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:
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[.]”
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.
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