The Jordanian-British writer Fadia Faqir’s third novel “My Name is Salma” has been a long time coming, but looks destined to attract major interest among readers on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond with its themes of honor killings, exile and personal reinvention. The gripping, non-linear narrative is rendered in a rich multi-layered style, switching constantly in time and place between the Middle East and England.
Faqir’s first novel “Nisanit” was published 20 years ago and her second, “Pillars of Salt”, in 1996. Both were acclaimed by critics, propelling Faqir to a prominent place among Arabs writing fiction in English. “My Name is Salma” will further boost her literary reputation.
Leading publishing houses competed to publish the novel. In Britain, Doubleday/Random House is about to publish it, while in the US it will be published (under the title “The Cry of the Dove”) by Grove Atlantic. The novel’s Canadian publisher is Harper Collins, and it is also being issued in translation by publishers in Italy, France, Spain and Denmark.
The novel’s first-person narrator, Salma, is a young Bedouin woman from an unnamed country in the Levant who, after becoming pregnant out of wedlock, faces being killed by her brother in order to restore the family honour.
Salma has been having a recklessly passionate affair with a young man she has fallen in love with, but as soon as she tells him she is pregnant his charm turns to fury. “You are responsible. You have seduced me with the yearning tunes of your pipe and swaying hips,’” he says. A midwife’s crude efforts to abort the baby using metal implements fail and in order to save Salma from an honor killing her teacher gets her taken into protective custody.
In prison Salma’s companions include Noura, who has been charged with prostitution, and a woman who was arrested for walking out naked into the street after being driven crazy by her husband’s taking a second wife. When Salma gives birth, Noura pays a warder to take the baby girl away from her immediately, thinking this will be better for Salma than being parted from her baby after she has breastfed and bonded with her.
Salma spends several years in prison before being rescued by a nun who takes her to a convent in Lebanon. But her brother is still looking for her, and a Miss Asher manages to arrange the paperwork necessary for her to adopt Salma, under the name Sally Asher, and to take her to England.
In England Salma is held in immigration detention and is released through the efforts of Miss Asher and a Quaker man, who argues that she deserves political asylum because she will be killed if she is returned to her own country. Salma eventually moves to the cathedral city of Exeter in south-west England.
Here she faces a new set of problems as an alien who has somehow to find a new identity and a life for herself. She yearns for her daughter, whom in her mind she calls Layla, and is so haunted by the trauma she suffered back home that she has hallucinations of a man who has come to kill her.
In her acknowledgements at the end of the novel, Faqir says she started working on “My Name is Salma” in 1990 but “a winter of despair had set in. I finally emerged from under the yew tree and picked it up again in January 2005. While writing, and not writing, ‘My Name is Salma’ I had guiding spirits of my own: Angela Carter, Malcolm Bradbury and Lorna Sage, now dead but their souls will always soar above my head.”
Before starting her fiction writing career, Faqir obtained an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia’s famed writing course, and was the first person to be awarded a PhD in Critical and Creative Writing there. Carter, Bradbury and Sage, all major figures on the British literary scene, were among her teachers. Faqir was brought up in Amman, and now lives in the cathedral city of Durham in the north of England with her Magyar-Irish-English husband Dean Torok.
In addition to her work as a novelist, Faqir has been general editor of the Arab Women Writers series, published in the UK by Garnet, which brought to an English-language readership five novels in translation by writers including Huda Barakat, Liana Badr and Salwa Bakr. Faqir also edited and contributed to “In the House of Silence: Autobiographical essays by Arab women writers” in the same series.
Faqir has written short stories, plays, academic papers, and chapters in books on literature and Arab women. Her short story The Separation Wall, which was published in ‘Bound, New Writing North’ and ‘Magnetic North 2005’ is to appear in the forthcoming anthology “Arab-American and Arab Anglophone Literature”, edited by Nathalie Handal.
The long gestation period of “My Name is Salma” has not reduced the novel’s topicality. One has only to follow news from the Mideast, or skim through newspapers published in the Arab world, to see that honor killings, and other intolerable measures against women, continue. In some Arab countries war, instability and growing extremism are worsening the situation of women.
Faqir has carried out research into honor killings in Jordan, so has an inside knowledge of the subject. In countries in the West, there have been honor killings among some immigrant communities. Salma’s best friend in Exeter is Parviz, a young woman from a Pakistani community in northern England who ran away from home when her father tried to marry her off to someone against her will. Like Salma, Parviz lives in fear of being tracked down and kidnapped, or worse, by her family.
Faqir’s writing in “My Name is Selma” covers a wide emotional range, from moments of high drama to quietly satisfying everyday scenes. Faqir captures Salma’s sense of confusion and of being caught between her memories and the fragmented British society in which she finds herself. Faqir’s prose is sensual, fully alive to colors, tastes, smells and bodily sensations. She is an astute observer of English society and of its rules and nuances of behavior.
The author has a gift for creating authentic characters, even those who, like shopkeeper Sadeq, owner of the Omar Khayyam off-licence, play a relatively minor role. There are many touches of gentle humor in her narrative, as seen in the scenes featuring an elderly North African man who runs a kebab van with his son. He suspects that Salma is either a tramp or an employee of intelligence agency MI5.
Salma has experienced cruelty within the patriarchal society of her home country, but British men also have their flaws. She is chatted up one evening in a pub by a seemingly understanding man, an ageing hippy type with a pony tail who runs a health food shop. Salma invites him into her lodgings for a cup of tea with sage, and he stays the night. The man proves to be a letdown. He is furtive when she next meets him in the street by chance, and later he even accuses her of stalking him.
Despite her vulnerability and anxieties, Salma emerges over the course of the novel as a resolute character. When her boss Max, for whom she works as a seamstress, denies her the pay rise she had requested she takes a second job working evenings in a hotel bar. She assiduously tries to improve her English, and enrolls for a BA in English literature.
There is pathos in the predicament of Salma’s elderly landlady Liz, with whom she lodges in Swan Cottage. Liz has a severe drink problem and withdraws into memories of her days in India as a teenager when she had a doomed love affair with an Indian. Salma witnesses the decline of Liz with compassion and horror. In one scene a drunken, whip-wielding Liz dressed in riding breeches and boots slashes Salma’s arm so badly she needs hospital treatment. Another elderly woman, retired Welsh headmistress Gwen, becomes a close friend of Salma’s. Such older women are often neglected by fiction writers, but in Faqir’s hands they are intriguing characters.
The development of Salma’s relationship with John, the university tutor who will become her husband, is convincingly drawn. The couple are happy together and have a baby son. But Salma has an irresistible compulsion to seek her out her daughter, sensing that she is in danger. In the novel’s searing final chapter she embarks on a journey back to her village, and Faqir keeps us guessing the outcome up to the end.
Saudi Gazette 30th April 2007