Safia Moore and Sawad Hussain give their views of Fadi Zaghmout’s debut novel, The Bride of Amman, a bloggish book on life and sexual freedom in Jordan:
By Safia Moore
Released in English this summer, Fadi Zaghmout’s novel The Bride of Amman is a sharp and sensitive exposé of Jordanian society through the voices of young people constrained by conservatism and blatant discrimination. The confessional tone is entirely appropriate since chapters are allocated to characters, each telling their individually unique, yet linked stories, hopping between the present and the past, with one eye always on the future. This structure privileges the reader with insider knowledge, and the fast-paced slices of life often read like private blog posts. Indeed, Salma, described by her grandmother as “an unplucked fruit left to rot” because of her unmarried status at thirty, writes an anonymous, popular and highly didactic blog entitled, “The Jordanian Spinster.”
Through Salma, her younger sister Leila and her friends, The Bride of Amman focuses on how entrenched views that credit marriage as central to female existence, suffocate ambition and personal freedom. Constantly shadowing the characters’ internal conflicts, are the old tribal loyalties, inherent sexism, and polarised definitions of gender, that still hold sway in Amman and restrict life choices for both male and female.
Telling a story from multiple viewpoints can be difficult to pull off and, at first, I feared a lack of differentiation between the voices of the three close friends Leila, Hayat, and Rana. However, each of their situations is so unique that this is never an issue. Leila is the eponymous, romantic, and conforming bride-to-be; Hayat carries a painful secret and is tough yet naïve; and Rana is a Christian who falls for a Muslim. As the women’s problems, desires, and dreams unfold, feminist themes come to the fore and the intersections of their lives make for engrossing reading.
There may be too much “tell” and not enough “show” at times for Western readers, who could take issue with the characters being so consistently self-analytical, but this is a stylistic trait in Arabic fiction. By way of balance, I feel Zaghmout’s writing is at its best when he describes action and steers clear of any temptation to educate. For example, Rana’s first interaction with her soon-to-be lover, Janty is perfectly rendered. The reader is undeniably inside the head of a twenty year-old, full of romantic ideas of finding “the one,” trapped in a body bubbling with sexual desire yet unable to express it. In Rana’s case, her conservative Christian background means her relationship with the Muslim Janty is taboo, and it is admirable how the book cuts across simplistic dichotomies, presenting a pluralistic view of Arab society in which patriarchal traditions rule whether one is Christian or Muslim. As Rana muses when her male cousin interrogates her about Janty, “It is just a game, a kind of machismo contest where they all vie to dominate the females of the herd.”
The double standards with regard to gender roles in Jordan are illustrated best through the character of Leila, whom many readers may see as the “main character” and she certainly plays a pivotal role. Leila is interesting in that unlike her older sister Salma, she refuses to rebel against the system although she can see its horrendous flaws. On the one hand, Leila’s degree of female conditioning is such that she adores the Arabic word for bride, Aroos – “what joy is crammed into those five letters! The name resonates in my ears like a sacred chant.” But at the same time, she recognises the irony bound up with the double pressure of finding a husband and a good job after graduation, knowing that, “the higher a woman gets promoted, the less chance she has of ever getting married.”
Similarly, she notes, “A Jordanian man isn’t ashamed of accepting his wife’s help economically, but it would be shameful for him to help share her burden of cleaning, cooking, and washing.” Such themes, although sewn into the fabric of a particular Arab society, are universally relevant, making the book of interest to a wide readership.
The narrative thread and plot in The Bride of Amman is enriched with the introduction of Ali, a gay Iraqi man wearing the mask of social convention by “doing what is expected of a man my age. It’s a way of life I’m forced to follow, regardless of my real sexual inclination and my personal needs.” So dangerous would it be for Ali to come out in a place where “homosexuality was something the Arab press tended to portray as going hand-in-hand with devil worship,” he is prepared to marry and start a family, living a lie in order to bury the truth.
His motivation is complex. Wrapped up with Ali’s strong religious beliefs is his original misunderstanding of homosexuality as a psychiatric condition, and the misguided horrors of “correction therapy” in which his sexual orientation is described as an “addiction, like smoking, caused by either child abuse or an absent father.” Ali comes off the proscribed anti-depressants and decides that no-one can get everything in religion “right”, others failing in other ways: “Everyone has a weakness and the devil knows how to play on it,” but the reader is left feeling his strategy may be doomed.
One of the strengths of The Bride of Amman is the way the author makes the reader care about his characters and their predicaments. As we witness them make decisions, we may shake our heads and whisper, “No, don’t do it,” but there is great emotional truth to Zaghmout’s writing and some heart breaking moments in which the reader becomes invested. One of the book’s many ironies is that the unmarried Salma is pushed to the emotional and psychological edge, feeling “shackled, like I’m paralysed,” by the other women in her community — the grandmother who married at the age of fourteen, the friends whose mantra is, “it’s your turn next”, and an obsessive, matchmaking mother. Salma describes Jordanian women’s obsession with marriage as “maniacal,” and I was reminded of Lorca’s Yerma, another woman seen as a failure and ridiculed by her peers.
There is much tragedy and heartache in The Bride of Amman and it confronts issues normally swept under the carpet in the name of honour — rape, incest, suicide, misogyny, anti-gay prejudices, macho violence, and unplanned pregnancy, for example. However, harsh reality is offset by occasional poetic metaphor, and the text is often enhanced by Arabic proverbs. These touches, together with the perceptive and articulate multiple voices, save the novel from ever becoming grim. The translator, Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, deserves credit for transforming the original to English whilst maintaining its Arabic heart and soul.
The Bride of Amman is no modern fairy tale with a happily ever after ending. Throughout the narrative there is a sense of foreboding, of imminent disaster and it does eventually come in a dramatic and deeply affecting way. As the reader becomes attached to each of the five main characters, sharing to a degree the claustrophobic beehive of Amman, a city that feels like a village, it becomes clear that escape may be the only answer. There is relief when Hayat, the girl who described herself as a butterfly with clipped wings, becomes an airline stewardess and literally flies away. Likewise, Rana and Janty escape but in the interest of reconciliation with their families, return to Amman where Leila and Ali are negotiating their own unique version of love and happiness. The novel ends with much forgiving and compromise in the interest of peaceful co-existence, but the fresh beginning conceals deep wounds. Hayat’s words from two years earlier came to mind as an epigraph for the book, “Life is a harsh teacher, because it makes us sit our exams way before we’re ready, before we’ve even started revising.”
By Sawad Hussain
Fadi Zaghmout’s The Bride of Amman (translated into English by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp) is a bold, charged novel detailing the struggle Jordanians face in abiding societal strictures on sexual orientation and gender identity. The taboo topics explored in the novel — including homosexuality, sexual abuse within tight-knit families, sexual harassment in the workplace, extramarital liaisons and interreligious marriage–have rendered the novel quite controversial in the Arab world, with readers either wildly celebrating or denigrating the novel for its “unrealistic” portrayals of Jordanian society.
If we are talking strictly about content, then I belong to the former category. The uninhibited manner in which Zaghmout addresses such realities as living as a homosexual man in a modern, predominantly Muslim community is fresh, engaging, and educational (even for someone who considers herself well-versed in LGBT literature).
It is easy for an author to fall into didactic narration when dealing with such topics. But The Bride of Amman escapes this trap: here is a novel I would encourage both old and young to read simply for its piercing insight into the life of an Arab man—who happens to be both homosexual and practicing Muslim. This is a story told with such probity that it could be anyone’s.
The novel is structured as a penta-polyphonic narrative, like Alia Mamdouh’s The Loved Ones, and is primarily told from female perspectives complemented by a sole male voice. The primary characters are Leila, an unmarried university graduate crumbling under societal pressures to marry; Salma, her unmarried older sister who secretly pens the Jordanian Spinster blog; Hayat, Leila’s friend who suffers repeated sexual abuse at the hands of her father; Rana, a conservative Christian who falls in love with a Muslim; and Ali, an Iraqi homosexual whose family sought refuge in Jordan after the death of his father.
Zaghmout’s writing style is direct and to the point, not periphrastic as an overwhelming quantity of contemporary Arabic novels are. As a conversation I had with Zaghmout revealed, those who have criticized his work primarily point to his failure to write in a traditional “Arabic” style, replete with adjectives and run-on sentences ad nauseam. Perhaps this “flaw” in Zaghmout’s writing should be celebrated: it endues the novel with a clear-cut quality that reinforces the directness with which he handles his delicate subject matter.
Though The Bride of Amman soars in content and style, it fails to shine structurally. The voices of each character are difficult to distinguish for a good part of the novel, and this shortcoming is apparent in the original Arabic version itself as well. Were each chapter not headed with the name of its main protagonist (aside from Ali’s) it would be an arduous task for the reader to differentiate between the various female voices.
The structural flaws are appreciably redeemed by Zaghmout’s lack of ample focus on the settings framing his novel; names of roads, suburbs and city landmarks are not given prominence in his storytelling. Whether this was a conscious decision or not, it has lent the novel one of its most compelling qualities, which is the ability of the story to belong to any contemporary Muslim society from Morocco to Indonesia. It should therefore not only be hailed as a pan-Arab novel, but as a novel chronicling the trials of individuals struggling to conform to societal diktats in Muslim societies worldwide.
In terms of the translation, I was delighted with the choices that Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp made to keep particular Arabic words in the translated text, as well as her ability to communicate them to the reader without explaining them explicitly. Translators always face the age-old dilemma of either watering down source language references in order to make the end product an “easier read” for the audience, or having an index of keywords or cumbersome footnotes to clarify words left untranslated. Ahmedzai Kemp bypassed this dilemma by deftly guiding the reader by way of context.
As Leila’s grandmother is lamenting Leila’s spinsterhood, for example, she says, “We used to get married young, not like these days … Yallah … God help us, don’t end up like your sister.” Ahmedzai Kemp could have translated yallah into English, but by staying true to the original Arabic she not only endowed the dialogue at hand with a measure of poignant authenticity, but also provides the uninitiated reader with the context to deduce the meaning of the word fluidly, predisposing the audience to a smooth reading experience that enhances the enjoyment of the novel.
While Zaghmout does not aim to provide a panacea for those battling sexual discrimination within Jordanian society—and while The Bride of Amman is in no way quixotic—he aims to simply hold up a mirror to what is truly happening in the shadows in the majority of Muslim societies the world over. It is up to the reader to determine, as they sail through the pages, if they are able to countenance the stark, unexpected reality reflected in the mirror or not.
This review first appeared on Asymptote magazine.
Safia Moore (www.topofthetent.com, @SafiaMoore) is a former English teacher from Northern Ireland who now works as a writer, editor, reviewer and creative writing tutor. She has a PhD in Literature and has published flash fiction, short stories, reviews, and critical articles, with Ether Books, The Incubator, Haverthorn Magazine, and The Honest Ulsterman. Safia won the 2014 Abu Dhabi National Short Story Competition and the 2015 Bath Short Story Award. She lives in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE.
Sawad Hussain is an Arabic teacher, translator and litterateur who holds an MA in Modern Arabic Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is passionate about all things related to Arab culture, history and literature. Her dream job would be to translate and review Arabic literature full-time.