Abdulaziz Al-Farsi: تبكي الأرض– يضحك زحل (Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs)
Al-Farsi’s novel is set in a village in Oman. As Walad Sulaymi, one of the few relatively sensible people in the village, says O God! You’ve given this village the best of the natural world, but deprived it of the best of people. This novel takes the people of the village and mocks them gently but not really letting up. Each chapter is told by one of the villagers and, in many of the cases, they disparage their fellow villagers, maintaining that only they have a sound point of view on how the village should be run. We start with Khalid Bakhit. He was born and bred in the village but left it as soon as he could. He is one of those people who hates it when he is there but misses it when he is not. We later learn that he went to university and caused a certain amount of trouble, standing up to the teachers, and organising the first student demonstration in the university. He was not accepted for graduate school there.
Khadir moved to the city where he had a job and where he met Abir. They were taken with one another immediately, as though they had known each other for a billion years, as they both say. One day, after they have been meeting in public places, she invites him to her house. She invites him to join her on the bed, when he notices, in the gloom, what seems to be a man. Further inspection reveals it to be a man’s clothing. She tells him, casually, that she is married. Her husband is seventeen years older than she is, and she is his second wife. She does not like him. Fortunately, he is a police officer and is currently on duty. Khalid is horrified and runs away. He is so horrified that he cannot stay in the city, for fear of meeting Abir, so he asks for a transfer. This is declined but he is given a three-month leave of absence, which is why he is back in the village.
Khalid is not particularly happy in the village. His only real companion is the poet from Saturn, an imaginary friend, who mocks him but also mocks the rest of the village. Khalid is very religious or, at least, purports to be so. His father had earlier said We’re from a family that has no sense of moderation. His father drank himself to death and Khalid has immersed himself in religious dogma. He is highly critical of the religious leaders of the village and accuses them of being heretical, citing obscure sources from books with white pages, while the local imam uses only a book with yellow pages. He upsets the villagers so much, not only with his views but by waking them up at midnight, shouting to the world, that they want him dealt with. Unfortunately for them, he has the protection of his grandfather who seems to have the village headman in his pocket. The village headman is Mihyan, who is the headman firstly because his father and grandfather were headmen and secondly because he owns the meeting hall. However, he is not too enthusiastic about the idea. His one ambition in life is to build mud buildings, of which some certainly remain but most new buildings are modern in style and do not use mud bricks, so there is no work for Mihyan.
We are introduced to other characters and issues, such as Ubayd, the muezzin, who now finds his post challenged by the reformed low-life Jam’an, an issue that splits the village; Ayda, who is love with Khalid and always has been; Khadim, who was found in the silt after the river flooded and killed Mihyan’s wife and son, and whom Mihyan adopts, as no-one could find out where he came from; and Ala al-Din, who comes from Bangladesh, speaks excellent Arabic and has been selected by Khalid’s grandfather to be the new imam. These and others contribute to the various disputes and conspiracies. In particular, there is the muezzin issue and a plot to oust Mihyan as leader and replace him with someone. Who that someone else should be is a sore point. Suhayl al-Jamra al-Khabitha (his name means anthrax, a nickname given to him by Khalid, which has stuck) is convinced that there is only one man for the job, namely Suhayl al-Jamra al-Khabitha. Others are not so sure. Two more likely candidates sounded out firmly reject the proposal.
Of course, there is a curse on the village. Walad Sulaymi was told by his grandfather if God allows a country to be chastised, He causes everyone who has left it to come back. With Khalid’s return, that curse seems more likely to be fulfilled. As things develop, this curse does seem to be at least partially true. Inevitably, we learn more about several of the characters and their murky pasts, which changes our views of them and affects and explains why they behave the way they do. Murder and mayhem follow, with a bit of love and lust thrown in.
Al-Farsi tells a very amusing tale and keeps us guessing as to what guilty secrets are going to be revealed and to what extent the conspiracies are going to get out of hand. He has great fun mocking the hypocrisy, petty-mindedness, ambition and religious quibbling of the various parties. He even mocks their racism though less so the sexism. Indeed, apart from the three women in Khalid’s life – Abir, Ayda and his mother – women barely get a look-in, as it is the men doing all the talking, meeting, discussion, squabbling and conspiring. Despite this, the book is certainly a very enjoyable read.
First published 2011 by Muʼassasat al-Intishār al-ʻArabi, Beirut
First English translation in 2013 by American University in Cairo Press
Translated by Nancy N Roberts