Fadia Faqir: My Name is Salma (US: The Cry of the Dove)
Faqir’s third novel covers the same territory as her previous one, namely a certain fascination with her home country, Jordan, while decrying its often vicious sexism. Salma is a Jordanian woman who is now living in England. The title comes from the fact that the English have a temptation to call her Sally or Sal, neither of which she likes, particularly as Sal reminds her of a male name in her country. We do not learn as much of her early life, as we do of Maha’s in Pillars of Salt. However, like Maha, she is a free-spirited young Bedouin woman and, like Maha, has a relationship with a young man before marriage. Unlike Maha, however, she has sex with the young man and gets pregnant. This is a death sentence in her part of the world. When she tells her sympathetic former teacher about it, the teacher rushes her off to the police, so that they can put her in prison and give her protective custody. Her brother and father are determined to kill her for bringing dishonour to them and her lover, when he finds out about her pregnancy, blames her for seducing him and bringing him dishonour and almost kills her himself.
Faqir tells the story of her life in Jordan, her life in prison, how she escaped and her life in England together, jumping from one to the other every page and often every paragraph, as we only gradually learn her story. In prison, though not in a custodial sentence, she works, sewing and cleaning and befriending other women who are victims of male society, such as her best friend Noura, who became a prostitute when thrown out by her husband and an older woman who had had five children and lost her charms, so her husband took a second wife. She proceeded to strip naked and walk out into the street, where she was arrested for lewd behaviour. But Salma comes to the attention of a religious group, that has helped other women in the same situation, and she is spirited out of the prison late at night (so her father and brother won’t see) and taken to a convent in Lebanon. However, when the nuns get word that the brother has found out and is hunting her down, she is taken to England as a refugee. In England and, indeed on the way, there is an attempt to make her Christian but she resists. (She is baffled when the immigration officer keeps asking her for her Christian name.)
But life is not easy for her in England. She is held in prison for two months on arrival. She stays a while with a Christian vicar, who is very kind to her, and then, at his suggestion, goes to Exeter. She struggles with the weather, the culture, the racism and sexism and the bureaucracy. She does make a friend, a young woman born in England but of Pakistani origin who had fled her family home when her father tried to push her into an arranged marriage she did not want. We learn how she finds a job as a seamstress (and also a part-time job in a bar), how she learns English and even goes to the Open University, with which she struggles. She also struggles with men. And, of course, she struggles with the language, trying to learn Elizabethan English, not the language of Queen Elizabeth I or Queen Elizabeth II but the language of Liz, her landlady. Liz had been in India and, in her mind, was still living there but was now living in Exeter and slowly going insane, with Salma struggling to look after her.
While she gradually comes to terms – more or less – with England and establishes some sort of life there, she still thinks of her home and, in particular, of the daughter who was taken away from her at birth. She had named her Layla and imagines her growing up, often telling people, such as her university tutor, that Layla is with her and about to go to university. But she has no idea where Layla is and though she frequently writes to her in her head, the only way to find her, to see if she is still alive and is well, is to go back to Jordan. As in her previous novel, Faqir does a wonderful job of both telling a first-class story and of decrying the sexism of the Bedouin Arab. While England may not, indeed is not a paradise, it certainly is a lot better for a woman than Jordan.
First published by Transworld in 2007