Karim Alrawi's novel is a book I decided to read when I heard the author speak at Southbank two summers ago.
Before teaching theatre in the US and then settling his family in Canada, Alrawi was dramaturge at the Royal Court Theatre in London and taught at the American University in Cairo. When Egypt's state censor banned his plays, he responded by working with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. This led to his arrest and interrogation.
Set during the Arab Spring, the tale follows Tarek and his young daughter Neda, who must leave the pregnant Mona and flee to the desert to avoid arrest. A mathematician as well as a poet, Tarek expresses the mystery of his love for his wife as an equation.
In sharp contrast to the mild, loving, artistic and educated Tarek stands his dark antagonist Omar, who is also his brother-in-law. Omar is a self-righteous believer who makes a pilgrimage every year "to please the saint and gain credit with the Lord." Meanwhile, he consorts with arms dealers, sleeps with prostitutes and works for powerful men who take political prisoners and profit from the business of selling foreign women into sexual slavery.
Watching musical entertainers near the mosque disturbs Omar. Their "ungendered" freedom "both draws his attention and repels him." In an effort to quiet the internal dissonances of his contradictory ideas and actions, he smokes dope and keeps a cockroach in a shoebox under his bed. He focuses his mind on references to women in scripture and notes that even the enlightened poet Maulana (Mevlana or Rumi) considers men "a degree above women."
Yet over the course of the story, Omar attains some self-awareness, admitting that "in place of love I live by prohibitions, equate beauty with sin, ugliness with piety, defer all pleasures to an afterlife." He struggles "at the borderline of faith and doubt, redemption and despair."
A capsule history of a lost generation, this novel is filled with powerful and mysterious imagery. The reader experiences a drive through the desert through the eyes of ten-year-old Neda, who hears the tale of the Peacock Angel, and witnesses the storytelling of the Tibu grazers from the desert oases. We feel the kindness of desert people and shudder at the repressed secrets that lie hidden in the sands.
We learn of manners, "the customary insistence on polite refusal," and also about the insistence that a woman must marry a man who brings land and protection to her family. Readers are chilled to discover that "with marriage the risk of shame increased manyfold," and horrified to hear of the whisperings of "girls who disappeared...after rumours of secret trysts."
In a society based on fear, the law is "not about right or wrong, but a deterrent for the greater good," and stoning a girl is justified "so men can sleep peacefully at night." How chilling to think that in certain societies, "a woman must guard against love, the enemy of honour that leads astray, that brings ruin in its wake." In many ways, the journey into the desert is like a mythological trip into the middle ages, even into antiquity.
The themes of this novel are many and complex. It deals with human pride and portrays entrenched cultural ideas about honour and shame. It exposes cultural pressures involving guilt and retribution, and shows the needs of the individual in sharp conflict with those of prevailing power groups who profess to religion as a means of social control. Chillingly, it reveals the self-delusion that permits people, both under duress and for pragmatic reasons, to behave in opposition to their natural morality.
There are no comfortable certitudes in this compelling story. The final indelible image of a woman in labour in an unexpected place is ambiguously memorable.