Going underground

By Richard Woffenden

Ammar Abdulhamid’s debut novel creates an image of a Syrian underworld

Set in contemporary Damascus, Ammar Abdulhamid’s debut novel is going to upset people. Its title, Menstruation, leaves readers in no doubt that Abdulhamid is not about to pull any punches when it comes to taboo subjects. Clearly a reaction to repression in itself, the novel looks at the effect of conservative values on society, particularly the young.

Our heroes are two young Syrians: Wisam, an unhappily married young woman, and Hasan, a young man being pressured into marriage by his conservative father. Both struggle against the expectations of society and with their sexual desires. Wisam finds herself stranded in a marriage where the only contact she has with the husband is sexual. Her mother warned her about the nightmare that would be her in-laws, but nothing prepared her for the hostility she receives. Her mother in law becomes the communication channel that her husband uses to express his dissatisfaction with Wisam. It is only later, through her intimate relationship with friends Batul and Fatin, that she is able to find any solace.

The picture is not much rosier for Hasan, who enters into an extramarital affair with Salwa, an older married woman, who then deserts him when he becomes emotionally attached. As with Wisam, Abdulhamid is very clear that the sexual freedom the young people lack is mirrored by and inseparably linked to the lack of free thought. Hasan’s confusion is heightened by the religiosity of his family; his father is a sheikh and his sister and sister-in-law run Quran classes for women. Hasan feels unable to communicate his fears and desires and eventually turns to a couple of intellectuals, who form the linchpin of the novel.

Nadim and Kindah are liberal intellectuals who are seen by much of society as apostates yet are guarded by the state because the government needs to show to the world that it allows freedom of thought. Both Nadim and Kindah know that this safety is short-lived and that they have as many enemies in the West as they do at home. Nadim particularly feels the threat and waits for the wind to change and the persecution to begin. His fear for the future has driven a rift between him and his wife at the beginning of the novel, as he cannot face bringing a child into the situation. Kindah is distraught and sees parallels in her situation with other women.

The couple is eventually reconciled, but this very human side of their relationship helps put them in perspective as the reader begins to see the reverence in which the couple are held by many other more closeted liberals. It would have been very easy for the author to make Kindah and Nadim the saviors of the story but he is careful to reveal their flaws, both personal and ideologi­cally. Throughout the novel, extracts of the couple’s writings appear punctuating the social dramas of the characters.

Both Hasan and Wisam encounter the intellectuals. Hasan’s arrival at the couple’s door illustrates the black humor with which Nadim accepts his fate: “Well, well, well, a speechless and obviously troubled young man, I haven’t seen one of those in a long, long time. Well, if you have a gun and want to shoot me, go ahead or else speak up and stop wasting my time, I am in the process of jotting more of my demonic thoughts on profane earthly paper.”

Hasan is less than impressed by the couple and their attempts to create a club or meeting ground for liberally minded young people. However, the freedom that they allow their consciences and their thoughts does impress him. Wisam, on the other hand, is impressed with their openness and friendliness and tries to understand how such kind people can be seen as outcasts.

While for some people the existential and religious aspects of the book might be a problem, the sexual issues are more likely to initially shock. If we see the writing as a response to a conservative society, this is a statement in itself. The link between the physical and ideological repression is clearly and effectively made. When Kindah writes about the traditional approach to menstruation in her writings, she makes very strong points. Also when she examines the approach to sex in society she, like Abdulhamid, himself is not afraid to be bold:

“In the fundamentalist-conservative society, the issue, [of sexual overindulgence] is never dealt with openly, except of course, when it is condemned; the fact that it occurs no less frequently in this society than in other societies… is not just ignored, but actually hidden and denied. For to accept it and deal with it openly, would undermine one of the central pillars upon which such a society rests.”

Whether the reader agrees with the characters’ or the novelist’s point of view is not the central issue it’s that they are able to express it is important. Certain issues within the book, however, do border on the juvenile. The issue of Hasan’s ability to sense women who are menstruating does begin to bring up issues of sexual politics but never gets anywhere and is almost abandoned as the novel proceeds, suggesting it is little more than a gimmick. It is sad that this becomes the central issue of the sales pitch as it diverts from the more serious and well expressed socio-political ideas in the book.

Menstruation by Ammar Abdulhamid | published by Saqi Books 2001 | © CAIRO TIMES, 10-16 January 2002