November 13, 2009
“What is so frightening, from the start, about our being different?” asks the unnamed narrator of Siba al Harez’s debut novel, The Others. “Is it because we form a storm of question marks, moving fiercely through an undistinguished and previously unnoticed space in this nation, that never before experienced the essence or function of questioning, or of being in a state of difference? Is it because we release an intensity of presence that remains unacknowledged on the map of the world, or between the thighs of a recognised tribe?”
According to her publishers, Siba al Harez is the pseudonym of a 26-year-old woman from Al Qatif in Saudi Arabia. The Others was originally published in Arabic in 2006 and – thanks in part to its transgressive subject matter, including lesbian relationships and sadistic behaviour – quickly rode waves of controversy onto the bestseller lists. The English translation, published this month by Telegram Books in London [and by Seven Stories Press in the US — Ed.], comes after a spate of similarly explicit novels, from the first two instalments of Turki al Hamad’s coming-of-age trilogy (also set in Saudi Arabia) to Nedjma’s The Almond: The Sexual Awakening of a Muslim Woman (another pseudonymous effort by a writer living in the Maghreb) and Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh. But while some of those books suffer self-congratulatory prurience or simply bad writing, The Others signals the arrival of a serious prose stylist.
… Siba al Harez writes of the body, and its architecture of desire, in a manner that recalls the work of the American novelist Nicole Krauss. The Others opens in the narrator’s voice: “And so there was a long line of them, and I admitted them all. I let them come in through my front door. It was the front door of me, and I, for my part, was about to become something new: an occasion for entertainment, a spectacle.” … The narrator peels back the many layers of her otherness: her identity, her age (those toxic teenage years), her illness (epilepsy, which drastically reduces her prospects for marriage and employment), the absence of her father, the mysterious death of her brother, the things mark her as a maskh, “this freak, this deformed creature, this monster”.
In Harez’s rumination on the theme, otherness runs deeper than membership of a social or political minority. It is the experience of being alienated from another, even from the intimacy of one’s partner, to the extent that one becomes a stranger to oneself.
The Others will inevitably be packaged and sold as a novel about sex, particularly in the West. But it should be read as more than that, for it is at its most radical not when the plot dives under the sheets but rather when the author calls attention to the delineation of difference, in the physical body, but moreover, in the body politic.