Friday, April 1, 2016

Hurma by Ali Al-Muqri, translated by T.M. Aplin

Ali Al-Muqri
Translated by T. M. Aplin (Arabic)
First published 2012, I read ebook of 2015 translation
166 pages, cultural critique, psychological

Many thanks to Darf Publishers for providing a review copy of this book! 

A nameless female narrator from Yemen attempts to reconstruct her childhood and youth. Her formerly communist brother, who became a radical Islamist. Her scandalous sister who was allowed free rein because of her high-paying job. The sex tapes she and her friends watched in secret. The fatwas that restricted every part of her life. Her marriage to a jihadi.

This psychologically complex book provides the insider woman’s viewpoint of restrictive Islamist society, jihadis and terrorism. More than that, it examines the thought processes of a “radicalized” female terrorist from childhood to adulthood.


In this novel, women feel the full power of a religiously supported patriarchy. They are expected to follow innumerable fatwas that limit their actions, clothes, speech, and thoughts with the sole purpose of removing their sexuality - but in the same breath they are constantly sexually objectified. It is a no-win scenario, in which the narrator can never find sanctuary from objectification regardless of how hard she tries to follow the rules.

The first memory that the narrator recounts is the extreme punishment she was given for drawing a heart on a piece of paper in school. She was in 4th grade, and had no idea what this symbol meant! She was immediately knocked unconscious by her teacher, after which they summoned her father to school to be reprimanded for not “bringing her up properly.” This, of course, was followed by beatings – and even more beatings when she asked her mother what she had done. Even at such a young age and for such an innocent action, she is made into a sexual object that must be controlled through physical violence.
While she is growing up, she does have some secretive introduction to sexuality through "cultural tapes," or porn videos/audio recordings. Some of these come from her elder sister, who besides being a financially independent woman is also relatively open about sex. It is unfortunate that viewing illicit porn tapes is the only way that these women can obtain any information about sex at all, since questions are not allowed.

When her sister wants to share stories about her own sexual exploits, the narrator is both eager to hear and completely scandalized. Her thinking is shaped by the repressive fatwas. She knows that she needs and wants sex, but she also knows it is not allowed. This constant tug-of-war between her own desires (in a broader sense) and religious restrictions is the main source of tension in this novel.

Religion and jihad

This novel does a good job of demonstrating the real reasons people choose to follow radical forms of religion. One major incentive is that radically restrictive forms of religion provide means to control people or things that you otherwise have no control over. The transformation of the narrator’s older brother Raqeeb is a fascinating example of this.

In her childhood, the narrator recounts, her brother was a staunch communist. He gave her books to read secretly, such as Lenin's collected works and Love Stories by Rosa LuxembourgHe encouraged her to act against the social constraints she was living under, and vocally shunned any form of religion. For example, when Raqeeb hears their father reciting a prayer while leaving the house,
he'd mutter, 'If God truly existed then He would provide for you and make you a rich man - not out of mercy, but because He's so bored and fed up with listening to your prayers.'
But then he accidentally sees one of the narrator's friends without a headscarf.  He is immediately struck by – her beauty, I guess? – and falls in love. He asks his parents to set up their marriage immediately, and for the first time acknowledges the existence of God. The narrator reacts to this sudden change with very understandable confusion:
How was it possible that the very person who had encouraged me to study the principles of Georges Politzer's philosophy, to struggle through a condensed volume of Lenin's writings on the school of empirical criticism, could so easily switch creeds? 
A complete change comes over him: he burns his communist pamphlets, starts praying five times a day, and bombards his new wife with detailed questions about her activities at the university. Who did she see, who did she talk to, where did she go, when were her classes? He started insisting that he be called by his full name - 'Abd al-Raqeeb - and began to practice preaching.

What is the motivation for this? The answer is clear in his preaching, which obsesses over the control of women, particularly wives. He has become incredibly jealous and controlling. He forces his wife to quit her studies at university, and makes the narrator attend a very strict Islamic university. It is evident that his radical turn is not caused by the religion itself: it is caused by his patriarchal desire to control his wife's every move. Religion gives him an easy tool to do just that.

Now is a very good time to read this novel. The attacks on Islam as a religion are becoming ever more vociferous, with frequent terrorist attacks in many places around the world. This is terrible, but it is not the fault of Islam itself.  As many commentators have noted, ISIS and other radical groups do not follow the Quran. Their actions and beliefs are predicated on a twisted interpretation meant to control others and gain political power. This novel provides a powerful example of this ideology and its effects on individuals and society.

Further Reading: 

"Hisham Matar and Ali Al-Muqri on Writing During a Revolution" from Arabic Literature (In English) 
"The Middle East needs a sexual revolution" by Claudia Kramatschek from
"The Truth About Islam" by Andrew Mack from Slate
"How Islamic is the Islamic State? Not at All" by Mehdi Hasan from New Republic

Want to see more reviews of world literature and film? Follow me on Twitter or like The Globally Curious's facebook page!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this useful review. I take it you thought this fiction had truths we could use to understand an unknown culture generally. Especially when the story tells of something horrible, e.g., the way sex is introduced to young women, I find I really want more confirmation. Don't you think?