Tonight in Abu Dhabi, the winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction will be announced. Diamonds and Women is one of the six shortlisted novels, and here Sawad Hussein reviews a book rich with the physicality of sex, sexual power, and sexual exploitation:
By Sawad Hussain
Lina Hawyan Elhassan’s latest novel, Diamonds and Women, navigates through time and space, from the early twentieth century up through the 1980s, moving across the globe. The story is shared between two generations of Arab emigrants from different cities in Syria, although the majority hail from Damascus.
Through the intermittent memories of characters floating in and out of the storyline, the reader is taken back yet further — as far as the late 1800s. The novel portrays the romantic, economic, and social struggles of the protagonists, as well as their eventual prominent influence on the societies of Paris, Sao Paulo, and Buenos Aires, among others.
The narration throughout the book is primarily omniscient, with dialogue lacking, leaving the reader wanting more of a real-life interaction with some of the characters. Almaz, a young Damascene girl of a mere fifteen years, who is forced to marry a middle-aged playboy Count, is the main protagonist of the first half of the novel, with each of the ensuing characters being introduced solely in relation to her. The second half focuses on her son Karlos and his quest to know more about his mother’s mysterious past.
…and it paints almost tangible scenes of the opulence oozing from these particular individuals — be it the rich descriptions of their sumptuous clothes and jewels, their harmful gambling addictions, or the hierarchy between servant and master.
This novel is unique in that it is one the few in Arabic that charts the migration of Arab immigrants to South America, and it paints almost tangible scenes of the opulence oozing from these particular individuals — be it the rich descriptions of their sumptuous clothes and jewels, their harmful gambling addictions, or the hierarchy between servant and master. The layering of fictional characters between historical events and personalities also lends the novel a high degree of verisimilitude. Individuals such as Jamal Addin Al Afghani and Qasim Amin are not just mentioned in passing, but have encounters with book’s characters, who carry with them the memories of hosting these historical figures at salons or schmoozing them at dinner parties and cafes during the late nineteenth century.
Napoleon himself is claimed to have made an appearance in a billiards room during one such evening in Paris, where his arrival was duly noted among the glitterati of the Arab immigrant community. Unfortunately at times, while these forays into history enrich the context in which the story is narrated, characters seem to sometimes be introduced solely for the purpose of mentioning a historical event or personage, which not only curtails the development of the plot but also directly compromises it.
The explicit references to sex, sexually charged scenes, and vivid descriptions of sex as a means of controlling women elevate these elements to an undeniable focal point of the novel.
Sex and sexual conquest are undoubtedly the most pronounced themes of the novel. This becomes apparent very early on and is evident throughout the story’s development. The explicit references to sex, sexually charged scenes, and vivid descriptions of sex as a means of controlling women elevate these elements to an undeniable focal point of the novel. Scenes where sex becomes a weapon and where a number of the characters face grim endings, among them suicide, are reminiscent of Hanan Al-Shaykh’s The Story of Zahra.
In the initial pages, the reader is made aware of how Almaz’s new husband warms himself at night between the buttocks of his two Ethiopian maidservants — one called Laure, who he specifically took on for her shapely bum, and is characterized for the remainder of the novel by her legendary derriere. She is later taken to a party where all the women are forced to strip from the navel down, and have their buttocks voted upon: “[S]he was chosen and Laure became a being of buttocks … buttocks supple, ready to be in harmony with the body parts of another.” Almaz’s husband also makes reference to the name he prefers his servants to use while in bed with him: “Emperor.”
Allusion is made to the Count’s former lover in his younger days, who is so sexually promiscuous that there is rumour that she has even engaged in sex with a horse. Almaz plays the piano tirelessly night after night to drown out the raging sex the Count has with his two maidservants.
Later on Lulwa, a young girl who is trafficked from Syria, is forced to be “a woman of many soldiers,” having her virginity brutally tested by an old woman’s gnarly hand.
It’s to the author’s credit that she has woven together each of these and similar anecdotes, amidst the historical backdrop and her rich, flowery diction bursting with adjectives. And the directness with which she describes sexual incidences does grab the reader’s attention. It is therefore not a surprise that the many sexual and physically charged scenes in the book have actually prevented a publishing house interested in the premise of the book from publishing it in translation, fearing the hue and cry of national censors.
This is in stark contrast to the flashes of powerful women in the novel who stand up either to their oppressors or momentarily put up a fight.
The sexual scenes — and not shying away from such elements — definitely impart a grittier feel to the novel, and it shows how women were objectified time and again during this time period, across continents. This is in stark contrast to the flashes of powerful women in the novel who stand up either to their oppressors or momentarily put up a fight. We see this when Almaz runs away from her defective and loveless marriage to start a new life, and when Berlint — a key character in the second half of the novel — claims power over her own identity by changing her name.
To wit, the novel starts off with great promise, and makes for an extremely educational read, but unfortunately loses momentum halfway through, failing to meet the expectations of what could have been achieved with such a spectacular tapestry of historical backgrounds. What would have made the story stronger, plot-wise, would be the removal of some characters who seem to simply be there for historical credibility. Also, the book could’ve drawn a more distinct link between the remaining characters’ storylines.
All in all, within the genre of Arab migration fiction, it definitely still holds it own thanks to the vibrant and remarkable depiction of immigrant life in Latin America, and is a creditable contribution to the genre.
Sawad Hussain is an Arabic teacher, translator and litterateur residing in Dubai.