Over the last year, Yemen has been in the news, its people suffering the ravages of war and famine. I realized that I knew very little about the country, especially what it had been like to live there before the troubles began. I’ve always found fiction to be the best way in to understand a society, especially if the writer is from the country/community. Fiction takes you into people’s homes and minds in a way that non-fiction does not.
So I got myself this book, written by Wajdi Al-Ahdal, one of Yemen’s best-known writers. In 2003, he had to leave Yemen because his book Qawarib Jabaliya (Mountain Boats) upset radical conservatives. He was eventually able to return but I somehow don’t think this book is going to endear him to the conservatives—he writes not only about the way women are treated in this very patriarchal society but also about women’s sexuality. They are seen as both the keepers of the family’s honour and objects of desire.
The centre of this book is Jasmine, a young woman living in Sana’a. She is bright and beautiful, focused on her studies. Until one day she doesn’t come home from university. No one can find her—she seems to have vanished into thin air. And for many of the people around her, a land without Jasmine is a diminished place.
Each chapter is narrated by a different person, starting with Jasmine herself. She complains about the male gaze that follows her everywhere: whether it’s the shopkeeper across the street or the construction workers on her way to the university; men ogle her and seem to follow her every move, in spite of the veil and long black coat she wears when she leaves the house. She feels that she is suffocating under this constant watchfulness, “a noxious type of male violence”.
It is not only older men who are obsessed with Jasmine. Ali, the adolescent boy in the flat opposite hers, is in love with her. They used to be friends until Jasmine’s father thought she was too old to be hanging out with boys. So now, unable to speak to her or approach her, he waits every morning for Jasmine to leave for university and follows her like a shadow.
When one day she doesn’t come home, her father and brothers go looking for her, convinced that she has in some way sullied the family’s honour. It seems like that men in the family and the clan are more worried about their honour than about what happened to Jasmine. The only people who seem to really care are her mother, Ali, the man running the café at the university and the policemen investigating her disappearance.
All of them take turns at telling their side of the story. And each narration adds yet another piece to Jasmine’s story. And because she is the first character you meet, you can separate the truth from people’s perceptions of her. The last chapter goes back to Jasmine herself, through her mother who finds Jasmine’s diary, which hints at events much stranger than anyone had imagined.
This is a slim book at just 82 pages. The end is intriguing, but I am not sure whether I completely believe it. It isn’t the element of magic realism that bothers me but the woman writing the diary feels very different from the woman in the first chapter. Even allowing for the secret lives we all lead inside our heads, I found it a little hard to believe. At some level it feels like a male fantasy, the kind that has been dogging Jasmine all her adult life, even though it is supposed to be her diary.
In spite of that, I found it a fascinating glimpse into a country and a culture that I really didn’t know much about.