LISA KAAKI, [email protected]
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2010-03-17 20:31

The new Saudi literature includes female writers who, following the success of Rajaa Alsanea’s “Girls in Riyadh,” describe their personal experiences. This “lifting off the veil” has sparked an unprecedented interest in a series of taboo-breaking novels which clearly reflect changes in Saudi society.
If curiosity on the one hand has certainly been a selling factor, on the other hand the poor quality of some of these publications has triggered sharp criticism as well as a heated debate concerning their salacious content.
The well-known American author Annie Proulx hailed Yousef Al-Mohaimeed as “a rising star in international literature.” Al-Mohaimeed is in fact one of Saudi Arabia’s most gifted new writers. He denounces the urge to write about any forbidden subject just to sell a book for the sake of fame and money.
Middle Eastern literature is still not the same as literature from other countries. However, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and 9/11 have created an interest in Arab fiction. The timing is momentous because the Saudi literary scene is presently teeming with vitality and great expectations.
Al-Mohaimeed is one of the few Saudi authors whose works have been translated into English, Russian, Spanish and German.
Praising “Munira’s Bottle,” Proulx wrote: “Munira’s bottle is a rich and skillfully crafted story of a dysfunctional Saudi Arabian family. One of its strengths lies in its edgy characters: Munira, a sultry, self-centered, sexually repressed woman; Ibn Al-Dahhal, the bold imposter who deceives and betrays her; and Muhammad, her perpetually angry and righteous brother, a catalyst who forces the events. Western readers will welcome it for its opening door into Arab lives and minds.”
Al-Mohaimeed acknowledges that 50 years ago life in the Kingdom was very simple with few options. Saudi society entered gradually into civil life. This, in turn, triggered a conflict between religious extremism and those in favor of change. This, according to the author, explains why family members share very different ideas.
Set during the first Gulf War, “Munira’s Bottle” is a love story that turns into a tragedy. The author leads the reader into the sheltered life of a middle class Saudi woman, Munira Al-Sahi, the novel’s main character, who lives in a well-protected environment under the watchful eye of her elder brother who believes “women need a firm hand.”
“She is no longer left the house except to go to her work at the Young Women’s Remand Center, and that she had had to fight for. Her brother Muhammad made it a condition that he would take her to work and bring her back at lunchtime and no evening shifts. So she would go into her room and close the door, draw the pink curtains with white flowers on them, and light a jasmine candle,” Al-Mohaimeed writes.
The writer takes us inside this confined space and skillfully traps us inside. The first page takes place in the heroin’s bedroom and the story ends in that same room. This atmosphere of seclusion is heightened by the book’s title, “Munira’s Bottle.” Munira’s feisty grandmother gave her a beautiful bottle engraved with silver designs, asking her to “put in dead stories so they can come alive.”
And this bottle set off a ritual. Each time Munira comes back from work, she secludes herself in her bedroom and writes down the stories of some of the women who pass through the Remand Center where she works. Then very carefully, she folds the pieces of paper and puts them back into the old bottle.
This sad story of deceit begins with a pestering phone that wouldn’t stop ringing. Looking back on the events which rocked her life, Munira compared the ringing to a long rope slowly twisting itself around her neck until it eventually strangled her. Naïve and sentimental, she was a perfect prey, taken “by the hand like a blind girl and led through the constellations and galaxies of another universe.”
After the identity of the mysterious caller is revealed, and the deceitful plot unveiled, Munira’s immaturity gives way to a sharp sense of reality. In the following excerpt, she scans her mind and casts a critical look on her life: “I am a female. Just a female with clipped wings… My sole purpose is to receive, like the earth receives the rain and the sunlight and the plough… I submissively accept all things, even love. I didn’t look for someone to love. I didn’t have the right to do that in the first place. I was simply delighted when I found someone who loved me, and to be completely honest it wasn’t loving someone that made me so happy, as much as it was being loved and desired.”
Al-Mohaimeed’s prose blends the style and technique of the traditional storyteller with those of modern fiction. And more important, his narrative not only familiarizes with Saudi society but leads us also into the complex and hidden world of women.
“I think we knew a lot about Japanese lives and their minds thanks to Yukio Mishima, Yasumari Kawabata, Murakami. We knew about Indian culture through the works of Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga. So I hope I can describe the lives of Arabs to all the readers of the world,” concludes Al-Mohaimeed.

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