One ear to the ground

Yousef Al-Mohaimeed's storytelling transcends bans
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REVIEW Ah, the morality police — you've gotta love 'em. At least artists who get free publicity from the overzealous watchdogs should. With freedom of speech still miraculously in decent shape in this country, one might be forgiven for forgetting the unique dilemma of the banned book: once branded immoral, it automatically becomes sought after.

Such is the case with Yousef Al-Mohaimeed's Wolves of the Crescent Moon (Penguin, 192 pages, $14), which was banned in Saudi Arabia by theocratic thought-cops for casting too many spotlights on societal problems that the authorities insist don't exist. Upon being labeled dangerous and sinful, the book gained a large audience throughout the Arabic-speaking world. It has since been translated into French, and now, into English by Anthony Calderbank. While hardly as inflammatory as Saudi authorities might lead one to believe, the novel paints a troubling portrait of a traditional society embracing and fighting modernity. Government claims notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia is not free from abuse, prejudice, racism, and religious hypocrisy, and the author minces no words in giving voice to the marginalized, the abandoned, and the otherwise ignored. While the titular animal does figure prominently in the story, the main wolves appear to be of the human variety.

Wolves of the Crescent Moon reveals itself in fevered rushes of storytelling that concern three characters: a one-eared bedouin, a eunuch, and a one-eyed orphan. Turad, the one-eared tribesman who has tolerated an endless run of degrading jobs since leaving the desert for the city, arrives at a Riyadh bus station without a plan. Paralyzed by indecision, he finds himself trapped in nightmarish reminiscence and speculation; thus, we are introduced to Tawfiq, Turad's elderly eunuch coworker, whose life of misery is retold by the bedouin. While trying to decide which bus ticket to buy, Turad discovers a discarded government file involving an abandoned one-eyed baby; from there, the experimental narrative expands to include anecdotes about the orphan's distressing childhood, as well as reveries imagined by Turad in an effort to fill in the gaps left by the impersonal official documents. His inability to inject even the briefest respite into the child's conjectured history speaks volumes. For Turad, life is an endless chain of pain and suffering.

Told over the course of an evening, and engulfed by mental fatigue, Al-Mohaimeed's novel presents a variant of the existential dread found in works by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, albeit with more violence. The spellbinding narrative rarely feels anchored to its chief time and place, but instead hangs suspended within a hellish realm governed by fear, agony, and resentment.

In volleying between carefully recalled memories of his own suffering, detailed anecdotes about Tawfiq's forced slavery and eventual castration, and embellishments about the abused orphan he never knew, Turad takes the role of a downtrodden Scheherazade. He's capable of spinning 1,001 tales without the faintest hope of saving a single life. But his creator — at least until he was censored — speaks directly to those huddled in the margins of a secretive society. Wolves of the Crescent Moon might remain banned in Saudi Arabia for the foreseeable future; for now, Al-Mohaimeed will receive his well-deserved audience elsewhere in the world.

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