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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Wolves of the Crescent Moon

Yousef Al-Mohaimeed

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To purchase Wolves of the Crescent Moon

Title: Wolves of the Crescent Moon
Author: Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 174 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Wolves of the Crescent Moon - US
Wolves of the Crescent Moon - UK
Wolves of the Crescent Moon - Canada
Loin de cet enfer - France
Le trappole del profumo - Italia
  • Arabic title: فخاخ الرائحة
  • Translated by Anthony Calderbank

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Our Assessment:

B+ : artful, colourful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Banipal . Fall/2004 Mona Zaki
Boston Globe . 6/2/2008 Saul Austerlitz
Daily Star . 13/7/2007 Tom McCarthy
The NY Sun . 26/12/2007 Benjamin Lytal
San Francisco Chronicle . 12/12/2007 Alan Cheuse

  From the Reviews:
  • "Traps of Scent is interesting in several aspects. The main theme -- that of displacement -- is disconcerting with its setting being one of the richest economies in the world, but one run by a migrant labour force, too, that can claim its share of displacement. For Yousef al-Mohaimeed, displacement is close to the surface; within an armís length, so to speak (.....) The shortness of this novel contributes a sharpness with which Mohaimeed successfully and smoothly weaves two distinct narrative voices through the three histories, and shows a clear skill with the short story format, not least of which is the titling of each chapter." - Mona Zaki, Banipal

  • "Banned in Saudi Arabia, Wolves of the Crescent Moon is a distinctly unflattering portrait of a country with little patience for the suffering of others. It is also an incomplete portrait, whose disparate pieces do not properly add up. Magical realism thrives on disjunction -- on the intersection between reality and fantasy -- but without a solid grounding in a familiar society, any magic will undoubtedly sink beneath the waves. Readers with an interest in the Middle East will be fascinated by a Saudi novel regardless of its quality; it is a shame that Wolves offers little else to be enthusiastic about beyond its provenance." - Saul Austerlitz, Boston Globe

  • "If anything is implausible in Mr. Al-Mohaimeed's novel, it is that his bandit-hero, Turad, has fallen so low. This is the point of the book, but also its weakness: The vicissitudes of modern Saudi life have been so stretched as to leave Turad little interior consistency. His mournfulness gives us the atmosphere of Riyadh, but it would be a more tangible city if Turad felt some keen reverberation of his lost physical courage. Yet we should be grateful for any such understanding of Riyadh at all. Wolves of the Crescent Moon teems with fresh conundrums -- about tribal ethnicities, sexual naïveté, superstitions, international labor markets." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "As he moves through his days and nights, a stranger in his own homeland, he will remind you of Camus' Stranger, except that he is vaguer in the way in which he demonstrates his psychological distress. Because of this, Wolves of the Crescent Moon seems a bit unfocused. Its sophisticated modernist techniques and its traditional material seem not entirely melded, and the result is like a gourmet meal eaten on the ground." - Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Wolves of the Crescent Moon is set in contemporary Saudi Arabia, and focusses on three lives at its fringes, each physically marked and scarred in a way that leaves them even more obviously an outsider. The central figure is the Bedouin Turad, and the novel begins with him at the bus station in Riyadh. He has had enough:

I am not looking for heaven, or paradise, or even an easy life. All I want is a place where people will respect me, not abuse me or treat me like a dog. I ran away from my own folk because of the tribe. I ran away from the palace, and from the parking lot, and from the ministry, and now at last I'm trying to run away from Hell
       However, running away from hell isn't easy for him: hell is all around him, hell is everywhere. That's why he has trouble even picking a destination. Each place is only somewhere different, but still part of the hell that oppresses him.
       Turad is missing an ear, which he is very sensitive about. He tries to keep his head covered, so people won't notice, but they often do, and at the various places he worked the joking at his expense added further insult to injury, hurting his pride again and again (which is one of the reasons he has moved through so many jobs).
       While at the bus station Turad comes across a file, papers documenting the life of someone who had been abandoned at birth and had been given the name Nasir. When the infant was found he was missing an eye. Turad reads the file while he waits, learning the history of Nasir. And there is one more life-story that is recounted over the course of the novel, of the now sixty-year-old Amm Tawfiq who had told it to Turad. Tawfiq was captured by slaver-traders in his native Sudan when he was a young boy, and he was castrated by them and then sold into slavery, and only recently, with the royal decree proclaiming the emancipation of the slaves, did he gain his freedom and independence.
       Turad only reveals how he came to be earless fairly late in the novel, and among al-Mohaimeed's nice touches in the novel is how in each of the three cases the loss of something vital -- a physical sense, in a way -- is somehow connected to smells. The Arabic title of the novel is along the lines of 'Traps of Scent', and each of the characters falls into such a trap, each time with horrible consequences. Cleverly, al-Mohaimeed also does not make the loss complete: Turad still has his hearing, Nasir can still see with his other eye, and while Tawfiq can not perform sexually what's left is at least still good for pissing. But they are all half-men, and they certainly are made to feel it.
       Their fates are hard -- especially Nasir's, adopted at one point and then cast out again -- but they are also partially at fault: Turad's pride certainly gets in the way of his making do, while Tawfiq pretty much resigned himself to his fate.
       Turad is a Bedouin, and eventually he relates his own youth and his life among his own, in the desert, where he was obviously much more at home. He was, however, also a criminal, with a limited conscience:
True, we used to rob innocent people, true, we were thieves, but believe me, my brother Tawfiq, we never killed anyone unless our lives were in danger and we had to defend ourselves.
       Turad is in his element in the desert, and the chapters in which he recounts that part of his life are vivid -- and a stark contrast to the urban existence he then ran away to. He does pay the price when he gets caught -- a riveting story -- but the real price is that he feels obliged to abandon the only life he knows and tries to adapt to the city, failing miserably (and making himself miserable).
       For Tawfiq being stripped of his identity as a slave was, at best, a mixed blessing. An old man with no real skills he doesn't know what to do with himself when he is finally freed:
I was no good at anything, except that I could drive a car, but I was too old for that; or I could cut trees in Riyadh, and trim her long sadness.
       He finds it almost impossible to get a job: he can't compete with the Asian workers on the docks, or the Pakistanis in the construction industry. For a while he works as a doorman, but after the building is sold:
The new owner got rid of me -- sorry, my 'services were no longer required' -- after he hired a cheap Bangladeshi worker to take my place.
       He winds up working at the ministry where Turad also has a job, which is how the two know each other. There is also a connexion between Nasir and Tawfiq, as all three life-stories overlap in small and larger parts.
       Wolves of the Crescent Moon describes a part of Saudi society that is barely noticed. Often they are like playthings for those with power or money, subject to their whims (and the butt of their jokes). They serve a purpose, but those with power over them seem largely indifferent, and their absence matters little one way or another. They are not part of the class that does most of the hard labour in the country -- the builders and porters --, which is comprised largely of foreign guest-workers, who live in a different sort of anonymity, but they are also rank outsiders. There are ethnic differences -- Tawfiq is from Sudan, Turad a Bedouin -- and their physical deformities compound their status as different. Saudi society tolerates them but does not allow them to play much of a role in it, and this leaves them feeling empty and useless.
       Wolves of the Crescent Moon is artfully constructed, the three life-stories fairly cleverly woven together, the broader themes (of alienation and the like) presented well and generally not too awkwardly-obviously. In addition, al-Mohaimeed offers several powerful episodes, from Tawfiq's capture and Turad's thieving (and the end of that particular career) to the story of a girl who gets pregnant, making for an often gripping read.
       A world away from Girls of Riyadh , al-Mohaimeed's novel suggests some different sides of contemporary Saudi Arabia; however, among the few disappointments is that in its fixation on the personal the novel isn't able to provide a better picture of the country the characters inhabit. Being such outsiders, it sometimes feels as though they are almost too far apart from it. Nevertheless, their stories are engaging and well-presented, and the reader is treated to some intense scenes from relatively unknown worlds (those of the eunuch and the Bedouin, for example).
       If not entirely successful in contrasting tradition with a rapidly-changing modern world, Wolves of the Crescent Moon is nevertheless a very rich work, and certainly of considerable interest. Al-Mohaimeed's creative approach in weaving together these stories, and the pithiness of some of the scenes, show a talented author at work, yet another indication of a lively, innovative Arabic-fiction scene from which a lot more will surely be heard in the future.

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Wolves of the Crescent Moon: Reviews: Other books by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Saudi Arabian author Yousef Al-Mohaimeed (يوسف المحيميد) was born in 1964

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