“Neighbor, what can I say? All the fake moans of this world rail against the toil of ephemeral things. My moans, however, rail against the insanity of their toil in a time that we ignore and that ignores us, a time that is paralyzed, hand and foot, and that consumes only the fruit of pride. While we live out our days, time laughs from inside a dance circle. Donʼt be afraid. Who knows? Perhaps it will transport us to another region of this existence. There we may confront time with just the same number of moans, which we will transmute to laughs until they die away. Why donʼt you say something?”
Thus ends the two-page-long first chapter of The Diesel, the shortest and most experimental Arabic text that I have ever read. It was published in Beirut in 1994 but didnʼt make it into English until 2012. Because of its extremely sensitive subject matter it was dubbed “the shock novel” by the Arab news station Al-Jazeera, and even though itʼs been nearly twenty years since it was published, The Diesel is still highly relevant to the state of Middle Eastern affairs today. The author, Al-Suwaidi, was born in the United Arab Emirates in 1966, and this first and only novella was written in between two poetry collections (the style of The Diesel is itself both poetic and disjointed). His words are compact and carefully chosen, but at the same time follow the protagonistʼs stream of consciousness. The author explains that his style “is based on the oral culture found in the region. Therefore we cannot say that this literature is essentially a new literature; we say instead that the novel constituted a revolution in popular storytelling.”
Our protagonist is a young boy who remains unnamed until he comes of age and develops his identity as a wildly famous transgender entertainer known as “the Diesel.” See? Controversial. The setting is a small traditional Arab village by the sea which is torn between the old way and the pull of the new generation as led by the Diesel himself. The plot is subtle and woven into so many layers of description that it takes a while to find it. The descriptions themselves are challenging to follow:
A man standing on the shipʼs deck seized a white abaya, which he wrapped around his head, and then kneeled silently, facing us. Meanwhile, all the sailors had dropped their drawers and lined up beside that man, who seized a long stick then and tapped the meaty appendages of their bodies. These were all dead, but even so strange rays emanated from them. I wasnʼt really freaked out, because these rays were a reflection of the seaʼs light on their bodies.
This writing is so abstract that the only name that comes to mind is Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Moroccan poet and author whose first language is Arabic but whose works are written entirely in French. Ben Jellounʼs style is similarly stream of consciousness and focuses on gender issues as well (his protagonists include a baby girl raised as a boy) but his plots are still much more structured.
Aside from the fact that the Diesel is a strong transgender character, gender roles is a persistent issue throughout the text. Women are championed by the Dieselʼs sister, who mates with the sea and then names each of her children so that their “lineage is reckoned by female descent, not male.” Other sensitive issues include not only the fact that the Diesel is repeatedly raped by a male wayfarer in a mosque, but that his father endorses it. Later he is also ordered to sleep with a 70 year old woman. Also, a woman rapes her son-in-law using a stick in her mouth after her daughter accuses him of attempting sodomy. These scenes are actually not gruesome at all, but have such a matter-of-fact tone to them that itʼs easy to see why it was banned in the United Arab Emirates for ten years after it was published.
William Hutchins is the translator, and his introduction says that “Al-Suwaidi has portrayed a world heading for collision, a world that many in the Gulf region have worked hard to conceal.” Hutchins has produced an excellent translation through working with the author, completing extensive research of Arabic texts with similar themes, and utilizing his own extensive experience in translation and knowledge of the language. Since Al-Suwaidiʼs writing is so strange, Hutchins must have been forced to play a more pivotal role in the process rather than simply acting as a functional translator. I find the result to be quite successful.
By the end of the work, I realized that the Dieselʼs music had become so popular that the people used him as a symbol to rebel against the ruling powers. This prediction of revolution makes the work even more timely, and certainly more controversial in the Middle East. I would avoid the highly explanatory introduction until youʼve finished it so that the style of the writing may surprise you over and over again. The deliberately disjointed wording is, I think, supposed to reflect an identity crisis that the Arabs have experienced for some time now and that is still playing out as I write. This novella undoubtedly deserves attention for its highly unique execution and relevant subject material, and I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone.