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Love and Consequences!?
on July 25, 2008
Imagine a new novel, let's call it "A Passage to America," which purports to be a "trenchant portrait of American society." The action is set in New York City, where a young woman may have run away into the hinder land, or been murdered, in a place no more than an hour from her home, but the investigator is told to confine his search to "radii extending outward" from Peoria. One theory is that she may have taken an "overnight bus" to Mexico City. Her family is quite rich, typical of people located so close to Wall Street; they have their own island, connected by a causeway, two kilometers out in the East River. Being typical Americans, they have a stable on the island filled with horses, which they can all ride, just like the Marlboro man bringing his Christmas tree home in deep snow. America is truly a sex-obsessed society, and virtually all married couples swap partners nightly. All the wives are blondes, with pendulant breasts, in the best Bay Watch fashion. And if they are not having sex then they are killing someone, which is what cowboys normally do. A few people in deep back waters outside the United States believe these stereotypes hold for all Americans.
I just finished a great novel, Wallace Stegner's "Angle of Repose." A deep, true inquiry into the human condition, with honest human interactions, in settings depicted with careful accuracy. Would Stegner have had his leading protagonist, Susan Burling, fly back to the East Coast in the 1890's?
In Ferraris's novel you have numerous errors in time and place. As Sulayyil is no where near Jeddah; it is impossible to take an overnight bus from Jeddah to Muscat; the Saudis do not allow "rich Europeans" to make archaeological digs searching for the tomb of Abraham; there are no islands two kilometers off the coast near Jeddah, especially not ones surrounded by steep cliffs (p23). First prayer call occurs much before first light, and for sure, save for the month of Ramadan, young women are not shopping at that hour, nor are any shops open! (p51) A medical examiner could not have flown from Riyadh, and have been examining the body before the protagonist, Nayir, arrived at the morgue. The above is just a very small sampling, all within the first 100 pages, but even in outright fantasy books, there should be the discipline of internal consistency; early in the book we learn that the cause of Nouf's death is drowning in the desert, yet on page 91 we are told: "In Jeddah it rained once a year, for approximately five minutes if they were lucky." They are also drilling for oil near Jeddah, and not in the Eastern Province, where it is located.
Far more troubling than the wild pastiche of time and place are the human interactions. They ranged from the truly impossible, to the highly improbable, to the very unlikely. No Saudi family, rich or poor, would hire another Saudi, totally unrelated to be a young woman's "escort." In fact the entire concept of an "escort," as opposed to the accompaniment of a male family member is totally alien to Saudi society, yet both Nouf and Katya had one, doing the most improbable things. In the real world of Saudi Arabia, if a Katya wanted to go to an optometrist, she would have had her driver taker her there, and she would have gone in herself. There would have been no need for a related or non-related male to accompany her. No professional Saudi woman, who in her work environment did not wear the burqa, would suddenly put one on because a male was displeased. (p13). The free-lance "detective," Nayir, wonders how Nouf might have learned how to drive a car, yet never wonders how she might have learned to ride a camel! The most hackney cliché is of course the answer: they are all "camel jockeys." No rich 16 year-old Saudi woman can ride a camel - in America at least, some 16 year olds can ride horses. "The punishment for having sex out of wedlock - for even being caught with a single woman...was a public beheading."(p 83) Pleeeze! In another scene, Nayir, the Palestinian "detective," in civilian clothes, accompanied by Miss Hijazi, a Saudi wearing a burqa, somehow gain access to a Western compound, walk up to a Western resident, and inquire about the another Westerner, Scarberry. `"Do you know the address?" Nayir asked. "We're investigating a crime and we need to ask him a few questions." "Sure. He's on Peachtree." The man gave him the directions and the house number.' Pleeeze! In reality the Westerner would have challenged his identity, and given him no information. Nayir somehow manages to waltz his way through the entire novel, with people in the most improbable situations opening their hearts to him and "trusting" him. Hussein, Othman's father, who is a guest worker from southern Iraq, somehow brings his six year old son to the Kingdom without his mother. In reality, the child would have been left in Iraq, with relatives, like all other guest workers do (p175) All of the above is only a small sampling of the improbable to impossible.
As a particular pet peeve, during Ms. Ferraris brief stay in the Kingdom she apparently learned what a "miswak" is, and the term appears repeatedly, yet she never learned that the Saudi "robe" is called a thobe.
For those, Saudis and expatriates, who are familiar with the actual life in the Kingdom, it would be a useful exercise to expand the partial lists above.
It has been only a few months since the "Love and Consequences" book fraud was revealed. The circumstances are similar, a book is hyped, receives a wide assortment of positive reviews, yet no one, the agent, the publishing house and its editors, or the reviewers challenged the book's authenticity. It took a truthful sister to reveal the scam. There is a difference however. L and C claimed to be a memoir, "Finding Nouf" is a novel - but does that mean "anything goes"? Aren't the best novels, the ones that really should be hyped, authentic, truthful to the time and place, and insightful of the human condition?
The promoters should at least be embarrassed. They can decide to be angry at the "truthful sister," as was often done on the L and C fraud. Or they can take the far more constructive approach, and ponder how something like this could happen yet again. Does anyone who "reviews" these books, or loans their name to a blurb, actually READ the book? And if so, do they always set their critical faculties aside? There was a subset of people who claimed that they did not care that L and C was a fraud, it was still a "fun read." No doubt, some will take the same approach to "Finding Nouf," but please do not think you will obtain "unparalleled insight into (Saudi) daily life" or that the book "yanks the veil off of Saudi Arabian culture." The book is a profound measure of our willingness to accept the wildest caricatures of those who "live on the other side of the river."