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Zayd Mutee Dammaj: الرهينة (The Hostage)

This novel is set in the 1940s – indeed it ends soon after the assassination of Imam Yahya in 1948. Yemen was still almost a feudal country back then and one antiquated custom is the subject of this novel. In order to keep his unruly subjects at bay, the Imam would take as hostage the sons of powerful families, to make sure that the families behaved. While the hostages were generally treated fairly well, they were hostages. The unnamed narrator of this novel is one of these hostages. While still young, he is torn from his mother’s arms by the Imam’s soldiers and taken to a special hostage prison, the al-Qahira fortress in Sana’a. However, at the beginning of the novel, he has been taken from the al-Qahira to the palace of the governor, where he will serve as a duwadera. A duwadera is a young boy who carries out the tasks that used to be carried out by eunuchs, i.e. to act as the servant of the women of the palace, it being assumed that these boys, who were pre-pubescent, would be sexually innocent. As we will find out, this is not always the case.

The narrator is taken in hand by another duwadera, who is known as the handsome duwadera but who, unfortunately, has tuberculosis. This boy looks after our narrator during his stay there and shows him the ropes. Much of the story concerns the narrator’s relationship with the governor’s sister, Sharifa Hafsa. She had been married for political reasons but did not like her husband and managed to divorce him, leaving her rich, beautiful and single. The narrator is soon introduced to the life of the palace as the various women – they are frequently referred to as pampered – chase after the handsome duwadera. Soon it is the narrator’s turn as he meets Sharifa Hafsa and they start what can only be described as an on-off affair, with her chasing him and he being at times petulant (and at times downright rude) and at other times eager to play the lover, despite the fact that he is pre-pubescent. She punishes him when he is rude but he does not seem to mind, saying, for example, that if he is in chains he cannot do any work. She helps him when he is in trouble. For example, when the Crown Prince’s favourite attacks him, he respond in kind and it is only the intervention of Sharifa Hafsa that he is spared serious punishment.

It is both a well-told story and a fascinating account of a way of life so different from that in the West. What is interesting is that, contrary to what we might think, the women seem generally to be sexual predators, chasing after the young boys (and others) and that the young boys can behave quite rudely and even violently towards the people on whom they are apparently dependent, with only minimal consequences. That the world is changing is something that seems only vaguely apparent, even with the assassination of Imam Yahya, but Dammaj is concerned with giving us a glimpse into a world that has now passed and not with how that world changed.

Publishing history

First published in 1984 by Dar al-Adab, Beirut
First English translation in 1994 by Interlink
Translated by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley