Al-Ahdal, Wajdi (2008). Trans by W.M. Hutchins. A Land Without Jasmine. London: Garnet, 2012.
Many reviewers state this book is sexy. No. It's not. Jasmine is a young woman, striving to live in a society that represses femininity, where men are either lecherous or clueless, when it comes to what a female wants. Jasmine describes herself as a piece of meat. That is not sexy.
The plot surrounds the disappearance of Jasmine and the subsequent investigation by police. Each chapter in the 82-page novella is told from a different point of view. In addition to Jasmine's first chapter, there are 5 men who comment on her character and each reveals a bit more into the mystery of her disappearance.
Many reviewers have stated this book is a comment on coming of age in Yemeni society, and it is for Jasmine and Ali, whose childhood friendship was abruptly ended when Jasmine's father forces her to wear a veil after he discovers she has played soccer outside with neighborhood kids. This interpretation seems a bit forced, especially when one considers that the author is a male. I trust him to represent the male narrators in his book, but I don't trust any male author to authentically portray a woman's own knowledge of herself. It's problematic.
To restrict the book to a social commentary on the repression of women in Yemen is to miss some larger issues. The book can be seen as a political commentary on the state of war in Yemen. If one considers Jasmine as the embodiment of the mother country, especially given her interest in Balquis and the ancient culture of moon worship, this book can be read as a commentary on the various political factions, tribes and wars that are ripping up the very fabric of what was once a beautiful country. The men each desire Jasmine to achieve their own personal ends, which may also be argued regarding Yemen's political situation in 2008-the original Arabic publicatin date.
In another way, the book can be read as a social commentary on the purity of Islamic worship. It seems that Al-Ahdal could be attempting to portray allegorically how human beings, men in particular, have a tendency to use religion (embodied, once again, by the pure Jasmine) to achieve their own ends. Whenever humankind uses a body, a country, politics or religion to achieve their own ends, the body itself falls apart, perhaps disappearing in its purest form, to never be found again. Maybe this is what happened to Jasmine. The book has many possibilities. Don't limit it hijabs and women's rights. Women mean so much more.
I typically recommend "coming of age" novels to YA readers. Not so with this book. This is definitely for adults.
Winner of the 2013 Said Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation