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Where Pigeons Don't Fly Paperback – July 28, 2015
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“Yousef Al-Mohaimeed is a rising star in international literature.” ―Annie Proulx, author of Brokeback Mountain
“Yousef Al-Mohaimeed. . . is taking on some of the most divisive subjects in the Arab world. . . . [He] writes in a lush style that evokes Gabriel García Márquez.” ―The Washington Post
“At last an authentic voice from Saudi Arabia.” ―Hanan al-Shaykh, author of Women of Sand and Myrrh
About the Author
Yousef Al-Mohaimeed is an award-winning writer and journalist. He has published several novels and short story collections in Arabic, and his work has been translated into English, Russian, Spanish, and German.
Robin Moger is the translator of A Dog With No Tail by Hamdi Abu Golayyel, winner of the 2008 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and one of the translators of the anthology Beirut39: New Writing from the Arab World.
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Top Customer Reviews
The novel opens with the protagonist, Fahd al-Safeelawi, on a train going to Great Yarmouth, in England. One soon learns that this "green and pleasant land" is a place of refuge, for Fahd, as well as his Saudi friend, Saaed. The year is 2007. The rest of the novel is devoted to why it is a place of refuge; a sanctuary from a land where the rules are so different that, yes, even the pigeons don't fly.
One of the immediate catalysts for Fahd's exile was his arrest in Riyadh by the Religious Police, sometimes called the mutawaa, with the more proper name being the "Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice", an Orwellian name for sure. He is having a cup of coffee, in the MORNING, in the "family section" of a commercial establishment, with his lover, Tarfah (she too is arrested). As the novel unfolds, the reader learns how many "chances" they had taken to be together, the many night time assignations, some told so well that I felt my heart racing, thinking of the consequences if they were caught. The irony then is well played out, over this "innocent cup of morning coffee." Al-Mohaimeed hits every note true when he depicts the scene, because the lead mutawaa is "smooth," one who has been trained well not to make a scene... "come my brother, just a few forms to sign... we just want to know the truth, and help you avoid sin" and all that rigmarole that masks the essential violence of thugs in action, or, as the author puts it: "The guardians of twisted virtue, the guardians of the imprisoned breeze, leapt to pluck out my joy in its first year of life. I wonder, why do these severe and grim-faced men invade the precious privacy you have with your beloved?"
The author reveals Tarfah's back story as well, her rebellious youth (naturally), and her two failed marriages, which provides that sense of: "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." The reader also learns of some of the other women in Fahd's life, one old enough to be his mother, and what has motivated them to adopt so many subterfuges for those moments of stolen pleasure.
The seminal event in modern Saudi history was the taking of the Grand Mosque in Mecca (Makkah) on the first day of the Higerian year 1400, which corresponded to November, 1979. For an excellent account of this event, I'd recommend YaroslavTrofimov's The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam's Holiest Shrine. This event definitely impacted the lives of Fahd and Saeed's fathers, and Saeed was there (!), in his mother's womb. Naturally the children experienced the reverberations, and Al-Mohaimeed is a master at revealing, through "back and fill," the motivations of those who took part, and the repercussions. Fahd was originally from Buraydah, the most conservative town in Saudi Arabia. Many from this area were part of the Ikhwan, fearless religious warriors who were an essential part of Ibn Saud's army when he created the modern day Kingdom. Fahd's father, Suleiman's childhood was a bit "troubled," due to his overbearing and quite conservative father, Ali. It was the motive force that resulted in Suleiman handing out religious pamphlets that were just a bit too critical of the secular Saudi leadership. Saeed was a "Southerner", (from Khamees Mushyat), and I would learn that their nickname is the area code for the region.
And there is so much more, including insights into the educational and medical systems, not to mention the enduring practice of sorcery, often by those who proclaim religious rectitude.
I lived in Saudi Arabia for 20 years. As a foreigner, and in particular a Westerner, I was always on the "surface of things". The "rules" and motive forces of Saudi society did not particularly affect me, as long as I was nominally respectful in public, a 5% adjustment to my behavior. I gained numerous insights into the society, sometimes by quietly observing and "connecting the dots," and at times being taken into the confidence of various Saudis who more or less decided I really wasn't in the CIA (or more perversely, hoping I was, in the belief that an outsider might change what they were unhappy about.)
Reading this book was like eating an entire box of madeleines, evoking not childhood memories, but those of middle-age, as those memories intersected repeatedly with Al-Mohaimeed's not so fictional characters. Almost certainly, I drove past Saeed's father, on that twisting mountain road in the Asir, between Abha and Taif, one week before the commencement of 1400. In my house today I have a fine carpet, purchased, nay virtually "stolen" from the souk in Buraydah, for 300 SR, since the style had changed, and the citizens wanted those new acrylic carpets, as they abandoned their mud homes and moved into proper cinderblock housing. I was associated with a country and western music band that played, "on tour," in the Canadian compound, 10 km south of Buraydah, whose workers were responsible for the electrification of Qassim province. What would Ali, Fahd's grandfather, who had been warned to fix the squeaky hinges on his door, because they "sounded too much like music", have thought of our very real (more or less) music? I loved the author's depictions of Riyadh, including the "big slide", near the King Faisal foundation, just off the King Fahd expressway.
Finally, there is that principal reason Fahd is in England: the religious police. All four members of my family had run-ins with them, one way or the other. Mine may have been the most serious, facing trumped up and false charges, but just like Fahd, with a bit of "wasta", a word that Al-Mohaimeed does not use, but means connections with those with power and influence, and I also was saved. And there will always remain the ultimate irony: those men, "severe and grim faced" who "plucked the joy" out of so many lives, almost certainly saved the life of my daughter. It's hard to say: "I owe you one," but the realistic assessment is that I do. There are still a few flying pigeons in "The Magic Kingdom."
For Saudis and non-Saudis alike, this is a marvelous 6-star, plus, read.
Note: The picture of the "Big Slide" was added on September 03, 2016. The two kawajha kids are in the middle. A great place to raise them