Love, racism and overblown imagery in Saudi Arabia

BEIRUT: The archetypal romantic tragedy, William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” lends itself well to contemporary adaptation.

From the 1950s Broadway musical “West Side Story,” whose feuding Montague and Capulet families were reinvented as warring street gangs, to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film “Romeo + Juliet,” in which the star-crossed lovers belonged to rival business empires, the 400-year-old tale has undergone countless updates to retain its effectiveness as a vehicle of social critique.

In many cases, stories of doomed love that share few other characteristics with Shakespeare’s play are likened to it simply by virtue of containing “star-crossed lovers.” The latest of these is Saudi author Laila Aljohani’s novel “Days of Ignorance.”

The first of her books to be released in an English translation, the short work is translated by Nancy Roberts and published by Bloomsbury Qatar, which likens the novel to Romeo and Juliet in post-Desert Storm Saudi Arabia.

Originally published in Arabic in 2007 under the title “Jahiliyya,” a term used for pre-Islamic Arabia, the novel is ostensibly a tale of forbidden love between a “white” Arab woman, as Aljohani puts it, and a black man.

Over this skeletal plot, which never develops far beyond padding out the small cast of characters, Aljohani layers a heavy-handed critique of Saudi society, which she paints as riddled with racism, repression, hypocrisy and corruption.

The opening chapter begins with the brutal beating of Malek by a morally bankrupt and disaffected young Saudi man named Hashem. Unsure whether his victim is alive or dead, Hashem is filled with futile remorse in the wake of the incident, prompting him to reflect on his reasons for the attack.

Following Hashem’s twisted logic is an unpleasant experience. His anger toward Malek, whom he brands to be “worse than an animal,” is fueled partly by racism and partly by jealousy of his self-contained older sister, Leen.

Malek, whom he suspects of bedding Leen, was born and raised in Saudi Arabia to Sudanese parents but never naturalized.

Ten years Leen’s junior and the apple of his mother’s eye, Hashem is spoiled, lazy and incapable of finding joy in anything, even the women he picks up and discards. One of these is a 15-year-old prostitute. Another is a virgin whom he unceremoniously ejects from his car after she capitulates too easily to his advances.

The remainder of the novel reveals the perspective of Leen, who refuses to leave her seat beside Malek’s hospital bed despite the potential scandal her attention to a black man might cause her family.

Developing her plot backward, taking readers into the past to discover the complexities of a socially unacceptable love, Aljohani weaves a tangled web of conflicting loyalties around her central characters.

Malek and Leen are more nuanced than the villainous Hashem. Aljohani paints a picture of an ambitious young man whose dreams are thwarted at every turn by his skin color and an independent woman who defies social expectations by remaining single into her late 20s, busying herself with her work at a Social Welfare Home for runaway girls.

Rendering this simple framework slightly more complex is the addition of seemingly distantly related paragraphs referring to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and passages referencing the treatment of black slaves, taken from early Arab histories by authors such as Ibn Kathir and Ibn Hisham.

The author leaves readers to forge their own connections with the Anglo-U.S. invasion of Iraq, under the pretext of securing nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, and Hashem’s violence, ostensibly prompted by the violation of his sister’s honor, an event for which he can find no proof.

By including passages from 13th- and 14th-century texts, she likewise highlights attitudes to Africans living in the Arab world more than a millennium ago, pinpointing the ancient roots of prejudices still deeply ingrained in contemporary Saudi society.

These links between past and present add some much-needed complexity to the book, but fail to compensate for the novel’s weak points. The flashbacks that form the bulk of the text fail to move the plot forward, reading like context for a story that never unfolds.

The writing itself is also problematic. Aljohani has won several awards for her novels in her native Saudi Arabia and occasional spurts of evocative, effective imagery hint at the talent English-language readers may have been anticipating, but clunky similes, labored metaphors and overwrought, teenage-sounding descriptive passages detract from the overall experience.

It’s hard to say whether this is the fault of the author, or the translator – who has also received several awards for her previous work.

“She’d loved a human being,” reads one particularly cheesy passage. “She’d loved a heart of gold. She hadn’t looked at his color. But her brother had looked at nothing but his color, and then he’d punished her for it.”

An odd system of emphasizing certain words by elongating them on the page adds to the novel’s teenage feel. Dwelling on her fondness for a scar on Malek’s chin, the 29-year-old Leen reflects that “it was so-o-o-o-o-o deep, she could have stretched out and fallen fast asleep inside it.”

Overall, “Days of Ignorance” is a scathing attack on Saudi values and social mores, but the plot is too flimsy to hold it together. While bravery may be one of Aljohani’s strengths as an author, subtlety isn’t. “Days of Ignorance” lacks the nuance of Yemeni author Wajdi al-Ahdal’s 2008 novella “A Land without Jasmine,” which tackles similar themes.

Aljohani waxes most lyrical when writing about the country’s problems.

“Her relationship with Malek would expose the imperfection of life beneath her country’s sky,” Leen reflects. “It would tear the lustrous, silken fabric in which this putrid life has enrobed itself. And no one would forgive her.”

Laila Aljohani’s “Days of Ignorance,” translated by Nancy Roberts, is published by Bloomsbury Qatar and available from selected local bookstores.





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