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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

A Land without Jasmine

by
Wajdi al-Ahdal


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase A Land without Jasmine



Title: A Land without Jasmine
Author: Wajdi al-Ahdal
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 84 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: A Land without Jasmine - US
A Land without Jasmine - UK
A Land without Jasmine - Canada
A Land without Jasmine - India
  • Arabic title: بلاد بلا سماء
  • Translated by William M. Hutchins

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Our Assessment:

B : quite cleverly and well done, though resolution somewhat of a letdown

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Al-Akhbar English . 7/8/2012 Leah Caldwell
Daily Star . 20/10/2012 India Stoughton


  From the Reviews:
  • "We wonder if the girl, in fact, disappeared, or merely managed to escape their "mass gaze." (...) The mysteries of her cryptic disappearance seem to lie just under the surface of this compact social critique of Yemen." - Leah Caldwell, Al-Akhbar English

  • "Ahdal’s tale is saved from becoming a reductionist social critique by its nuanced male narrators." - India Stoughton, Daily Star

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Land without Jasmine is presented in six chapters, each with a different narrator carrying the action forward. It begins with Jasmine Nashir al-Ni'am, a twenty-year-old university student in Yemen and the central figure in the novel; the final section is narrated by her mother -- though al-Ahdal cheats a bit by giving Jasmine the final word(s), as her mother closes her account with a dream Jasmine had recorded in her diary.
       All the other narrators are men, and men and their lust and attitude towards women are the central issues in the novel. Jasmine's account begins on Valentine's Day, with her morning routine. Already here she is confronted with the lusting and inappropriate gazes and actions of men: the grocer across the way who stares at her when she peeks out the window, then the neighbor's boy, who lies in wait for her behind his door's peep-hole, and rushes out to follow her to school as soon as she passes by. Even though she walks the street fully veiled, she finds: "most men look at me lecherously and all of them want to screw me" and she complains: "I'm harassed many times a day".
       Her own attitude towards sex isn't healthy, either: at seven she wanted to commit suicide to "die an innocent child without sin and enter paradise immediately", and as a child she: "considered sex so vile that it should be forbidden, even to spouses." Even now that she's more mature she's only changed her attitude slightly:

     I adopted moral views that were quite prim and didn't tolerate human desires; as I conceived it, the ideal world would lack any and all forms of sexual attraction. Now that I've grown up and understand life I've learned to tolerate conjugal sex. In fact, I think it's necessary so that progeny will continue to be produced.
       As if she doesn't have enough problems with this issue, her father constantly worries that she will: "sully his honour, disgrace him and besmirch his reputation", making him an openly hostile adversary rather than loving paternal figure. No wonder that she complains:
     I feel that I am under siege, that my society assails me from every direction [....] [E]veryone around me makes me feel that I'm not a human being with a brain and a spirit but merely an instrument of pleasure. They've compressed my human existence into a small, dirty triangle, ignoring all the rest of me.
       The second chapter is narrated by a police inspector, who investigates the disappearance of a girl -- Jasmine, who seems to have vanished into thin air. In the course of his investigations he meets some of the men who knew Jasmine. Among them is her professor -- who denounces her as: "one of these women who pretend to be modest and who refuse to shake hands in public but then open their cunts in private" (an opinion he apparently bases solely on her having declined to shake his hand); as it turns out -- and hardly surprisingly -- this professor is also a horny bastard who abuses his position of authority.
       Another chapter is narrated by the man who runs a snack bar at the university and was one of the last to see Jasmine. He, too, is taken by her, describing her as: "so feminine that she slays hearts even when fully veiled"; he also doesn't think highly of the university system (refusing to allow his own children to seek out higher education) and co-ed classes, where, he thinks, the male student relates to the female classmate: "not as a fellow student but as a student of copulation !"
       The neighbor-boy, Ali, still in his mid-teens, also describes his relationship with Jasmine, with whom he used to play and be close friends until she donned the niqab and : "became a stranger, a creature from another world". That, however, didn't end his obsession with her; neither does her disappearance.
       Meanwhile the family -- well-armed tribesmen, itching for blood -- also want their own kind of justice, valuing a bizarre sense of 'honor' above all else and complicating the police investigation. Unsurprisingly, it comes to tragedy, but without leading to any answers about Jasmine's fate.
       Ultimately, al-Ahdal does offer a resolution of sorts -- perhaps the only kind possible for a story like this -- but it is hard to pull off the sort of escapism he presents in a story otherwise filled with so much raw realism.
       It's in its realism, and especially how the sexual confusion and frustration of the characters are presented, that al-Ahdal's book impresses. The society he describes is one stunningly marked and warped by how women are treated and perceived. Teen Ali's inability to do his homework -- "lines of text ran together and the books disgorged dreadful beasts. Lascivious female jinnis ran riot behind the pages" -- may be a near-universal teen experience, but here the perversion of sexuality (and that's what it amounts to) extends far beyond any teenage confusion and leaks into almost all aspects of life and makes any sort of normality near-impossible.
       The police inspector, a rare voice of reason, manages to be a fairly neutral judge and observer, but the society is so broken that he is limited in his ability to do his job -- though al-Ahdal confuses this a bit by making the case one that is actually impossible to solve.
       Al-Ahdal's novel is a devastating critique of the damage wrought by clinging to traditional mores and the extreme limitations imposed on women (and on how men can interact with women) in this society. Admirably, he presents this both from the male and female perspectives (and Jasmine is no less damaged by an unhealthy view of sexuality than are the perverts she encounters ... almost every time she encounters any male). In its false belief of how to maintain some sort of female purity -- by veiling women, and treating them as a different class of citizen -- this society instead completely debases women, and perverts sexuality. As al-Ahdal suggests, everyone winds up dissatisfied (and horribly repressed).
       A Land without Jasmine is certainly not subtle, and in their extremes -- beautiful, self-obsessed (and too idealized) Jasmine, and all the sex-obsessed men (except for the family and tribe, who are, in turn, 'honor'-obsessed) -- al-Ahdal in part hammers home his message far too obviously. Still, lots of this is fairly well written, and the presentation is very good. A Land without Jasmine is an occasionally unpleasant (because of the primitive attitudes towards women on display) but otherwise really quite good read, and a fascinating glimpse of Yemeni society.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 August 2012

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Links:

A Land without Jasmine: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       Yemeni author Wajdi al-Ahdal (وجدي الأهدل) was born in 1973.

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© 2012 the complete review

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