Sulaiman Addonia must be one of the few authors whose life has been as dramatic as his fiction. Born in Eritrea, he spent his childhood in a refugee camp in Sudan and then moved as a teenager to Jeddah, where his mother had been working for some time as a servant. Later, he and his brother came to London; and, more recently still, he has moved to Brussels with his Belgian partner and their son. The protagonist of this debut novel shares some of Addonia’s own displaced history, although in other important ways he’s had a very different experience. Struggling to make ends meet as a foreign worker in Jeddah, Naser lives in a strange world where life is governed by the whims of his kafeel (Saudi sponsor) and the dictates of the religious police, and where men and women inhabit fiercely segregated worlds. Then, one hot and languid summer, a girl drops a note at Naser’s feet in the street. Shrouded in her burqa, she has fallen in love with him; but he can only recognise her by her shoes. It’s the beginning of a heartfelt story of forbidden love played out in the shadow of the fundamentalist regime.
Naser is old enough to remember his life in Eritrea, before the war broke out and his mother arranged for him and his little brother to be smuggled to their uncle in Jeddah. He remembers the generosity and warmth of women: the sensual scent of their perfumes and the abundance of their flesh; and these memories become tangled up with thoughts of his lost mother. In Jeddah, there might as well be no women. They go by in their black robes, shrouded and faceless, indistinguishable from one another. Men are unable to even approach them, because the religious police are always on the prowl, looking out for those who desecrate the teachings of Allah. Besides, everyone knows that women are weak creatures of sin. Marriages are arranged between fathers, or a man and his future father-in-law; love has no part in it. And so, in Naser’s circles, love – or lust – is often directed at pretty boys instead. Naser himself has been on the receiving end of this kind of attention – unwillingly, since he simply dreams of the day when he will be able to meet a woman. But willingness doesn’t always come into it, when it’s a question of satisfying your kafeel or a powerful friend of your boss, and the alternative might be to lose your job, or a useful contact, or even to be deported.
It’s in this dead-end life that Naser receives the note from his unknown admirer. She comes back, with another note: if he wishes, he can always distinguish her by the daring pink shoes that she wears under her robe. And so a strange romance develops: Naser is captivated but cannot speak to her or send a note in response, for it would be too dangerous for her to be seen stooping to pick it up. How can they possibly communicate? The girl, whom Naser nicknames Fiore, conceives a plan by which they can exchange letters, but it requires Naser to infiltrate the heart of the strict religious circles which fulminate against everything he believes in. In his desire to get to know Fiore, he runs the risk of exposing them both to the fierce and summary justice of Saudi Arabia, and to the vengeance of the religious police. And yet, in a world where love is never expected or even hoped for, they are both driven to keep the frail ember of their romance alive.
There is something deeply romantic about an impossible love, not to mention a love formed through an initially one-sided correspondence, when one side has no idea what the other actually looks like. You can’t help but root for Naser and Fiore, even as you wonder how on earth they actually hope to make their situation work. The idea behind the story is lovely, and the combination between the sweet romance and the oppressive Saudi laws and surveillance adds piquancy. Addonia writes very sensitively about the predicament of women in these societies, perhaps inspired by his close relationship with his own mother, who must have had a very hard time of it in Jeddah, as both a foreigner and a woman. So my difficulty was not with the plot so much: where events seemed improbable, I just told myself that I can’t really judge what is or isn’t plausible in Saudi society. I did have reservations about the style, though. Credit must go to Addonia for writing in what must surely be his third or fourth language, but the fact remains that the prose is a bit stilted. Sentences are short and choppy; characters sometimes ‘yell’ or ‘shout’ for no obvious reason; and although Naser’s predicament demands sympathy, it’s hard to feel empathy for him. On the other hand, it’s hard to apply Western notions of narrative to a world which is so obviously different in the way its inhabitants are forced to live. Unsettling, haunting and profoundly foreign, this is a story about the experience of living in a segregated world: a Romeo and Juliet for our times, perhaps.
I’d be interested to read Addonia’s other novel, Silence is my Mother Tongue, which was published last October after a ten-year silence between books. He seems to be an astute, sensitive and thoughtful writer, able to offer insights into completely unfamiliar worlds. And heaven knows, if there’s one thing we need at the moment, it’s authors who can break down these false barriers we build for ourselves between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
P.S. Addonia seems to be remarkable in another way as well: he has no Wikipedia page. How on earth, in this day and age, does an author escape that?