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 Ardent Swarm

📍 North Africa

Tunisian author, Yamen Manai’s book, translated from French by Lara Vergnaud, is brooding and contemplative. This wonderful parable, can seem deceptively simple but is a rich tapestry of human emotions and behaviours. The story takes place in a far flung village of Nawa. Sidi, the beekeeper of the village, has devoted his life in taking care of his precious honeybees. However, one day when he finds them brutally massacred, he sets out on a quest to find the perpetrators behind the attack. He soon reckons that hornets are responsible for it and takes it upon himself to safeguard his bees from the menacing and dangerous hornets. At the same time, the unnamed country is going through a new post-Arab spring transition which sees the rise of radical fundamentalists to power. Using God, they are on a mission to convert the people into a bunch of zealots. As Sidi, grapples with the changing sociopolitical scenario and attitudes of people, juxtaposed with the imminent threat to his bees due to a natural predator, he comes to a realisation that human beings are far worse and vicious.

It won’t be too difficult to draw parallels, with the current political situation in our country. As zealotry and jingoism take centre stage, God has been weaponised to spread hatred, bigotry and radicalism. Is this going to be a massacre of our humanity?


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 Accusation: Forbidden Stories from inside North Korea

📍 North Korea 🇰🇵

This book has shocked me like no other. I am still astonished about the fact that, there still exists a country in this world like North Korea. A one of its kind country which has the lives of it’s citizens staged. A country where the autocratic leaders expect performances and accolades from their ‘captive’ citizens for simply existing in their thrones. A country which denies and violates all human rights, is akin to an open air prison.

Bandi, meaning firefly, is the pseudonym for the North Korean writer who might still be living under the oppressive regime. The book, shrouded in controversy over its origins, was written from 1989 to 1995, and was eventually published in 2013 in South Korea, and was later translated by Deborah Smith. The process involved in its publication which included smuggling the clandestine manuscript out of the country was an adventure in itself.

The book is a collection of seven short stories, the underlying theme of each being misery. What makes it even more heart wrenching is the fact, that the miserable and oppressed North Koreans can’t even utter a word about it, let alone against it. The autocracy has cast such a spell on everyone that many are unable to even recognise their plight and suffering. For them, this is the normal way of life. Two stories stood out for me. In So Near, Yet So Far, a young man Myeong-chol is desperate to see his ailing mother who is in a remote village, but is denied permit to visit because of a Class One event. Despite his futile attempts to hoodwink the authorities, he’s unable to see his mother and ultimately ends up in a torture prison. In the story, The Red Mushroom, Hoe Yunmo, is a newspaper reporter, who has been entrusted with writing an article on N town’s bean paste factory returning to normal production levels. However the truth is starkly different. During his investigation he discovers the deplorable conditions of the workers involved but is never able to write about it. The story portrays a writer’s helplessness and frustration in North Korea.

The book can be an eye opener for us. North Korea prides itself on its totalitarian leadership and propaganda. As you read the book, you get an idea, that other than the capital, Pyongyang, the rest of the country is battling severe famine, malnutrition and disease. However, propaganda by the Great Leader and the media, paints a completely different picture. If we contemplate, it won’t be too difficult to draw parallels with our own present situation. We are voting for propaganda, hailing religious sentimentality and jingoistic media and journalists, centering divisive rhetoric, celebrating non performance disguised under the veil of fanaticism and radicalism; and dismissing democracy, criticism, opinions, and humanity at large. Are we under a spell too? Is there a way out?

I hope every Indian reads this book.


Crimson by Niviaq Korneliussen

📍Greenland 🇬🇱

First published in Greenlandic in 2014 as Homo Sapienne, the book was then translated by the author into Danish, a version that went on to receive Nordic acclaim, being nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize. In 2018, the UK translation, Crimson (released as Last Night in Nuuk in the US in 2019) was published, converted from Danish by Anna Halager. Events unfold at a startling pace in this book, told through the lives and stories of its five protagonists. Fia, has no love for her longtime boyfriend, and is now repulsed by his touch and presence. She breaks up with him, only to fall head over heels for Sara. Inuk, Fia’s brother, is a closeted gay guy and is in a secret relationship with a prominent personality from Nuuk. Arnaq, Inuk’s best friend and who is temporarily hosting Fia at her apartment, has unresolved childhood traumas which has lead her to alcoholism and a self destructive “party” lifestyle. She is smitten with Ivik. Ivik, who’s story is the most heartwarming and queer affirming, is struggling with the label of being a lesbian and sexual intimacy with girlfriend Sara; later realises his gender dysphoria. Sara, who actually makes Ivik realise the above, is grappling with loss of the relationship, the birth of her niece, and her simmering attraction for Fia.

The book is an exploration of various nuances of gender and sexuality. The author, a queer woman and native Greenlander herself, asserts that queerness cannot be explained by a stringent and linear definition. Queer individuals define it for themselves. Through it’s myriad characters, Niviaq, makes space for an unbridled queer narrative that’s messy, flawed, imperfect, inconsistent and even inconsequential at times. Their internal dialogues and personal struggles, conveyed effortlessly by the author, is reminiscent of every queer person’s journey, irrespective of their country of origin. The book also gives us a glimpse into Greenland (a former Danish colony which became self governing in 2009 after a referendum), it’s culture and life in its capital city, Nuuk. I feel, the original in Greenlandic, was way ahead of its time, since queer discourses and identities have become and are becoming mainstream only since the last couple of years. Bravo, Niviaq!


Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands

This wonderment of a book, written by Palestinian author, Sonia Nimr; and remarkably translated by Marcia Lynx Qualey; is winner of the prestigious Etisalat Award and also the recipient of the Translation award at the Palestine Book Awards 2021. It’s a historical fantasy and literary folklore that follows the journey of the protagonist Qamar. Qamar, who is born in a village in Palestine, decides to travel the world after the death of her parents, to honour their dreams. This decision takes her on a roller coaster ride, crossing deserts and seas, to Jerusalem and Gaza, Egypt, Morocco, Tangier, Andalusia , Genoa, Abyssinia, India, Ceylon, Maldives and Eden in Yemen. From being sold off as a slave to disguising herself as a man to become one of pirates in a pirate ship, to ultimately finding the love of her life and marrying him, Qamar, has an adventure like no other. Through this, she assumes the role of a healer, utilising her knowledge of herbal medicine to heal and cure diseases. Her empathetic persona wins her friends and confidantes; while her gift of storytelling gets her out of the strangest situations. During this wondrous journey, as Qamar, battles grief, hopelessness and heartache, she remains determined and never lets her gender act as a barrier to learning, to travel and to pursue. This feminist fable is not just an exploration of the cultures and stories of the Arab world, but also an effective combination of legend and history.


At night all blood is black

This 2021 International Booker Prize winner, is a sordid telling about a Senegalese soldier during the First World War. Alfa Ndiaye, is a strong and handsome man, recruited by the French against the German troops. Mademba Diop, with whom Alfa shares a brotherhood with, gets brutally killed and disemboweled during one of the attacks. Alfa sees him pleading for death and writhing in agony during his last moments and feels helpless and responsible about not providing him death sooner. This event destabilises Alfa which makes him seek gruesome revenge on the Germans. Every night he kills one of them and brings their severed hand as a medallion. Initially, his own troops and the French captain laud him for his bravery. But as his grotesque killing continues, the same people, now deem his bravery as savagery; call him dëmm, the devourer of souls and avoid him. All of this, makes Alfa have mental breakdowns and hence is ordered by the captain to be sent to an asylum. Slowly Alfa starts losing his memory, gets delusional and forgets his own identity.

The author, in the second half, throws light on the friendship and brotherhood of Alfa and Mademba. The relationship of Alfa with this mother, Penndo Ba, who leaves him at the age of nine, remains constrained with an unsaid love and resentment. The book describes the culture and traditions of Fula people of Senegal. The words and the narration get deliberately repetitive, probably to keep it authentic to Alfa Ndiaye’s thoughts.

Through the story, Alfa emerges as this brute force who only knows, blood, death and violence as the language of love, care and loyalty. In his delusional state, when he commits a rape; he believes it to be his act of making love. Narrated by Alfa himself, the story gets intentionally disturbing, making you squirm.

The book is translated from French by Anna Moschovakis, who shares the Booker Prize with the author David Diop. The story is a slice of the unspoken brutality of the First World War. As also, it’s an unflinching account of the life and mind of a soldier, facing the trauma of a war.