BOOK REVIEW: Growing pains of Hell's residents

Joseph Fahim
7 Min Read

In a modest bus station of the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh, an old Saudi man with a thick, untrimmed mustache stands in line, gazing aimlessly at the crowds. He looks disoriented, at odds with everything and everyone surrounding him. His secrets and past memories have grown into a large burden too heavy to continue bearing on his jaded shoulders.

He s amazed when the ticket desk cashier calls him Sir. He doesn t seem to have a clear-cut answer when the cashier inquires about his destination. He rests for a while and, like always, starts to lament about himself and his sorry state. All he wants to do, right here right now is to leave the hell-hole he s been in for decades now; to escape the humiliation, the servitude, the never-ending mockery.

A young woman struggling to pull her huge suitcase across the waiting room suddenly catches his attention. He offers to help, but she immediately, and boorishly, turns down his offer and sends him back to his seat in defeat.

But he doesn t go back; he isn t going to endure this degradation any longer. I ll go straight to the ticket desk, he tells himself. And when the salesperson asks me where I m going I ll tell him I m going to hell.

With this setting, the distinguished Saudi author Yousef Al-Mohaimeed begins his latest novel Wolves of the Crescent Moon; a short, unsettling and controversial story set in modern Saudi society that was unofficially banned there.

Wolves tells the separate and interlocking stories of three outcasts: Turad, a native desert dweller of a respected tribe who moves into the city after a tragic incident that cost him his left ear; Amm Tawfiq, a Sudanese eunuch trapped and sold by the Saudi slave merchants; and Nassir, a young stray with an eye missing who was raised in an orphanage.

All three stories begin to interlace with one another when Turad finds a green folder containing official documents which chronicle the life of Nassir; a bastard child abandoned by his disgraced mother and placed in a banana crate in front of a mosque. His left eye has been scratched by a stray cat or dog which eventually led to loss of sight.

Turad starts to re-imagine Nassir s story, how his missing eye could ve shaped his wretched existence just like his own missing ear shattered his. He starts to reminisce about his freewheeling days as a highwayman in the desert, his escapades with his fellow bandit Nahar and the gallant life he led as son of a desert tribe.

He recalls the conversations of his former co-worker Amm Tawfiq, how his lust for a lump of fat cost him his innocence when he was captured by slave traders and raped by Eritrean men on their way to hajj.

All three men suffer from physical deformities that also epitomize the defects of their souls. Each one of them is betrayed by senses: Turad s instinctive aptitude to entrap camels fails him and, consequently, is seized by the pilgrims; Nassir s parents submission to desire yields an unwanted child; and Amm Tawfiq is betrayed twice by his nose, first by the smell of gristle when he lost his humanity and second by the smell of a cotton wool overflowing with an intoxicator when he was emasculated and lost his manhood.

Al-Mohaimeed s narration constantly shifts from the point of view of each of the three, sometimes within the same chapter. He also interchanges between the first person narration and the third person so skillfully, allowing no room for confusion.

The author uses the non-linear method of storytelling. He begins the novel near the end, moves next to the origin of all three stories, borrows some storylines from the middle, and returns back at the end to the first act to reveal how Turad lost his ear and unveils the big picture, which fully explains the connection between the three characters.

Wolves is novel of many different levels and themes. Turad s contrasting life in the desert and the city illustrates the freedom and honesty of the wilderness where, despite its inherent physical cruelty, everything s clear, including one s foes. There s a mystical, dreamy quality Al-Mohaimeed injects his desert with, borrowing extensively from folk Arabian tales. The city, on the other hand, is depicted as a modern inferno with a deceiving heart and brutality beyond reason.

Al-Mohaimeed s first novel to be translated into English is also a story about a decaying, hypocritical society where anomalous behavior is severely punished. The writer s Saudi Arabia is place where religious male rapists commit their transgressions in the open, a place of repressed emotions and blazing sexual desires, a place that mercilessly swallows whole its people and turns the helpless into slaves, a place where God seems to have forsaken a long time ago.

Wolves of the Crescent Moon is a deeply moving, nihilistic and difficult story of loss, human viciousness and disappearing worlds. Misery, pain and regret drip fiercely from every page of the book like a bleeding victim waiting for his inevitable demise.

The fate of all three protagonists is pre-destined as they all walk into a thorny path they can t avert. There s no redemption for any of them, no salvation or glimpse of hope. These characters are thoroughly inflicted with pain that they can t even recognize the warmth and comfort they might find with one another. Instead, they keep on marching in the margins of the world, occasionally attempting to flee, and ultimately continue to carry their weight.

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