Shumaisi, by Turki al-Hamad, trans. Paul Starkey

Sex and subversion in Saudi Arabia
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The second volume in Turki al-Hamad's coming-of-age trilogy set in Saudi Arabia between 1967 and 1974, Shumaisi affords us a rare glimpse of a closed society. The loveably fallible Hisham leaves behind the childhood friends, first love and nascent political enthusiasms of his home for university and the sensual distractions of Riyadh.

The second volume in Turki al-Hamad's coming-of-age trilogy set in Saudi Arabia between 1967 and 1974, Shumaisi affords us a rare glimpse of a closed society. The loveably fallible Hisham leaves behind the childhood friends, first love and nascent political enthusiasms of his home for university and the sensual distractions of Riyadh.

Many aspects of Hisham's initiation into student life are common to British undergraduates: he has his first sexual experiences, gets drunk, skips class and misses deadlines. Unlike their Western counterparts, Hisham and his friends must find ingenious ways to subvert the puritanical morality and repressive regime that govern their lives.

In a society where sexual segregation is absolute, Hisham wrings sensual potential out of almost every glimpse of the shrouded female form. The veil does not shield women from sexual scrutiny; it incites it. Hisham is alert to swaying bottoms and veils "so fine they hid nothing". Every feminine gesture contains sexual promise. Yet his fumbled assignations culminate in overwhelming guilt rather than erotic fulfilment. He is haunted by the disturbing vision of his mother's face framed by his lover's "dark triangle".

Despite the political absolutism of Saudi society, Hisham is hungry for intellectual stimulation. He plasters his walls with posters of Marx and Che, "but the most striking pictures in the room were those of Abu Ali, the name he had given Adolf Hitler." Given the fascism inherent in the Ba'athism that attracts him, Hisham's admiration for Hitler is unsurprising, if chilling. The most engrossing aspect of the novel is its insight into the clandestine intellectual debates between Nasserites, Ba'athists, Marxists and Islamic fundamentalists in the wake of humiliating defeat by Israel.

Al-Hamad has an anthropologist's appetite for quotidian detail, and his novels are rich with the minutiae of daily life. The etiquette that govern meals, tea drinking and impromptu naps (the most important male must instigate the snooze) are enumerated in absorbing detail. This insistence on cataloguing the ordinary is coupled with an unflinching earthiness, often to great comic effect.

The degree to which Al-Hamad's affectless prose is a literary device or the result of translation is not clear. Both Paul Starkey's translation of Shumaisi and Robin Bray's of its predecessor Adama employ a numb, flat prose style, so it's likely that if emotional resonance is lost this is a problem of cultural, rather than literal, translation.

The stark literalism and repetitive circumlocutions mimic and evoke the crushing aridity of Saudi life . In both form and content, Shumaisi articulates the bathos and tragedy of the individual's struggle against an absolutist system.

Comments