The Paradoxes of Women and Freedom in Abdulaziz al-Mahmoud’s ‘The Holy Sail’

The Holy Sail (2014 Arabic, 2015 English) is Qatari journalist Abulaziz al-Mahmoud’s sophomore novel, coming on the heels of his popular and well-constructed The Corsair (2011 Arabic, 2013 English):

holyholysailUnfortunately, while The Corsair successfully wove together nineteenth-century history and fiction, jumping back and forth between regions and narrative threads without losing the plot, The Holy Sail does not. This second novel overburdens the reader with, it seems, every last bit of research about the fifteenth century al-Mahmoud did in order to assemble it. At times, this feels more like al-Mahmoud’s collection of notes than his novel.

While everything in The Corsair centers around a titular pirate, it’s difficult to say what The Holy Sail centers around, if anything. The back jacket makes the story about a “young girl” who “falls for a noble Arabian tribal leader.” Indeed, it is about 180 pages in — when Halima appears — that the book begins to find its feet and starts walking.

This could be a commentary on insufficient editing: someone should’ve told al-Mahmoud to lop off most of the first 200 pages and re-center his work around the intrigue of the second 200. But it’s also interesting to see what sort of historical visions and contradictions al-Mahmoud presents.

What’s a (good) woman?

When pioneering modern Arab novelist Jurji Zaydan wrote his historical novels at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, societal improvements were central to his thinking. This is particularly true of the changing role of women. Zaydan’s female characters are often active heroes, and his prologues are not particularly subtle at suggesting the virtues of female education and engagement in society.

So, if Halima is the hero of The Holy Sail, then what sort of hero is she? What guidance does her story offer us modern women?

When Halima first appears, she is clearly meant to be a strong and beautiful character: She accompanies her father after their native Hormuz is invaded, when he is afraid for his future; she sways the king to a course of action with her eloquence; she wins the love of the “noble Arabian tribal leader” of the dustjacket, a visiting vizier.

But after that, her character is all over the place. She doesn’t marry her husband from love, but as a rational decision. Yet suddenly she’s deeply in love with him and can’t live without him. And what sort of husband is he? Halima enjoyed some freedom of movement and speech in her native Hormuz, but, when she moves to Bahrain with her husband, he tells her that’s no longer appropriate. “It doesn’t work that way here, Halima.”

This apparently strongwilled woman shrugs it off. Fine, things don’t “work that way” any more.

Halima’s also portrayed as a kind person, yet it also seems like no contradiction when she beats her maid Farah bloody (even yanking out hanks of the poor woman’s hair). It’s similarly costs Halima relatively little to allow Farah to go off and be raped in Halima’s place. After that, Farah commits suicide. Halima is certainly sad about that, but it seems more important that her honor is intact.

After Halima loses everything, she gains a new religiosity as she goes on the hajj, where she carries out the last wish of a dead ruler. It is not through any particular action, but in guarding her honor (and in being physically attractive) that Halima wins her happily-ever-after: being married to another important man and moving with him to Istanbul.

Halima’s last words are: “Praise be to God for everything. Dear God, have mercy on my father!”

What’s freedom?

Jurji Zaydan’s historical novels are also interested in the individual’s place in a healthy (or unhealthy) society, and the good ruler vs. the despot. So are al-Mahmoud’s, although it’s difficult to say what the characteristics of a good ruler might be in the positive.

Al-Mahmoud’s novel is obsessed with the ideas of “justice” and “freedom,” staging the Portuguese as a people with neither, showcasing from the beginning how they trample on the rights of Jews, Muslims, and all “Others.”

Early on, a pair of Portuguese Jews who are oppressed by their country’s king (naively) wonder: “Why did the Muslims not coerce others to join their faith as the Inquisition had done in Spain and Portugal?”

Later, the same Jewish characters: “When they speak, they speak freely and without the fear we feel in Portugal. They are free, Rabbi. They don’t have an Inquisition!”

Throughout the narrative, we hear some version of how “Portuguese did not know or understand justice.”

And, at the very end, the moral of the story, also in the mouth of a Portuguese Jewish character: “Happiness is not money and power, but being free to live away from the oppression of unjust kings who take pleasure in killing and torturing people.”

How the female and slave characters are supposed to manage this is unclear and unproblematized.

Turning the pages

Al-Mahmoud has a talent for putting his characters into difficult situations, and for interleaving history and fiction. In The Corsair, even where the narrative feels talky or pedantic, the reader wants to keep turning pages. There, al-Mahmoud also avoids mustache-twirling, silent-movie-tied-to-the-railroad-tracks, clash-of-the-civilizations bad guys.

In both books, the prose is clear, and here it is put into brisk and accessible English by Karim Trablousi.

But ultimately, that doesn’t make this a readable book. In The Holy Sail, al-Mahmoud has crafted not just a messier narrative with too many branching plot lines, but one that is much more triumphalist about Arab and Muslim history. Not all Arabs and Muslims here are good guys, but they’re largely human, unlike the Portuguese Christian leaders and soldiers, who seem to revel in evil as they “cheered Albuquerque’s diabolical plan hysterically.”