A Week in Books: Frank fiction of Saudi life

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The Independent Culture

There's one oil-drenched Middle Eastern despotism that has nothing to fear from the US Marines. On the contrary: the American authorities have just promised this grisly regime not to insert but to withdraw their forces. After all, those tanks now have other parking-lots. So the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is rewarded by the single act that might rescue it from Islamist militancy. Meanwhile, this pivotal ally raises not the faintest blip on the West's cultural radar.

A while ago, I commended Bandula Chandraratna's efforts to breach this Saudi silence in his novels Mirage and An Eye for an Eye. Those touching books stemmed from a British author's five years of watchful expatriate toil. At the time, I wondered how long it would take before any comparably frank fiction of Saudi life reached us from within the kingdom itself. The wait is now over. In 1998, the Saudi academic Turki al-Hamad published Adama, the first of a trilogy of novels. Adama was banned in several countries (Saudi Arabia among them) but quickly became an Arab bestseller. Turki al-Hamad attracted no fewer than four clerical fatwas. Yet he still lives in Riyadh, where he speaks out in favour of reform. Adama has now appeared from Saqi Books – that precious window on the Arab world – in Robin Bray's fluent and attractive translation (£9.99).

We've heard much of late about the murky passions of the "Arab mind" or "Arab street". Much of this pontification strikes me as sub-anthropological moonshine. Confirming that suspicion can be hard for a non-specialist, but Adama – like any effective fiction – looks like a fine place to start. Al-Hamad has written a charming and involving Bildungsroman about a middle-class idealist in the Saudi Arabia of the late Sixties: a bright teenager torn between political activism in the wake of "the Setback" (the Israeli victory of 1967) and the simple joys of friends and family.

Our bookworm hero, Hisham, stuffs his impressionable head with a romantic cocktail of neo-Marxist theory, existentialist tracts and classic 19th-century novels (he adores A Tale of Two Cities). Yet he also loves Superman comics, flirting with his pretty neighbour Noura, and high-spirited jaunts with his mates. At school in Dammam, Hisham is drawn – against his own trusting nature – into the clandestine meetings of the outlawed pan-Arab Ba'ath party. (Even at this period, its ideologists seem to treat the movement's Iraqi branch as a gangster-led deviation.)

Although "an Arab nationalist to the core", Hisham rapidly loses faith in the rigid and frigid Ba'ath underworld. Their "bond between comrades" offers merely "a cold dry relationship". A cross-desert family jaunt, or a night on the dunes, satisfy non-political needs. And so does his longing for Noura, although innocent Hisham flees when he later comes across the brazen good-time girls of Riyadh, their tarty scanties hidden under regulation robes. In the big city, "everything was forbidden, and everything permitted".

In its coming-of-age narrative, always humane and often humorous, Adama has much to say about the foibles of the adolescent mind. As for the "Arab mind" – well, Hisham's pan-Arab patriotism fades into the sort of flag-saluting reflex you might find in a novel about US high-school kids. Crucially, however, Adama deals only with secular idealism. One character laughs off the Muslim Brotherhood – the root-stock of popular Islamism – as "whirling dervishes". Hisham remains a child of 1968. It will be fascinating to see how, in the rest of his trilogy, al-Hamad marks the Middle Eastern rebel's slide from Marx to mosque.