Wolves of the Crescent Moon—the first of Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s works to be translated into English—tells the stories of three men at the fringes of Saudi Arabian society, all missing a crucial body part.
The first is the narrator Turad, a coffee boy at ministry who lost his ear and is taunted mercilessly by the people he works with. His only friend is Tawfiq, a former slave who is also a eunuch.
As the book opens, Turad is in a train station trying to figure out where to go and discovers a green folder containing information about a boy abandoned at birth and missing an eye. Throughout the night, Turad pieces together the story of this man, interweaving it with Tawfiq’s history and the story of how Turad lost his ear. (Which really does seem to be the central event in Turad’s life, leaving him incredibly self-conscious and damaged.)
Al-Mohaimeed uses the stories of these three characters to explore horrifying aspects of Saudi society rarely discussed—probably the reason this book was banned in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia when it was first published. Poor, abused, harassed, even raped, these three men have almost no chance to live a so-called normal life, and the way they do persevere is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but basically the lives of these three men are more closely linked than it first appears. Unfortunately this is a bit far-fetched and unlikely. One of those set of coincidences that only can take place in a novel or movie.
The writing is decent enough, although a bit singular in tone. In contrast to Garcia Marquez (to whom he’s compared in the jacket copy), Al-Mohaimeed isn’t nearly as funny, or quite as rich. He really finds his voice in his more brutal depictions of life’s abuses. The story of Tawfiq is quite affective and disturbing, and the scene that finally explains how the narrator lost his ear is sufficiently gross and terrifying to remain with me for a while . . .
It’s clear that Al-Mohaimeed has been influenced by classic “Western” writers, and he is pretty successful at merging elements of classic Arab literature with a complicated structure and disaffected narrator more often found in writers like Dostoevsky. A fairly young writer (born in 1964) with a number of untranslated novels and short story collections, Al-Mohaimeed is definitely a writer to watch. And thanks to presses like the American University in Cairo Press—who first published this translation in Egypt last year—there’s a good chance English-readers will have access to a number of these books.
Wolves of the Crescent Moon
by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
Translated from the Arabic by Anthony Calderbank
180 pages, $14.00
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