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The consequences of love, By Sulaiman Addonia

A fundamental truth: desire will out, even in the most inhumane of nations

Sulaiman Addonia's first novel is a spirited and politically provocative romance set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1989. Nasser, a young Eritrean refugee, is lonely and at a loose end. His uncle and brother have moved to Riyadh and his friends have gone on holiday. Religious police patrol the eerily silent streets in jeeps, watching for any hint of impropriety through shaded windows.

Nasser whiles away the hours under a palm tree in the shimmering July heat, his head clouded by memories of his lost mother and fantasies of Egyptian film stars, of love and tenderness. The dystopian realities of the fundamentalist Wahhabi regime dictate that the only women he sees are ghostly shrouded figures, their black abayas contrasting with the gleaming white thobes of Saudi men. This monochrome monotony is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious figure in pink shoes who drops a love note at his feet.

Nasser's absolute devotion to this unknown woman is redolent of both Middle Eastern and European medieval romances, although unlike Dante and his Beatrice, Qays and his Leila, he is denied even a glimpse of the beloved's face. Nasser is more like a modern Aladdin, deploying boyish ingenuity and courage in an adventurous bid to consummate his love and avoid terrible punishment. He poses as a convert to fundamentalism and outwits a religious policeman intent on raping him in order to exchange notes with his lover.

Jeddah is city of startling contrasts; an opulent air-conditioned shopping mall overlooks Punishment Square, where those who break Sharia law are beheaded. Islamic fundamentalism is dominant, yet boys sniff glue and sell themselves in darkened parks. Men, as well as women, are the victims of Saudi sexual repression and double standards. Given the absolute seclusion of women, male rape is widespread and pretty foreign boys like Nasser an easy target. All immigrants must have a Saudi sponsor, a kafeel, who has the power to have them deported. As a teenager, Nasser was raped by his kafeel, and later forced to prostitute himself.

Addonia offers an outsider's view of Saudi Arabia. Unlike Rajaa Alsanea's ebullient designer-clad Girls of Riyadh, who swap gossip and flirt by email, he provides a glimpse of a much less privileged milieu. This coming-of-age novel lacks the intellectual gravitas of Turki Al-Hamad's Adama, yet The Consequences of Love is a dark and evocative testament to desire in an inhumane state.

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