The International Writers Magazine: Review
A Land Without Jasmine
by Wajdi Al-Ahdal
Published by Garnet
ISBN: 978 1859 643105
Sam Hawksmoor review
I have hesitated to write a review of 'A land without Jasmine', not because I didn’t enjoy this beautifully written novella but because it has a lasting haunting effect that is hard to shake off.
Jasmine, a virtuous university science student is beautiful, yet very conscious of the male gaze. This is all the more evident in the Yemen where all women are openly stared at and such is the ego of all men there, all believe the women are licentious and happy to receive the torment of the male gaze. Jasmine is not at all happy to ogled by the shopkeeper or her University lecturer or indeed anyone. The boy next door, Ali, still at school, is devoted to her and dogs her every step as she makes her way to University and he to school. She knows he is there but never acknowledges him.
In her room, Jasmine is proud of her beauty and has sexual fantasies, as indeed any normal girl would, but home life is oppressive, as indeed it is for almost every girl in the Yemen, especially beautiful girls. The father lives in terror of any unmarried daughter bringing shame upon the home and Jasmine is punished for kicking a ball in the street when younger and now must wear the niqab, hide her beauty from all.
‘My life is non stop suffering on account of the stares directed at me all the time, both inside our house and out. I’m under supervision night and day. No one thinks about me, about my feelings, dreams and ambitions, or concedes that I have a right to live at ease without anyone troubling me with his inquisitive gaze and repressed desires, and a right to a happy life that a father should not poison with his suspicions and fantasies or a mother poking her nose into my private affairs.’
One day Jasmine goes to University and disappears.
The police investigate. Jasmine’s family want justice, demand she be found. The father only worries that she has brought shame upon them. The mother obsesses she has met some man or boy and all this is about SHAME. The wild cousins from the tribal areas arrive with guns and cooperation with the police seems unthinkable.
The police investigate and suspicions fall upon the University lecturer Dr Aqlan who every student knows makes sexual demands upon students male and female and is petty and vile.
The inspector in Criminal Investigations Abdurrabbih Ubayd al-Adini pursues all avenues – it leads to the foot of a tree and an incredible dead end, but he knows something dreadful has happened to Jasmine. Someone has abducted Jasmine - they even have a description of a white haired man but who? And why?
Jasmine has vanished into thin air it seems. It is his bad luck that the devoted Ali finds Jasmine's handbag as now all suspicions fall upon him. The police seem ineffectual, baffled, complicit afraid of political connections that could make their life difficult.
Wajdi Al-Ahdal has written a surreal detective story that is both lucid and spare, yet strips away the deceits of Arab life – and satirises illogical attitudes. It brings to mind the writing style of Haruki Murakami and his 'Kafka on the Shore' (it too is filled with sexual repression).
Anyone seeking an insight into life in Arab culture should read this. It is not comfortable reading, but it is powerful, poignant writing at it’s best and the only shame is that this is so briefly told.
© Sam Hawksmoor August 2012
Author of The Repossession and The Hunting