Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Accursed backwater

Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs, Abdel-Aziz Al-Farsi, AUC Press, 2013, Translator: Nancy Roberts

Al-Ahram Weekly

MOTHER’S MILK: “It is truly embarrassing to admit that I still pine for my mother’s milk which I never even tasted. I pine for it like mad,” confesses one of the main characters in Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs. The novel is Abdel-Aziz Al-Farsi’s first, and it is fascinating. Eerily, Al-Farsi’s novel reads like a curious study of the unconscious mind of villagers in a remote backwater in Oman.

In a manner of speaking, Al-Farsi uses his novel and the stories narrated by a coterie of eccentric characters to illustrate how religion, in this case Sunni Islam, and antiquated traditions and cultural values impacts contemporary Omani lives and demonstrates how the conscious mind instinctively learns to subdue the unconscious.

“Crazy relationships developed between me and breasts. I would think about the heart concealed behind them confrontational, and others so full of tender affection that I would be dying to touch them the first time I saw them. I was about to lose my mind,” says Khalid Bakhit, simultaneously the intellectual, the only villager to go to university in the faraway city, and village idiot.

I find the very concept conceived by an oncologist chillingly surreal. As a medical practitioner, who no doubt has professionally examined many a patient’s breast, I could not help but draw parallels between the author, the oncologist, and Bakhit.

Nothing surprises there. “I was her firstborn, and she was weak and exhausted after giving birth. That’s what she told me anyway, and she had no milk in her breasts. She would put me to her breast and I would try for several minutes to get the milk out of it. Then I would let go and start bawling. She’d give me the other breast, and the same thing would happen. On the second day my mother concluded that her milk would never come in, and she decided preparing formula for me. The strange thing about it is that I accepted formula readily. I was born with the willingness to settle for half-solutions,” the principal character confides to the unearthly character Saturnine.

“I should have rejected the formula. If I had, I would have grown up to be someone who accepts nothing but complete, radical solutions.” Small wonder, then, that he is disillusioned throughout the novel.

 

SATURNINES, SISTERS AND LOVERS: The clash that will truly matter is that between parochialism and contemporaneity. Worse is to unfold when the tortured soul of Bakhit discovers that the woman he loves turns out to be his sister. “Just before I was startled by the call to prayer, I thought we were on a stairway that had been chiselled into the clouds. It was fabulous, the taste of the spirit’s tranquility when it throws itself into the arms of another being that shares the same torments. The desire for tranquility was tangled up with the angst of existence,” he broods indignantly.

Instead of dealing head on with the root causes of his inner confusion and self-inflicted conflicts of his very soul, he was concerned that he was merely applying sticking plaster to a pathos, a deep wound that would not heal.

With characters like Al-Jamara Al-Khabitha (Anthrax), Saturnine and Khadim Walad Al-Sayl (Slave son of the Flood) I simply could not put this particular novel down.

Translator Nancy Roberts, received a commendation in the Saif Ghobash-Banipal Prize for Translation for her rendition of Egyptian novelist Salwa Bakr’s The Man from Bashmour (AUC Press, 2007). She did a terrific job with Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs.

Roberts also translated Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Love in the Rain (AUC Press, 2009) and The Mirage (AUC Press, 2011). But, getting inside the conservative Arabian mind, and the inherent conflict with contemporaneity is inevitably a difficult task.

With the world fast becoming a global bazaar, Al-Farsi uses as his framework the voices of uncouth villagers and the lives of a dozen imaginary characters. The author’s aim is to demonstrate how difficult it is to escape from the clutches of parochial provincialism and backwardness. Their relationships, actions and the very fabric of societal morals are dictated by the oppression of antiquated religious values. The deliberate and desperate attempts by key characters to escape their predicament is not a success.

 

BLACK ISN’T BEAUTIFUL: “As time passed I came to know well who I was. The one whose body has been handled by the largest number of women in the history of the village. Women from every household in the village had poured water over me or massaged my body from head to toe. Every household in the village knew the details of my taut frame. Whenever I look at any of those women now, I hang my head in embarrassment,” the only black person in the village concedes.

“I remember how as a little boy, I would lie waiting for my bath. And, I remember the hands that passed over my body, dousing it with water over and over. I for a moment got the urge to be wild and the imp inside me woke up, the hands would tighten up. At that moment a hand might get revenge on me by pretending to rub my eyes with water, when in fact, it was deliberately getting soap into the eyes so that I couldn’t see, and so that the temporary blindness would distract me from my fit of insubordination,” laments Khadim, Servant in Arabic, but also Slave in the dialects of the Arabian Gulf.

“My father told me that Zahir had married five women from his village, one after another. Every time he married, hardly two or three months would go by before his wife suddenly died. After this, everyone in the village took care not to marry any of their daughters to him for fear that they will meet the same fate,” narrates a curious character in the novel, Walad Sulaymi.

“Like any man, Zahir dreamed of having a son to carry on his name. So he went to a man by the name of Ghuwayfari, who interpreted dreams and made talismans.” In this particular episode, the fundamental difference between Western racism and primitive Arabian racism is eloquently elucidated.

“Ghuwayfari replied, ‘You have been afflicted on account of the prayers of a man you once mocked. You may recall that, ten years ago, you mocked a black man who had come from another village to buy some cloth. You ridiculed him in front of everyone. The man hadn’t offended you or provoked you in any way. You came and took the fabric out of his hands. Then, with a loud laugh, you said, ‘What do you want with colours, you slave? Here, you’ll show up better in this.’ Then you handed him a piece of white fabric. In the process, you made everyone laugh at him. You were conceited, and took pride in your good looks, your colour, and your family lineage. Mix your lineage with that of the slaves. Marry one of them, and God will give you a son.”

 

BANGLADESH BLUES: Indeed, the vicious racism of the villagers is blood-curdling. But, it is the cruelty of traditional mores that is most horrifying. “Farida acknowledged that the child she was carrying was Bakhit’s son. Your father didn’t deny it. They all agreed to conceal the matter. Farida took the herbs, and a few hours later the fetus began lurching violently. But based on what your father told me, it didn’t die.”

Racism, sexism, honour killings, illicit sexual liaisons, all in a supposedly morally upright village of respectable grandees. Al-Farsi has done well to draw such vivid attention to the wider implications of accumulated traditional parochial hypocrisy that triggers the very worse in human character.

Horror of horrors. “Then they tried hitting Farida in the belly. They punched her repeatedly with their fists. Still, the child didn’t die, and several hours later it began to move again. It wanted to live and refused to die. Believe me, to this day I don’t know what I was thinking, or how I could have allowed them to commit that crime right here in our house. The baby was crying from hunger, and they brought him in a large basket that we used to put fresh dates in. They took him out and set him down between them. Your grandfather said to your father, ‘You saddled us with him. You get rid of him’. Your father vehemently refused. Turning to Farida’s father, your grandfather said, ‘Aren’t you going to get rid of your daughter’s shame?’ The man lowered his head, and your grandfather understood that he couldn’t do it. Your grandfather took a green handkerchief. To this day I remember what it looked like. And, he clapped it over the baby’s nose and mouth. The baby didn’t give in easily. He resisted at first, but after a while he started to turn red. Then his face turned blue, and finally the life went out of him”. 

Such barbarism is not restricted to unwanted children. Uncircumcised infidels also suffer the consequences of their duplicity. Unsuspecting villagers believed that the new imam, or religious cleric, hailed from Bangladesh. The ignorance of the villagers is pathetic. “Bangladesh is a country located near France, Its people make their living on the oil and fish trade. Its climate is snowy all year round, so European ice-skating competitions are held there”.

Is Bangladesh a member of NATO? Yes, of course, and it is also a founding member of the Non-Collapsing Movement, a play on words meant to convey a strong sense of derision as far as the Non-Aligned Movement is concerned.

“Who is that man with blue eyes?” The blue-eyed blond is a Bangladeshi. Alam Al-Din the Bengali died months ago after being hit by a car in the city. The men who were present headed over to the person we had thought was Alam Al-Din and bound him. ‘Who are you?’ they asked him. I’m afraid he might not even be a Muslim. He might have been just claiming to be a Muslim, and leading you in prayer anyway. If he’s uncircumcised, he must be an infidel”. The blue-eyed Bangladeshi was subjected to a cruel test. “The men tightened their grip on the person we had thought to be Alam Al-Din while Hamadan Tajrib did his best to get a look at the man’s private parts. Then he shouted, ‘He’s an infidel! He’s uncircumcised! Infidel! Uncircumcised.’ Then the men fell upon the bound man with blows. Everyone joined in the beating until his blood flowed”.

 

Reviewed by Gamal Nkrumah

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