Wolves of the Crescent Moon
By Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
Translated from Arabic by Anthony Calderbank
A Bedouin man named Turad hesitates at the late-night ticket booth. He can’t decide which bus to take as he slowly deciphers the names on the signboard. Finally he gives up, collapsing into a stiff plastic chair to watch the ebb and flow of travelers passing him by. A cup of lukewarm tea in his hand, Turad muses pitifully on the lives drifting around him and on his own life, his thoughts meandering from thwarted love to crumpled pride, sexual deviance to religious turmoil, exile to senility. He is — unfortunately for readers of Yousef Al-Mohaimeed’s Wolves of the Crescent Moon — a mopey, unlikable lead.
Our anti-hero mires in his existential crisis as he sits in the Riyadh bus station. By his stilted interior dialogue shall we know him; and so, after a clumsily translated series of internal exclamations (Good grief! You oaf! and Son of the free tribes!) we learn that Turad is unemployed and homeless and has a tragic story of shame and ostracism to tell. He is, moreover, missing an ear.
What he doesn’t miss, alas, is any opportunity to entertain a veritable busload of angsty regrets. Al-Mohaimeed never digs much deeper into Turad’s troubles than when he describes an intense jealousy directed toward men who possess two ears. Moreover, his internal monologues are difficult to believe; Turad is meant to be a hardened ex-brigand, a man of considerable age and experience, not the brooding self- flagellator that he is.
As if the painful private mutterings of this disgruntled Bedu were not enough, Turad happens upon the “personal dossier” of an eye-less orphan. Al-Mohaimeed’s explanation for this gruesome narrative trope is that a hurried bus passenger left it on a nearby seat (along with his tea). Wolves of the Crescent Moon opens on this dismal note, weaving together the tale of half-deaf Turad with the life story of a blind bastard, as well as that of a third character — a Sudanese eunuch.
There is much to roll the eyes at in this novel, though to be fair, Al-Mohaimeed’s ambitious storytelling often sketches an accurate likeness of the Gulf and its discontents. And it’s nearly redeemed by its final chapters, in which Al-Mohaimeed unflinchingly relates the story of how Turad lost his ear. The end of the story is a brutal and vile scene of horrific detail — an extremity equal to the task the author has set for himself. But Wolves should have been a devastating read from beginning to end.
In an interview with Penguin, Al-Mohaimeed cited Dickens, Faulkner, and Saramago as literary influences. Not surprisingly, deformation, inadequacy, and ostracism were starting points for all of these literary giants, each of whom is known for treating human suffering as an allegory of his time. But unlike The Sound and the Fury’s mentally handicapped Benjy Compson, or Bleak House’s ill and orphaned Esther Summerson, or one of Saramago’s nameless yet unforgettable characters in Blindness, Al-Mohaimeed’s paper- thin protagonists are nearly incapable of inspiring sympathy. These maimed men lack the strength to carry the story.
Not that women fare much better. The only significant female, an unnamed woman with a body like (you guessed it) “ripened fruit,” is little more than a prop. She’s inserted mid-book, to be impregnated in a Toyota Cressida in the shadow of a poster of the ill-fated Egyptian film star Suad Hosni. We learn nothing about her other than that she was “clamoring” for love and once wore a wide red blouse with Salha flowers on it. She gives birth to a main character, then promptly, conveniently — and, indeed, mercifully — disappears. She is less plausible even than the archetypal women portrayed in melodramatic Bahraini miniseries.
In 2007, another Saudi novelist, Rajaa Al-Sanea, took on the subject of women in her Girls of Riyadh. As overwrought and unbelievable as some parts of the plot may have been (glamorous TV jobs, weekend getaways to Europe, clockwork gossip-sessions), she at least managed to create plausible characters and, what’s more, believable relationships. Her clever, if not highbrow, concept was maimed by sluggish English interpretation and attempts to market her book as a representation of Gulf women at large. But that is the fate of most Arabic-to-English translations. And thanks to those same marketers, her book became a bestseller and an international sensation of sorts.
Wolves is no bestseller, but it has acquired a raft of critical acclaim. Hanan Al-Shaykh, the author of Beirut Blues, proclaims at the top of the Penguin edition: “At last an authentic voice from Saudi Arabia.” One is invited to imagine that the authenticity derives from Al-Mohaimeed’s decision to make all of his characters representatives of lower social classes. There is something to this, I suppose — Al-Mohaimeed “exposes” lives of suffering in a place where the widely assumed and propagated myth is that there is no poverty and no pain. But his societal stock characters can only evoke authenticity for those on the outside looking in.
Al-Mohaimeed self-righteously defended his choice of subject in an interview. “The truth is, we have a high percentage of unemployed and many problems in higher education. I am less concerned about the lives of the upper classes in my society than I am with people who live in difficult circumstances.” With that depressingly well-intentioned quote, I think we can safely call Wolves of the Crescent Moon a classic case of literary slumming.