Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Gulf Between Us

Another book review, fairly horribly edited by the Guardian. Here's the unedited version:

The Arab world’s bestselling novel of recent years has been Alaa Al Aswany’s “Yacoubian Building”, which features a gay journalist, a corrupt minister, and sexual abuse in police cells. The very grown-up film of the book has reached a huge audience. Arabic novels on sale in the Gulf discuss taboos from pre-marital romance to sectarian conflict and slavery. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera broadcasts from Qatar, offering the Arabs a range of political debate which shames the BBC, and which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. Satellite and the internet have effectively finished the Arab age of censorship. As for books in English, the ‘Arab World’ sections of many Gulf bookshops could be renamed ‘Harem Fantasy for Whites’, concentrating disproportionately on more or less fraudulent revelations of the “Princess” variety. So long as it sells, very nearly anything goes.

Given the new level of official Arab tolerance, it was surprising to hear that Geraldine Bedell’s “The Gulf Between Us”, a romantic comedy narrated by a middle-aged Englishwoman, had been banned from the International Festival of Literature in Dubai, and this because the novel contains a ‘gay shaikh’. Both author and publisher cried censorship, plunging the festival – Dubai’s first – into a swamp of bad publicity. Margaret Atwood cancelled her appearance.

A few days after the damage had been done, the truth came out: the book hadn’t been banned. Like many others, it was not selected in the first place. Maragaret Atwood regretted her cancellation.

The phantom censorship drama may help sales, but does a disservice to Bedell, whose novel treats the Gulf with affection and understanding. The protagonist, Annie Lester, is single parent to three unruly sons in the fictional emirate of Hawar. Annie thinks her eldest son’s wedding is the most disruption she has a right to expect, but another son has a secret to reveal, and her childhood boyfriend – now a sexy film star – has arrived at the reception. One thing leads very cleverly, with great pace, to another, until Annie’s future in the emirate, and the safety of her sons, hangs in the balance. The story unfolds in the months leading up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. The metaphorical temperature constantly rises.

Hawar (the word means ‘discussion’) is obviously based on Bahrain, with its pearl divers, Sunni-Shia tensions and barely concealed royal disputes, but is a recognisable portrait of any Gulf state: – “an affluent bubble in a cloudless sky, confected in a few decades from desert subsistence into cities, hotels and high rises.” Bedell skillfully sketches the enbubbled communities of the Gulf – Western, Arab, Asian – and their internal stratifications of class, status and tribe. She is as good on human commonalities as she is at communal distinctions.

Her treatment of attitudes to gays is balanced and accurate. Her homophobes are as likely to be Anglos as Arabs. Indeed the book’s serious theme is prejudice of all varieties, secular and religious, political and sexual, anti-Arab and anti-Western. The novel has a generosity of spirit which the allegations of censorship do not.

Most impressively, “The Gulf Between Us” offers a living breathing portrait of a family, not just the individual characters but also their continual, understated effect on each other. In considering the ramifications of each event on her sons as well as herself, Annie sounds like an entire family talking. In plot terms, her romance is nicely interwoven with her sons’ ardent adventures. The novel has stirring climaxes and endless twists, and is all gripping stuff, even if comic realism slides into genre formula towards the unconvincing end. But at its worst it’s still great escapism: light, finely-observed, funny and reflective.


Joachim Martillo said...

I put a comment on this article up as an entry on my blog. I am not sure why it does not appear as a link.

Wa2el said...

Thank you Robin for talking about this novel..

Now as a living individual in the Arab world, I can tell you that some gulf countries still have some restrictions on the media productions (novels, books, newspapers,...). In contrast, Egypt for example is way advanced in this regard compared to some gulf countries and this is why Yacoubian Building acquired fame since it handles never-been-publicised issues like homosexuality.

There have been many banned novels in Saudi Arabia written by Saudis which discussed the religion/sex/politics taboos. However, I am pretty confident to say that English-written novels are safe most of the times from such a banning process.

Thank you Robin for giving this informative review of the book.. I will try to get it soon.

Best regards,

qunfuz said...

I'm not sure I recommend it, Wa'el. Wait for the next review - I do recommend the book discussed there.

I've seen the Yacoubian Building on sale - in Arabic - in more than one Gulf country. Of course the Saudis still have censorship. I was making the point that censorship in the Arab world is not as balnket or as simple as some Westerners think. It is the Western assumption that they understand how it works which allowed Bedell and her publisher to get away with these claims of censorship. Her book hasn't been banned in the Emirates, although it could be understood as a slanderous attack on the Bahraini royal family.

Maysaloon said...

Don't you think that sexual immorality dressed as "taboo" in the Middle East is used to sidetrack the real taboos which are religious and political and that deal directly with the human condition of the Arab man? I honestly tried to watch the Yacoubian building but I could not shake off the feeling that it was just a very stupid film. I suspect the book to be very similar. There are many people today who consider Nizar Qabbani's writings to be "daring", yet I consider some of his writings to be vulgar and see him as the indirect godfather for today's Rotana culture. A culture which should more aptly carry the clueless slogan "free the body to free the mind". The tragedy for these people is that 2500 years of human philosophy and religion, of which they are the world's true heir historically and culturally, have told us again and again that it is the other way around. Yet still our governments force feed people not only dogma, but also the sham resistance to such dogma!

qunfuz said...

Wassim - I wasn't praising any of these cultural products, just telling the western reader that they are available in the Gulf. I can take or leave the film of the Yacoubian Building, but I do think the novel is a great piece of work. It's a genuine attempt to capture a historical moment and all its injustice in Egypt. And I have a great deal of respect for Qabbani (but I prefer Maghout). I think the Rotana culture can't be blamed on Qabbani, but rather on the Saudi media which, when it isn't telling us that Shia are Kuffar and Hamas is Shia, broadcasts a heavy diet of Seinfeld, Hollywood, and MTV.