Review: Mohed Altrad’s “Badawi”

Here’s a curious situation. Mohed Altrad, a Syrian Bedouin, published Badawi, in French, in 1994, well before the Syrian debacle. Black Cat has now brought out an English translation, probably because of the recent tragic events in the author’s country of birth. The publicity for the novel includes the following statement: “As the global migrant crisis continues, and waves of refugees arrive on Europe’s shores, many of them from Altrad’s home country, Syria, this intimate, beautifully told story poses timely and important questions about a life of exile and what is lost when a place, and culture, is left behind.” Fair enough.

His grandmother raised Altrad’s main character, Maïouf, because his mother died when he was very young. Moreover, right after his birth, the boy’s mother was immediately divorced, making her a reputed woman, because of protestations by her husband’s first wife. The boy’s grandmother expects him to become a shepherd, so he sneaks off each day to the local school for his early education. His father, in a near-by town, will have nothing to do with him, even after he excels with his education. Other students bully him, jealous no doubt because of his intellect, constantly reminding him that he is nothing more than a simple Bedouin (Badawi, means Bedouin). World literature is replete with similar stories: the child from a traditional background who overcomes enormous obstacles to gain an education.

There’s a painful scene when Maïouf—whose only garment (an old djellaba) is literally falling off his body—decides to visit his father and ask him to pay for a new one. badawi2“Hardened by his years at school, he’d learned to tolerate the other pupils’ jeers, which luckily grew rarer as he achieved increasingly good results. That didn’t stop him feeling sensitive about his poverty. Ever since he arrived he’d been wearing the same old djellaba [which] betrayed his origins a little more blatantly each day.” His father refuses, but in an inspired moment, Maïouf goes to one of the stores where his father has an account and convinces the clerk that his father has agreed to pay for the garment. It’s the kind of assertion one would expect of him later in his life but, sadly, we never encounter another decisive move like this one.

The rest of the story is rags to riches. Completing secondary school, Maïouf’s scores are the highest in the region. He’s given a scholarship for higher education in Montpellier, where he earns a degree in petro chemistry. In France, he takes on a new name, Qaher, meaning “the victorious,” rejecting Maïouf, “the abandoned one.” The name appears to work because four years later he acquires a high-paying position working for a UAE oil company.

The position is a real coup for him, but there are two loose threads from the past that complicate matters. The first is his memory of his uncle’s trial for accidentally killing another person. His uncle had been so accustomed to his subservient position that he made no attempt to defend himself, resulting in years in prison. The second is his teenage crush on a young girl, named Fadia, who obviously loves him, and his inability to respond to that love once he’s gained his higher education. Both of these incidents paralyze him and make him feel “always a stranger to the people around him, ” trapped between the Bedouin past of his childhood and the cosmopolitan environment of his high-pressure job. All of this is fairly predictable story telling, in no way remarkable in the canon of non-Western literature.

What is revealing, however, is Altrad’s own situation, which closely parallels Maïouf’s until the moment he completes his higher education. The information I summarize here comes almost exclusively from an article about Altrad in Forbes (March 2, 2015): “From Bedouin to Billionaire: Meet the Man Changing What It Means to Be French after Charlie Hebdo.” The article refers to Altrad as “France’s Horatio Alger story,” though I think the country should be identified as Syria. Altrad was “greeted with anti-Arab epithets when he arrived” in Montpellier. “He was an outcaste even by Bedouin standards.” He earned a Ph.D. in computer science and then worked for the national oil company of Abu Dhabi. With money saved from four years of work, he invested in a series of companies (mostly construction and related activities) and today is worth more than a billion dollars. Hence, the Forbes profile, which concludes with this remark: “Altrad…says he doesn’t know whether he considers himself a Muslim….”

With such dynamic success in business (in his own life), why does the main character of Altrad’s first novel act so indecisively (except for that one early incident when he manages to get a new djellaba?) Wouldn’t the Horatio Alger story be more appealing to readers today, instead of a hackneyed story of failure? Doesn’t the republication of Badawi in English simply reinforce old stereotypes of marginalized peoples, marginalized and confused forever?

Mohed Altrad: Badawi
Trans. by Adriana Hunter
Black Cat, 224 pp., $16

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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