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Stoning the Devil - excerpt - by Garry Craig Powell
(Here is an excerpt set in the women's quarters of a Bedouin house, from Garry Craig Powell's compelling new book, Stoning the Devil.)
Badria was in her early twenties, a tall girl with Persian features—full lips, painted ruby red, and a nose that was large and yet finer than the typical Arab one—and her hair was cut in a jaunty bob. Outlandishly, she was dressed in military fatigues. In spite of her sandals, she approached Randa with a masculine swagger. She was Sultan’s sister, she explained, kissing her, and she would look after her. As she opened the front door to usher in the guest, Badria kicked off her sandals. Her bare feet were decorated with henna flowers.
“Ahlan,” she said, and Randa stepped out of her stilettos.
Randa tried to smile, though dread filled her as she was led along a marble corridor to a majlis, painted bright blue, empty but for a carpet, divans and cushions, and a flat screen television that took up most of one wall. An Egyptian televangelist was preaching about women’s rights in Islam to a flock of real women who sat on the floor. They rose to greet Randa, cawing, their black abayahs trailing the floor like broken wings. The middle-aged one with rings under her eyes was Badria’s mother; there were also two more unmarried girls, and a pregnant sister-in-law named Alia, who alone wore no makeup, and looked ashen and dejected. They surrounded Randa, pecking at her and pinching her in their claws. A bent bundle of black with a leather beak turned out to be the grandmother. She seldom took her burqa off, Badria explained, even in the women’s majlis, where no strange men could see her. The old woman croaked and everyone laughed, although Randa couldn’t understand her Arabic.
“She doesn’t believe you’re an Arab,” Badria said. “She says you’re too white and skinny. She thinks you must be a Christian.”
“I’m a Muslim,” Randa said, striking her chest hard with her fist. “Filastineeyah.”
Beady eyes regarded her; the old rook wagged her head, hobbled to the divan, and collapsed in an untidy heap.
“You will eat with us,” Badria’s mother said. “Welcome.”
Presently Asian maids in ankle-length floral-print dresses brought milk and Mountain Dew. The tiny girls staggered beneath a huge silver dish of chicken biryani, which they laid on the carpet at the women’s feet. Randa had to eat with her right hand. Now and then Badria inspected a piece of meat and popped it into Randa’s mouth. “Not bad,” she said, “though of course the men have the best.” Randa learned that Alia was Badria’s first cousin, and Sultan’s wife. She’d been a chemical engineering major at UAE University, but Sultan had put a stop to her studies as soon as they’d married a few months ago.
“And he didn’t try to prevent you from joining the army, Badria?” Randa asked.
Badria gave her a haughty smile. “Of course he did.”
“So how did you manage to oppose him?”
Badria sat with her spine straight and her head erect. “I am twenty-one, I do what I like. I told him what President Zayed said, our country needs educated women, working women.”
“Badria is an Arab mare,” said one of the younger sisters, Muna or Moza.
Badria’s breasts strained against her shirt and her eyes brimmed with pride, as Khalifa’s often did. Badria raised her nose to acknowledge the compliment.
“Also,” she added, “I know things about my brother.”
Randa glanced at Alia, but her face betrayed nothing.
“You blackmail him?” Randa asked.
She had gone too far. Badria exchanged looks with her mother, and gave a stiff little smile like a saleswoman. “Later we will talk about Sultan, insha’allah. Try some harees.”
In fact, the televangelist was saying on the television, the Holy Qur’an makes it clear that in God’s eyes women are as important as men, and the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, did his utmost to ensure that they had equal rights. Randa’s hostesses plied her with lamb, chicken, and sickly sweetmeats, until she was bloated. The televangelist pointed out that Mohammed had not only consulted with his wives, but that they had openly criticized him, and some had fought beside him; it was the later Caliphs who restricted women’s rights.
After drinking green coffee with cardamom in thimble cups, the sisters dressed Randa in Bedu clothes, Badria painted her hands and feet with henna flowers, leaves and tendrils, and Moza and Muna painted Randa’s face like a zombie’s, with immense black holes for eyes, and it struck her that if Badria could defy the head of her family, then surely a Palestinian, born to the crackle of gunfire and the crash of RPGs, could resist a mere boyfriend? Would she not stand up for herself?
But she doubted her strength. And when after lunch Badria sequestered her in a bedroom full of gilded white furniture and posters of pop stars and told her to take off her clothes, Randa complied.
“You dress and undress me like a doll,” Randa said, unwrapping the black abayah and pulling off the brocade dress that glittered with rhinestones. It disturbed her that she was so compliant to a woman ten years her junior, whom she barely knew.
“As long as you act like one, you will be treated like one,” Badria replied, with a mischievous—or malicious—smile.
Stoning the Devil is a novel-in-stories set in the United Arab Emirates, a country of paradoxes, of seediness and glamour, of desert grandeur and Disneyland vulgarity, where public executions and other barbaric customs are winked at by the western expats who run the economy. Colin, a professor of literature, is not the ‘typical’ expat, ignorant and interested only in pleasure and his stock portfolio, but a speaker of Arabic and an admirer of Arab culture – or is he? To his Arab wife, he is an Orientalist who exoticizes and patronises the locals, unaware of his latent racism. Powell presents a complex and contradictory set of Arab characters, who are a far cry from fundamentalist stereotypes. He also gives women in the Gulf a voice – as none are completely submissive.
This powerful novel-in-stories is probably the first work of literary fiction set in the Persian Gulf by a westerner since Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. It echoes all the concerns of the great Arab writers, Mahfouz, Munif, and Kanafani, regarding the post-colonial world. Written by an author who spent eight years in that part of the world, the Gulf is presented as a crucible in which people of different races and religions are forging a new humanity, in spite of the abysses between them.
Available from all fine booksellers and on Amazon as aand on .
Stoning the Devil is a mesmerizing read. You will not find another book like this one. Garry Craig Powell has an astonishing ability to create characters with swift and haunting power. His intricately linked stories travel to the dark side of human behavior without losing essential tenderness or desire for meaning and connection. They are unpredictable and wild. Is this book upsetting? Will it make some people mad? Possibly. But you will not be able to put it down."- Naomi Shihab Nye
Bio: Garry Craig Powell will be judging Leap Local's 2012 Travel Story Competition and the Guides & Services Competition. He is an Englishman who has degrees from the universities of Cambridge, Durham and Arizona. He taught English in Spain, Poland, Portugal, where he lived for ten years, and the United Arab Emirates, where he worked for five years on the women's campus at an Arab university and three years at a men's college. He is the author of Stoning the Devil. His fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, McSweeney's, Nimrod, Queen's Quarterly, and other venues. Garry Craig Powell teaches creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. (for more information, see , or the Garry Craig Powell, Writer, Facebook page).
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