolves of the Crescent Moon focuses on profound problems that touch the whole of Saudi society, and is written in a language and style that makes such problems comprehensible to a non-Arab reader. Not only does Al-Mohaimeed manage to raise awareness and open discussion on, until recently, untouchable subjects, but by his outspokenness he also reaches a large number of readers, Saudi or other, on a personal and human level by depicting the harsh reality of peoples living on the fringes of the Saudi society.

Making use of a variety of styles ranging from story-telling, transcripts from official documents, memoirs and fantasy, the novella has been remarkably structured, cleverly linking together the life stories of its three protagonists at the end of the narrative. The novel is set in mid- to late sixties – the only time indication being reference to the Saudi’s abolition of slavery in 1962. It treats the hardship stories of three young men, one-eared Bedouin Turad, the Sudanese made a eunuch and sold into slavery, who finds himself on the streets without any; and finally the orphaned and one-eyed Nasir, whose life in a country ruled by tribal tradition seems worthless in the absence of his own family lineage. The narrative is enriched by vivid descriptions of people, places, landscapes and emotions which are detailed to such degree that readers can not only visualise the settings of each story, but they can also experience the frustrations and fears of its protagonists. Amongst the most dramatic is the part where Turad recalls the circumstances in which he lost his ear, being tortured by tribal men en route to Mecca after he and his companion attempted to steal a couple of camels from their caravan. Abandoned in the Nafud desert, their bodies buried in the sand up to their necks, they had no choice but to await the feared arrival of the wolves taking them as prey.

Yousef Al-Mohaimeed has contributed to the modern Saudi fiction in an outstanding way – facing censorship, he has not been afraid of publishing short stories and novels that address controversial issues in Gulf societies, while the novel is banned in his own country. Wolves of the Crescent Moon was originally published in Arabic in 2003 by Riad El-Rayyes in Beirut as [Traps of Scent] and in 2004 two chapters were translated by Anthony Calderbank and published in English in Banipal 20.

In 2007 the novel was published in its entirety in English by AUC Press. Anthony Calderbank lives in Saudi Arabia and has translated several fiction titles from Arabic into English. Most recently he has translated Naguib Mahfouz’s Rhadopis of Nubia, which together with Khufu's Wisdom (tr Raymond Stock) and Thebes at War (tr Humphrey Davies) make up Mahfouz’s early trilogy, now published in one volume as Three Novels of Ancient Egypt (Everyman’s Library, 2007).

From Banipal 31 - Spring 2008

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