Sunday, 6 July 2014

A Land without Jasmine
Ajdi Muhammad Abduh al-Ahdal

ISBN 978-1-85964-312-9

This short story, from the Yemen is a tale that can be read in one sitting; indeed it probably should be to get the full effect of the moral. It is told in the first person, however, that person changes dependent on the stage of the story. We hear from that person only once, each time moving the story of the missing girl on, or not.
The story begins with the twenty year old girl telling us what life is like for her in modern day Yemen. The narrative tells of the way of life in the country, the differences between the lives of men and women and briefly explores the interaction between the old Yemen and modern ways of life. But, the girl is to disappear...

Enter the detective, eager at first to explain the disappearance, but has to work in the face of the girl’s male family members, all carrying machine guns and threatening to take the law (the old law that is) into their own hands. We meet the shopkeeper from across the road, who spends time ogling the young girls, the lecturer from the college who openly admits to leering and intimidating his female students; and we meet the young boy, implicated by the fact that he loved his next door neighbour and followed her wherever she went. As the story, and time moves on, the family deal with her loss in different ways, and we hear from the father, who will kill his daughter if she has allowed herself to be defiled by kidnappers or rapists, to mother, who is not permitted to openly express her fears, horror and grief.

The ending of the story portrays the stark differences between Yemen and countries I am familiar with. I’m not going to put a spoiler in, but it did make me wonder if firstly, imagination of the writer has taken a step too far, or if the process of moving on was still something that happened in the modern day country. I m at no stage saying it’s a good or bad process, just one I have never encountered before.
This tale is written in an unemotional, stark way, but the narrative is alive with emotion, fear, hope despair and anger. The writing is taut, barely a wasted word; each sentence serves to move the story along, or tell the reader something about past or present Yemen. There is a clever talent that can look into the inner thoughts of a young lady and then switch, successfully, to the workings of a parent, policeman, soothsayer, young boy and Imam, all with the same depth of character. All this can be found in a book that will take no more than a couple of hours to read.

I do recommend this story; so put aside your prejudices, your preconceived ideas of this part of the world, and prepare to have your knowledge base broadened.    


  1. First of all, I wonder if there are several versions of this translated text. In the one I read, there is no chapter by the father directly, although he other speakers give us a clear idea of his position and character.

    Smart writing, moving from one character to another and speaking in first person. I enjoyed the use of language and colourful descriptions, giving an exotic and mysterious feel.

    I learned something from this book which surprised me. The young generation of Yemeni people are educated and knowledgable even though they still live, particularly the girls, in a restricted environment and are shackled by obligation and duty. Father rules the house with an iron rod, but he is dearly loved, suggesting that this is the norm in family life. The importance of veil and virtue coupled with a university education highlight the juxtaposition (I HAD to use this word!) of the culture.

    As to the story itself, I found it gripping and tense and I was turning pages to see what the outcome would be. Wtihout spoiling the ending for other readers, I was a bit disappointed with the ending - I wanted something bit more, shall we say, specific. Of course, the heady pomegranate fragranced air and constant heat can blur the lines between reality and illusion ....

    Would recommend this book as a short read.

    1. I do know there are several different versions. As this particular translator commented, he re-inserted the passage that dealt with sexuality that had been previously removed.