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Munira’s Bottle

Munira’s Bottle

Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
Translated by Anthony Calderbank
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 224
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt15m7jc5
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  • Book Info
    Munira’s Bottle
    Book Description:

    In Riyadh, against the events of the second Gulf War and Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, we learn the story of Munira—with the gorgeous eyes—and the unspeakable tragedy she suffers as her male nemesis wreaks revenge for an insult to his character and manhood. It is also the tale of many other women of Saudi Arabia who pass through the remand center where Munira works, victims and perpetrators of crimes, characters pained and tormented, trapped in cocoons of silence and fear. Munira records their stories on pieces of paper that she folds up and places in the mysterious bottle given to her long ago by her grandmother, a repository for the stories of the dead, that they might live again. This controversial novel looks at many of the issues that characterize the lives of women in modern Saudi society, including magic and envy, honor and revenge, and the strict moral code that dictates male–female interaction. “Yousef al-Mohaimeed is a rising star in international literature. Munira’s Bottle is a rich and skillfully crafted story of a dysfunctional Saudi Arabian family. One of its strengths lies in its edgy characters: Munira, a sultry, self-centered, sexually repressed woman; Ibn al-Dahhal, the bold imposter who deceives and betrays her; and Muhammad, her perpetually angry and righteous brother, a catalyst who forces the events. Western readers will welcome it for its opening door into Arab lives and minds."—Annie Proulx “Mohaimeed writes in a lush style that evokes a writer he cites as an influence, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. [He] takes on some of the most divisive subjects in the Arab world."—Washington Post

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-060-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. 1
    (pp. 1-6)

    A cold morning in late February 1991. The sky is white and clear, undisturbed by the shriek of F16s. The city awakes, bleary-eyed. Pigeons leave their slimy droppings on the air raid sirens that perch atop government buildings. The bus engines on the town center route rumble into action along Olaya Avenue with thickly mustached Bedouin drivers, red headscarves thrown over their shoulders, grubby tagiyas cocked to one side. The Afghan bakeries slowly come to life with Pakistani and Indian workers who slip out of the narrow alleys and newly constructed side streets on bicycles decorated with plastic flowers. Indonesian...

  3. 2
    (pp. 7-10)

    “If anyone tells a sad story I’ll give her a present!” said Grandmother in her room on the ground floor. The window looked out onto the dead grass in the garden. Grandmother used to say that sad stories made the grass grow. She had decided that the eldest would begin, so my sister Nura thought a little then told the story of the horse possessed by a genie that had fallen in love with Ghazwa, the Bedouin girl. Every time it saw her it whinnied. All her brother Ghazi, the horse’s owner, could do was to put her in a...

  4. 3
    (pp. 11-13)

    There was once a woodcutter from Najd who had a wife he loved very dearly. She had borne him three daughters. When the youngest daughter was only three years old the mother died. The father was filled with grief. He avoided people and stopped working with his camel in order to dedicate himself to taking care of his daughters. But then people advised him to take another wife to look after his daughters, and to help him go back to his job as a woodcutter. So, after several months he married, for he had come to his wits’ end and...

  5. 4
    (pp. 14-18)

    I wish I hadn’t been alone at home the night of 13 July 1990. If someone else had been there, none of this would have happened. If only I hadn’t been so concerned about my research that I’d stayed in. If only I’d given myself the chance to go out for a while with the family and taken a drive in the car and we’d all gone to Hardee’s. I’d have ordered one of those hot apple pies I liked and sat with my sister Mona at the table that looks out onto the car park and we’d have made...

  6. 5
    (pp. 19-23)

    When it came to love and kisses, I was an apprehensive and reluctant novice. My workmate Nabeela was always flirting with me and never missed a chance to touch me. She’d come up and pour out all the problems she was having with her mother and her stepfather, and she would cry whenever she mentioned her real father, who’d died before she was six. I would hold her in my arms and comfort her as the weeping reached a crescendo and she would squeeze me as if she didn’t want to let go. I put it down to the intensity...

  7. 6
    (pp. 24-29)

    Whenever Nabeela ranted and complained about her mother’s husband, I would ask her why she didn’t threaten to tell her mother about his secret habits. That way he might stop abusing her. But Nabeela was sacrificing herself for the sake of a perfect home and a stable family. The mere insinuation that there was anything going on would bring the house crashing down and shatter its tranquillity.

    How many women live such silence, I wondered; and was Ali al-Dahhal—that was his full name—who had, on the evening of 13 July, smothered me with loving words, poems, and passion,...

  8. 7
    (pp. 30-35)

    Grandmother, whose little face was scarred from smallpox, had been bedridden for years. She only ever left her room carried on a stretcher of sturdy canvas with two wooden handles. Her mind was crammed with stories, proverbs, and anecdotes. Her narrow eyes sparkled with joy whenever she found her son Hamad al-Sahi joining her for coffee at sunset, or in the morning immediately after the dawn prayer.

    One evening toward the end of January, after the war had broken out and the weather was cold and gray, Hamad went into her room and found her trying to shoo something unseen...

  9. 8
    (pp. 36-41)

    Father, Uncle, and the rest of the men carried off Grandmother’s coffin. The corpse washer stayed with us in the house to offer her condolences. Meanwhile her sister’s son, who, according to my brother had a long scar on his left cheek, went with the men to pray over Grandmother and bury her in the al-Oud Cemetery, as she had enjoined my father so many times.

    As I brought in pressed dates and Arab coffee, I couldn’t help sensing the triviality of modern life, now that my grandmother was gone. She’d argued with me right up to the end. She...

  10. 9
    (pp. 42-50)

    It was dark, and the house was saturated with loss and absence and death. My brother Muhammad with his black beard seemed distracted and wore a grave expression on his face. All of a sudden he burst into tears right in front of me. I thought he had given free rein to his feelings for once, letting them run like wild horses through the open terrain of Grandmother memories. It was a startling departure from his cold and unfeeling self. But as mother calmed him down, he revealed that he was not crying for Grandmother at all. What had moved...

  11. 10
    (pp. 51-54)

    When he returned from Afghanistan in September 1986, Muhammad bin Hamad al-Sahi spoke incessantly about the war against the communists. He described the many miracles of the martyred mujahideen, from the scent of musk and ambergris over their graves to the signs that appeared mysteriously in the sky and on the ground warning of the enemy’s presence. But while he spent the night tearfully recounting his adventures, his sister Munira waited impatiently to retire to her own private world in her room. For there, on the shelves of her little bookcase, a host of translated novels awaited her. She was...

  12. 11
    (pp. 55-60)

    He shared the small room with another worker called Salem Awad al-Yamani. They both received a pair of neatly fitting overalls, the kind you put your legs in first, then your arms, and zip up at the front, from the belly to the neck. They had to learn how to put them on. As for the boots, which were extremely heavy, it took a while to walk in them naturally without dragging them along the ground. Muhammad bin Hamad al-Sahi would never forget the first night. He stood in front of the mirror with the safety helmet on his head....

  13. 12
    (pp. 61-65)

    I remember I put on foundation, lined my eyes with kohl, and filled in the lids with shadow. I carefully applied lip liner and filled in my luscious lips with dark ruby red lipstick. I was getting ready to receive my fiancé, Ali al-Dahhal, at home.

    I squeezed my full, firm figure into a Fission stretch skirt that hugged my plump thighs and clung to my lower body so tightly I felt like a fish, or a mermaid to be precise, her bottom half a sea creature, her top half a siren.

    I opened my wardrobe. I couldn’t make up...

  14. 13
    (pp. 66-70)

    Many birds had flown across my sky: lovers and admirers and those who stood besotted at the threshold of my amazing eyes, for everyone described them as such. All those mustachioed men who fell at my feet with noble aims, and dirty ones; all those obsessed with love and sex who swooned at my glances. But I loved you more than any of them. I loved your love for me, ya Ibn al-Dahhal, and that cultured persona you acted out so brilliantly, like all the other soap operas and scenarios unfolding in this strange country. Perhaps it was just that...

  15. 14
    (pp. 71-74)

    At home I was the neglected middle daughter. Not the eldest who, over time, becomes a surrogate mother and acquires double significance, nor the youngest, the last of the cluster, who wins everyone’s affection, pampered by the family at home, spoiled by the relatives outside. I guess that’s why I turned to books, to reading and research. I couldn’t find emotional security. I felt ignored and forgotten by everyone at home, and was subjected to physical harassment by those outside. I never dreamed that I would hear anyone whispering softly, amorously in my ear, “My darling, my life!”

    I couldn’t...

  16. 15
    (pp. 75-78)

    The way he treated me, you’d have thought my fiancé was a progressive, liberal kind of guy. Even so I was reluctant to reveal what I was really thinking because I sensed that deep down he had a village mentality. So I did not humor his liberal veneer by removing my face covering in front of the waiter in the restaurant. I would put my scarf around the lower part of my face and cover my nose and mouth. He didn’t even notice, or perhaps he didn’t understand, when an American soldier from the joint forces, standing with his companion...

  17. 16
    (pp. 79-81)

    So, the matter between us and our enemy and adversary is not simply should a woman drive a car or should a woman not drive a car, though that may well be an issue worthy of debate. The matter is much greater than that. We are well aware of the simple intelligence that God, may He be adored and glorified, has given to us. We know what lies over the brow of the hill. This demonstration is the visible face of a whole host of other insincere activity. Let us not beat about the bush. Let us speak openly. For...

  18. 17
    (pp. 82-85)

    Back in my room I turned off the three ceiling lights and turned on the bedside lamp. I pressed the eject button on the stereo and replaced the Muhammad Abdu cassette with “We are not as foolish as you think.” It could be the title of a novel, I thought to myself, or an interesting article in the paper. I lay on my back and listened.

    An intelligent pamphlet, but its purpose is exposed because it is originally a letter written to a senior official; and its intended destination was to reach his office, but it would seem that the...

  19. 18
    (pp. 86-91)

    In the stillness of the desert city, as the cool sun dips lazily toward the unknown horizon, people are deep in their afternoon slumber, having filled their stomachs with long-grain American basmati rice, followed by cups of cheap milk. The sports pages have fallen across faces bloated with sleep as their bodies lie stretched out on their beds, having checked the gas masks in case of a chemical attack. Everything is silent, deep in siesta, as forty-seven women gather at al-Tamimi Shopping Center. They ask their Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, and Indonesian drivers to get out of the cars and they...

  20. 19
    (pp. 92-93)

    My brother Muhammad came in and sat with us. As usual he had brought something new with him, and he walked over to my father and pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and began to read:

    There has been lots of talk about women driving cars. It is well-known that this will lead to immoral and licentious acts, of which those who call for it are not unaware, among them the possibility of a woman going out on her own, which is forbidden by the Faith. Such situations lead to the public display of women’s faces, and...

  21. 20
    (pp. 94-95)

    The first strikes against Baghdad were surgical, according to the media. The live broadcast of the bombardments looked like a children’s video game. We were all terrified that poison gas would come into our homes. Fear swelled in our throats every time the media showed the clips of the gas attacks on the Kurds in Halabja. The images of the bodies covered in flies had us believing we’d all drop dead like stunned insects if it weren’t for the tape we’d stuck around our windows to save us.

    My father stared emptily at the TV screen while Muhammad read reports...

  22. 21
    (pp. 96-100)

    On a smooth silk sheet I reclined my exhausted body. The war had ended—my war with al-Dahhal and society, its commissions, its courts of law and its men; and the Gulf War, which left behind only the dead buried in mass graves and huge plumes of black smoke rising skyward from Kuwait’s oil wells. Saddam had tossed a final matchstick and sat there for a while, contemplating the dark billowing columns that hovered ominously over the land like genies who did not say, “Your wish is my command.” Then Saddam and his soldiers took their leave. Meanwhile Ali al-Dahhal...

  23. 22
    (pp. 101-104)

    He rang me one evening at sunset. He told me he was leaving the following day on a mission to rescue an important person who was missing in Kuwait. “Pray that I return safely to your eyes!” he whispered melodramatically. I cried all night as we drove around the new district where I lived, so much so that he selected a deserted spot at the end of a dusty street, stopped the car, and switched off the lights. Then he came around to my side, opened the door, and embraced me as he, too, wept bitterly. He took my lips...

  24. 23
    (pp. 105-111)

    When I was four years old I suffered from anxiety and insomnia. My mother exhausted herself as she struggled to woo me to sleep. She tried everything: songs, lullabies, and stories, but there was only one song that would have any effect: “Sleep, sleep don’t fly away, come hold Manayer every day!” She used to call me Manayer when she sang that song. When she told her stories my eyelids would be wide open right until the very last word. I was filled with pity for the girl who married the genie, Sulayman bin Afiya, and went to live in...

  25. 24
    (pp. 112-115)

    No air raid sirens had sounded in the skies of the gloomy, downcast city for two days. In the overwhelming silence of the house Ali’s fingers caressed my flowing hair like the teeth of a comb, and his breath encircled my neck as he mumbled passionate, incomprehensible words. My eyes and my heart were strained toward the door of the men’s majlis for fear that it might burst open at any moment, though neither of us expected that to happen. My brother Muhammad was out of town supervising an exhibition of Islamic audiocassettes, now that he was the owner of...

  26. 25
    (pp. 116-123)

    The souk is quiet at night, like the woman selling children’s toys on the sidewalk who appears to have dozed off under her black abaya but she’s listening, taking it all in, amusing herself with the sport of a vigilant young man. His eyes are like a hawk’s searching for prey as it hovers in the welkin. He spots her and moves in: a ripe young woman, her body almost articulate beneath a black abaya. Their eyes engage in dialogue and conspire together against the little world around them. He looks down at his clenched fist which contains his home...

  27. 26
    (pp. 124-128)

    After she finished studying sociology at university, Munira al-Sahi spent two stifling years in the house. Then she spent barely a single term as the student counselor at a government school before she decided to hand in her resignation. The headmistress, Madam Tharwat, had plied her with requests and insults, even ordering her to arrange desks and chairs in the classrooms with the Filipino janitors. In the end she had spat on the headmistress’s desk and slammed the door behind her. She got over it eventually, even though she continued to consign painful stories to the bottle. Perhaps one of...

  28. 27
    (pp. 129-133)

    The houses in the city were surrounded by calm. Birds of piety circled above their roofs, and atop their flag-poles banners of certainty billowed in the breeze. Meanwhile, deep inside, fear and anxiety burrowed away, the dank air of suffering hung about their concrete walls, and doubt slumbered eternally in their dark corridors. Old boxes crammed with deceit and treachery cowered in their cellars and cupboards, while lanterns of purity and innocence hung upon their doors.

    Munira al-Sahi had only seen the lights of purity in front of the houses, and the birds of piety flying in great flocks over...

  29. 28
    (pp. 134-136)

    I was lacking sight myself when I bumped dizzily into love, blinkered by emotions and desires that had lain dormant in years past. For despite the remarkable experiences through which I had discovered the hidden chambers of the society around me, I was not able to grasp a single fleeting moment of light during my obsession with him.

    Love was blind as a bat as it flew around my dimly lit room one sad night at the end of July 1990. It slammed into the dressing table mirror and landed on its back in the thin trickle of light seeping...

  30. 29
    (pp. 137-142)

    Three boys, three girls, and a wife!

    Like little birds, their mother cuddles them in her safe, cozy nest, waiting for a mate who is always absent. She knows he flies swiftly and with great skill, but she can’t be sure that he isn’t landing from time to time in a nest other than hers. The beaks of doubt were enough to peck the certainty out of her eyes. True, she’d left school after primary four and been married to Ibn al-Asi; and true, she was killing herself and what remained of the flower of her youth for the sake...

  31. 30
    (pp. 143-147)

    Here she is. Here he is. Here they are, the two of them, with so many things to keep them busy.

    The final hour gradually approaches. They are building a nest from twigs of deceit, in a tree of little intrigues, and the feathers that line it are forever floating to the ground, one by one. The earth has not closed its huge eye, and watches as the wind blows, trying to scatter the remaining twigs and feathers and their grand dreams.

    His white Cherokee pulled up in front of the gate of the Women’s Remand Center. He waved a...

  32. 31
    (pp. 148-151)

    After the dead fall on the battlefield, splattered with blood, their spirits slip away stealthily over the sand. A boy lurks between the trees, excited by the death and the chance of plunder. He removes watches from wrists in which the pulse has only just stilled and plucks from the pocket of one of the dead a wallet, a warm photo of a family that has lost its breadwinner, a few tattered bank notes. One of them bears signatures and messages from children in elementary school who have written, “Baba, don’t be long. Baba, we all love you. Don’t leave...

  33. 32
    (pp. 152-155)

    Muhammad al-Sahi was no longer lean and gaunt with a straggly beard. He had grown fat and his beard was neatly trimmed. He wore a clean, carefully ironed shmagh without the customary black i‘gal on top of it. His hands were constantly fingering his sandalwood prayer beads and there was always a fresh toothpick protruding from his mouth as he checked his face in the rearview mirror of his lime-green Mercedes.

    He told his father that the entry of foreign forces into the country was sacrilegious, tantamount to collaboration with the enemies of Islam. It was not permitted for infidels...

  34. 33
    (pp. 156-160)

    He stood in the tea and coffee room between two colleagues, both of them corporals. They were reading an article in the newspaper entitled “Rose in a Vase,” by the writer Munira al-Sahi. That morning she had written about the woes of women in society. The two men winked at one another for her brother, Major Saleh al-Sahi, was their superior officer.

    Hassan al-Asi sighed as he spoke, “I’m going to marry that girl.”

    His two colleagues, both corporals, laughed and mocked him about this for a long time. “Wake up, you dumb bastard! You, marry the daughter of al-Sahi!”...

  35. 34
    (pp. 161-165)

    “We’ll miss you, Major Saleh.”

    Ibn al-Asi embraced him for the first and last time. Major Saleh al-Sahi had prepared his papers and handed the private a signed and stamped letter.

    “What’s this?”

    “Power of attorney.”

    By 10 July, according to Hassan al-Asi’s reckoning, all the spoils had fallen into his hands. Major Saleh was traveling to Britain on his course and had authorized him to receive his salary so that he could deposit it in his bank account. The city was emptied of everything that could stand in his way and he moved about freely, setting snares here and...

  36. 35
    (pp. 166-170)

    The fragrant smell of incense hangs in the air.

    The place hums with the mumbling voices of the venerable men, their prayer beads dancing between their fingers as they draw their long, diaphanous, brown-and-black mishlahs around them, enfolding the smell of perfume and incense smoke beneath the flowing garments. Boys in gleaming thobes and sparkling white, neatly ironed ghutras stand outside the gate of the large house, carrying incense holders burning scented wood. The men incline their ghutra-framed faces over the white clouds that rise into the air, closing their eyes for a moment as the wonderful aroma of smoldering...

  37. 36
    (pp. 171-176)

    When he entered the women’s hall, the place erupted in a fit of ululation. My brother Muhammad led him to the throne next to me. They were followed by my brother Saad. When I stood up to receive him, he boldly took my hand in front of my brothers and the female relatives and kissed it warmly. Whistles and shrieks of delight filled the hall, cameras flashed, and he posed with his arm around my waist, then embraced me. I noticed a seething rage buried deep in both my brothers’ eyes. I put the anger in Muhammad’s arched brows down...

  38. 37
    (pp. 177-180)

    I stand accused of witchcraft!

    He arrived in court before me and leveled the charges. He claimed that I was a wife withheld from him by her family’s wish. He said that he had fallen ill as a result of a spell cast on a glass of pomegranate juice I had served him. He maintained that an Egyptian woman who worked at the Center helped me weave the magic and, as a result, he stood outside the gate of our house for hours on end, night and day. In his deposition he stated that when I kissed him on the...

  39. 38
    (pp. 181-185)

    Look for your hair, ya Ibn al-Asi, and the stuff from under your fingernails. Rake through the earth and plunge the depths of the seas in search of bodily residues bearing your essence!

    As I write my recollections today, I am sadder and more despondent than ever. I dream that when the bottle fills up with the tragedies Grandmother predicted would befall me the day she gave it to me, I take it to Half Moon Beach, where seagulls drenched in the oil and devastation of the Gulf War flounder and die. I throw the bottle far out to sea,...

  40. 39
    (pp. 186-189)

    By the time the judge and my brother returned, a stony silence had settled on the chamber. Muhammad shot me a vicious look. I’d been alone with Hassan al-Asi for almost twenty minutes. He had protested before he went out, refusing to leave me alone with a strange man, maintaining to the judge that such a situation was in violation of the sharia on the pretext that I was the wife of Ali al-Dahhal, whereas the person before us was Hassan al-Asi.

    The judge cleared his throat and wiped his glasses with the edge of his shmagh before placing them...

  41. 40
    (pp. 190-194)

    On this day, Monday the twelfth of Rabi‘ al-Thani 1412, there did appear before me, Ibn Wasea, Judge at the High Court in Riyadh, Hassan bin Asi, whose identity is duly recorded in the court register, and who made claim against Hamad al-Sahi, also attending.

    In his deposition, Mr. al-Asi reported the following: “The defendant married his daughter Munira to me in the month of Shaaban while he was a patient in the general medical hospital in exchange for a dowry of sixty thousand riyals, which I delivered to him in his hand. Then the woman put a spell on...

  42. 41
    (pp. 195-199)

    Everything is written. It’s true what my mother says, and it brings her peace of mind: “What’s written on the forehead the eye shall surely see.” It was written that my brother should travel to Britain on a training course. It was written that my brother Muhammad should become too preoccupied with his business in scented woods and honey to look out for us. It was written that my mother and brother Saad and sister Mona should go out on the evening of the thirteenth of July last year. It was written that I should still have to write the...

  43. 42
    (pp. 200-204)

    As for me, the days will blow me a sweet wind, as the horoscope always says. My brother Muhammad, with his long beard, will scream at my father as he lay dying. The red shmagh he perfumes with scented oil will keep sliding down the back of his head, and he will reposition it every time with an angry and trembling hand. His saliva will fly in my father’s face, and his fierce looks will fall like whiplashes on my mother’s silence. “If she’s not been touched, she should accept the first man who asks for her. If she has...

  44. 43
    (pp. 205-207)

    In the silent days that followed Desert Storm, Munira al-Sahi thought constantly about the previous months as she watched the plaster rim of the hung ceiling, waiting for a spider to come crawling along, trundling indolently toward its prey. But for days and nights she didn’t see a thing, so one cold evening she leaned her slender frame over the banister and shouted down to the Filipina maid Lillian.

    Lillian moved around the edges of the room on the small aluminum stepladder, climbing up with her feather duster and inserting it into the gap between the edge of the ceiling...

  45. Glossary
    (pp. 208-214)
  46. Back Matter
    (pp. 215-216)