August 20, 2007 / 12:28 PM / 12 years ago

INTERVIEW-Saudi writer wins plaudits with harsh Bedouin tale

By Andrew Hammond

RIYADH, Aug 20 (Reuters) - When Yousef al-Mohaimeed published "Wolves of the Crescent Moon" four years ago, he never imagined it would stoke much interest in his native Saudi Arabia, never mind the West.

But the novel has put Saudi Arabia at the forefront of Arab literature usually dominated by Egypt, an unusual position for a country seen as a cultural backwater, and found an audience in English and French translations.

Yet Mohaimeed faces accusations at home that he is airing the country’s dirty washing before Westerners looking for dirt on a land seen as the heartland of Islamist extremism because of its famous son Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.

"I find hints (in the media) that I am a writer exposing our laundry, who wants to get known in the West at the expense of society, its authenticity and its values," he told Reuters in an interview in his hometown, Riyadh.

"Though I’m happy that Saudi and Arab literature reaches the world, I’m always anxious in case the reader abroad is scanning the text to find things about this closed society," he said.

"That doesn’t mean a writer should give up his role in revealing this social reality boldly and neutrally. I don’t want to be affected by the conspiracy theory many Arab writers have."

Saudi commentators have warned of an emerging "industry" of writing about Saudi Arabia that is in danger of falling into cliches of representation for the sake of a quick buck.

A young Saudi dental student scored a major hit two years ago with the Arabic novel "Banat al-Riyadh" (Girls of Riyadh) and the book, which is out worldwide in English, has been followed by dozens of works whose merit critics question.

Not so Mohaimeed, whose "Wolves of the Crescent Moon", titled "Fikhakh al-Ra’iha" in Arabic, eschews populist material such as young people’s sex lives to delve into the complex Saudi social fabric with striking narrative artistry.


Mohaimeed spent a year researching the old slave trade that brought Sudanese children to Saudi Arabia, the life of the Bedouin robber, the world of desert plants and the racism of Saudi society today before putting pen to paper.

The result is a disturbing depiction of a sometimes cruel society where the human price of modernisation has been high.

"For years the Bedouin lived in the desert and suffered. But at least in the desert I can see my enemy and I can fight him. In the cities I can’t see him and everything in the city is conspiring against you and tries to keep you down," he said.

"I tried to show this, as well as the racial discrimination," he added, referring to how former slaves freed in the 1960s subsequently struggled to integrate in society.

Mohaimeed says he tries to use the same empathetic approach in his current work-in-progress, which deals head on with the question that drives much Western interest in Saudi Arabia: radical religion, suicide bombers and death in Iraq.

He argues that literature produced by Saudi liberal intellectuals over the past decade has in effect conspired with Western thinking to offer a one-dimensional take on the phenomenon, at least in as much as it touches Saudi Arabia.

"It’s not easy to simplify. Some reasons are internal and others are from outside. I try to look at the psychological and historical sides," said the author, who has another novel "al-Qarura" (The Bottle) set for translation in coming months.

Acknowledging state censorship and self-censorship, Mohaimeed says the main challenge for Saudi writers today is to get over the sensitivities surrounding social and religious issues to focus attention on the art of writing itself.

"If we can get to the point where all subjects are written about openly, then we can move on to the more important question of how we say these things," he said.

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