The Middle East appears to have been shocked by Seba al-Herz’s The Others, a novel about clandestine lesbian activities in Saudi Arabia. The author’s name is a pseudonym; the translator is not identified; three years ago the book was published in its original Arabic version in Beirut, that liberal bastion of the Middle East where so many Arabic writers have begun their literary careers. The American edition prints the two words of the title together, i.e., theothers, suggesting an intimate coupling.
The American publisher also quotes Al Hayat, the daily pan-Arab newspaper published in London, stating, “[This book] could be the most controversial novel to emerge in our times, not just from Saudi Arabia, but from the whole of the Arab world.” All that is quite a mouthful, especially when juxtaposed to added remark—also from the American publisher—that lesbianism in Saudi Arabia is “punishable by death if discovered.”
To muddle the issue, the translator in her/his lengthy “Afterword” throws the entire issue of the novel’s sexual deviancy into a quasi-backlash caused by the Saudi Sunni majority against the minority Shi’is. “The [unnamed] narrator and her friends are wired in every way, but they are only comfortable in their pseudonymous internet existences, or in clandestine relationships that carry other tensions and self-questioning…. Marginalized and disallowed from strengthening religious institutions such as mosques, Saudi Arabia’s Shi’is have turned to alternative institutions,” and, by implication, sexual lifestyles. I don’t doubt the importance of any of these contexts, but the novel is clearly about more than forbidden sexuality.
The unnamed narrator–an undergraduate at a woman’s college–describes her erotic awakening during an encounter with another, more-worldly student and the subsequent world of illicit parties, group encounters, and personal tensions from engagement in the forbidden. These relationships often turn ugly, possessive, if not masochistic, as young women quickly alter their loyalties, aware of the danger of their activities. Yet, not too far into an often boring narrative, the main character provides a clue about the eventual outcome of her story: “Ever since I was a semi-boy or a sexless child, I have gotten used to the idea, never challenged, that children do not gain the qualities of their sex until after marriage, when the girls give birth to children and the boys go out to work.” To wit, a certain amount of sexual exploration is biologically natural though obviously much more unlikely in repressive societies.
I can’t get too excited about the lesbian journey of The Other’s main character.
But there is something buried in the story that seems much more profound and psychologically interesting: the narrator’s self-loathing because of her body. Nor is this the body in a state of sexual arousal but, rather, obsessive embarrassment because of an inherited affliction. The narrator suffers from seizures, epilepsy, genetically explained, but turned into an obsession so overwhelming that she often can’t sleep, is filled with loathing about her imperfect body, can love no one for fear that that person will become aware of her abnormality. It would be fascinating to see how a psychiatrist would react to the following passage:
“My body hurts me…. My body pains me, the kind of pain that Panadol pills do not take away, an ache that does not disappear when I try to ignore it. Pain that is like heaviness, as if I am pushing forward with difficulty across a terrain of mud and green creatures that stick to me, pain that urges me to abandon the whole idea of life altogether; a deceptive and complex pain. My head is a bullet hole around which voices buzz and the wind whips. Pain gallops through my head like wild horses….”
The narrator’s self-loathing and inescapable pain result in a longing for death, described in great detail in lengthy passages toward the end of the narrative. One such passage: “I want Death to be a little bit nice to me, to take me without hurting me, to take me gently and lightly, to take me without stuffing me into a space smaller than my body, to take me with my filth and black spots and the mire in my soul, to take me and raise me on his wings, to lift me outside and above my body, above the world, above, where God is. I want to say goodbye to my body, but without death I will never be able to leave it.”
It isn’t the forbidden sexuality that is fascinating in The Others but, rather, the exploration of an obsessed mind unable to relinquish her belief in a perfect body. Yes, the lesbian encounters may have triggered the narrator’s sense of imperfection, but by the end of the story, sexuality has moved off-stage.
by Seba Al-Herz
Seven Stories Press, 320 pp., $17.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.