The Jasmine revolution, which started with the self-immolation of a street vendor in Tunisia, spread to Egypt, Libya and Morocco. It also arrived in the City, as Malayalam writer Benyamin calls the newest scene of Arab Spring in his novel set once again in the Middle East.
The Jasmine revolution, which started with the self-immolation of a street vendor in Tunisia, spread to Egypt, Libya and Morocco. It also arrived in the City, as Malayalam writer Benyamin calls the newest scene of Arab Spring in his novel set once again in the Middle East. Unlike his first novel Goat Days, which takes place in Saudi Arabia, the author doesn’t name the country in his new book. But we know the place he refers to, the only country in the Gulf that saw protests during the Arab Spring. Bahrain is also the country where Benyamin lived until he returned to his native state of Kerala in 2013, two years after the revolution.
Young radio jockey Sameera Parvin, an immigrant in the City from Pakistan, tells the story of the revolution in Benyamin’s new novel, first published in Malayalam in 2014 as Mullappoo Niramulla Pakalukal. Sameera’s days in Orange Radio are initially devoted to frequent fights with the Malayalam Mafia. Her Hindi studio is at odds with the Malayalam station managed by immigrants from Kerala. The daily fights for dominance are almost always won by the Malayalam Mafia, which sees a strong adversary in Sameera. Then suddenly, all of them come face to face with a revolution in a country that is not their own. Benyamin places the onus of narration on Sameera and her colleague Ali Fardan.
With an independent voice, Sameera stands out in her extended family from Pakistan, many of whose members have been living in the City for decades. Ali, who plays the guitar, listens to Jimi Hendrix and eats burgers, is a native in the City. He, however, has the tag of a ‘second-class’ citizen because of his Iranian origin. An admirer of Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, Ali is drawn to the protests as soon as they hit the city. As an outsider, Sameera tries to make sense of the revolution in her constant conversations with Ali. The novel’s narrative strength is derived from the conversations between these two main characters. It is Ali who introduces Sameera to String Walkers, a group of musicians who played rock ‘n’ roll in the same spirit as Arab music. Sameera and Ali’s tryst with music soon transports them to topics of freedom and identity, revealing the inner struggles of the native and the outsider.
It doesn’t take much time for the two to find themselves in the middle of the revolution staged by the City’s second-class citizens rallying against His Majesty, the ruler. Benyamin’s craft of conversation-driven storytelling succeeds in revealing the tensions in a society starting to unravel. Nearly every character has a story from their tradition to add to the local narrative. The revolution breaks open the fissures in the loosely-knitted fabric of society, dividing musicians and even doctors and nurses. In the times of revolution, the author strikes at the centre of the Middle East’s male dominance. Karim Chacha, one of his characters, is described as “madder than a drunk Sufi”, who often complains about not having more daughters.
The author doesn’t leave out Islamic fundamentalism too. Sameera’s Pakistani father chooses to send her a Christmas card once to demonstrate that he cares for his daughter. After a discussion on the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the subsequent destruction of the dictator’s statues, a Facebook message from Sameera to Ali reads: “It is easy to destroy a statue. Building a new one is hard work. Happy Valentine’s Day.” Even in the middle of the revolution, Benyamin’s characters set their sights beyond the outcome, broadening a canvas restricted by a knotty region.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer