How many times has the Romeo and Juliet story been retold? Having asked that question, I’m not certain that Eritrean writer Sulaiman Addonia had Shakespeare in mind when he wrote his evocative story of two star-crossed lovers, not in Eritrea but in Saudi Arabia. However, the publishers of The Consequences of Love highlight the connection to a story that depicts the near impossibility of love in such a stultifying and repressive country.
The young lovers, Naser and Fiore, have Eritrean parentage, but the obstacle they encounter as foreigners attempting to fulfill their love is not familial but religious: Islamic fundamentalism.
Naser and his younger brother, Ibrahim, were sent out of Eritrea by their mother, who feared that they would be killed during the war with Ethiopia. After a brief period of time in Sudan they were sent on to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to be taken care of by their mother’s brother. The boys are ten and thirteen, respectively, when they meet their uncle. He turns out to be not much of a protector; in fact he uses Naser to pay off his obligation to his kafeel, or sponsor, which every non-Saudi has to have in order to reside in the country. It’s an insidious practice, as we shortly see, of turning young boys into sexual toys for married Saudi men to exploit in the most degrading manner. Naser’s uncle’s kafeel rapes the teenager, and there’s little that he as a youth and as an immigrant can do about it.
By the time of the rape, Naser has already observed the hypocrisy surrounding him no matter where he goes and what he observes. The country’s religious police are everywhere, like maggots living off the flesh of the young and the innocent. If the police catch a young man and a woman together, the couple can be carted off and imprisoned, flogged, even stoned to death or beheaded. The Islamic imams have one constant litany: women are evil, and they constantly try to tempt innocent men. (It’s really the opposite, but that’s a moot point in a society as misogynistic as this one.)
Worse, men constantly abuse younger men and boys up until the time of their marriages. So ubiquitous is this practice that—in spite of what the Koran professes—one might conclude that homosexual sex is preferable to heterosexual sex. There are even cafes with rooms set off for men (of all ages) to have sex together.
All of this duplicity is quite horrifying, making Saudi fundamentalism—in this novel at least–a fraud. Other aspects of the repressive society are equally revealing: western pornography, obviously also forbidden, appears to be everywhere. Young men sniff glue and drink perfume (because of its alcohol content) in order to get high. But, in this novel, homosexual activities take center stage, providing an ironic twist to the title. One of Naser’s friends explains to him, “My dear, in a world without women and in the absence of female glamour, boys like you are the perfect substitute. Why hide your attractiveness and your tender physique like a veiled woman? You are the closest my customers have to a beautiful and sensual person roaming freely in their world. So why sit on your beauty like a bird without wings, when you can fly?”
What’s a pretty boy to do? Fortunately, Naser gets a job washing cars after his uncle refuses to “protect” him. And then the encounter with the person he hopes is a beautiful young woman begins. I say “hopes” because the person who drops a note on the ground near him is wrapped in an abaya; all Naser can see are the slits that reveal her eyes. She might be ugly or, worse, she might be a man dressed like a woman so that the religious police can trap him.
The machinations needed to resolve this mystery are as inventive and elaborate as those that Shakespeare used in Romeo and Juliet. That said, it should also be stated that Addonia’s novel is as clever and imaginative as it is critical of Saudi hypocritical morality. Once communication between Naser and Fiore begins, the suspense is ratcheted up and this astonishingly beautiful tale works its way to what can only be described as a breathless conclusion as events and their consequences become bleaker and bleaker. You can’t help asking yourself when the final tragic coincidence will be revealed. What’s more, there’s even a minor character—a blind imam—whose role is almost the reverse of the well-intending Friar Lawrence in Shakespeare’s masterpiece.
The lovers finally do discover of each other’s identity. The abaya does conceal a beautiful young woman, who has been smothered as much as Naser by Saudi repression. Yet finally Addonia’s title becomes as ominous as it has been since one’s first glance at the book jacket. You will say, of course, that all love comes with consequences, yet they are rarely as bleak as those portrayed in this ingenious and disturbing story of love in a diseased society. As Naser observes, “I was in Saudi Arabia, where love had been erased from the dictionary, yet somehow I had found a way to express my passion for another.”
Sulaiman Addonia is the lucky one. The jacket on the book says that—like his main character—he fled Ethiopia following the “Om Hajar massacre in 1976,” then went to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia but, later, with his brother “successfully sought asylum in the U.K. as underage immigrants.” So he escaped—twice, one might say. And then he wrote this sensuous account of love in an inhumane country.
The Consequences of Love
By Sulaiman Addonia
Random House, 309 pp., $25.00
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.