Adama by Turki Al-Hamad
It is always a treat to read a novel written by an author who so obviously loves books as much as Turki al-Hamad. Our eighteen year old hero, Hisham, a would-be philosopher, consumes the books banned in his native Saudi Arabia (where Adama is itself set and became a best-seller despite being officially banned both there and in several other countries in the Middle East). He loves novels even if he cannot quite digest War and Peace (he does, however, manage Anna Karenina and Resurrection)! He reads, "Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and the Karamazov Brothers and Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokov ... Gorky's novel Mother aroused intense, mixed emotions in him ... he would steal moments to read Alberto Moravia, Honore Balzac and Emile Zola ... [he] particularly enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities." When he is departing to visit family in Qusaim, towards the end of the novel, he chooses to take with him "War and Peace, which he was forever becoming bored with ... The Iron Heel by Jack London and The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant ..." The Principles of Philosophy by Ahmad Amin and Sartre's Existentialism and Humanism also get chucked in his bag!
And Hisham doesn't just read (banned) fiction. "The Communist Manifesto by Marx; Lenin's What is to Be Done? and Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism; The Origins of Marxist Philosophy by George Pulitzer; Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State; three novels by Yasin al-Hafiz." Michel Aflaq's On The Path to Revival and Nasser's The Philosophy of the Revolutoin are also name-checked. Listing them like this may make the book seem quite breathless. But Hisham is mired in books - and they contribute both to the learning and to the naivete that make him such a likeable character. Despite the cultural differences readers who, as children, were also "built by books" will have no difficulty identifying with Hisham.
So, well-read and idealistic, Hisham wants change - the personal change that is coming anyway as he grows into a young man and falls in love with his beautiful neighbour Noura; and the change that he yearns for as an Arab for his society. Nasser repeatedly capitulates, blithely excused by too many out of love and respect for Abu Khalid (Nasser's nickname) with the self-delusional "there must be things he knows that we don't". Hisham is too bright to forgive so easily. He feels himself "an Arab nationalist to the core: it flowed in his veins" yet "he came to believe that Marxist thought could light the way and offer a comprehensive philosophy of life." Asked to join the "Arab Socialist Baath Party ... the sole nationalist party that represents the aspirations of the nation and the working classes of society" Hisham is excited, impressed by the Baathist theorist al-Hafiz's "fascinating combination of Marxism and Arab nationalism".
It is impossible for most people to hear the word Baath without thinking of Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Like the words Communism and Marxism (wholly tainted and perverted by Leninism, Stalinism and the entire Soviet "experience"), Baathism, a creed that was once seen as progressive - is now ideology-non-grata. But Adama's simple historical lessons are worth hearing again, especially from a geographic space the West so readily caricatures. Most progressive ideologies sparkled brightly before proving themselves leaden and deadening; and being a Baathist, once, was not synonymous with being a fool or a thug.
Al-Hamad's book is an effortless read, Hisham is a highly likeable central character. Whilst the prose is a little wooden - with only the ocassional glimpse of the poetic (especially at the end of the book in the desert) - and the story doesn't (in this (the first) volume at least) amount to very much (Hisham joins the party, becomes exasperated by its mimicry in miniature of the tyranny it is supposed to be fighting - "We're afraid of the Secret Police, but we don't realise that we've ended up working for another kind of Secret Police ourselves." - goes to university) none of this matters. The book is compelling, honest, admittedly a wee bit didactic, yet informative, moving and deeply companionable.
(The second volume of al-Hamad's trilogy is Shumaisi.)