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Thani Al-Suwaidi: الديزل (The Diesel)

This is a short book and the only novel written by a writer who is primarily a poet. The style is clearly poetic with narration to an unnamed listener (probably a muezzin) by a young man known as the Diesel. It is not a realist novel and, as result, much of the plot is somewhat unsure, though that is part of its attractions. Diesel’s mother died a few weeks after he was born. He grew up with his sister, seven years older than him, a woman who marries the sea and sees the fish as her children. One day, alone at home, a group of creatures looking like spiders, which had rejected their masculinity, adopted a feminine argot and moved their bodies as if responding to deep impulses came to the house, stole her father’s squid and seem to have sexually assaulted her. Sexual activity, often told in this ambiguous way, is key to this novel and is why al-Suwaidi could not publish the book in the UAE but had to have it published in Beirut. Before her relationship with the sea, the sister will have a sexual relationship with the house in which they live.

The narrator’s first sexual experience seems to have been when he was fifteen. His father throws him out of the house as he had returned late from evening prayers. He goes to the mosque where a wayfarer lets him stay, apparently (it is not entirely clear) in return for sexual favours. When he is eighteen he associates more with the female friends of his sister but this leads a strange experience, in which he sees his mother. The strange experiences continue when he and his father and another man are out on a boat and come across a ship which apparently has been at sea for twenty-seven years and carries one very old woman and a crew of eunuchs. He meets a woman who is married to a dog. He goes flying. He ends up with a woman’s troupe. Eventually, we learn that his name is Diesel and he becomes a successful dancer. That the book shows a man in touch with his feminine side is clear. The male is a mould, he says, within which is found a small, prattling sea that teaches him that femininity is a continuation and that woman is our original format. This view is obviously more revolutionary in the Arab world than in the West. It also aims to depict a change in the Arab world, that a new way of thinking is coming (Now I bring a new rebellion and a new heart).

It is certainly a strange and original book though not really to my taste. Nevertheless, it is wonderful to see a writer from an Arab country, and one not noted for its literature, trying out something new and original, using the poetry for which the Arab world is better-known and exploring sexuality in a way which is not particularly common in Arab writing. I shall look forward to more novels by al-Suwaidi.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Dar al-Jadid
First English publication in 2012 by Antibookclub
Translated by William M Hutchins