Monday, December 13, 2010

"We are both lost in this strange and unfamiliar city."

In the desert you can see your enemy in front of you, he thought, and you can take him on in a fair contest. But the curse of the city, which is no different from Hell, is that you struggle against unknown enemies, enemies you can't see with your naked eye. Can we struggle against the firewood of Hell that devours us whether we are decent or wicked? I don't think so.


Yousef Al-Mohaimeed was born in Riyadh in 1964 and recognized in 2004 by the Egyptian Journalists Union and Diwan al Arab magazine for his contributions to Arabic literature. 2003's Fikhakh al-ra'iha (Wolves of the Crescent Moon), translated by Anthony Calderbank, is his first book to be published abroad.

Turad, a former Bedouin highwayman, is sitting in a bus terminal in an unnamed city, presumably Riyadh. Marred by a missing ear, he has spent the past several years drifting aimlessly from one menial job to another, often losing out to the cheaper labor of foreign migrants. Then another traveler hands him a file folder, believing it to be his. It contains documentation - investigative reports, diary entries, snapshots - pertaining to an orphaned boy, designated Nasir Abdulilah Hasan Abdullah, found as an infant two decades prior in a banana crate left near a mosque. His left eye was missing, likely torn out by a stray cat. Inspired, Turad will spend the next several hours reflecting on the intersecting lives of Nasir, a eunuch ex-slave named Tawfiq, and himself, as wandering outcasts caught up in the clash of tradition and modernity.

Al-Mohaimeed's sparse prose brings to mind the empty, harsh beauty of the desert recalled so fondly by Turad. Combined with the constant rotating motion of the narrative (from past to present, imagination to reality, first to third person) and the motif of mutilation, the result is an unsettling, dreamlike aura only accentuated by the book's short length (165 pages). But despite the tempting binary of romantic wilderness vs. soulless civilization, the single biggest driving force behind all their lives has been that of religion. Turad's invented story of Nasir's parents reveals a familiarity with the price of disobedience in their still-conservative society. Faith has also been used to justify (in many cultures) slavery and its accompanying abuses, and it was the retribution of a wealthy emir making the hajj that led to Turad's downfall. In fact, the title Wolves of the Crescent Moon refers to both the wolves that tore Turad's ear off and Islam itself (the crescent). At the very core of book, then, is that eternal, universal issue of people hiding behind God.

Although it seems simple enough on the surface, Wolves of the Crescent Moon is a complex, provocative look at how individuals navigate a culture in flux, where reality falls increasingly short of timeworn ideals (if they ever met in the first place). It is the common story of our time, as globalization and rapid change bring opportunities to some, tragedy to others, and disorientation to many.

2 comments:

Emily said...

This sounds very compelling! I love (no surprise) the idea of permeable boundaries between imagination and reality, and it sounds like Al-Mohaimeed develops that idea in a really interesting way.

E. L. Fay said...

Compelling and very quick. A great book for someone interested in translated fiction but not prepared for a big commitment.

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