Not only does Sarab, the forthcoming novel by Saudi author Raja Alem, open a new chapter in the fictional treatment of the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque—following Badriah al-Bishr’s Love Stories on al-Asha Street, Yousef al-Mohaimeed’s Where Pigeons Don’t Fly and Alem’s own The Dove’s Necklace (winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction)—it also marks a precarious moment in the development of the so-called “global novel,” a literary phenomenon engendered by international commerce. The book first appeared in April in German, and it’s set to be published in English in October by Hoopoe, an imprint of American University in Cairo Press, translated from a text that the novelist does not regard as finished, since, dealing with “a dark chapter in the history of this most holy city” of Mecca—as the Paris resident Alem says of her hometown, in a recent interview with Publisher’s Weekly—it still has not appeared in the original: “I am very sensitive to the words, and up until now I cannot find the right words to capture this story, this wound,” she continues. “I feel I need to rewrite this book in some new Arabic, after taking a distance.” Thanks to translator Leri Price, the Anglophone public who cannot read Arabic can nevertheless now imagine that new Arabic for themselves, across a different, and otherwise uncrossable, distance.
It’s a language of the soul. A gripping account of the battle quickly cedes place to a scene in which Raphael, a Frenchman of the taskforce, a traumatized combat veteran decorated for bravery in atrocities in Mali and Lebanon, engages a Saudi jihadi girl named Sarab in conversation, held at gunpoint at first, “feeble and squalid,” while she disguises herself as a man and calls herself Sayfullah, and then as her equal, when he learns her secret and she does not have the heart to shoot. As the siege lifts, he persuades her to escape with him “to somewhere far away from here, where you can purge your mind of all this war, where you can start a new life, where you can belong to something new.” Post-traumatic stress frays the shroud of reality for “this girl from the desert, delicate and steely,” this “female man” set free in the City of Lights. Her awakening is populated by hallucinations and caressed with sensuality, as the ghost of her brother Sayf breaks in upon her consciousness, and she explores the earthly pleasures of cigarettes, black lipstick, cash and sexual arousal. Alem details the emotional states of her character in a prose that comes across in Price’s English with an exactitude like that of the late Woolf or early Joyce: “A sense of relief washed over Sarab, as she finally summoned the courage to face the guilt that still flogged her for having clung to life when everyone she knew had gone.”
An atmosphere of courage in the face of destiny pervades the book. Toward the end, when a car strikes Sarab in the crosswalk of a Paris street “bathed in a melancholy, dramatic light,” and she departs this world at age twenty-two, we read that she did not pass into the other world because the bonds of her life had been cut, but because “the suicide belt around her body had been broken.” Alem wrote Sarab intermittently for more than ten years, she tells us, before setting it aside, and resumed the work after meeting a man who had lived through the battle. “The siege of the Grand Mosque was like a wound in the heart of my city, and all along I was going around with this wound but not daring to touch it, because it is so painful,” she notes in the Publisher’s Weekly interview. “It’s a very essential incident, the seed from which sprang all the violence overcoming our world now, the terrorism which caused a deformity to the faith and Mecca, the center of this faith.” In an elegant analogy with the foregoing statement, the author expresses her devotion to the medium of her art: “Arabic is my center,” she claims. It is a place that we, her readers in English, are fortunate to orbit.
This review includes information published by ArabLit: Arabic Literature and Translation and first appeared on the Asymptote blog.