Ali al-Muqri: The Novel and the Challenges of Subject

Ali al-Muqri is an author whose work defies cross-continental taboos. He crosses boundaries and embraces the illicit, tackling difficult subjects with the utmost courage. We know him as a writer who swims against the tide, and whose love for adventure saw him abandon poetry and turn to novels. The form offered him newfound possibilities to highlight repression and address taboos through narrative that allowed for diversity and difference. In this sense, he is a writer who rejects the easy status quo, and is inclined to revolutionize the intellectual scene in Yemen by recounting both anxiety and disquiet.

 Black Taste, Black Odour cover, published by Dar al-Saqi in 2008

Black Taste, Black Odour cover, published by Dar al-Saqi in 2008

Beginning his career as a journalist and poet, al-Muqri later embarked on writing novels. Throughout his writings he maintains controversy, beginning with his first novel Black Taste, Black Odour published by Dar al-Saqi in 2008. The novel revolves around the black community in Yemen, a minority group facing marginalization and discrimination, and often referred to as ‘Akhdam’ – meaning servants. Said to be descendants of African migrants, they live in socially isolated neighborhoods on the fringes of the major Yemeni cities of Sana’a, Aden and Taiz.

Al-Muqri’s second novel, The Handsome Jew, published in 2011, once again engaged with a minority group, the Jewish community, who live on the margins of Yemeni society. This time the novel centers on a love story between a Muslim woman and a Jewish man. Although set in the seventeenth century, he addresses issues relevant to our present time.

In 2012, al-Muqri’s third novel Hurma appeared, crossing red lines by dealing with the subject of sex bluntly and in more than one detailed scene. As with his earlier works, the novel provoked widespread controversy among readers and critics alike, not only in Yemen but also beyond. The debates lead to the novel being banned in a number of Arab countries. However, it was permitted and continues to circulate in his mother country, Yemen, and in Lebanon, home to his publisher, Dar al-Saqi. 

Returning two years later, al-Muqri published Adeni Incense in 2014. Set in the city of Aden during the British occupation, the novel reflects on its cosmopolitan nature at the time. Al-Muqri walks us through the diversity of the city during its colonial era, which was then home to an unprecedented mix of races and religions. In the novel, Aden’s uniqueness is underlined by its geography: a city with rural mountains on one side, which brought tradition and custom from within the country, and the sea on the other side, bringing external cultural influences. This fusion of customs and ideas created an open city, welcoming and embracing all who arrived.

Al-Muqri contributed to bringing the Yemeni novel out of its local context and beyond the Arab borders. His novels carry a comprehensive and universal meaning of life, revealing the suffering, humility, obsession and misery of the human soul.

Courage is a recurrent theme throughout al-Muqri’s work, not only in his novels but also in his poetry. One of his most controversial poems, Massage, led to his persecution and a fatwa being issued against him. In the poem, al-Muqri writes:

I need you temporarily
You can call it love, adoration or madness

What I need is not an embrace
Or a fleeting kiss
But, also, not a full time night
For one hour only
I want to undress you completely
And take you under the shower
To massage your body with soap and you me in return
To smoothly get into you and out of me
Then you stand naked
Drying your body
With the towel I give to people I do not care much about
And you go without a farewell

 Al-Muqri, however, abandoned poetry more than a decade ago. In an interview with the online journal Ayyam al-Thaqafa, he elaborates on why he left poetry: “Poetry views the world from a more intense and reductive angle, and has little room for spectacular details… I published many stories before publishing poetry, so the narrative world remains the closest and most intimate to me, and eventually I left poetry.”
Today al-Muqri resides in France, working on his latest novel, while we await what lies in store in his forthcoming pages.

 Photo Courtesy of Ali al-Muqari

Photo Courtesy of Ali al-Muqari

The Sanctity of the Taboo Novel

Ever since the protagonist first heard the sounds of pleasure from a porn film that her sister Lula had brought, desire crept into her body. The first time she discovered her femaleness was when her sister introduced her to masturbation, and taught her how reach orgasm with her fingers.

We were sitting intertwined, hearing the same words and moans. I felt a double pleasure as I pressed Lula’s legs between my thighs, and trembled in longing. She reached out her right hand to my waist, lowering my trousers to my knees, and began to rub her palms on my thighs and between them. She then turned me on my back, put her middle finger on my clitoris, and rubbed quickly….” (Hurma, p. 22)

It was a shocking account in a society that saw sex as taboo. The heroine took pleasure in the process and began to contemplate real sex, to join her body with another and fulfill her desire for climax. This thought pushed her into marriage at the first opportunity, but unfortunately fate led her to a man who was not only sexually impotent, but as the narrative unfolds, turns out to be a jihadist fighting in Afghanistan.

Desperate, she travels with him to Afghanistan to live part of her adventure there, not thinking about jihad but about relieving her sexual desire. Her obsession drives her to deliberately sit at the door of their car to increase her vulnerability to rape, thinking that she would then fulfill her desire for sex without committing a sin in front of God. Later she is arrested and deported to her country, still determined to do anything to lose her virginity and satisfy her lust for sex.

 Hurma's English Cover, published by Darf Publishers in early 2017 

Hurma's English Cover, published by Darf Publishers in early 2017 

Hurma occupies a significant and sensitive position among al-Muqri’s published works. It was able to capture social change through direct and vivid writing, while revealing a deep awareness of the social realities experienced by Yemeni women: their struggles and isolation in a male-dominated society. In the novel, imagination mixes with facts and anxieties. Its revelations are an opportunity to shed repression, and here is where its specificity lies. It opens up an area for self-discovery and dialogue, and asks difficult questions through a detailed narrative that exposes and does not evade. The protagonist develops and evolves throughout her various life stages: adolescence, marriage, travel to Afghanistan, and her return home. The novel does not lie lifeless in front of our eyes. Al-Muqri strays from the beaten path of traditional storytelling, and unleashes his own narrative tone to represent the unique voices in his novels. The voices of the invisible, the repressed, and the suppressed.

Following its translation into other languages, in 2015 the French edition of Hurma won the Arabic Novel Special Mention Award from the Institute of the Arab World, in collaboration with the Jean-Luc Lagardier Foundation. Al-Muqri, commenting on the daring subject of the novel, said, “I write Madame Bovary nakedly, I don’t know if that was achieved”.

In the end, Hurma is not just a novel but a journey and a search for the self through the chaos and severity of events. It is a step towards the meaning of life and finding the hidden within us by opening the doors of narration to repressed energy (libido), allowing it to express itself in a society that has spared no effort in closing all doors to human self-expression. For people to be who they are and not present a self that yields to the rhythm of a hypocritical society, with its assumptions and claims.