We are used to having courtly love held up to us as the highest, purest form of that emotion. The knight loves the lady from afar, declares himself her servant, proves his worth through deeds of valour, all in exchange for perhaps not so much as a kiss.
Would we expect a love affair to follow this pattern, today? We would in Saudi Arabia – a country that regularly attracts the description "medieval" for factors other than its courtship rituals. In April this year Human Rights Watch condemned the country for the limits it places on women's rights, treating adult women, whether married or not, as "legal minors".
Things were no better in the 1980s, when Sulaiman Addonia arrived in Jeddah, a young refugee from Eritrea. Now living in Britain, Addonia has returned to that time and place for this debut novel, which is as close to a description of courtly love as one could expect to read in this day and age.
The twist is that it is the lady, not the knight, who is the leader-on. Naser, aged 20, is sitting quietly under a palm tree, when a woman, dressed in full burka, rushes past him and drops a piece of paper into his lap.
It is a love note. Fiore – as Naser christens her, meaning "Flower" – has fallen in love with him without him ever noticing her. They organise a spot where she will drop notes for him; for her to be seen bending down in the street to pick one up would be too dangerous. As it is, they risk a public lashing if discovered. Stoning to death (her) and beheading (him) would be more likely if either of them were married.
Of course, these risks and constraints only heighten the passion of the affair. Fiore wears pink shoes so he will recognise her; they walk along a street "side by side" on opposite pavements; in a shop she lifts the hem of her abaya to show Naser her ankle. "For the first time, I saw an inch of skin, her skin. I closed my eyes and gulped."
It is Fiore who takes things further. She works out how Naser can write to her, and even how to get him into her room (by wearing the burka himself – how is anyone to know he's not a woman?). Addonia paints her as the very portrait of a passionate, intelligent young woman for whom all avenues to life have been barred but love. "I feel iron bars forming around me," she writes to him, "trapping my soul and my heart in the prison of the past."
As a love story, The Consequences of Love is a tremendous, tremulous success. Its only fault is that, though it gives a credible picture of life under the oppressive Saudi regime, it leaves you misty-eyed, rather than angry. It's as if Addonia loves the love born of misery more than he hates the misery that gave it birth.Reuse content