Sonia Nimr: الاتمرتبة الأولى في جائزة الاتصالات (Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands)
The title rather gives away what this novel is about as it is indeed about wondrous journeys in strange lands. However, we start in present-day in Morocco, where we have a common trope. The author has been visiting Morocco for the first time and she meets an elderly professor. He tells her that a man who was repairing his house had found a jar containing a manuscript. The man did not understand what was in it and took it to the professor. It seems that the manuscript was written by a Palestinian, so he passes it to his Palestinian colleague, our author. The novel is, of course, the text of the manuscript.
The narrator and heroine of the manuscript is Qamar (which means moon). The story starts well before her birth, in a small, isolated Palestinian village. It seems to be set sometime in the nineteenth century, probably the early to middle part. The village was so isolated that people almost never left it, except, once year, the men (but only the men) went down to the city to sell their produce and buy items they needed. They had to do this in the summer as the village was cut off by water at other times of the year.
The village was very strict. Women were covered up at all times. Girls were denied all education for fear that books would corrupt them. If their husbands complained about them, wives were severely punished. In particular, if anyone left to live elsewhere or anyone came to the village, this would bring bad luck. One day Suleiman left and did not return, as he had fallen for a woman in the city. The curse began with only males being born, not only to the women of the village but also the animals. They searched high and low for Suleiman but could not find him. We know, though they do not, that he had died,
Saeed was the youngest boy in the village so one year he was allowed, as an initiation, to go to the city with the men. He loved books so he went to the bookshop though his father made it clear that only books approved by the village elders could be purchased. In the bookshop he finds a beautiful book called Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands and is enchanted by it. He is even more enchanted by Jawaher, the daughter of the bookshop owner. He had never seen a girl of that age, his mother being the youngest woman in the village. He visits every day and before he returns to the village, she gives him the book, which he smuggles into the village.
Of course, Saeed will return some years later to the bookshop and marry Jawaher. They have twins – Shams and our narrator Qamar. When Saeed hears his mother is ill, they return to the village but are shunned by the villagers. We follow their life in the village. Jawaher, who knows about herbs, finds out the real reason for no females being born, However, both parents die. Qamar stays on for a time while Shams and, Aisha, their maid, go back to the city, where Qamar will eventually join them. However, she is still influenced by the Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands book and decides to travel, in an era when women did not travel, particularly not on their own.
The rest of the book is about the wondrous journeys in strange lands of Qamar. Inevitably she faces many problems, including, in particular, the problems of a woman travelling on her own in an era and in a society, where women did not travel on their own. She has to deal with highwaymen, enslavement, piracy (with her as the pirate), sex, sexual jealousy, marriage and many other issues. She travels to various countries including Yemen, India, Ceylon, the Maldives as well as Morocco. Above all we get many wondrous tales as she has problems with all of these issues and in all of these countries.
If you enjoy Arabian Nights-style story-telling, you will love this book. It is a feminist book, with some fo the problems she faces being because she is a woman in man’s world. Qamar is both a Scheherazade, telling tales, but also she is also the heroine of these tales. We get only brief glimpses of the tales she tells to others – something which helps her to survive as, of course, people in the countries she visits love to hear her colourful tales. However, it is her life and travels that make up the bulk of this book.
Sonia Nimr and translator Marcia Qualey have done an excellent job of making these tales highly readable for an English-speaking audience while, at the same time, preserving the mysteries of the Arab world for us. I love a good story and if you do too, you will love this book.
First published in 2013 byTamer
First published in English in 2020 by Interlink
Translated by Marcia Lynx Qualey