Author Ali al-Muqri uses social fiction as a voice for those who are often silenced in his Middle Eastern homeland. Hurma, the first of his novels to be published in English, is an unabridged first-person perspective on life behind the burqa. The forthcoming novel explores a woman’s clash with religious oppression in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, combining black humour with a grim reality.
Al-Muqri’s first novel Black Taste, Black Smell (2008) discusses the suffering of the Al-Akhdam, Yemen’s lowest social class who live in atrocious conditions. This was succeeded by The Handsome Jew (2009) – a love story about a Jewish boy and Muslim girl in Yemen, who leave the countryside for Sana’a in pursuit of happiness. Neither are available in English despite being long-listed for the International Prize for Arabic fiction.
‘Jihadi bride’ stories are sweeping the news, discussing the vulnerability of young women who are forced, or choose, to join the Islamic militants on their conquest for victory, making Hurma a topical choice of translation. The short novel is a profound critique of female oppression in Yemen told from the perspective of the anonymous protagonist, who adopts the name Hurma – literally ’sanctity’, an entity to be protected from violation. She traipses through her youth and early womanhood with an air of confusion.
For months I dreamt of wearing an abaya, until eventually, I became convinced I’d never own one.
I was chuffed with the balitu and the veil when I was eight, but by the age of twelve I was only interested in the abaya. When finally father announced he was going to buy me one, I thought it would be like Adaniya’s. I had no idea it would be so different until he brought it home, complete with headscarf and veil. Mother explained to me that what we were used to calling the balitu – my mother, sister and I all wore one – was also known as the abaya, and that the style of abaya worn by Adaniya was called something different altogether.
That day, for the first time I felt weighed down. I no longer walked but rolled along like a black blob. Standing in front of the mirror, I asked myself: What’s the point of this body of mine?
Hurma becomes intrigued by her sexuality, not knowing how to express these overwhelming feelings of desire. This occurs when she is introduced to the world of pornographic cassettes by her rebellious older sister Lula, who is able to avert her father’s watchful eye for the most part. Hurma begins to attend ‘Islamic Science Academy’ upon her brother Abd al-Raqeeb’s request. He assures her that “they teach their pupils according to the true Islamic way”, forcing her to dismiss her prior education and suppress her sexual nature. Abd al-Raqeeb was a keen Marxist, but after marrying Nura, he burns his revolutionary tapes and pamphlets and exchanges them for religious recordings and books, much to the tune of his own father.
The narrative weaves between the existential journeys of the protagonist and her siblings, who all experience religious and cultural identity crises under social pressure and expectation. The reader will sense that there is no room for middle ground in their lives, as they tend to jump from one extreme to another.
Hurma is lead on a treacherous journey from Sana’a to Riyadh, and then onto Cairo and Khartoum before reaching Afghanistan. Turning the classic coming of age story on its head, al-Muqri’s fresh and darkly humorous narrative takes an irreverent swipe at the profound hypocrisy that hides behind fanatical religious dogma. With its confessional tone, Hurma’s direct and unflinching account is as painful as it is comic.
This feminist novel expresses a recalcitrant attitude towards oppressive Islamic culture that many writers would swerve due to the tenderness of the subject. Thomas Aplin’s translation has given Hurma an English voice for all those who’ll listen to al-Muqri’s staunch defence of Yemeni human rights.
Darf Publishers will release Hurma on 1st October 2015.