An Occult Tale of Sexuality in Yemen

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The pillars at the Awam, or Moon Temple near the recently restored Arsh, or Throne of Balquis in the Yemeni province of Marib, the site of the legendary kingdom of Sheba dating back 3000 years. (Photo: AFP)

By: Leah Caldwell

Published Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Wajdi al-Ahdal’s A Land Without Jasmine depicts the lives of Yemeni women under the ever-watching eyes of men.

If you were to go missing, to vanish into thin air, who – after your friends and family – would the police interrogate as to your last whereabouts? If you live in a city, the next batch questioned might be relative strangers. Those individuals – a neighbor, a shopkeeper, a construction worker – who casually keep watch on your everyday activities from afar. For females, this tacit surveillance might be more acute, especially when it’s male strangers doing the watching.

When a Yemeni university student, Jasmine, disappears in Wajdi al-Ahdal’s novella A Land Without Jasmine, it’s these male observers who are able to narrate her life to investigators with pathological detail. We wonder if the girl, in fact, disappeared, or merely managed to escape their “mass gaze.”

Ahdal, a Yemeni novelist, published his novella under the title A Land Without a Sky in Yemen in 2008, but its English translation, by William Maynard Hutchins, will be released by Garnet Publishing in September 2012. The 82-page novella touches on several themes that have put Ahdal’s life on the line in the past. Namely, involving sex. His 2002 novel Mountain Boats was banned in Yemen for what the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram described as using “Quranic expressions in describing sexual scenes.” He fled to Lebanon and didn’t return to Yemen until 2010 when he was guaranteed protection by the president.

A Land Without Jasmine is equally defiant; a translator’s note states that three sexually explicit passages not contained in the Arabic version were included in its English counterpart. This explicitness is perhaps essential to understand the world of a girl whose every move comes under a gaze that, in her words, is “a noxious type of male violence.”

Jasmine lives an unexceptional life, but given her beauty, she has become either an obsession or diversion for many men (“all of them want to screw me”). She hates the attention and doesn’t equivocate, but she also realizes that to be a female in public in Yemen is to endure harassment that is virtually “a kind of tax exacted from every girl who ventures out on our repressed streets.”

When she disappears, a void is left in the lives of her most avid watchers, some of whose sad fates rest on her mere presence. One young male is unable to get an erection since the object of his ever-present lust is gone. The other more innocuous admirers, like the “proprietor of the snack bar in the Faculty of Science,” seem earnest in their cooperation with investigators. Yet no matter their intentions, their roles in Jasmine’s life as her watchers give their testimonies a leering feel: Is their voyeurism assisting or skewing a police investigation? With the snack bar proprietor’s chapter titled, “A Man Blinded to this Disconcerting World by Supernatural Delusions,” we question the role of these men as witnesses when they appear to live in their own fantasy worlds.

Investigators eventually succumb to feelings of unease and terror – not unlike the apprehension felt by Jasmine in her daily life – when they sense that they are under surveillance by something not quite human. They hit a dead-end when the object of their inquiry, a man with glowing white hair who wears a fancy gold tie, turns out to be untraceable. It’s here that we suspect the mystery of her disappearance might only be decoded through the occult.

Jasmine’s most devoted watcher, the love-struck Ali, tells of her infatuation with the esoteric, ancient aspects of Yemen’s history:

She told me about the ancient Yemenis, who took the moon for a God named Almaqah and built huge temples to honor him. They offered sacrifices to him and launched wars in his name. They believe that the secret to their great wealth lay in obedience to his word. Jasmine herself was very fond of the moon and waited for it to appear every night. That made me wonder whether she secretly worshiped it.

Where is Jasmine ultimately? A sexual paradise, hell, or purgatory? The mysteries of her cryptic disappearance seem to lie just under the surface of this compact social critique of Yemen.


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Yeah -- because everything in fiction should be taken literally.

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