The celebrated Yemeni author Ali al-Muqri’s Hurma, trans. T.M. Aplin (2015), is his first novel to appear in English. Some preliminary thoughts about the novel:
Unlike the al-Muqri novels that were longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Black Taste, Black Smell and The Handsome Jew) this 2012 novel is bursting-but-bursting with sex. Indeed, although the narrative never snaps, the springs of the book are whining beneath the weight of it. The only thing that gives us any refuge is a tape of Um Kulthoum’s that is played obsessively, over and over, the protagonist searching for an answer in the lyrics. Each chapter is a flip of the tape.
This sex here is not subordinated to or masked by some other desire, some other purpose in our protagonist’s life. It’s the titular hurma‘s raison d’être and obsession: from the “cultural videos” she watches as a teenaged girl, to hearing about her sex-worker sister’s adventures, to frustration with her husband’s impotence (and her second husband’s impotence!), to sitting by as other women are raped, not understanding.
Our hurma — and we must tip our hat to Aplin’s decision to keep it as the incantatory hurma (sanctity) — does briefly think she will find meaning in traveling to Afghanistan to fight behind her pitiful husband, but quickly finds she’s just a money-and-explosives mule, and is immediately sent away from the front, taken into Iran, where she’s arrested and briefly jailed.
It’s too-oft said that the three taboos of Arabic fiction are sex, religion, and politics. Najwa Barakat, in a recent interview, rightly brushed off the idea of these as sweeping literary taboos. Indeed, many contemporary narratives are overwhelmed with sex; Hurma, oddly, manages not to be.
To be sure, al-Muqri’s book has plenty of religion and politics as well, but these lesser melodies are overpowered by sex. One of the religion instructors at our hurma’s Islamic University appears on video to give the girls an off-the-cuff talk about the birds and the bees. Meanwhile, he can be seen — when the camera slips — to be maintaining a “stiff grip on what had expanded between his thighs[.]”
Although our hurma chooses a religious path, she’s scarcely interested in the specifics of religion. Although she chooses a political path, the specifics of why she’s off to jihad — or why anyone does it, or what the heck the war is about — are quite fuzzy. She briefly imagines doing something, heroically saving a man from the battlefield. As a result, she thinks she might be called by a real name. But then that evaporates.
It should either be tedious or erotica — a quest novel wherein an unremarkable woman attempts to be penetrated. But this unremarkable hurma swells larger than the rest of the narrative, and the rest of the world, until she’s floating above it like a giant parade balloon. Her need is for something that is unclear to her, that she’s not allowed to — or capable of — seeing. It is a novel of primal frustration, and the tape is playing, and we’re flipping sides, trying to figure out what the lyrics mean.
General release of the novel is on October 1.