It is summer in Jeddah but Naser’s life seems bleak. An immigrant in an unfriendly land, his friends have fled town for cooler climes and left him to his dead-end job and the scrutiny of the religious police, who keep watch through the shaded windows of their government jeeps. He spends his time writing to his mother in Africa and yearning to meet a woman – but in a country that separates men and women with walls and veils he feels increasingly trapped. Then, one of the black-clad women drops a piece paper at his feet, instructing him to follow her pink shoes and suddenly his black-and-white life blooms into colour.
But relationships between unmarried men and women are illegal under the strict Wahhabism of Saudi state rule – it’s not long before their forbidden love must face the hardest test of all…
As mentioned many times on this blog before, I try to avoid sensationalist fiction, especially when it comes to fiction depicting Saudi and Afghan women. I understand that not all fiction (or non-fiction) on the subject is sensationalist, nor am I undermining the stories of those women, but there is something about those books that make me uneasy – very often there appears to be an orientalist element to these stories, for which reason I feel uncomfortable reading them. When I came across The Consequences of Love by Sulaiman Addonia, I decided that it was crazy for me to prevent myself from reading books just because I felt uncomfortable reading them – if the sole purpose of reading is not to challenge our minds, then I don’t know what is.
What pricked my interest most about The Consequences of Love was the fact that it tells a story that portrays not only the oppression of women, but how that same regime oppresses men who are also considered “Other” and therefore inferior, namely refugees and immigrant workers. To me, the story reads very much like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale from a male perspective. There are extremely dark, dystopian overtones in the depiction of Saudi life that is truly sickening. In fact, I had to put the book down several times in the first few chapters out of shock. Is this really what Saudi life in Jeddah is like? The confusion of course comes from the fact that I have befriended Saudi women, I have friends who have lived and grown up in Saudi as foreigners, a number of uncles from my extended family have worked in Saudi over the years, but the image of Saudi they all gave me does not match up to the one that Addonia portrays in The Consequences of Love. But I guess that Addonia is writing from the perspective of poor immigrants and refugees, and, as the book repeatedly reminds the reader, the lives of poor immigrants and rich Saudis are starkly different.
The story is certainly a compelling one, despite the fact that the majority of the action takes place a good way into the novel. The first few chapters of the book had me feeling physically sick as Addonia exposes the sexual abuse and forced prostitution that befalls male refugees and immigrants who are too poor to protect themselves, and also the general hardships of these men. These men are deprived of access to world of women, a world which Naser remembers as being full of love and comfort. Addonia celebrates a courtly kind of love where women are idealised and their status elevated.
I’m not sure I liked the character of Naser much – he’s mostly weak, miserable and discontented and doesn’t undertake any action which could be considered brave or honourable until the end of the book. It is his lover, Fiore, who is the perpetrator and the ‘brains’ behind the love affair and the one who makes the real sacrifices. This may of course be because as a woman she has more to lose in the eyes of society. Naser’s only action worthy of praise would be standing up to his manipulative uncle, but ultimately Naser has no idea what he wants from life. He refuses to go to the mosque yet has no clue how he feels about religion: he neither completely rejects it, nor tries to find his own understanding of it. It seems as if Addonia leaves no room for wholesome, positive religious beliefs, although it is clear from his story that it is the abuse of religion, not religion itself, which fuels the oppressive Saudi regime. Nor does there appear to be anything worth celebrating about Saudi life. There seems to be no element of happiness whatsoever. For me, this is what makes the story a little too dark to be an entirely convincing depiction of Saudi life, or perhaps I was looking too hard for some positivity where there is none.
Addonia’s writing was a little jerky in the first few chapters, as it was difficult to decipher the order of events, but once the book took a more linear narration, the writing got better and the words drew me in.
I can’t decide whether I liked this book or not. I love the fact that it’s a tribute to women, whether lovers, wives or mothers, that it celebrates the intelligence, strength and gentleness of women. Yet at the same time, I feel as if Nasser and Fiore’s affair is more about rebellion and the idea of love than real love itself. In any case, I don’t regret reading this book.