Sharaf by Raj Kumar
|Sharaf by Raj Kumar|
|Category: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: A surprisingly unromantic love story painting a bleak picture of the country, lightened by genuine faith and strong bonds.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 512||Date: March 2011|
|Publisher: Myrmidon Books|
With its subtitle Forbidden love in the kingdom of faith and honour, I expected something entirely different from Sharaf to what it delivered. For the second time in as many weeks I had misjudged a book by, if not its cover exactly, certainly by its setting and its blurb.
Having been disappointed by a venture into Kashmir, I felt on surer ground heading into Saudi Arabia. This had all the hallmarks of a literary romance.
Wrong again! But on this occasion, not disappointingly so. Instead of the soft-focus picture of a harsh regime that often results as authors try to tell it like it is, without actually upsetting anyone in the process, I found an author who pulled none of his punches.
Instead of a 'romance', I found a pacey tale of an ordinary life, crossing boundaries and creating a mess in doing so that is bigger and nastier than most of us have to consider when we fall for the wrong man.
Stylistically, Sharaf – which means Honour – steers clear of lyricism in favour of straightforward story-telling, with the result that you are drawn to the characters first. The place is initially just the backdrop, until the backdrop becomes that which – as it does in Saudi – determines everything else: action, inaction, reaction, character itself.
Place is captured in the rituals more than in landscape or description. The scattering of Arab words is the more effective for the inclusion of a glossary that enables the reader to learn their meanings and put them in context.
Kumar's particular skill in this novel is not to make any of his characters particularly special. They are rich and privileged and they move in exalted circles, but that doesn't stop them having ordinary problems and moving among ordinary people too.
It is one of those ordinary problems that begins the whole thing: a child with toothache.
Maryam is a young woman awaking to her 20th birthday, the day upon which she will be told who she is to marry. The arrangement dates back before she was born and her father has kept the secret well. A good Muslim and appreciative Saudi, Maryam trusts her father to have chosen well. She has no qualms about the match other than a hope that she will be allowed to finish her studies before being required to submit to her duties as a wife and mother.
The family home is generally a happy one. Grief struck when her elder brother Sultan was killed in combat. Sultan's wife has remarried and so, according to custom, their child Turki (Maryam's nephew) has come to live with his paternal grandparents. Although he's her mother's responsibility Maryam has taken his care upon herself for sheer love of the impish child. Both she and the child are the darlings of the father of the house, who indulges their curiosity and love of learning.
The black sheep of the family, Maryam's younger brother had taken himself off to America but is now returning and doing so, in defiance of all the rumours, accompanied by a wife.
Life's little dramas are playing themselves out quite naturally until two things happen.
Firstly, when Farshan announces exactly who is daughter is to marry – the son of a family friend who saved his life some thirty years ago – rather than the joy he expects, Maryam is merely quiet but her mother Aisha is distraught.
Secondly, Turki has a dentists' appointment with the American "Dr. Joe". In defiance of convention, Maryam lifts her veil in the dental surgery in order to better be able to comfort the frightened child, she and Dr Joe catch each others' eye and one of those traditional bolts from the blue throws everyone's life into disarray.
As if being American isn't bad enough, Joe Goldman is also Jewish.
Meanwhile, the intended groom, Nader, is involved in a variety of decidedly un-Muslim activities. Then again, he is not alone.
The picture Kumar paints of Saudi Arabia is an uncompromising condemnation of many facets of a culture that is hypocritical in the extreme, with many indulging in the activities for which others are imprisoned, tortured and killed. It shows a culture rife with nepotism and corruption.
It shows a culture that treats its women abominably, not only requiring that they be fully covered in public, but allowing them education then forbidding them gainful employment, not allowing them out unchaperoned, not allowing them to drive.
It also shows a culture in which the women are learning to circumvent the rules with increasing ingenuity and flair.
It doesn't flinch from what is done to such women who may be caught. And it is generally the women who are caught, not the men with whom they have indulged their indiscretions. Unless of course such men happen to be American and/or Jewish.
Carefully, or from conviction, however, Kumar lays none of this at the door of the religion. He shows Islam to be a true faith, in which many find wisdom, learning and comfort. It is in the interpretation of the faith, and the manipulation of it by individuals and the state for purposes almost certainly not envisaged by the prophet that the fault lies. Conflicting interpretations (upon the wearing of the veil for instance) are voiced clearly in dialogue with characters taking opposing sides of the argument. It is clear where Kumar stands – and though I speak in ignorance of the wording of the holy book, I tend to agree with him.
Maryam and Joe contrive to meet, aided and abetted by her new sister-in-law (who contrariwise is discovering the positive side of Islam, whilst still having one eye on the main chance) and by her friends who manage to live the modern female equivalent of a playboy lifestyle, local restrictions notwithstanding.
Of course a bad situation simply gets worse… arrests, torture, escape plans… all unfold at a pace designed to keep the pages turning. There are no long lingering passages. It is all about the action.
Meanwhile the men of the family go about their dark business, a business which depends much upon face, but little upon the more serious sharaf. Honour. Family honour. The deeds of the daughter attach to the father; those of the wife to the husband. And they shall not be allowed to bring shame. This perverted sense of honour is the real theme of the well-titled book. Honour in this context depends upon what those who look upon it believe. Occasionally, however, Kumar shows us, there are those who have their own personal sense of honour. Hypocrisy he shows us is not universal – even in the harshest of political environments.
There is much to think about in and between the lines of this book, but Kumar has done a superb job of wrapping it all up in a rattling good yarn, producing a book worth reading on that basis alone. The book opens with an execution and a stoning. The question is: how will it end?
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
Further reading suggestion: For further insights into the lives of women in Saudi try Rania Al-Baz’ memoir, Disfigured.
You can read more book reviews or buy Sharaf by Raj Kumar at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Sharaf by Raj Kumar at Amazon.com.
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the author said:
Thank you for such a comprehensive review of Sharaf. I really enjoyed reading it.
I have to say that you have understood and captured the very essence of what I was hoping to portray. Indeed your last paragraph tells me you entered my head space and says it all.
There is much to think about in and between the lines of this book….. The book opens with an execution and a stoning. The question is: how will it end?
Saudi Arabia is truly a wonderful country and the people on the whole are generous and kind. In this sun baked crucible, the rich and powerful rub shoulders with the poor and all are equal in the eyes of Allah. It is where the medieval East lives side by side with the modern West in apparent harmony but with an undercurrent of suspicion and distrust.
The question is: how will it end?
All will come to pass in the remaining two books of the trilogy.