The Others by Siba al-Harez

15/11/09, Financial Times

Siba al-Harez is a nom de plume. Given what her first novel, The Others, is about, this is no bad thing. Even the name of the translator ‘is not listed at the translator’s request’ (as the copyright page announces). The Others is Saudi Arabia’s, perhaps even the Gulf countries’, first lesbian novel: published in Beirut in 2006, it swiftly became a bestseller. The real identity of the author remains shrouded; all we know is that she is a twenty-six-year-old Saudi woman from Al Qatif.

Al Qatif, on the eastern coast of the country, seems remote but the knowledge that this is a predominantly Shi’ite region brings a different kind of particularity to bear on the remoteness: the Shi’ites are an oppressed and heavily monitored minority group in the country. While this remains unarticulated in the novel, it can only magnify the isolation that comes with the narrator’s knowledge of her sexual otherness in a country not known for its liberal attitudes towards sexuality.

The sixteen-year-old narrator remains unnamed throughout as she gives a raw and immediate account of her relationship with a glamorous, possessive, intense peer, named Dai, in a girls’ school. In his new book, Inside the Kingdom, Robert Lacey writes of how it is common for Saudi women, sealed off hermetically from any kind of male contact, to form lesbian attachments. The Others is the first firsthand account to come to us of this state of affairs. It opens a door into one of the darkest and least-known corners of this society and the view is revelatory, sometimes shocking, always compelling. Who knew of the existence of a thriving online community indulging in homoerotic chats and interactions at night, after the censors have gone home? Or of underground lesbian parties and trysts in hotels, all conducted with utmost secrecy?

Despite the intricately metaphorical language of the book, and its dense, flammable subjectivity, both of which can make the prose a bit viscous and claustrophobic, one of the most conspicuous markers of the narratorial voice is the all-consuming sense of guilt, shame and fear. Inseparable from the erotic longing and intimacy that are at the heart of the book, they create for a unique, not wholly pleasant reading experience.