Think YOU’VE had a hard life?

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Imagine the situation

You are a refugee from war in your homeland. Your mother sold her body to raise the money to send you and your brother out of the country to the ‘safety’ of another land where you live with your uncle, a man who loathes his sister for what she’s had to do to keep her children alive.

The Consequences of Love By Sulaiman AddoniaYou’re young, pretty and poor and the only way to get your residency paperwork renewed is to go to your ‘sponsor’ who holds the power of life or death (residency or deportation) over you and your brother. He tells you that the fee for processing the application is equivalent to 4 months of your uncle’s salary but he thinks that you should pay. You tell him you have no money and he says that you have something that’s ‘worth’ that much. He assaults you and you can’t sit down for days. Your uncle takes your brother and moves away leaving you homeless. You get a job in a café where the owner sells you to one of his customers, a fat ugly man who has sex with you in the back room of the building. You turn to sniffing glue and drinking perfume to escape the pain in your body and the sadness in your heart.

You are from Eritrea, sent to live in Saudi Arabia and you are a fifteen year old boy.

If this is ‘sanctuary’ what does hell look like?

Love in the Dark

Naser is sitting under a palm tree one day missing his mother and longing to be in a land where women are human beings and not just amorphous black tents floating down the street, covered head to toe in the black abaya. He grew up surrounded by his mother and her friends, enjoying their warmth, their laughter and their attention but in Saudi he has no contact with female human beings at all. He can’t see their faces through their veils and he wonders what hope there can ever be for him, a poor immigrant with no family connections, to find someone to love. Suddenly a woman in black passes him and drops a note into his lap. She’s been watching him, she writes, and felt she had to make contact.

Who is she? Can he recognize her again? Is it a trap or has this woman really fallen for him and decided to take enormous risks to let him know.

As the book progresses Naser and the girl we know only as Habibi (darling) or by the name he gives her, Fiore, take colossal risks to get to know each other. This starts with notes in the street, then moves to passing notes in the bag of a blind imam. In a land where every woman looks the same, he recognises her only by her pink shoes. They meet discretely – the abaya giving Habibi total anonymity but still entailing enormous risk. They know the dangers and the punishment to expect if they are caught. All the while Naser must look over his shoulder not just for the friends who’ve turned against him but more importantly for the evil officer from the morality police who’s intent on getting (ironic) revenge on Naser for spurning his advances. Can there ever be a possibility for a happy ending in this most miserable of lands?

The Man and The Book

The Consequences of Love is Sulaiman Addonia’s first novel and when you consider that he – like his character Naser – is an Eritrean refugee, it’s inevitable that the reader must wonder if there’s more than a little bit of life relived as literature but he’s very cagy about the subject. No amount of googling has been able to reveal whether this is his life, the life of a friend or even just plain old fashioned fantasy. Addonia spent part of his childhood in a Sudanese refugee camp and lived in Jeddah in the 1980s. The Consequences of Love is set in 1989 although I doubt that anything has changed significantly about life in Saudi since that time.

Addonia raises a lot of very disturbing questions about Saudi Arabia and its Wahhibist regime. How can it be wrong to see a girl’s face or talk to an unmarried woman who isn’t your relative yet completely OK to force a young boy to have sex with you? How can a father so totally control the life of his daughter in one of the richest countries in the world? How can any man and woman have a relationship such as marriage in a land of such inequality and suppression? And how can a nation treat its immigrant workers with such total contempt that their lives hang on a thread on the goodwill of their patrons? This novel is disturbing on so many different levels and you cannot help but wonder why the rest of the world sits back and lets the Saudi system continue to perpetuate such offences. OK, we all know the answer to that one – it’s black and runny and we can’t get enough of it. If Saudi Arabia wasn’t sitting on a large chunk of the world’s known oil reserves wouldn’t we be in there quicker than an American President could say ‘taliban’, justifying our battles on the grounds of human rights abuses?

“If Addonia has experienced even 10% of the agonies of his protagonist Naser, then he has my most profound sympathies.”

Once the initial shock of Naser’s sexual abuse started to fade, I wondered if this book was ever going to progress beyond the slow, yearning exchange of love notes. I didn’t MIND that it was moving so slowly, I just wondered if they were ever actually going to meet. You can be forgiven for thinking that epistolary love affairs are probably more fun for those involved than for those watching on and reading and some of the letters do get a bit ‘Mills and Boon’ although there’s nothing unbelievable about that. As a young person living in a repressive country where would you get your benchmark and inspiration for love letters from in a land where all such things are very much forbidden? We must wonder how Naser can keep body and soul together without a proper job as he devotes all his time to his false life pretending to be a religious activist in order to have contact with his Habibi. I’m ashamed to say that there was a little voice at the back of my mind wondering “What’s he going to think if she’s REALLY ugly under that veil?” and “What if it’s all a set up?” but that’s just me seeking an alternative plot direction.

I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘, a fabulous vision of a dystopian post-Apocalyptic society in which women are valued only for their reproductive potential. They’re kept in ignorance, forbidden to learn to read or write or to have access to books. The problem is that this book isn’t science fiction and Saudi Arabia is a very real and factual place. Whilst Addonia’s book is fiction, the shocking thing is that all the events and the potential punishments from flogging to stoning are totally believable.

The Consequences of Love contrasted strongly with another Saudi novel I reviewed last year – Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea – and reminded me that if it’s hard being a Saudi girl in a good family, it’s a thousand times harder being an immigrant boy with no family. I openly and strongly despise the Saudi regime and vowed many years ago to spend not one minute of my life of one penny of my money in that country. I have no problem with other Muslim countries and have been to plenty of those places that are decried as part of various axes of evil but I do have a problem with the human rights abuses of the Kingdom of Saud.

If Addonia has experienced even 10% of the agonies of his protagonist Naser, then he has my most profound sympathies. If he’s only reporting what he’s seen but not experienced, then even that could leave long lasting psychological scars. I wish him well and hope there’s another great novel in him still to come.

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Consequences of Love (The)
by Sulaiman Addonia

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Written by koshkha
koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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