Reviewer Alexandra Atiya found a challenge to received ideas of masculinity in Iraqi novelist Muhsin al-Ramli’s Dates on My Fingers (2014), translated by Luke Leafgren. Tomorrow, a Q&A about the novel between Atiya and al-Ramli:
By Alexandra Atiya
The opening scenes of Dates on My Fingers shocked me. The 2008 novel by Muhsin al Ramli, now available in English translation by Luke Leafgren, starts with a bizarre act of sexualized violence.
The novel’s narrator, Saleem, tells a story from his childhood in Iraq. The story starts when Saleem’s sister falls ill and Saleem’s father takes the sister to the city of Tikrit for medical treatment. As they walk to the medical center, a car slows down beside them. The driver reaches out to grab the sister’s bottom. Saleem’s father reacts violently — he pulls the driver out of the car, leaving the driverless car to roll down the street, and strips the driver of his clothes and his pistol. He then forces two bullets into the driver’s anus.
The driver, it turns out, has important government connections, so Saleem’s father gets arrested and tortured. The violence between Saleem’s father and the driver then, by extension, turns into the violence between a family and the government. Saleem’s domineering grandfather rallies the family, which arrives armed and attacks the provincial government building where the father is being held. A battle breaks out. The family loses three men and no police are hurt, yet Saleem’s father is released in order to prevent any further violence. Upon his release, Saleem’s father vows vengeance against the young, anonymous driver.
The story then jumps ahead about 20 years. Saleem is no longer a boy. He is almost 30, and he has immigrated to Madrid, where he lives alone in a fifth-floor walk-up and works a regular job. He seems to be far from the strictures of his father and grandfather, but he still is not completely at home in Spain. He maintains his virginity, doesn’t drink, and plasters his walls with pictures of Iraq.
And, stranger still, the father is not the obedient, honor-obsessed figure of Saleem’s youth. In his new role as the proprietor of a Spanish nightclub, the father is glad-handing, drinking alcohol, preaching peace, and publicly patting his female employees’ bottoms.
Saleem believes that he has left behind the world of his Iraqi family. But much to Saleem’s surprise, he finds that his father is working in a nightclub in Madrid. And, stranger still, the father is not the obedient, honor-obsessed figure of Saleem’s youth. In his new role as the proprietor of a Spanish nightclub, the father is glad-handing, drinking alcohol, preaching peace, and publicly patting his female employees’ bottoms.
The irony of his father’s treatment of female employees is not lost on Saleem, and for the rest of the novel, Saleem attempts to understand the conflict between his father’s commitment to the oath of vengeance and his father’s new life in Spain.
The filial conflict shapes the narrator’s dilemmas about devotion and denying lust for religious reasons.
The essential conflict of the novel is couched in two stories. The first is the story of the vendetta between Saleem’s father and the anonymous driver. The second is the story of the grandfather’s attempts to create an ideal village in Iraq. The dictatorial grandfather at once wants to serve as god, government, and father to the whole family, and Saleem describes him as an “adversary who forced us to sculpt our private selves in secret.”
Throughout the novel, al-Ramli explores the parallels between government, fatherhood, and religion, while also showing the ways in which these three structures compete for one man’s obedience and attention.
The ideal village is described, almost as a side note, in the middle of the novel, but it seems essential to the novel’s workings. Throughout the novel, al-Ramli explores the parallels between government, fatherhood, and religion, while also showing the ways in which these three structures compete for one man’s obedience and attention.
Some of the most effective aspects of the novel lie in its description of Aliya, Saleem’s ill-fated first love. As an adolescent, Saleem writes dramatic, traditional love poetry to Aliya, describing chivalric scenes and praising her beauty, including praising her big eyes even though her eyes are unnaturally small. Aliya responds to his advances, but she also confronts him: She tells him that there is no reason for him to lie and exaggerate. She knows her eyes are small – the other women in her family tease her because of it — and he does not need to make up things about her in order to convince her of her love. She says that she responded to his love poetry because she could tell that his feeling was genuine — not because he paid her absurd and untruthful compliments.
He goes back to his grandfather and asks him why the poets tell lies, and the grandfather tells him that “the sweetest poetry is the most fabulous.”
Saleem is baffled by this response. He goes back to his grandfather and asks him why the poets tell lies, and the grandfather tells him that “the sweetest poetry is the most fabulous.” Female bodies are an obsession throughout the book, and there is an unflinching eroticism that transgresses the strict rule of fathers and grandfathers. The novel’s title comes in part from Saleem and Aliya’s shared love of dates.
The novel is straightforward, short, and simple to read, a fact which seems, after Aliya’s speech, to be a rebuke to poetry’s pretentions and claims to tradition.
The writing in the English translation of Dates on My Fingers is not beautiful or ornate. The novel is straightforward, short, and simple to read, a fact which seems, after Aliya’s speech, to be a rebuke to poetry’s pretentions and claims to tradition. At times, the novel is remarkably effective in generating a picture of authoritarian male-dominated societies. It manages to depict the power of paternalistic traditions, and their effects on shaping a man’s conception of himself, while posing a sharp challenge to them.
Alexandra Atiya is a writer, reporter, and poet. You can find her on twitter at @lexiatiya.
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