The Desert and the Drum

📍 Mauritania 🇲🇷

Mauritania is a sovereign country in Northwest Africa. It is the 11th-largest country in Africa, and 90% of its territory is situated in the Sahara. It achieved independence in 1960 from French colonialism but has since experienced recurrent coups and periods of military dictatorship. Despite an abundance of natural resources, Mauritania remains poor. It was the last country in the world to abolish slavery, in 1981, and criminalised it only in 2007. (Source Wikipedia)

This book is the first novel ever to be translated into English from Mauritania. It was originally published in French in 2015 and translated by Rachael McGill in 2018. The book won the Ahmadou Kourouma Prize in 2016 (the prize was established in 2004 in honour of the Ivorian writer Ahmadou Kourouma, and it is awarded annually to works of fiction and nonfiction concerning Black Africa).

The story traces the journey of a young Bedouin girl, Rayhana, who has run away from her tribe and is on a mission to find the thing that has been snatched from her with force and deceit. While running away she has taken the sacred, symbolic and pious drum, rezzam, that belongs to her tribe and represents their pride and honour. She embarks on this perilous journey through the unforgiving Sahara and reaches a small town, Atar, and finally to the capital, Nouakchott. During this sojourn, she encounters various people who help her in their own ways, in achieving her mission, and also protect her from her tribe who are in search of her to retrieve their prized drum. Standout characters include that of the slave girl, Mbarka, who has now become a sex worker; and the very colourful and jovial queer guy, Hama.

The book is a raw, unapologetic and uncomfortable narrative of Rayhana’s turmoil. The chapters oscillate between the past and the present as does Rayhana’s thoughts from her secure yet stifling existence in her tribe, to the unknown and unwelcoming mores of the city life. She is torn about the fact that, she still cradles the belongingness she feels towards her tribe whilst despising the carefree and untethered cultural values of the city. She still remains a prisoner of her unpropitious upbringing, though freedom is now within her reach.

The author, Mbarek Ould Beyrouk, originally from Atar, is a journalist, who has written four books and has founded the country’s first ever independent newspaper. He gives an honest portrayal of the Bedouin life and their customs, and has kept the story rooted in Mauritanian ethos. The issues of patriarchy, misogyny, gender based violence, caste based oppression aren’t exclusive to Mauritania. Let’s get off our high horse, shed our condescension and pomposity, and examine the issues closely. They are as much prevalent behind the façades of glitzy high rises and modern lifestyles as they are in the humbling desert.


The Bride of Amman

📍Jordan 🇯🇴

This debut novel by the Jordanian writer, Fadi Zaghmout, originally written in Arabic (Aroos Amman), later translated into English by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, caused quite a stir when it was released. Understandably so, considering the bold and controversial issues it explores, which are often deemed taboo and blasphemous in the traditional Jordanian society. The story is told through five characters of Leila, Salma, Rana, Hayat and Ali; all living in the capital city, Amman. Through these stories, the author tackles the persistent and pertinent issues of patriarchy, misogyny, chauvinism, incest, rape, sexual abuse, homophobia, widely prevalent in the conservative Arab community. An Arab woman’s worth is equated with her ability to get married at the right age, be a dazzling bride and bear children, especially sons. Her career and education are just an ornament. Zaghmout repeatedly asserts how women have no authority or agency over their own lives and bodies, and their choices are subject to male dominance and approval. Particularly disturbing story is that of Hayat, who is raped and sexually abused by her own father; later chooses promiscuity with multiple married men to escape this horrid truth.

Zaghmout’s narrative is a poignant reflection of contemporary Amman, however, I felt, that at many instances, he has tried to infantilise the grave problems. Hayat, as a rape survivor, is shown to forgive her father for his unpardonable crime. Her choice of being promiscuous seems to be very flippant and it seems as the only way a woman can get over her sexual abuse past. Ali, a closeted Iraqi gay man, gets married to Leila, has a child, and continues to have gay sexual encounters on the sly. Leila later discovers his homosexuality and upon confrontation, chooses to accept her life as his wife, devoid of sex, delves steadfast into her career and turns a blind eye to his indiscretions. In the book, the men are forever exonerated for their crimes and wrongdoings, by the women. There’s always some “logical” reasoning to the way the men have behaved. This almost invisible, subtextual chauvinism can’t be ignored. Also, other than Salma’s story, the others seem to have the proverbial happy ending. This smacks of immature writing.

Majority of Indian gay men remain closeted and continue to have heterosexual marriages and children under the pretext of parental pressure and culture. They also have multiple gay liaisons after marriage with gay abandon (no pun intended) and literally no remorse. Are the Indian women too, like Leila, choosing to not see the obvious because of the pressure to stay married and the stigma of divorce? Or are they truly oblivious?

Though the book is about Ammani women, one can’t miss the fact, how close this hits home. Indian women, are still governed by the cis men around them, and it remains an ongoing struggle for them to establish their equality and agency.


The Tale of Aypi

Country : Turkmenistan 🇹🇲

This book set in Turkmenistan, focusses on the lives of the inhabitants of a small Turkmen fishing village located on the banks of the Caspian Sea. As the story begins, the people have been ordered by the central government to relocate to a nearby city and have been forbidden from fishing, since the government plans to build a hospice in the village along the coast. As the villagers acquiesce to the pressure, and lament on their loss; there’s one defiant man though, Araz, who takes it upon himself to fight the authorities against their autocracy, and also his own village folks against their docility and subservience. Araz’s story is interwoven with the fable of Aypi. Aypi was a girl from the same village known for her beauty and is wrongfully killed for her so-called transgressions then. Now, centuries later, Aypi comes back to haunt the villagers and confronts their unconcerned, chauvinistic and vapid behaviours. Through Aypi, the author depicts society’s nonchalant normalisation of patriarchy and misogyny. With its myriad other characters and their interpersonal dialogues and arguments, the book constantly debates the traditional versus modern ways of living.

While the events in the book take place during the country’s Soviet past, the author’s depiction of its authority then, is as much a social commentary on modern-day Turkmenistan’s totalitarian governance. This book is one of the first from Turkmenistan to be translated into English (by W.M. Coulson) for the international market. Despite being the country’s most internationally recognised and appreciated authors, A K Welsapar’s books have been banned in Turkmenistan. He was exiled in 1993 and currently lives in Sweden.

Though this story is about Turkmenistan, one can draw parallels to current day India. That’s the most disturbing bit.


Co-wives, Co-widows

I am beyond delighted to have come across this gem of a book, thanks to Brittlepaper, an Instagram account dedicated to African literature. The book, originally written in French, by Adrienne Yabouza and translated by Rachael McGill, is set in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic (CAR). It’s a story of two women, Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, wives of Lidou. Both women live amicably in adjacent houses and are fond of each other. When Lidou suddenly dies, the women are left bereft and are forcibly expelled from their homes with their children by Lidou’s cousin and his sister, who plan on taking away all of his inheritance. The co-widows then take it upon themselves to seek justice for the retribution inflicted on them just because they are widows. However, the justice system of CAR fails them and both women are forced to return to their respective parents’ homes. But grit and determination never leave Ndongo Passy and Grekpoubou, who choose to be hopeful and don’t shy away from owning their share of joy and happiness.

Yabouza tells a very compelling and uplifting story. This is an exemplary narration of women supporting women and gaining confidence and strength from each other. Set in the backdrop of political turmoil and presidential elections in CAR, the author paints a very poignant picture of the plight of women in the country, especially widows. She highlights the deep rooted patriarchy and chauvinism in her unwavering writing. And at the same time, it’s a joy to discover and imbibe oneself in the culture and tradition of the people of CAR. I found the descriptions on food and clothes so beautiful, that I couldn’t stop romanticising Bangui.

Books can transcend borders even during a pandemic. Allow this one to take you to CAR!