Most Westerners have a mental picture of Saudi Arabia that's hardly more than a melange of cliches featuring white-robed sheiks climbing into Rolls-Royces to survey vast oil fields. Yousef Al-Mohaimeed's haunting and enigmatic novel, his first published outside Saudi Arabia after being banned there, offers a stark picture of that society.

The central character of Wolves of the Crescent Moon is Turad, a Bedouin and former desert bandit who, as the novel opens, finds himself in the Riyadh bus station with no destination other than one that will take him out of the city he has come to loathe. After losing his ear in a desert incident that's described in wrenching detail at the novel's climax, he has migrated to the capital, moving through a series of menial jobs until he finds a position as a servant at the finance ministry.

Like Turad, the other principal characters of Wolves are physically damaged. Tawfiq is an elderly man who exists on the fringe of Saudi society. Captured in Sudan as a young boy, he is sold into slavery and then castrated. Eventually he drifts into the finance ministry, where he and the Bedouin discover a surprising connection. Nasir is an orphan who mysteriously loses his eye shortly after he's abandoned at birth. In the bus station a stranger hands Turad a government file whose contents recount the mundane facts of Nasir's existence, facts Turad uses as the springboard for an imaginative re-creation of the boy's life. Employing a nonlinear narrative that shimmers with a certain dreamlike quality, Wolves interweaves the lives of these characters in complex and unexpected ways.

It's easy to imagine this tale being narrated by an ancient storyteller to a group of rapt listeners gathered around a blazing desert fire. Al-Mohaimeed's prose is taut and yet lyrical, evoking the harsh beauty of the desert landscape in spare sentences rich with vivid imagery. While his name will be unfamiliar to most American readers, his talent deserves serious attention.

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