x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The loves of others

Books Kaelen Wilson- Goldie reviews Arabic fiction's latest succès de scandale.

Two Saudi women wade into the waters of the Red Sea near Jeddah.
Two Saudi women wade into the waters of the Red Sea near Jeddah.

Kaelen Wilson- Goldie reviews Arabic fiction's latest succès de scandale. The Others Siba al Harez Telegram Books Dh68 "What is so frightening, from the start, about our being different?" asks the unnamed narrator of Siba al Harez's debut novel, The Others. "Is it because we form a storm of question marks, moving fiercely through an undistinguished and previously unnoticed space in this nation, that never before experienced the essence or function of questioning, or of being in a state of difference? Is it because we release an intensity of presence that remains unacknowledged on the map of the world, or between the thighs of a recognised tribe?"

According to her publishers, Siba al Harez is the pseudonym of a 26-year-old woman from Al Qatif in Saudi Arabia. The Others was originally published in Arabic in 2006 and - thanks in part to its transgressive subject matter, including lesbian relationships and sadistic behaviour - quickly rode waves of controversy onto the bestseller lists. The English translation, published this month by Telegram Books in London, comes after a spate of similarly explicit novels, from the first two instalments of Turki al Hamad's coming-of-age trilogy (also set in Saudi Arabia) to Nedjma's The Almond: The Sexual Awakening of a Muslim Woman (another pseudonymous effort by a writer living in the Maghreb) and Rajaa Alsanea's Girls of Riyadh. But while some of those books suffer self-congratulatory prurience or simply bad writing, The Others signals the arrival of a serious prose stylist.

The otherness announced in the novel's name, and the difference about which the narrator speaks, has little to do with sexual orientation. The real condition of otherness and difference at stake is religious. Like the author, the narrator comes from Al Qatif, a coastal oasis in Saudi Arabia's predominantly Shiite Eastern Province. In 1979, a violent rebellion broke out there, inspired in part by the revolution in Iran. Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets, and the ensuing confrontation with the security services left close to 20 demonstrators dead, many of them young activists who had been demanding an end to their political and economic marginalisation.

The conflict in Al Qatif cuts across The Others like a scar. Among other things, it resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of the narrator's father, who had already been absent most of her life. She seeks refuge in the Hussainiyya, where she organises activities for Ramadan and Ashura. She writes for a religious magazine that is distributed in secret, her meetings with editors murmured, her articles coded on compact discs.

Siba al Harez writes of the body, and its architecture of desire, in a manner that recalls the work of the American novelist Nicole Krauss. The Others opens in the narrator's voice: "And so there was a long line of them, and I admitted them all. I let them come in through my front door. It was the front door of me, and I, for my part, was about to become something new: an occasion for entertainment, a spectacle." What follows is a vivid account of the narrator's affair with her classmate Dai, beautiful, cryptic, violent.

But the relationship cracks under the weight of jealousy, betrayal and the narrator's inexperience, combined with her mounting curiosity about other women, and men. Turning her back on Dai, she moves on to Dareen, and Rayyan, a young man with whom she pursues a virtual, online-only affair, and Umar, who provides the novel's unexpectedly conventional endpoint. In between these dalliances, the narrator peels back the many layers of her otherness: her identity, her age (those toxic teenage years), her illness (epilepsy, which drastically reduces her prospects for marriage and employment), the absence of her father, the mysterious death of her brother, the things mark her as a maskh, "this freak, this deformed creature, this monster".

In Harez's rumination on the theme, otherness runs deeper than membership of a social or political minority. It is the experience of being alienated from another, even from the intimacy of one's partner, to the extent that one becomes a stranger to oneself. The Others will inevitably be packaged and sold as a novel about sex, particularly in the West. But it should be read as more than that, for it is at its most radical not when the plot dives under the sheets but rather when the author calls attention to the delineation of difference, in the physical body, but moreover, in the body politic.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer at The Review.