Wolves of the Crescent Moon, Yousef al-Mohaimeed. Penguin. 192pp, $14.00.
Compared to the well-trod literary provinces of Latin America, Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, and even parts of Asia and Africa, the Middle East’s literature is one that few English-language readers know much about. Perhaps to help fill this gap, Penguin has published Saudi writer Yousef al-Mohaimeed’s novel Wolves of the Crescent Moon as a paperback original.
Published in Saudi Arabia in 2003 (and subsequently banned), the book makes no bones about its intent to dissect the nation that produced it. It’s set in contemporary Riyadh, and the three leads are a clear cross-section of this city: there’s the middle-aged Bedouin who has come in from the desert in search of work, an orphan on the cusp of adulthood who tidily represents the young, lost generation, and an old ex-slave brought from the Sudan decades ago as a youth. Were this not enough already, the plot is gaudily bejeweled with elements key to Saudi identity—these include the landmark freeing of slaves in 1962, the annual Muslim pilgrimage known as the hajj, and pervasive Arab sexism. Clearly, this slim book is meant to carry a great deal of allegorical weight.
We start in a bus station with Turad, a disgraced Bedouin highwayman turned office servant who is trying to decide which bus to take out of Riyadh. Years ago, Turad fled to the capital after losing his left ear following a botched robbery in the desert, and his deformity is the source of merciless humiliation at the office where he carts around coffee and tea. (His superiors find it particularly uproarious to call him “van Gogh.”) Because of this humiliation, he has quit his job and decided to get out of “Hell.”
One might imagine that an indignant ex-crook with nothing to lose would have no problem snapping up a ticket anywhere, but not so here; unable to pick a bus, Turad instead spends a lonely night pitying himself in the bus terminal. The book consists of these hours as he ponders his life by reconstructing several conversations between himself and his only friend, Amm Tawfiq, the Sudanese ex-slave. Turad is also permitted access to the life of the orphan thanks to the provident discovery of a green folder containing his orphanage case file.
The novel is framed around the question of how exactly Turad lost his ear, and in the process of learning this we also learn how Amm Tawfiq lost his testicles and the orphan, Nasir, lost an eye. (Al-Mohaimeed perhaps takes too many pains reminding us that the men are united by physical deformity.) Notably, since all this takes place in Turad’s head we’re left to guess how much of his own life is getting mixed into these stories. For instance, while imagining how Nasir was conceived, a well-done vignette about a taxi driver and one of his fares, Turad clearly draws on his own history, but it’s tantalizingly unclear precisely how much comes from Turad and how much comes from Nasir’s green folder.
In this manner, Al-Mohaimeed at times develops Turad into an interesting character. Recounting these two lives is a sort of therapy for Turad, a way for him to free up his mind and work through painful memories. When he Rorsach-like interprets a some photographs of Nasir and the nannies who took care of him at the orphanage, these thoughts become particularly affecting:
It wasn’t only the animals roaming through damp warm alleyways that abused your body. The nannies and the maids didn’t spare you their mischief or lechery, either; your body wasn’t safe in their charge, even as a tender child. Bath times filled you with dread. Lumbai, the Filipina maid, would scrub your body in the bathtub, and her hands would work their way unnoticed between your thighs, then her face and her mouth, until your skin was raw and turned bright red. . . . A decision was made to terminate Lumbai’s contract after an investigation, during which she admitted her habit, with the excuse that you had something rather large, different from the other boys and Filipino men.
Was Turad himself abused as a child? Or are these thoughts just evidence of the nativism and sexism that tends to pollute his mind? At times such as these Turad become rather perverse and morbid, and in doing so he betrays hints of an interesting intelligence. This doesn’t happen often enough. In addition to showing Turad’s ugly side, Al-Mohaimeed is intent on building sympathy for him, but a pitiable Turad is pedestrian and inconsistent:
You idiot, van Gogh! You cut off your beloved ear that allows you to hold your head high and not to be ashamed. You willingly cut it off and sent it to a woman. You must be mad. True, I cut off my ear like you, or to be more precise I lost it one night, but not for a woman. Never! Even if I had three ears, not one, or even two like the rest of mankind, I would never offer one to a woman, whoever that woman was.
Aside from the fact that these thoughts are rather boiler-plate, this passage comes scarcely ten pages after a dejected, self-infatuated Turad inexplicably leaps up from his sorrows to carry a woman’s suitcase for her. Does he despise women or not?
Turad’s sudden shifts between loving and hating women are symptomatic of how Wolves of the Crescent Moon tries to have it both ways. On the one hand, Turad is a rather dislikable crook, the kind of guy who takes pride that Saudi men have larger penises than Filipinos; but on the other, he needs to be the subject of the reader’s pity if we are to condemn the isolating and dehumanizing aspects of Saudi life that have beaten him down. Although it’s certainly possible that a character could encompass everything Al-Mohaimeed wants Turad to, Wolves’ protagonist feels too ready made, more designed as a symbol than felt as a person.
This is because instead of paying due attention to its protagonist, Wolves strives to fulfill its allegorical dictates. It connects its three characters among several different themes—scent, the loss of an organ, being rejected by the world—and although connecting the characters is an interesting idea that adds depth, it also ends up leading to further problems. These are most evident when, three-fourths of the way through Wolves, Turad suddenly reveals a connection between Nasir and Amm Tawfiq, a connection that Turad full and well knows about for the duration of the novel. One can only wonder why this is the first we’ve heard of this. Why, when Turad first saw the boy’s name, a name that exactly matches one from Amm Tawfiq’s past, did he not register something, even a hint of recognition? Why, when Turad read about an orphan with a disfigured eye did he not recall that his only friend in the world had also told him about an orphan of the same age with a disfigured eye? Clearly, to have brought this up earlier would have destroyed some of the suspense in Al-Mohaimeed’s story, but it defies belief that it would have taken Turad hours to make the connection, or that he would have made it so dully when he finally does: “Was this person, Nasir Abdulilah, the same Nasir that Amm Tawfiq talked about? It must be him.”
Shifting its weight nervously between the allegorical and the real, Wolves of the Crescent Moon only seldom finds the balance to stand up solidly and come into its own. Al-Mohaimeed’s book is well-conceived with genuinely interesting ideas, but too often his writing fudges matters in servitude to these ideas. Too often, too, Al-Mohaimeed’s Saudi Arabia becomes the clichéd land of swarthy men and willowy veils that’s already familiar to any Westerner, instead of the real nation that the author has lived in and sometimes renders up. Occasionally Wolves reveals pages and pages of tautly narrated stories that imaginatively tells the characters’ lives; far more often Turad, Amm Tawfiq, and Nasir feel like tamed wolves that Al-Mohaimeed has trained to run through a set course.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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