BEIRUT: The power of a fairy tale lies not only in its magic, but in its moral. Controversial Yemeni author Wajdi al-Ahdal’s latest novel is a critique of Yemeni society, hidden in a modern day fairy tale every bit as bleak as the Brothers Grimm.
The events of the Arab Spring have caused a sudden surge of interest in works of Middle Eastern art and literature among an English-speaking audience in recent months. As a result, a number of Arabic-language works of fiction are being translated into English for the first time, targeting readers seeking to better understand the current situation in the region.
Ahdal’s “A Land without Jasmine” (originally published under the title “A Land without Sky”) is the latest in this number. Originally published in Arabic in 2008, Ahdal’s 82-page novella tackles sexual politics, blackmail and revenge in Yemen, recounting the tale of Jasmine – an exceptionally beautiful university student – who mysteriously disappears one morning.
The author’s previous work caused considerable controversy in his homeland, particularly his first novel “Mountains Boats,” published in 2002, in which the novelist was accused of using Quranic language to describe sexual scenes. The book was banned in Yemen and Ahdal was forced into exile, only permitted to return in 2010.
In spite of this, Ahdal refuses to play it safe. “A Land without Jasmine” is littered with sexual references – though a brief translator’s note states that three sexually explicit passages deleted from the version published in Arabic have been added to the English text.
Told in six chapters, each narrated by a different character, the book explores the relationship between men and women in modern-day Sanaa, through the eyes of both male and female protagonists. A touch of surrealism helps to veil the more controversial themes of the book in allusion, though Ahdal’s blistering social critique is still evident throughout.
The first chapter is narrated by Jasmine herself, who describes the disgust and persecution she feels as the result of the persistent, invasive stares of the men in her life – from the shopkeeper across the street, to the bus driver who caresses her wrist when she pays the fare, to Ali – the boy next door – who follows her to university each morning, eyes glued to her rear.
The serious subject matter is alleviated by Ahdal’s engaging first-person voices and black humor. “In Yemen, all young women are considered celebrities!” Jasmine explains. “When a girl leaves her home and ventures onto the street she’ll notice that everyone is staring at her.”
She recounts a story her grandfather used to tell her about staring down a leopard until it ran away. Jasmine says that as leopards are extinct in Yemen all she has learned from the tale is that even leopards lose courage when stared at. “If a leopard can’t think straight when only one person stares at him, what about my state of mind when dozens of men are staring at me simultaneously?” she demands.
After the first chapter Jasmine disappears. The remainder of the book is recounted by those left behind – the two policemen assigned to search for her, two male figures who have watched her from afar, and finally her mother.
Title aside, the work has several notable parallels with Iranian novelist Shahrnush Parsipur’s controversial novel “Women Without Men,” which came out in 1989 and was quickly banned by the Iranian government, earning the author more than one stint in jail.
Like Parsipur’s work, Ahdal’s tale deals with sexual politics in styles ranging from the realist, to the fabulist, to the outright surreal. Firmly rooted in the cultures they discuss, the two novellas each make reference to the more mystical aspects of Islam. Parsipur’s tale incorporates elements of Sufism, while Ahdal hints at the presence of djinn – invisible spirits – among the people of Sanaa. These additions bring both works somewhere close to the territory of magical realism.
Parsipur’s tale likewise tackles the role of women in a patriarchal society, and is narrated by five characters, all women from different social classes. One character in particular closely resembles Ahdal’s Jasmine – Parsipur’s Munis, a virgin so terrified of sex and desperate to remain “pure” that she transforms herself into a tree, removing herself from the world of men altogether.
Jasmine experiences the same fear of anything relating to her own sexuality, revealing, “When I was seven I thought of killing myself by plunging the kitchen knife into my belly. Then I could die an innocent child without sin and enter paradise immediately ... I considered sex so vile that it should be forbidden, even to spouses.”
Though Ahdal never states so explicitly, the reader is given the impression that, like Parsipur’s Munis, it is Jasmine’s reluctance to enter this adult world of sex and sin which causes her to vanish. Her disappearance appears to be a deliberate choice to remove herself from a society she feels repressed and threatened by, rather than an act of abduction by a third party.
Ahdal’s tale is saved from becoming a reductionist social critique by its nuanced male narrators.
Though he makes her uncomfortable by lusting after her in the street, Ali turns out to genuinely care for Jasmine – and suffers terrible consequences for his loyalty. Likewise, the eccentric snack vendor at Jasmine’s university admits to watching her constantly, but his interest appears more protective than predatory.
It is never quite clear what has become of the beautiful Jasmine, though an opening quote from “The Bhagavad Gita” – a philosophical dialogue between Arjun and the god Krishna which appears in the ancient Indian epic “The Mahabharata” – suggests that the virtuous girl may have escaped to a happier place.
“To you who are without flaw I will explain this as well,” this opening quote runs. “That it is the most secret wisdom and the supreme form of knowledge that allows you to attain ultimate perfection.”
Wajdi al-Ahdal’s “A Land without Jasmine,” translated by William Maynard Hutchins, is published by Garnet Publishing and is available from Librairie Antoine.