Shari’ah in the Service of Monogamy

Book:    The Arab Spring
Author:    Ishtiyaque Danish
Publisher:    Pigeon Books, New Delhi
Pages:     199
Price:     160   Mohammad Zeyaul Haque

Danish, a professor of Islamic Studies, is a trained aalim, has got an MA degree in English literature and a PhD in Islamic history. With that kind of background, if he argues that polygamy is not the Shariah preference, we have to sit up and listen. A couple of months after the publication of The Arab Spring even Deoband’s mufti said famously that one should prefer monogamy. Well, that way it is an example of life imitating art.

Yet, this novel is a little difficult to read as one gets the impression that it is contrived and there is no suspension of disbelief here. For creating an emotional and intellectual environment for suspension of disbelief you have to have a good idea of small details.

After Mario Puzo’s Godfather was published, he met a ganglord at a party, who whispered the question: “Sir, have you been a mafioso?” Of course, Puzo was not a member of Mafia, but he wrote about it so convincingly down to the minutest detail that the don thought he must have been one of them. This ganglord’s disbelief in the fictional nature of the book was suspended.

However, here we find very little by way of convincing detail that marks out the peninsular Arab from the Anglo Saxon or the Subcontinental - we have all these three types represented here.

One finds it rather unconvincing when young persons in the Saudi family in London call the domestic help “Auntie.” So far one knew that they are called “Auntie” or its Hindi version, “Bua”, in parts of the Subcontinent only.

The central characters are a Saudi family living in London. The family is going somewhere, and one of them says, “Our Lexus is a good car.” Only the author knows what was the point in bringing it here. His answer is “Arabs do like to talk about their cars.” But, so does everybody. The Germans, who think everything is masculine (even their motherland is Fatherland), have the sense to appreciate their cars as feminine. They talk about it as they would do about Venus or Aphrodite, or even Angelina Jolie.

The Lexus in The Arab Spring is a neutral, utilitarian device. Much less its aesthetics, we don’t have even the utilitarian values here: nothing about how quickly and smoothly it accelerates or deaccelerates, how noiseless the engine is, how well-insulated the interiors are. It is so well-insulated that whatever little noise is generated does not reach people sitting inside. Its safety features like a reliable ball of cushion immediately coming between the driver and the steering wheel on impact, or if it tumbles down it rolls over and ends up on its wheels rather than wheels up. No such detail is there. And there is its torque. Although it is a large car its wheels can negotiate a turn in a very small and narrow space. Then there is the electronics which is almost as good as a fighter-bomber aircraft’s. And we have not even begun to describe the real luxury and the unique driving experience. And, of course, its beauty, which combines the best in design, engineering, and maybe, poetry. The Arab Spring’s Lexus is an unconvincing neutral device. There is no mention of why it is a “good car.” It is just a good car.

The characters, too, seem cardboard cutouts rather than humans of flesh and blood. The Subcontinental Auntie, who prepares meals for the Arab family, besides doing other things, never serves a nice Arab meal whose taste, texture, flavour or ingredients are described.

The most difficult to appreciate is Abdur Rahman, a kind of a Boabdil, who does not seem to be much of a man, much less a hero. Imagine this guy walking into a second marriage to a younger woman. So far it is fine, because we can understand some people falling for a younger woman.

What is not half as fine is that this man leaves his first marriage open-ended to fester and bleed, without closure. Soon he discovers that his younger wife’s heart is not into the marriage, so to say. Then he proceeds to divorce her and work as a marriage-broker between this woman and a younger man of his acquaintance. As simple as that. He does not struggle and agonise, does not try to save this marriage.

After creating such a horrid mess, he goes straight to his first wife in London where, instead of giving him a hefty kick in his fat butt, she receives him with open arms. Lo and behold! Even the new Arab woman turns out to be a dummy. Interestingly, the author says it is a woman-centred novel.

Now, this Boabdil guy is sought to be presented as a hero. No sir, we would much rather like to have a murderous Othello and a vicious Macbeth as hero, not a lifeless Boabdil. A hero must have some vitality, courage and the strength to stand up and fight. A hero is not soft jelly with a human face.

A particularly disagreeable character is a white young woman who does not drink and does not go out on dates. Such people are rare to find in Europe. However, it is OK. There are people who love their drink and there are people who make do with soft drink. In Anglo-Saxon society it is possible to have a woman who avoids male company. However, this woman seems to make a virtue out of it, which is irritating. Even Jemima used to say things against hard drink and hot partying. Now we know how true she was to her word.

The issues raised in The Arab Spring have to be sorted out, though a novel may not be the right medium for it. Then of course, there is the problem of shoddy grammar, wrong spelling and un-English usage. A woman called Mary becomes Marry and “iron cuts iron” in this novel. Iron cuts iron in Urdu. In English we hear expressions like “hire a thief to catch a thief.”

PS: Former ambassador of India to Saudi Arabia, Ishrat Aziz; professor of English at AMU Prof. Asim Siddiqui; head of Islamic Studies at Jamia Millia islamia, Prof. Akhtarul Wasey, and journalist Seema Chishti lavished full-throated praise on The Arab Spring at a function where this book was launched. They brought a different reading to it. Ambassador Aziz saw it as a harbinger of moral regeneration in the Arab world (hence, the Spring); Prof. Siddiqui talked about Qaisrah Shehrnaz’s novel on girls wedded to the Quran and The Arab Sping in the same breath; Prof. Wasey thought it was a landmark in Indo-Anglian writing, and Ms Chishti said some nice words, hedging them with the observation that she had some difficulty with its stance on gender. Every reader brings his/her own reading to a literary work. Do read it. A word of caution: If you are a maulana, you would not be comfortable with the torrid love (making) scene.