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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 February 2019

Exploring the cracks of Saudi’s repressive society

A novel about a Saudi Arabian artist in exile in England is as fractured as its protagonist.
A couple on the Corniche in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Kami / arabianEye / Corbis
A couple on the Corniche in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Kami / arabianEye / Corbis

The Saudi writer and journalist Yousef Al-Mohaimeed is no stranger to controversy. Despite the keen censorship of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Mohaimeed writes novels that explore the forbidden aspects of life in contemporary Saudi Arabia in an honest and clear-sighted manner.

His 2003 novel Wolves of the Crescent Moon was banned in his home country, but thereafter translated into English and published in the US. His latest novel, Where Pigeons Don’t Fly, fared more successfully on his home soil, winning the Abu al-Qasim Ashabbi for Arabic novel prize in 2011, and it’s now been translated into English.

Where Pigeons Don’t Fly is Fahd’s story – a young Saudi exile, an artist in his home country, now living in London and working in a print shop. When we first meet him at the beginning of the novel, he’s on his way to the seaside resort of Great Yarmouth for a couple of days holiday from his life in the city.

Sat on the train as the English countryside flashes past outside the window, he sees nothing but desert, his mind wandering back to the life he left behind him and the events that led to his exodus. Overwhelmed by emotion, he begins to cry, and concerned for this young man’s well-being, the elderly lady sat opposite him reaches out her hand to clasp his arm in comforting contact.

It’s a moment that brings into focus both what Fahd has lost – his mother and father, or any friendly family member to console him in his hour of need – but it also sits in stark contrast to the taboos of his homeland. For as we soon learn, the straw that broke the camel’s back was being caught illegally associating with his girlfriend Tarfah in ­public.

That a moment of such genuine innocence – a conversation over coffee together in the “family” section of Starbucks – could signal such a momentous calamity, so too Fahd himself is “transformed in an instant from confident and collected to flustered, uncertain and defeated”.

Mohaimeed isn’t in the business of making his readers scrabble around for the kernel of the story. As befits an author who’s upfront about his attempts to subvert the conservative norms that hold sway in the society he’s writing about, he immediately makes it crystal clear to the reader that Fahd is a man subjugated and made small by these constraints. The rest of the book is just a clearer elucidation of exactly what he’s had to suffer – from the small incursions on his freedom, such as his uncle banning him and his sister from playing Monopoly, “a snare of Satan and a distraction from true worship”, to the more heinous incident in which his cancer-­ridden mother is flogged to death by an Egyptian healer apparently expelling an evil djinn from her body.

The ominously black-bearded officers of the Mutaween aren’t the only ones to fear though. This invasive curtailment of people’s lives breeds a sense of anger-fuelled rage and revenge; Fahd, for example, is never quite sure whether the ex-lover he spurned – a married mother of six, considerably older than him who nevertheless pursued him relentlessly – is responsible for alerting the authorities to his and Tarfah’s wrongdoing.

Mohaimeed’s mission to expose the prohibitive conditions under which young people are forced to try to lead their lives is undoubtedly the driving force within the text. So much so that sometimes I felt as if I was reading something more akin to a study of social history than a piece of narrative fiction.

The novel, however, doesn’t conform to a strict realist structure; instead the plot is fractured and fragmentary, slipping between the points of view of different characters and different periods – a structural device that mimics the fault lines, chips and cracks the author identifies in the very society he’s describing: one that is “unsmiling and tragic on the outside, but playful and cynical from within”. Nevertheless it remains easy to follow the overall arc of the narrative and its ­chronology.

The overall message is rather bleak – “Life here was unbearable,” Fahd’s friend Saeed admits. “Nothing had changed for a hundred years. Life spun in place” – but the very fact that the book has made it to publication suggests that things could perhaps be changing.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.

Updated: December 4, 2014 04:00 AM

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