Friday, May 9, 2008

Raja Alem

Left: Raja Alem, from her collaboration with photographer Wendy Ewald, titled ALL KINDS OF VEILS.


I'm embarrassed to admit that I am totally unfamiliar with the work of Saudi Arabian author Raja Alem. I just read an interview in BOMB magazine and knew I had to find more! (If anyone is familiar with her work, how about a quick and impromptu review in my comments?)

One colorful passage in the interview:

Zubayda and my mother ran a substantial business making keffiyehs, the headdresses worn by pilgrims. She told us that one time she stepped on one of her sewing needles and it traveled from her foot up to her body, found its way into her knees and her hip, and gradually damaged her organs. The older she got, the more abbreviated the Epic of the Needle became, until all she would say was, “Oh, that needle I stepped on….” Toward the end it was just “The needle….” She’d flutter her eyelashes and sigh, as if suggesting that her story had become too world-famous to be recounted in detail. But she never abbreviated the moral, she ended the story with: “You work yourself to death. Your love of life—that’s what drains the oil in your lamp.”

When Mama got the phone call with the news of her sister’s death, she fell back into the time of My Thousand and One Nights and started thinking again in her mother tongue, Khazar, which everyone assumed she’d forgotten years ago. The amazing thing is that for my mother and her sister death is merely an excursion. If you happen to be dead, like Zubayda or my father, Mama will still talk to you and do all sorts of things to please you. Mama talks to Papa all the time, addressing him formally, teasing him with his formal title—Mohammed Alem (Mister Alem)—which is what she called him when they made love or were fighting. We still talk about him every day when we sit down to eat.

Mama brings out an elegantly presented juicy melon. Shadia and I ask, as if surprised, “Oh, where did we get that?”

“Mohammed Alem,” Mama says matter-of-factly. “He bought it this morning, plus two big cartons of fruit. He wanted to see you, Shadia. But I told him you wouldn’t come downstairs.”

Mama puts special emphasis on Shadia not wanting to “see” her dead father because whenever Mama is cranky or not feeling well she threatens us with, “I’m going to speak with Mohammed Alem about this! Call the driver! I’m ‘going to Mecca’!”

There’s no mistaking the quotation marks in her voice. “Going to Mecca” is our family code for “going to die.” I deflect Mama’s threat by saying, “Wait, Mama; never go without me. If anybody ‘goes to Mecca,’ we go together.”

A while ago Mama bought herself a Mercedes SUV. She was cruising north by the shore of the Red Sea at two in the morning (she kept checking to make sure Sony, her driver, wasn’t nodding off), fiddling with the shiny stereo controls and singing along with Abdulmjeed Abdullah, her favorite folk singer, when she turned to Shadia and announced, “Raja and I are ‘going to Mecca’ to show Mohammed Alem our new car. Are you coming with us, Shadia darling?”

It came as a bit of a shock, intoxicated as I was by the aroma of the new leather seats and thinking about how sweet life is, to hear my mother inviting us to die with her so she could show our dead father her new car.
If she writes in this same wonderfully warm, personal style, I will be delighted with her book Fatma - A Novel of Arabia, which I have just ordered.

And another good excerpt in the interview made me feel like I'd been slapped. And I don't think she even meant it that way; she was only telling the truth as she sees it:
What is the American mind? The world, especially the Third World, always thought of the American mind as unique, as an example of generosity and openness to invention. The Wizard of Oz is a perfect analogy for the American mind, an infinite source of stunning new ideas. We never thought that America would change from welcoming the world to conquering it. Once America had new ideas, a spontaneity so attractive to so many people. Now it has only armies inciting resistance.
We have so much more! Let us show it to you!

Yes we can. (You knew I was going to say that eventually, didn't you?)

Listening to: Louis Armstrong - Stardust
via FoxyTunes