Eritrea: heart and home

This was a recommendation from an Eritrean friend of mine. She had read Sulaiman Addonia’s The Consequences of Love not long after it came out in 2008 and enjoyed it. If I was looking for Eritrean literature in English, this was her top tip.

I had my reservations: a brief scan of Addonia’s biography revealed that, although he was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother, he has spent very little of his life there, having fled to Sudan and subsequently Saudi Arabia as a young child. He now lives and writes in London – could his work really be counted as Eritrean?

Then I thought about my friend’s own story. Like Addonia, she was driven from Eritrea, which has long been in the grip of a regime so oppressive that Reporters Without Borders ranks the country below North Korea for press freedom. The danger is such that my friend has been unable to visit her family there since she left, and her mother has never met her son-in-law and grandchild as a result. I began to wonder if such stories of separation and displacement were not as much a part of Eritrean life as the experiences of those who’ve stayed put.

Exile is also central to Addonia’s novel, which is set in the late 1980s, towards the end of Eritrea’s bitter 30-year war with Ethiopia. Like its author, the central character, 20-year-old Naser, has spent his teenage years in Saudi Arabia. Yet, although he has escaped the perils of conflict, he finds himself hemmed in by a whole range of other restrictions in Jeddah, where religious police scour the streets for people who break the strict behaviour codes, lovers are flogged and executed in Punishment Square and the vitriolic sermons of the blind imam blare through the city.

Lonely and anxious for the mother he left behind in Eritrea, Naser faces a life of isolation, until a mysterious, veiled woman drops a love letter at his feet one day. But in a society where communication between unmarried men and women is banned, it will take all Naser and his secret admirer Fiore’s courage and ingenuity if they are to give their happiness a chance.

Naser’s world is one where direct emotional expression is outlawed. Whether they are yearning for their homelands or pining for lovers, he and his cronies must shroud and sublimate their feelings so as to avoid chastisement at the hands of the ever-watchful authorities.

Such repression in this ‘world of black and white’ can have surprising results as blocked emotions and impulses play out through other means. There is Jasim’s café – where wealthy older men coerce the waiters, including Naser, into being their sexual partners until they get married and have a legitimate outlet for their libido – and there is the thriving trade in banned books, including Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North (my Sudanese pick), through which the characters live vicariously from inside the country Jasim describes as ‘the biggest prison in the world’. In addition, creativity blossoms, in the shape of Fiore’s drawings, the lovers’ impassioned letters, and the inventive means by which they get messages to one another. As Naser puts it, ‘caged emotions make poets out of all of us, even the illiterate’.

Caged emotions also make for a compelling story. In this tale of ‘love before sight’, the scene where Fiore is finally able to remove her hijab and the lovers come face to face after months is very moving. The sky-high stakes also make for a nail-biting conclusion, although, for my money, the final unravelling is too heavily foreshadowed to come as a surprise. However other readers may feel the dramatic irony creates a tension all its own.

Taken as a whole, though, this is a thoroughly engrossing and often beautifully written portrayal of what happens when regimes and laws run counter to human needs and emotions. As Naser puts it, it is the story of an individual’s struggle to ‘do what it takes to get a life that is rightfully [his]’ – a struggle that, by the sound of it, many Eritreans know all too well.

The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia (Vintage Digital, 2008)

Saudi Arabia: girl power

When I started this project to read a book from each of the world’s 196 sovereign states in 2012, I knew that translation would be one of the key issues I would encounter. But I little imagined that the process might cause the sort of public row that blew up around Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh.

First published in Lebanon in 2005 (the book was banned in Alsanea’s home country until 2008), the novel was written in a range of Arabic dialects, each reflecting the background of the different characters portrayed. The difficulty of rendering this in English and getting across some of Saudi Arabia’s cultural idiosyncrasies led to a three-way tug of war between translator, author and publisher, resulting in translator Marilyn Booth seeing her version reworked against her will.

Given the furore, it might have been simpler to leave Girls of Riyadh on the e-shelf and go for one of the more universally accepted translations on my list. But I was intrigued: the more I heard about this book, the more I wanted to read it and when I came across a rash of online reviews hyping the book as a ‘Saudi-style Sex and the City, I knew I was going to have to try it out for myself.

The reviews were half right. Written in the form of weekly emails by an anonymous female narrator, who is two parts Carrie Bradshaw, one part Belle de Jour and one part Mary Wollstonecraft, the book follows the lives, loves and liaisons of four young women in Saudi Arabia’s wealthy elite or ‘velvet class’. Moneyed and manicured, the girls are nevertheless bound by the tight social, religious and legal codes of their society, in which women are forbidden from revealing, expressing or asserting themselves outside their own all-female circles.

Faced with a world in which they are often not permitted so much as to sign their names or have coffee with a male friend without being arrested and interrogated, and yet are able to access all luxuries and comforts, as well as Western cult classics such as Clueless and, yes, Sex and the City, these girls of Riyadh lead schizophrenic lives. They conduct their love affairs in secret and remotely, they create fake personas online and they wear low-cut designer pieces under their abayas, which they queue up to change back into in the toilets on flights back from London, Paris and the States.

Now and then some of the transitions between stories and timeframes are a little clunky and the feisty narrator has a tendency to rant. There are also certain bits of exposition and explanation about Saudi society and culture, which feel shoehorned into the narrative and probably aren’t essential for readers to understand it. I sometimes found myself wishing that Alsanea had trusted her Western readers to follow her a bit more.

All this feels minor, however, when set against Alsanea’s achievement of exploding the single biggest weapon in the armoury of repressive regimes: that of making the oppressed group faceless and voiceless. Here, we are presented with four (five if you count the narrator herself) vivacious, witty, intelligent individuals, who despite the restrictions placed upon them attack life with energy and verve. We see educated girls testing the barriers that hem them in and brokering their own peace, or otherwise, with the codes with which they have been raised. And we see a marginalised group beginning to flex its muscles in the virtual sphere and discover the potential of the internet to help people visualize and effect changes such as those seen across much of the Arab world in 2011.

Isn’t this a tad more meaty and daring than Sex and the City? Yu-huh. Is the English text a pale imitation of its original form? I’m in no position to judge (perhaps you can tell me?). Is it better that this version is available to Western readers than nothing at all? Absolutely.

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea (translated from the Arabic by Rajaa Alsanea and Marilyn Booth). Publisher (Kindle edition): Penguin (2008)