An opinion piece by Mahmoud Habboush in The National this week asserts that the problem with Arabic is that the language hasn’t experienced its Picasso or its (Daniel) Webster.
Centuries of political and economic frailty and a lack of interest in Arabic language by the ruling elite during Ottoman rule rendered Arabic literature into a tacky and dull baroque. Great efforts were made to ensure that every line of prose or poetry amounted to stylistic perfection. Almost no effort was exerted on meaning.
It is arguable that much of contemporary Arabic fiction has turned this on its head; these works are interested solely in an onrush of meaning and expend too little effort on beauty, shape, or style. Such is the case with Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s Wolves of the Crescent Moon, which has three quite interesting characters (Turad, Nasir, and Amm Tawfiq), page-turning situations (being buried alive, an abandoned baby, slavery), and vivid concerns with the fate of Saudi people.
The book is thus quite readable, despite a hiccup here and there. It also addresses the concerns of the contemporary KSA’s underclass with feeling. But it misses more opportunities than it makes.
Now and then, it does have some well-turned-out prose: “As the Turkish shawarma man sharpened his long knife[,] Turad gazed at his clean, finely defined ear that glowed red in the light and heat of the flames.” (All right, there’s some potential pronoun confusion there, but the “finely defined” ear glowing red in the light and heat is quite vivid.) Generally, however, this effort is not expended on each sentence, and the overall structure—three overlapping and interconnected stories—sometimes feels careless and too full of easy coincidences.
Still, while Wolves of the Crescent Moon is not gorgeous, it is full to bursting with the meaning that Habboush laments.
The conclusions of some other reviews of Wolves:
Quarterly Conversation: “Too often, too, Al-Mohaimeed’s Saudi Arabia becomes the clichéd land of swarthy men and willowy veils that’s already familiar to any Westerner, instead of the real nation that the author has lived in and sometimes renders up. Occasionally Wolves reveals pages and pages of tautly narrated stories that imaginatively tells the characters’ lives; far more often Turad, Amm Tawfiq, and Nasir feel like tamed wolves that Al-Mohaimeed has trained to run through a set course.”
SF Gate: “…”Wolves of the Crescent Moon” seems a bit unfocused. Its sophisticated modernist techniques and its traditional material seem not entirely melded, and the result is like a gourmet meal eaten on the ground.”
Complete Review: “If not entirely successful in contrasting tradition with a rapidly-changing modern world, Wolves of the Crescent Moon is nevertheless a very rich work, and certainly of considerable interest. Al-Mohaimeed’s creative approach in weaving together these stories, and the pithiness of some of the scenes, show a talented author at work, yet another indication of a lively, innovative Arabic-fiction scene from which a lot more will surely be heard in the future.”
Boston.Com: “Banned in Saudi Arabia, “Wolves of the Crescent Moon” is a distinctly unflattering portrait of a country with little patience for the suffering of others. It is also an incomplete portrait, whose disparate pieces do not properly add up. Magical realism thrives on disjunction – on the intersection between reality and fantasy – but without a solid grounding in a familiar society, any magic will undoubtedly sink beneath the waves. Readers with an interest in the Middle East will be fascinated by a Saudi novel regardless of its quality; it is a shame that “Wolves” offers little else to be enthusiastic about beyond its provenance.”