Mores & modernity

Mores & modernity

The cover is tempting. Blue as blue can be of the sky and the Mediterranean waters. A sleek muscled female body diving into the waters perfectly. In a black bikini, tiny as tiny can be. What expectations does that raise? Of a raunchy, ribald read. If readers buy this one with such anticipation, they are in for a disappointment. The Occasional Virgin by Hanan Al-Shaykh is nothing of the sort. I mean, yes, there are passages that tease the reader towards wicked salacious thoughts, but they stop right there. Don’t say you were not warned!

The Occasional Virgin narrates the story of two friends, both emigres from Lebanon, on a holiday in the Italian Riviera. Yvonne, a Christian, runs an advertising agency in London while Huda, a Muslim, is a creative theatre director in Canada. Both have had a fairly conservative upbringing in Lebanon with households geared mainly to the menfolk, much like the prevailing mores in most parts of Asia. They have had to face the gender disparity and the onus of the family’s supposed honour on their frail shoulders right from their childhood. The single women grew up in different towns in the country, following different faiths and dissimilar economic status, yet the similarity of their sheltered lives and being raised by difficult mothers is startling. Fortuitous circumstances allowed them to migrate to countries in the West, where they met and forged a bond that endures despite the oceans dividing them. Technology helps them stay in touch and share their joys and sorrows, and become to each other the sister they never had.

However, they feel life is passing them by with no husband yet, and no family to speak of. Their traditional, ingrained mores clash with their modern lives, unsettling them. Yvonne, past her mid-30s, is desperate for a husband and child before it is too late and will go to any length including one-night stands.

The Italian Riviera almost delivers to her one such specimen of manhood, who she believes would be ideal to fulfil her dream of a perfect husband and child. Unfortunately, he turns out to be one in search of a good time, leaving her bereft and angry. Huda also has a brief dalliance but that too turns out to be a short summer holiday romance. Dejected, both return to their respective homes in different continents.

Three months later, Huda visits London on work and the women have a chance run-in with Hisham, an almost-fundamentalist, at the famed Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. Both have their own way of dealing with him and trying to deliver him his comeuppance and this forms the second half of the story.

The tale of the tussle between Western modernism and Arabic conservatism is at the basis of this tale which provides insights into both ways of life. The story had promise; unfortunately, it does not fulfil that expectation. This could also be possibly due to the translation from the original Arabic. Translations need to be done extremely sensitively in order to convey the actual ethos of a language and culture. This seems to be missing, leading to a disjointed and indifferent narrative. Long paragraphs do nothing to convey the ambience or thought process of the protagonists, thus losing the essence. The reason for taking revenge and their hate for Hisham is not convincing, and does not justify the lengths they go to. At times, it feels like the author is trying to cleave disparate life experiences into a whole; the knitting here is not adept and leaves loose strands of yarn flying about.

The story weaves in many nuggets like the story behind the niqab or the delicious colloquialisms and traditional wisdom that are strewn around the narrative. “He who digs a hole for his brother, is the first to fall into it”, for instance, or “ I should remember what my granny used to say: trusting men is like believing you can carry water in a sieve”. And the wise message of the fortune teller: “Before you go to sleep, you must think of the hummingbird: he never forgets the flower whose nectar he has sipped. So if you send mind-messages to the person who has tasted your kisses, whose body has touched yours, he’s sure to come back to you asking for more”. O-kayyy!

The tale of the two women held promise initially despite the jerkiness and formal stiff tone of the narrative but takes a ludicrous turn later on as if the author had lost her way and was compelled to end it any which way. It does offer insight into the culture and way of living in West Asia but meanders its way before losing the plot. Is it a comedy, a drama, or a treatise on migrant dilemmas? It started off promisingly, probably before the author got mired in her hesitancy and was unable to decide whether to choose one or combine all the elements judiciously. Her characters do not seem to have much depth and stay in their two-dimensional cardboard avatars throughout.

This plot could have been worked into a deliciously wicked romp; instead, it turns out to be a damp squib. Sad!

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