#GlobalPRIDELitMonth: The Others, An Anonymous Arabic Novel from Saudi Arabia

“[This book] could be the most controversial novel to emerge in our times, not just from Saudi Arabia, but from the whole of the Arab world.”

Al-Hayat

The Others follows an unnamed narrator – a young Shi’i woman living in the Eastern Province of predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia – as she navigates college life during the proliferation of online forums and chat rooms. Dealing with topics of social and political oppression, religious sectarianism, and lesbian experimentation, publication posed a real threat to the safety of its author and translator.  To protect their identities, the author writes under the pseudonym Seba al-Herz, and the translator is not identified.  Despite its bold topics, al-Herz’s eloquence propelled the book to best-seller status when it was first published in Arabic.  

The Others opens in the middle of the narrator’s relationship with the temperamental Dia who introduces the narrator to the lesbian underground of their Saudi province.  In search of something that resembles emotional and physical intimacy, the narrator is set along a path of secret affairs and flirtations.  Relationships arise with women, with men, sometimes in person, sometimes mediated over the internet.  Throughout all of these liaisons, the narrator grapples with the fallout of a family tragedy and fear of her epilepsy diagnosis revealing itself.    

But the plot does not drive the story.  Instead, it is the narrator’s inner monologue that captures the reader’s attention.  She offers a window into her mind and asks nothing from the reader, especially not sympathy, as she attempts to make sense of her relationships.  It becomes clear that the narrator exists in a world of contradictions: She is pious but critical of dogma, seeks intimacy with others but is disgusted by her own body, craves privacy but lives under a microscope.  Even technology cannot escape these contradictions.  With the movements of women heavily monitored, the internet offers world building possibilities, especially for Saudi Arabia’s queer communities.  When unable to engage in physical relationships, the narrator strikes up virtual ones.  So integral is the online persona to identity, some women refer to each other by their chatroom usernames.  But the internet is also dangerous.  When viewing search results for the Arabic equivalents of “homosexual” and “bisexual,” the narrator is reminded that others classify her actions as criminal and her desires as abhorrent.  

What makes these contradictory relationships so compelling is al-Herz’s lyricism.  Though the rhythm requires some getting used to, the effect is one of being swept along a current of emotions as the narrator feels them.  Readers of the English edition should note, however, that the author did not write The Others with an international audience in mind.  Arabic-to-English translation is difficult and can be awkward at times.  Additionally, potential readers who are not familiar with the social and political complexities of Saudi Arabia (al-Qatif in the Eastern Province more specifically) should consider doing some background research.  At its height, however, The Others transcends the particulars of the narrator’s world.  The window into her mind becomes a mirror reflecting our own contradictions back to us.   

Overall, The Others is a beautifully written piece of literature deftly navigating the emotional complexities of private crises and hidden lives.  Readers who want a character-driven story and feel comfortable sitting with ambiguity should read this book.   

You can find this title and more at Seven Stories Press

Book Title: The Others

Author: Seba al-Herz (pseudonym)

Translated from Arabic by Unknown

Publisher: Seven Stories Press 

Year Published: 2009

ISBN: 9781583228715

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Reviewer Biography: Claire Swanson (she/her/hers) is a Master of Library and Information Studies student at the University of British Columbia’s iSchool which is situated on the ancestral, traditional and unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

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