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Breaking taboos in Middle Eastern fiction Add to ...

All of that changes when a woman, her face and body concealed by the mandatory black abaya, begins passing notes to Naser, in which she writes forthrightly of her attraction to him. Naser dubs the girl "Fiore," Italian for flower (Italian colonialism in the Horn of Africa having left a lingering linguistic mark), and the two eventually progress beyond epistolary professions of love to an actual physical relationship.

The dangers are tremendous and ubiquitous; even when merely exchanging notes, Naser realizes that "just one careless moment could have me arrested by the religious police and that could lead to Punishment Square where lovers are lashed and sometimes even killed."

The fact that Fiore turns out to be beautiful reveals a lack of courage on Addonia's part, a quality that otherwise can be found in abundance throughout his novel. Indeed, not only does Addonia write frankly and movingly about forbidden love all the way through to the story's heart-wrenching and unflinchingly realistic ending, but he does so within the context of a scathing exposé of Saudi Arabia's myriad social ills: religious extremism, oppression of women, circumstantial homosexuality and exploitation of foreign labourers. The Consequences of Love is the real deal - passionate and potent.

Kuwait isn't nearly as repressive as neighbouring Saudi Arabia - which is a good thing for headstrong Palestinian-Egyptian Nidali, the protagonist of A Map of Home, as she spends her childhood in Kuwait City. Randa Jarrar has crafted a warm, ribald and insightful evocation of life in Kuwait, Egypt and the US.

Much of the first half of the novel, however, is exasperatingly quaint, as precocious Nidali endures her parents' quarrels, hangs out with her diverse group of friends, and stuffs herself with za'tar burgers.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 infuses the heretofore languid tale with some much-needed drama, and the family's subsequent move to Egypt and later Texas allows Jarrar to explore cultural and linguistic acclimatization with a great deal of poignancy. Made aware in the US that she speaks a formal and somewhat stilted English, Nidali ruefully recalls "how in Egyptian my language was full of songs and lilts and catchy turns of phrase. I wished, then and for many months later, that I could translate the way I was, my old way of being, speaking, and gesturing, to English: to translate myself."

Her parents have an even more arduous time; experience teaches Nidali that "[t]ere's nothing sadder than a fourteen-year-old explaining a movie to her middle-aged parents." Yet arguably the finest feature of A Map of Home is the narrator's fresh and self-deprecating sense of humour. Having equipped Nidali with such an endearing trait, Jarrar prevents the most emotionally laden subjects - the saga of the Palestinians, the tentative sexuality of an adolescent girl, the growing chasm between a father and daughter - from becoming exaggerated and melodramatic. Witty but never callous, earnest but never sombre, A Map of Home gets better with every chapter, until the reader has been completely charmed by its strong-willed and mischievous heroine.

Though one cannot speak of a unifying theme binding these very different novels together, all underscore the importance of Western languages, especially English, for authors writing from or about the Middle East. Written in French, The German Mujahid was banned in Boualem Sansal's native Algeria, but won the RTL-Lire prize in France. Though available in Lebanon - where it was published - Al Neimi's The Proof of the Honey was banned in several Arab countries. If Khadivi's The Age of Orphans had been written in Farsi, as was Mandanipour's Censoring an Iranian Love Story, the book might never have seen the light of day; it has yet to be published in the language in which it was written, and Mandanipour has relocated to the US. If Eritrean Addonia had not written his debut novel in English - his third language - from the safety of London, he might have met the same fate as several of the unfortunates in his novel, who suffer whippings and worse. And although it straddles cultures and, in a sense, languages, Jarrar's A Map of Home, with its frequently colloquial English and many Americanisms, to say nothing of its graphic descriptions of masturbation, would have had a hard time finding a home in the Arab world.

In all instances, the publication of these books in English signifies the importance of this language for writers delving into controversial Middle Eastern subjects, and English-language readers are that much richer for it.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and critic in Beirut, Lebanon.

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