Saudi writer Yousef Al-Mohaimeed's prizewinning 2009 novel Where Pigeons Don't Fly is to be published on 4 December by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP) in Roger Moger's translation from Arabic to English. Al-Mohaimeed, who was born in Riyadh in 1964, has a reputation for provoking controversy with his novels and short stories set in Saudi Arabia. His work has sometimes been banned, and much of it has been published outside Saudi Arabia.
Where Pigeons Don't Fly continues Al-Mohaimeed's literary interrogation of Saudi society. It is uncompromising in its portrayal of the obstacles facing the younger generation, and the stultifying grip of religious extremism. And it depicts many kinds of sexual activity, from sexting and same-sex attraction, to details of passion snatched in cars or in the improvised equivalents of "love hotels".
Al-Mohaimeed's works have been translated into several languages, including Russian, Italian, Spanish and German. Two of his novels have previously been published in English translations by Anthony Calderbank. The English version of the 2003 novel Wolves of the Crescent Moon was published by the American University in Cairo (AUC) Press, and by Penguin, in 2007, and the 2004 work Munira's Bottle by AUC Press in 2010.
Where Pigeons Don't Fly was originally published in Arabic in 2009 by the Arab Cultural Centre in Beirut, under the title Alhamam La Yatiru Fi Buraida (Pigeons Don't Fly in Buraida), and became a bestseller. It won the Abu al-Qasim Ashabbi Prize for the Arabic Novel in 2011. The original title alludes to Fahd's childhood memory of "velvety" pigeons in his uncle's yard in Buraida, scuttling on red legs while pursued by his boy cousins. "They dashed about, flapping their clipped wings..." Pigeons and feathers recur as symbols in the narrative.
The novel opens with its central character, Fahd al-Safeelawi, on a train travelling from London to the coastal town of Great Yarmouth in the county of Norfolk. It is July 2007 and the young Saudi has been taking a two-day break in London from his exhausting job at a print and copy shop in Great Yarmouth.
Fahd is a talented artist, whose paintings were exhibited in Saudi Arabia. The novel he has chosen to read on his train journey is Elizabeth Hickey's The Painted Kiss on the relationship between the Viennese painter Gustave Klimt and his young lover Emilie, whose name he uttered as he died.
Fahd turns his attention to his mobile phone and on a whim dials the phone number in Saudi Arabic of Saeed, his closest friend from his childhood and "shameless, wild youth" in Riyadh. He hears not a dialling tone but a song that seems to wipe away his new life in Great Yarmouth. "At the same instant he was possessed by fear, a terror of the sheikhs - the fat men with long black beards he always saw at night, advancing with sharpened lances with which they pierced his pillow and riddled it with holes, the white feathers flying out until he couldn't breathe, and he would awake in a panic, feeling that he was choking." Fahd starts to cry, his slender body shaking with a strange hysteria; the elderly Englishwoman sitting opposite him in the train touches his arm and asks if he is all right.
The sheikhs who fill Fahd with such dread are members of the Committee for Virtue and Prevention of Vice who police the lives of young unmarried Saudi men and women. In July 2006 Fahd and his divorcee lover Tarifah were detained by members of the Committee for the "sin" of being together in the family section of a coffee shop.
In one memorable scene, set in an auditorium during a literary festival, extremist students mutter their disapproval during a poetry reading in front of a segregated audience of males and females. They try to mount the stage and "hand out advice to what they see as the sinning, misguided poets and guide them to the path of righteousness." During the play that follows, entitled A Moderate Without Moderation, they hurl sandals and and smash up the set. A punch-up erupts, ending only when a security guard shoots in the air. A bemused American critic, invited to the festival to speak about American poetry, records proceedings with the camera of his mobile phone.
The novel loops through time, cumulatively filling in the picture and revealing the interlocking stories of numerous characters. Meanwhile the fates of Fahd and Tarfah at the hands of the Committee hang in the balance. Fahd looks back to his childhood, and to the four-year imprisonment of his father Suleiman for distributing underground pamphlets. Suleiman had at the time been working on behalf of the Salafist movement whose adherents, led by Juhayman al-Otabibi, seized the Great Mosque in Mecca in November 1979. The novel vividly depicts the siege of the Great Mosque, which lasted for days.
Fahd's mother is a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, and his accent, fair skin and reddish blond hair and moustache set him somewhat apart from other Saudis. After Suleiman's death Soha is married off to Suleiman's brother Saleh, who already has two wives. Saleh is a conservative-minded bully, and bans satellite TV and all pictures from the house. Fahd clashes with Saleh, and finally moves out to live with his friend Saeed after Saleh gets Fahd's sister Lulua to tear up a precious album of family photographs. When Soha falls seriously ill Saleh fails to get her the medical treatment she needs, relying instead on traditional Islamic remedies and quacks.
Freed from Saleh's efforts at control, Fahd follows his destiny as an artist. He recalls how when he was a child Suleiman had taken him to an art exhibition where a Sudanese artist had been struck by the way in which the boy responded to the works on display. The Sudanese had told Suleiman: "The soul of a great artist sleeps in his depths and it must be awoken."
While it was his relationship with Tarfah, a divorced mother who studies at the Academy for Health Scienes, that led to his detention by the Committee, Fahd also has memories of two other lovers. The first is young, mischievous Noha with whom he had a short liaison. The other is the predatory, older Thuraya, a mother of six in a now sexless marriage. She revels in her carnal adventures with Fahd. But she eventually starts to pester and virtually stalk him to the point where he wonders if she reported him and Tarfah to the Committee, precipitating their detention.