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There was much to admire in Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s earlier novel, Wolves of the Crescent Moon, but his second, Munira’s Bottle, is in every way superior—especially emotionally and artistically. Al-Mohaimeed, a Saudi, has now published two controversial novels in Arabic that cannot be read by his own people. What a pity because al-Mohaimeed is a gifted writer whose career should be followed. Fortunately, the English translations of his works extend his readership far beyond the Middle East. Anthony Calderbank’s translation of Munira’s Bottle is particularly engaging, capturing the suspense of the writer’s imaginatively unfolding plot.
Set in Riyadh to the backdrop of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, the story follows the unfolding courtship of Munira, by a man with impressive military credentials, until it is discovered that he is an imposter, a fraud, a womanizer who has plotted her downfall from the first moment they talked on the phone. Munira is thirty, a graduate student working on women’s issues and a journalist with a newspaper column, also focusing on women’s issues. She works part-time at the Young Woman’s Remand Center, where she encounters battered women, abused by their husbands and other men in Saudi Arabia. Munira separates herself from these women because she is certain that no man will ever take advantage of her.
Much earlier, her grandmother gave her a bottle and encouraged her to write down stories—especially sad, traditional stories—and keep the pieces of paper in the bottle as a kind of preventive for unhappy events in her own life. A number of the stories that Munira records early in the narrative are based on the lives of the women she encounters at the remand center—all of them disturbing because of the suffering of the women involved.
One story is particularly haunting because of the entrapment of a woman that results in her own death. It is narrated by a much older woman whose profession is to prepare corpses for interment. For her entire life, she has been called in after a death in a family and washed the body of the beloved one. Then one day she is visited by an old man and asked to wash a corpse in a remote area of the country. She rides in the back of the vehicle, with a young woman sitting next to her, who is silent during the entire ride. The vehicle pulls a barrel of water behind it. The ride is a lengthy one to a barren part of the country, and the corpse washer/the old woman begins to have apprehensions about her safety.
Finally, they reach the destination. The man in front and the woman sitting next to her get out of the pickup. The old woman is told to stay where she is. Then, minutes later after several are gun shots, the man returns to the vehicle, and she is ordered to get out and bring her bag of “washing tackle—soap and oils and musk and ambergris and other things” while the man rolls the barrel of water in front of him.
“As I walked down to the other side of the dune I saw her, spread out on the sand, still wearing her abaya. I began my work, taking particular care to mop up the blood that had flowed from her chest. When he reached the bottom of the dune he must have turned around and seen her silent and submissive eyes, waiting to go to eternal death. Then he shot her, the most important thing in his life. And now he was digging in the dust with the spade he had carried over his shoulder. He wept incessantly and wailed like a woman and his beard soaked up the copious tears. When the grave was finished we wrapped the young woman in her abaya and as he was placing her in the hole, he slipped and fell in on top of her. He began to howl inconsolably.”
When the corpse washer is taken back home, she asks the man why he killed the women if he felt such remorse. “A matter of honor,” he replied.
The story of the old corpse-washer is a perfect metaphor for the controlled lives of women in Saudi Arabia and the violent consequences for those women who stray from the narrow path. There are other stories where women—but never men—are treated harshly by the mascultine-dominated society in which they live, yet the men in these stories have no compunction about running around with prostitutes, luring innocent young women into situations which can only ruin their lives. There’s even an interesting sub-story about a dozen Saudi women who lave learned to drive overseas and one day commandeer their famlies’ vehicles and together drive down one of the streets in Riyadh and then are arrested and charged with a “religious crime.”
Al-Mohaimeed’s brilliance is to have Munira weave the stories (scandals, tragedies, depravities) of other women, who have been entrapped by the duplicities of fundamentalism and, then, skillfully entrap Munira herself. Munira’s Bottle is a spellbinding novel, a daring story by a writer determined to establish his voice and, above all, not skirt controversy.
By Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
Translated by Anthony Calderbank
American University in Cairo Press, 213 pp., $18.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.