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Yousef Al-Mohaimeed: فخاخ الرائحة (Wolves of the Crescent Moon)
Al-Mohaimeed’s first novel translated into English is a clever account of three intertwined stories, telling of three people at the bottom of the social ladder in present-day Saudi Arabia. We start with Turad. As with the others, he will have more than one name during the course of this book. Both at the beginning and at the end of the book, he is at the Riyadh bus station, eagerly trying to escape the city he has grown to hate. He doesn’t mind where he goes, even to Hell, as long as he gets out of Riyadh. The novel consists of both his musings about his life and his reading of a dossier concerning one of the other lives. Turad was born a Bedouin. He was a wild child, often going off on his own, knowing his way around the desert and even befriending the wild life, such as the wolves. He makes his living by stealing. He meets Nahar and challenges him and they fight. After a while, without either one winning, out of mutual admiration, they become friends and thieves together, till they are caught. It is only towards the end of the book that we learn the nature and consequence of their capture.
His recent life has not been successful. He has done menial jobs, in particular working in a government office as messenger and coffee boy but has reacted strongly when the employees have mocked or humiliated him, resulting in losing his job. He has even worked at the traditional windscreen cleaning job. But now has had enough and is leaving. His problem is that he is missing his left ear. We do not learn how and why till the end but we do know, because he tells us, that it was not lost honourably in a war. He covers his missing ear up with a shmagh and is always worried that it will come loose and reveal his missing ear. While waiting at the bus station, he finds an official file that another passenger had inadvertently left behind, which tells the story of Nasir, though we learn more about Nasir from elsewhere.
Nasir is the child of a taxi driver and a divorced woman. She had seen the taxi driver and had been immediately attracted to him. She had gone for a ride in the taxi and then left her phone number with him. They started an affair and, when she became pregnant, he planned to marry her. However, his family said that she was not worthy of him and he abandoned her. She had the baby, Nasir, and left him in a box to be found. Before being found, he had been been attacked by a feral cat and lost an eye. He is rescued, named Nasir and sent to an orphanage. He is briefly adopted by a rich woman but is returned to the orphanage when he is caught urinating in her garden.
The third person is Tawfiq. He was originally Sudanese. He and other boys had been tricked by a local tribe, captured and sent into slavery in Saudi Arabia, where he had suffered. He had been raped by an Eritrean and castrated to make him an eunuch. Eventually, he had gone to work for a rich family – the same one, as we learn, that adopted Nasir – where he has moved up the ranks to become chauffeur and then, as he got older, moved down the ranks to become gardener, before being fired and ending up working at the same government office where Turad worked, which is where they met and exchanged stories.
Al-Mohaimeed tells his stories well and links them up well, even if the source of the story of Nasir is not entirely clear. The book was banned in Saudi Arabia and you can see why. It is critical of the Saudi government and Saudi society, particularly the rich/poor divide. As a result, some of the characters are a bit stereotypical – the young Turad as the brave Bedouin or the rich lady as the heartless demanding employer. But the main characters, at least Turad and Tawfiq, are well drawn and the book gives us an interesting insight into a part of Saudi Arabia that westerners will not be generally too familiar with.
First published 2003 by Riyadh Al-Rais Publishing House, Beirut
First English translation in 2007 by the American University Press, Cairo
Translated by Anthony Calderbank