From viewing the cover of Hurma you might not expect a darkly comic sex romp. You might make some guesses as to the content and expect an illicit ‘peek behind the veil’ for Western audiences in this, the first of Yemeni author Ali Al-Muqri’s books to be translated (by Thomas Aplin) into English. Especially when the tabloids in the UK are equal parts fascinated and horrified by girls running away from home to marry IS fighters, you might expect a tale of misery, beatings and death – and while all those elements are present – what I wasn’t expecting was the laughter.
There are so many beautifully-realised moments in this tale, some more poignant, some that will have you shaking your head with disbelieving laughter. The strict family patriarch who beats Hurma for drawing a heart in class but tells the rest of the family to allow older sister Lula complete freedom after her sex work pays for his heart operation. Raqeeb the secret drinker and public Marxist who nicknames his younger sister ‘Ruza’ and tells her:
‘Be free and wonderful like Rosa Luxemburg!’ he would say, ‘Read her book and you’ll learn what really matters in life.’
Raqeeb is scornful of religion until he transforms himself into ‘Abd al-Raqeeb, holy warrior, as he prepares for marriage to a neighbour’s daughter.
He encourages Hurma to attend Islamic college, where she too becomes more devout. Although, in the manner of girls’ schools the world over, her classmates are boy-crazy and the pleasures of the flesh can’t be shut out completely: even when the male instructors give lessons via video links that only show their hands. With her siblings pulling her in two opposing – both extreme – directions, Hurma decides to marry one of her brother’s co-conspirators. She daydreams of a happy, contented life with her husband and pictures herself performing heroics on the battlefield, but the experience is as unsatisfying as her marriage. Her husband is more turned on by martyrdom than anything else, including a Lula-supplied Viagra, and her role more akin to a mule than a freedom fighter.
Hurma’s story unfolds as she is listening to a tape made for her by a male neighbour and passed to her via his sister. She is looking for meaning in the lyrics of the songs by the singer Om Kalthoum as she also looks for meaning in the events of her life. She realises that she can interpret the songs as love songs, songs of desire, or with a more religious aspect and it is those two influences – which should be able to coexist instead of being in opposition – that keep pulling and pushing her along.
I prayed to God, but He didn’t answer. I became more and more frustrated as the days went by – in fact with every hour and every second. I tried to get my life in order. I asked myself: What do I want, and how am I going to get it? But my inner turmoil made it impossible… how could there be inner peace with the unquenchable flames of desire?
The more that something is forbidden, the more alluring it becomes. Once Hurma doesn’t have the war as a distraction, it isn’t long before the drive towards sex completely overwhelms her. Her lack of an outlet leaving her contemplating tunneling into the house of the neighbour who made the tape to jump him after a second unconsummated marriage to an impotent man. For all that this is a novel awash (sorry) and dripping (sorry) – one might even say stuffed (sorry!) with sex, for its heroine it is a messy, frustrating, unsatisfactory endeavour. Luckily, that isn’t true for the reader, who will find much to enjoy in this tale. I look forward to reading more of Al-Muqri’s work in English!
Thanks to Darf Publishers for sending me a free copy of this book.