Mona Zaki reviews


Yawm al-Din (Judgment Day)

by Rasha al-Ameer

Dar al-Jadeed, Beirut, 2002. 2 vols. 237pp, 255pp.

ISBN 9953-11-006-9

The Mullah’s Testimony of Love

Classical in its language, Yawm al-Din reads as a testimonial dedicated to a beloved. The preface of this novel in two volumes by Rasha al-Ameer describes the love of a mullah for a woman as tantamount to a ‘hijrah’. The term is a reference to a Prophetic tradition depicting accountability as akin to going through a metaphorical migration, or hijrah, to either God and the Prophet or to (the pleasures( of this world and women. Each man (and woman) will be called to account for their decision; hence the title of Yawm al-Din or Judgment Day [lit. The Day of Accountability].

The preface indicates that in explaining the nature of his hijrah, the mullah finds himself describing the only woman he has loved. In other words, his private journal – a novel in two volumes – is part of an implicit dialogue between a couple; the testimony is his gift to her. With so much of her in the narrative, our mullah worries about its originality for, in his words, “who would bequeath a borrowed item?” The journal does not adhere to any linear sequence; written in hindsight; the hijrah unfolds like an act of fate. Two simultaneous worlds are described: the daily functions of a cleric with duties to his constituency and the private home of a single woman which he enters in his capacity as a teacher to decode the intricacies of al-Mutannabi’s verse. Her home would become his haven and from which he would take the first steps of his hijrah.

We can surmise that our mullah is Iranian and arrives in Lebanon sometime during the Iran-Iraq war in order to attend to a Shi’ite (and Persian) constituency. Assigned to a local mosque, the Masjid al-Ghuraba’, the specific duties he is remunerated for include the Friday sermon, counselling and teaching. In an attribute to his competency and the high regard of his religious mentor, he is chosen to play a more prominent public role as host of a religious broadcast. The media exposure attracts the expected attention imposing new challenges to his traditional clerical role such as coming up with unconventional topics – investigative TV journalism or phone-in shows – for otherwise staid religious programming. Being a foreign national and a recognizable public figure might have contributed to his tenuousness and the origin of his troubles is relatively unclear. Harassment begins with the threat of a takeover by local jihadist groups during a Friday sermon. Events speed to a dizzying end in the second volume, Hollywood style, in what would appear to be a sweeping occupation of mosques by extreme religious elements. In order to ensure the mullah’s safety a staged “abduction” is arranged by security forces whereby he leaves the country and joins his partner overseas.

If the plot line might appear somewhat unconvincing and weak with its dizzying drama, the details of our mullah’s daily life are not. We glimpse the attention and patience with which a cleric serves a community that turns to him for advice, assistance and direction. Our journal-writer is not without humour. Beneath the quiet and respectful demeanour is a man from whose keen eye nothing escapes and whom experience has taught to predict with precision the direction of any debate. Questions, for example, related to sexual and personal hygiene would be prefaced with “No shame should be attached to knowledge”, while his writing style reflects the rich tradition of medieval Islamic learning. All modern appliances such as computers, washing machines, a television’s remote control (it is set in the 1980s after all) are unfamiliar marvels for him. Rasha al-Ameer provides meticulous footnotes to all Qur’anic allusions (verses and terms) though one is not sure if the very long detailed explanations to Moslem prayer are at all necessary. It is plausible for a modern-day mullah to still compose a journal in the classical form (maybe more so if he be an Iranian writing in Arabic).

If love were in the eye of the beholder, the absence of any visual description of the woman that caused our mullah to undertake his hijrah is remarkable. Al-Mutannabi brought them together and stayed with them. At one point our journal-writer experiences a jealousy of sorts and reflects: “I am jealous of a dead man and yet I don’t know any man more alive than he.” So true.

Being a recluse and a foreign national, his female student was the only woman he has had an opportunity to know. She had a job, her own apartment and a wretchedly earnest commitment to studying al-Mutannabi. It took the course of any friendship: evening meals, watching the telly, discussing najor events and his new media experiences. Time – and only time – create the safe atmosphere (she gives him the key to her apartment should he need to wait for her till supper) where the sexual nature of their relationship begins to unfold. Here the most reserved of mullahs describes the beginning of an intimacy in Sufi terms: of sex as an inviolable station (maqam); of lust as complete devotion. Though many parts of the journal are written in hindsight, the parts depicting the erotic relationship are written with a directness as if it had just happened. (Qur’anic school rote learning is, without doubt, responsible for his memory!)

Unlike much erotic fiction where sexual scenes appear “pre-packaged” and inserted wholesale, our journal-writer learns to make love. As he overcomes his shy hesitancy and doubt, the passages get more explicit but without him losing his modesty. In fact, Rasha al-Ameer demonstrates how modesty and explicit sexual writing need not be a jarring contradiction after all. Candidly he admits to masturbating and to occasionally in the past visiting prostitutes; he wonders in bewilderment where on earth the devil* was during the times when they were certain to remain undisturbed. The erotic theme progresses gradually. Describing his intense pleasure of fellatio, he recalls (interestingly this is placed in a footnote) the time a man got up in a study session to ask the sheikh if it was “permissible for a wife to take the penis of her husband in her hand and mouth like a sandwich”. (The fatwa on oral sex is yes.)

Rasha al-Ameer breaks new ground in erotic Arabic writing by dismissing expected conventions in favour of a writing style that courageously reflects spontaneity, tenderness and longing. The private details of longing and lust are not easy to mock on account of their authenticity. The gender inversion in her work, where the narrative voice is that of a male, attests to her courage in portraying a member of the religious establishment. The difficult balancing act is to adhere to the authentic classical rhetorical style without it coming across as fake or overdone. That in itself reveals the ambitious task she had undertaken, in addition to that of breaking the taboo of the distance surrounding all religious personae. The work’s classical Arabic style casts a hypnotic spell that might be problematic and difficult to convey should the novel be translated.

In this “autobiography”, Rasha al-Ameer explores the plausibility of an autobiographical narrative devoid of all claims to glory and intended only for the eyes of the journal-writer. It is experimental; its insularity can frustrate the reader as much as the length of the work as well as the total disregard for plot. In the current political culture of the Middle East, the insularity al-Ameer depicts rings rather falsely. If a bomb explodes (in the narrative this was reported on an evening news), we all want like to know when, where and by whom. This insularity, when it comes to the Lebanese civil war or the Iran-Iraq war, disconnects us. It is almost impossible to live in such a bubble.

Rasha al-Ameer succeeds in reproducing the male narrative voice up to a point. Feminists have long argued against the disingenuous tone of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. So where on earth would one find a man – curious female readers may inquire – who thanks God every day of his life for our existence? What’s the secret of those two? What do they eat for breakfast?

Rasha al-Ameer has stuck to her guns, to her narrative and to her man. The narrative could have gone Pygmalion-like with a mullah reminding us of his intellectual dexterity or our lack; or it could have resonated all the medieval Arab admonitory arguments warning us of the dangers and afflictions of love. Instead, we have an exceptional account, in classical Arabic, of intimacy, falling in love and courage. We have to take her word for it.

* The Prophetic tradition that says no man and woman meet alone except with the devil being the third partner

Rasha al-Ameer
is a journalist, novelist, publisher, entrepreneur and cultural critic. With a first class honours MA in script-writing (Sorbonne, 1981) and M.Phil diploma in history and history of art (Sorbonne, 1983) she worked in the 1980s as a journalist for Al-Watan al-Arabi magazine, reporting on political and cultural issues.

In 1990 in Beirut, she founded, with Lokman Slim, the publishing house Dar al-Jadeed. Al-Ameer also created a “virtual intellectual bridge” between Iran and the Arab world by the translation into Arabic of Mohammad Khatami’s works and other contentious Iranian books.

Dar a-Jadeed has to date published 285 books. Al-Ameer’s own two-volume controversial novel Yawm al-Din, reviewed above, has now a second Lebanese edition and a first Egyptian edition. There is also a French edition Le Jour dernier – Confessions d'un Imam, published by Editions de l’Aube, 2009, and an English edition by AUC Press, 2011, translated by Jonathan Wright.

From Banipal 20 - Summer 2004

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