On November 20, 1979 an insurgent group called al-Ikhwan led by Juhayman al-‘Utaybi besieged the Grand Mosque in Mecca in opposition to the Saud family and increased Western influence in Saudi Arabia. Two of the pillars of Islam are intimately linked to the Grand Mosque: it houses the Ka‘aba, towards which Muslims pray; and it is the site of the hajj, or pilgrimage, which Muslims are supposed to undertake once during their lifetimes. The insurgents wanted to remove the Saud family from power and believed that the Mahdi, a figure in Islamic eschatology who will appear before the day of judgment, had arrived in the person of Mohammad al-Qahtani, al-‘Utaybi’s brother-in-law. In the aftermath of the attack, the Saud family consolidated power and instituted stricter interpretations of Islamic law. The siege, which lasted fifteen days, remains a highly sensitive topic in Saudi Arabia.
Raja Alem’s Sarab, translated by Leri Price, reclaims the narrative of the siege and its role in transforming Mecca and Saudi Arabia. Alem herself describes the siege of the mosque as “a wound in the heart of [Mecca].” The protagonist of the novel, Sarab—which means mirage in Arabic—is brought up as a man but gradually, and grudgingly, acknowledges the femininity she feels. Motivated by simultaneous admiration and resentment for her twin brother Sayf, Sarab participates in the siege on the Grand Mosque and escapes with a GIGN (Groupe d’intervention de la Gendarmerie nationale, who assisted the Saudi government during the siege) officer named Raphael as her captive. Their relationship begins with vitriol and violence, and slowly turns into a cycle of attraction and repulsion.
As she transitions, Sarab embodies gender norms she has internalized from her mother and brother. Although there is a masculine/feminine binary sustained throughout the novel, Sarab frequently subverts it. This is not the first novel in which Alem blurs the lines between masculine and feminine or deals with gender transition: in her 2006 novel Khātam, the eponymous protagonist presents as feminine in private and masculine in public, and the sex of the character is unclear until the end. Sarab, on the other hand, realizes a different gendered way of being relatively early in the novel:
For the first time, she grasped the shocking truth she had tried to ignore: she was Sarab, a girl, and Sayf was the name of the twin brother she had revered, but as soon as the opportunity offered itself, she had pounced on it like an eagle, stealing his name and identity. (40)
Her realization demonstrates the difficult relationship she has with Sayf, who is both twin and foil. From childhood, she emulates him but articulates awareness that she is the lesser twin, the shadow; they are, their mother says, “two children with one spine. Sayf is our backbone” (91).
Despite their mutual enmity, after hiding out for days in a house together, Sarab and Raphael speak to each other and gradually realize they need each other: Raphael to escape captivity, and Sarab to leave the country. And so she leaves Saudi Arabia on her brother’s identity card, moving into Raphael’s Paris apartment overlooking the Jardin du Luxembourg. Despite the idyllic setting, Sarab cannot avoid the trauma of the siege, and Raphael’s newfound remorse results in apparitions of those he killed during missions. Both Sarab and Raphael are haunted, in a real sense, by their pasts: “They were sharing the apartment with their shadow consorts, four bitter enemies locked in a perpetual struggle, unsure who would win the final battle” (205). Much of the novel centers on the antagonistic relationship Sarab and Raphael have with themselves and each other.
By fictionalizing the multiple sides of the siege, Alem highlights the dangers of blind obedience. Sarab’s mother encouraged her to act like her brother, so she devotes herself completely to outwardly conforming to the masculinized norms her mother espouses. After her mother’s death, she follows her brother into service for al-Ikhwan. Raphael attempts to divorce his actions from his feelings but devotes himself to his job and takes great pride in it. After their meeting, Sarab and Raphael reconsider their reasons for performing these duties. Like Sarab, Raphael was expected to adhere to social and familial expectations:
by plunging into warfare [Raphael] had avoided having any compassion for himself. He had hovered, enjoying life, by averting his eyes from the harm he caused. He had merged with the currents of life, like death itself, like disease, like an indomitable virus. This was what he had become in his blind obedience to military orders. His revolt against his father’s weakness pushed him to join the army, and the army pushed him to become something like a god, wreaking vengeance on all who thwarted him. (154)
Both characters surrender to the currents of their lives without stopping to think. Their animosity towards each other forces them to examine the choices (or lack thereof) that led them to commit the acts that continue to haunt them. Alem examines blind obedience not only in a religious context, but also in the context of military and social life.
Alem has spoken in interviews about the difficulty of bringing her Arabic into English; her work relies on Arabic folklore, mythology, and wordplay that require explanation when translated into another language. Her relationship to the English translations of her earlier novels is unique. Her novels Fatma and My Thousand and One Nights were “co-authored” with filmmaker Tom McDonough. In this process, Alem would write a draft in Arabic, rewrite it in English, then send it to McDonough, who would rewrite it again. The two novels are published with both named as authors, offering a collaborative way of thinking about translation and adaptation.
Sarab is a translation without a published original: it is available in English and German translations, but not in Arabic. Alem began writing the novel a decade ago, and is still unsatisfied with the Arabic manuscript, hence the decision not to publish it. The subject itself is contentious, but her decision is a result of what she feels is inadequate expression. She says,
Arabic is my center. I am very sensitive to the words, and up until now I cannot find the right words to capture this story, this wound. I feel I need to rewrite this book in some new Arabic, after taking a distance.
Despite this sentiment towards Arabic expression, she allowed the work to be translated into both English and German. She has garnered something of a global following; in 2011 she was the first woman to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (usually called the Arabic Booker) for her novel Ṭawq al-ḥamām, translated into English by Adam Talib and Katharine Halls as The Dove’s Necklace.
Because there is no original, it is impossible to comment on Sarab as a translation. Price’s task in translating Sarab is an arduous one: she is our sole access point to the original. While it is not uncommon for translations to be published concurrently with original texts, it is remarkable for a translation to be published without an original. Because Alem plans to continue revising the Arabic and may never publish it, Sarab’s existence only in translated form re-situates the relationship between original and translation. It highlights translation as a particular rendering of a text, emphasizes the power of the translator, and undermines the primacy of the “original” text.
Price’s prose speeds and slows with the pace of the plot, and she crafts distinct voices for the many characters whose perspectives overtake the novel at different points. She adeptly navigates the momentum of action with the characters’ interior meditations. The jolting narrative jumps between time and space, reflecting the push and pull between people, places, and identities that Sarab experiences. These shifts are often abrupt and disorienting, mimicking the chaotic subject matter.
One of Alem’s projects in her work as a whole is the recuperation of her Mecca. Her work evokes the spirituality and sense of belonging that defines Mecca for her, and the siege and its consequences threaten that. In Sarab, by focusing on an event that has been silenced in Saudi Arabia, she begins to grapple with the consequences of the siege for herself, her city, and her country.
Alem, Raja. Sarab. Translated from Arabic by Leri Price. Hoopoe Fiction, 2018.