When I heard that Raja Alem, the first woman to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the Arabic Booker), had a new novel, Sarab, set in Mecca, I was all ears. I confess an affection for all things Arabic: I study the language, I travel in the Arab world, I read the literature, and I am fond of the people, especially the women. And the story of Sarab encompasses all of those things—especially the women.
I learned about Sarab this past fall on a sunset felucca sail on the Nile, when Basma El Manialawi, the marketing and international rights manager at the American University in Cairo Press, told me that AUC had bought world English rights to the novel in March 2017. El Manialawi and I first met in Cairo in 2015 when we discussed AUC’s then-new fiction imprint, Hoopoe, over an outrageously decadent Lebanese meal.
Sarab is the story and the name of a young woman who, disguised as a man, takes part in the 1979 siege by extremists of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Sarab holds a French officer hostage, and a relationship develops that takes the pair from the Najd desert of Saudi Arabia to the gardens of Paris.
I’m told by both Charlotte Seymour, Alem’s agent at Andrew Nurnberg Associates in London, and Nadine El-Hadi, who edited the manuscript, that Sarab is decidedly controversial. Because of this, Alem has chosen not to publish the book in Arabic, although she wrote it in that language. I ask both of them to expand on the controversy.
“The novel would be controversial in the author’s native Saudi Arabia, as it follows a young woman who has been raised as a boy and, in disguise, follows her brother into jihadism,” Seymour says. “When Sarab is unexpectedly liberated from this way of life, escaping from Mecca to Paris, she is able to reassess the values with which she has been brought up, from the political to the sexual. It is possible that the novel will eventually be published in Arabic; it has simply not been the author’s priority given the difficulties that would likely be entailed.” Of Alem, she says, “Raja is a wonderfully bold and sensual writer who does not shy away from difficult subjects or challenging means of telling her stories.”
El-Hadi adds to the conversation and reiterates Alem’s fearlessness. “The fact of writing a work of fiction inspired by the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque is in itself controversial,” she says. “It is a dark chapter in the history of this most holy city and remains a very sensitive subject. And Raja faces her subject head on. The siege is center stage in this book, in all its horror and misguided zealotry. Raja shows us what would happen in such a siege through Sarab’s experience of it and its aftermath, and it is shocking—which is a testament to her as a writer.”
But the most wonderful explanation for the controversy comes from Alem herself, who tells me, “The siege of the Grand Mosque was like a wound in the heart of my city, and all along I was going around with this wound but not daring to touch it, because it is so painful. It’s a very essential incident, the seed from which sprang all the violence overcoming our world now, the terrorism which caused a deformity to the faith and Mecca, the center of this faith.”
Alem was born in Mecca and calls it “her first city” (she now lives in Paris): “I feel possessed with this holy city, the sea of millions of heads of all colors and languages, a universe of art and fashion mixed with prayers. I am addicted to the smells of prayers, the human sweat mixed with incense. It’s no coincidence that in Paris I am living just behind Notre Dame; the incense from the cathedral is in my dreams, and my bath water.”
Alem tells me that she started writing Sarab 10 years ago. She had a few chapters but then stopped, until she met a man who had been at the siege—one of the insurgents, who, she says, “lost his belief in the cause when faced with all that destruction.” She adds that, “He survived, shoveled out with the corpses, believed to be dead.”
This man told Alem his story and, she says, “It nourished the initial plot I had left in the drawers. I wrote the first part of the book again, and again I stopped. There was something missing. It was then that the heroine Sarab arrived and took over the narration. Again I surrendered and let the characters tell their story. Sarab’s transformation is painful, but there is joy in her gaining freedom. It’s what her life is about: it’s about being free of all past prohibitions.”
Alem’s decision to not publish in Arabic is based not only on controversy but on language. “Arabic is my center,” she explains. “I am very sensitive to the words, and up until now I cannot find the right words to capture this story, this wound. I feel I need to rewrite this book in some new Arabic, after taking a distance.”
The English-language translator, Leri Price, tells me that she loved working on Sarab. “It is so interesting and unusual,” she says. “Sarab’s emotional journey feels so real, so truthful. And Arabic is such an incredibly expressive language that communicating the ideas into English is like putting together a puzzle. People have these flat ideas of the Middle East, but when you read Arabic literature, you become aware of the richness of the culture.”
Price is still working on the final translation, and Seymour says that “once we have the full English translation available, many more international publishers will be able to assess the novel for publication in their territories.” The Swiss-German publisher Unionsverlag was the first to acquire Sarab and published it in March. AUC Press will publish it simultaneously in the U.K. and the U.S. in October 2018.