This intense, fanciful story provides a uniquely slanted window into the manners and culture of Saudi Arabia. Small wonder it was banned in the Kingdom.
Wolves of the Crescent MoonPublisher: Penguin
Contributors: Anthony Calderbank, translater
Author: Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
US publication date: 2007-12
With broad, fluid strokes, Yousef Al-Mohaimeed masterfully establishes the essence of the central character of Wolves of the Crescent Moon and the landscape in which he moves: desolate yet overwhelmed, injured yet proud, constantly abused yet eternally respectful of others.
Al-Mohaimeed's prose is dreamy at times, direct and concise at others. This novel is assembled in a swirling maelstrom of stories, a conflagration of madness, myth and life all together at once. It is easy to lose yourself in the desert winds and legends like the one regarding the beautiful daughter of the perfume seller, who is said to have born the child of the covetous full moon. Apparently this untruth is less shocking to society than a girl who bears a baby out of wedlock in a conservative culture. It is not hard to imagine why this book was banned in Saudi Arabia.
The protagonist, Turad, pours out his own story, intermittent daydreams, and their strange relation to two other men who would at first seem to be entirely unconnected. He has been deeply hurt both by complete strangers and by those who he previously trusted and felt close to. Feeling entirely alone in the bustling capital city of Riyadh, he stops going to his job as a lowly carwasher at a government ministry, though employment is scarce, and decides to escape, even if his downward spiral continues. Indeed, he feels the constant pull of personal damnation.
"Turad stood in the middle of the waiting room, slowly deciphering the names of the cities and the numbers of the buses on the huge electronic signboard. He could not find Hell among them." Struggling to determine which way leads to release, "His breathing faltered and his footsteps became heavy, as it occurred to him that Hell accosted him on all sides and surrounded him wherever he went: Is there a worse Hell than this, Turad?"
Constantly in conversation with himself, Turad proves to be unable to change his basic nature, reaching out to help others by reflex, though the city indiscriminately rejects his actions. He allows life to batter at him unceasingly, taking little notice at what is happening all around him; when he crosses the street he is nearly run over because he neglects to look both ways, and in the bus terminal the clerk has to shout to gain his attention, only to tell him that if he doesn't know where his destination lies, he'd better move on because there's a queue forming.
The commonality between the three men of the story revolves around each of them missing an important organ. Turad is obsessed with trying to hide a missing ear from the strangers who surround him in the city; he wraps a headscarf carefully around his head every day in an attempt to avoid abuse and envies all those who proudly display their intact ones. A fellow outcast at the ministry has been a eunuch since childhood; an orphaned boy who crosses their paths has been missing one of his eyes since infancy.
Al-Mohaimeed uses language that inspires empathy in the reader for the misfortunes that have engulfed the lives of these three men. In each case, the injury was sudden, unexpected, and life-changing. A nearly vital organ, violently torn away, preventing each man from being whole. For his part, Turad would prefer to be dead. "They severed my ear so I can't hear, and I spend my life humiliated and insulted, concealing the shame of my injury." Turad's mind works in fits and starts, shifting from his seat in the bus terminal into daydream, brief musings, slightly crazy outbursts of laughter, and back to the microcosm of the waiting room as he acquaints us with the misfortunes of this trio.
Given enough time to follow his disjointed thoughts, the reader pieces together an incomplete picture of Turad's past. Through Turad's recollection of Tawfiq the eunuch another picture is painted, this time of a man who has overcome hatred and fear to emerge as a calm, controlled person who allows the city to wash around him rather than batter him to pieces and despair. Tawfiq is the opposite of Turad, having put his past behind him rather than dwelling in it, though he does enjoy telling a story over a cup or two of tea. Turad recalls,
"Amm Tawfiq gestured to me to be patient, stood up, and moved sluggishly across the room to the stove. The tea had been boiling for a long time. He took off the wooden shelf two glasses with the Kraft cheese label still stuck on them, washed them, and poured tea into each one, taking care to lift the old brass teapot high into the air so that he could enjoy the steam rising from the stream of poured tea."
Finally, the reader learns about the third man largely through a green file folder Turad picks up in the bus terminal almost by accident. Ultimately it is snatched from his hands by its rightful owner. Familiarizing himself with the police file and notes contained therein regarding an orphaned boy with a missing eye who would now be a young man, Turad compiles a story in much the same way that the reader of this book must assemble the known facts regarding Turad himself, and attempt to emerge with an understanding of his character and motivations. Turad elaborates on the orphan's circumstances in his daydreams, picturing how the newborn came to be abandoned at a mosque, swaddled within a banana crate, though his conjectures have no basis in reality.
Turad's path through life has led from a stint as a highwayman in the desert and a proud member of his tribal group, where he was friends with the animals as well as the desert itself, to misery in the city, disconnected from his people and unable to earn an honest living. Tawfiq lost his name along with his childhood when slave traders captured him in his native Sudan and brought him to Saudi Arabia to lose his manhood and become a reliable companion to wealthy women. His name is changed to something meaning good fortune, however, "His good fortune would head back out to sea, never to return; anguish and misfortune would follow him like his shadow for the rest of his life."
This is an intense story though quite brief, and provides a uniquely slanted window into the manners and culture of a society that allows few of its miseries to show to the outside world. Al-Mohaimeed's writing is delicate and expressive, furnishing a fascinating perspective on the lives of outsiders within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.