by Abdulaziz Al Farsi
This is literature, set in a backwater Omani village. Despite the purple prose, or maybe even because of it, the story is still enjoyable. Unusually, the book is told from 6 points of view. In a move I’ve never seen before, the author has summarized the chapters by P.O.V from:
* Khalid Bhakit, a rebellious young man who gets his university ideas from “books with white pages”, as opposed to village Imam Rashid, whose old-school teachings come out of “books with yellowed pages”.
* Ayda, in love with Khalid Bhakit (who is unaware that she exists). The first girl in the village to go to university, she knows the village thinks classes are still segregated by gender.
* One of the 5 village troublemakers, given the nickname “Anthrax” by Khalid Bhakit. His real name is Suhayl al-Jamra Al-Khabitha.
* Mihyan ibn Khalaf – Khadim’s adoptive white father. Lost his wife and son in the flood that delivered the 3-year-old black boy to the village, clinging to a copper tub. They were never able to discover where Khadim came from.
* The Saturnine Poet – a poet from “Saturn”. I wasn’t sure, but suspect a joke on the part of Khalid. He enjoys the villagers’ ignorance as they pretend to know this town.
Conflicts abound in the story. 1) The traditional way of life in the village is disappearing as individual TVs take the place of meeting houses. 2) The university has given Khalid the idea that the traditional way of worship, as practiced in the village, is actually not in the Koran and he agitates for reform. 3) There are constant power struggles for village leadership.
Mystical Realism in the Desert
Khalid and Ayda are the only poetic narrators, but even the prosaic ones speak of the village as a place sure to be damned to the fires of Hell. As in the Libyan book, I was surprised to hear Muslims referring to Moses and Noah, and speaking of the narrow bridge to Paradise that not all will succeed in crossing. The mystery of why the village is so doomed kept me reading. Why do the villagers love it and hate it – often at the same time?
(Being from a small town myself, I do understand some issues.)
The Good Bits
I was particularly fond of the comic devices employed in this novel. One of the troublemakers, Sa’id Dhab’a, is a know-it-all. When the village gets a visitor from Bangladesh, Sa’id is the one to educate them:
“‘Bangladesh is a country located near France. Its people make their living on the oil and fish trade. Its climate is snowy all year round, so European ice-skating competitions are held there. The capital of Bangladesh is Dhaka, and Muslims make up one-sixth of its population.’
As Sa’id Dhab’a spoke, the others nodded their heads. Some of them believed what they were hearing, while others thought it preposterous. Khalid Bakhit’s eyes bugged out, from which I gathered that he didn’t believe what Said had said…”
Speaking of snow, I was very surprised to read that Oman was familiar with it. Khalid talks about “frostbitten evenings” and the “snow in people’s souls.” Odd.
Five mud houses! One of the better books I’ve read for this blog. Elevated to a higher level than many.