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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Munira's Bottle

Yousef Al-Mohaimeed

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Title: Munira's Bottle
Author: Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 207 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Munira's Bottle - US
Munira's Bottle - UK
Munira's Bottle - Canada
  • Arabic title: القارورة
  • Translated by Anthony Calderbank

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting but ultimately somewhat muddled attempt to present the female condition in Saudi Arabia

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Arab News . 17/3/2010 Lisa Kaaki

  From the Reviews:
  • "The writer takes us inside this confined space and skillfully traps us inside. (...) Al-Mohaimeed’s prose blends the style and technique of the traditional storyteller with those of modern fiction. And more important, his narrative not only familiarizes with Saudi society but leads us also into the complex and hidden world of women." - Lisa Kaaki, Arab News

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:

       The central character in Munira's Bottle is a Saudi woman in her early thirties, Munira, and she narrates much of the story (though it also slips into the third person occasionally). The bottle of the title is one her grandmother gave her when she was a child, filled with sweets:

     After I'd shared the sweets with my sisters I kept the bottle and filled it with my secrets. It became my most trusted friend and never betrayed me. Everything that happened to me I wrote down and placed inside it. I told it all my troubles and problems, but it never breathed a word to anyone, never complained about all the sadness and grief.
       Fortunately, al-Mohaimeed does not harp on this flask and the bottled-up life any more than necessary, and so it serves its function as metaphor quite well.
       The focus of the story is Munira's ill-fated love affair with a man who turned out not be who he said he was. That she has been horribly betrayed is already revealed on the first page of the novel, where she has been left wondering:
Why all the deceit, the pretense that went on for all these months ? How had he managed to work his way into her life with his false name and his made-up job, and the personality, family, and friends that were not his: a whole sinister world of deception ?
       The novel shows the why and how -- though part of the problem of the novel is that the answers are so far-fetched and plain odd. The villain of the story is the smooth operator who presents himself as Major Ali al-Dahhal who woos and wins Munira; in fact, he is a lowly private, Hasssan bin Asi -- married, with six kids ...... The novel is set during the first war in the Persian Gulf, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait -- Desert Storm. The military activity and the conditions of the time make it easier to believe the pseudo-major's stories of secret activities he is involved with; still, it's hard to credit that this is a ruse that he could have pulled off for so long.
       Munira falls hard for her suitor, experiencing things she's never experienced before. By Saudi standards, especially of the time, she's fairly independent and modern: she's read Henry Miller, she writes a newspaper column (which is even printed under her own name), and she works, in the local Young Women's Remand Center. Nevertheless, her conduct is fairly strictly controlled: her father trusts her, but her devout brother tries his best to see that she behaves so as not to bring dishonor upon the family; both men are, however, easily fooled by her suitor -- too trusting of the male figure even as they are suspicious of absolutely anything any woman does. Despite Munira's independent streak she, too, is careful, and, for example, she does not participate in a protest where women take to their cars to show that women should be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia (as, twenty years on, they still are not allowed to).
       With a foregone conclusion -- Munira's heart will not just be broken but smashed -- and constant reference to this outcome, the narrative-dynamic is a rather odd one. There are some surprises, especially regarding the suitor's motivation, but it's still an odd way to tell such a story.
       Part of the message of the book is surely that current Saudi conditions warp passion, by not allowing it to unfold freely: Munira falls into this creep's arms because romance is so carefully controlled in the kingdom (though, in fact, she's had numerous suitors), and there is no way for Munira to really find love.
       More interesting and successful than the ill-fated pseudo-romance are the many scenes of Saudi life in the novel. Munira's family is a large one -- she has two sisters and three brothers -- and while al-Mohaimeed only truly fleshes out one brother, Muhammad, who falls under the sway of fundamentalist Islam, the role of family (and the failure of the males in the role of protector that they claim so forcefully) is well-presented. Also of interest are Munira's workplace experiences, from the (female) colleague who has a crush on her to the stories of the women who come to the center -- 'criminals' whose crimes are generally the result of male failures. All in all, however, it is an odd mix, with al-Mohaimeed not finding quite the right balance: all these stories are interesting, but too many seem like examples (of how women suffer under Saudi conditions) rather than part of a larger story; at times the novel veers dangerously close to becoming a litany of those who can claim, like Munira, that:
     I am a female. Just a female with clipped wings. That's how people see me in this country. A female with no power and no strength. My sole purpose is to receive, like the earth receives the rain and the sunlight and the plough. Supine and recumbent am I, unable to stand erect like a male.
       And, yes, there's also the matter of al-Mohaimeed's style ...; translator Anthony Calderbank bravely tries to render this into English -- where it doesn't work quite as well. Still, it's not all like this: for the most part al-Mohaimeed's approach is more direct and less ... figurative. (And for those who do like this sort of thing there are some doozies: a favorite is the character who, in this time of war, is: "readying his missiles, fitting them with warheads of fraudulent love in order to aim them straight at her fragile, hankering heart.")
       The novel also suffers slightly because of one story that is told very early on, a truly devastating experience a woman who is a corpse washer relates: it's tremendously powerful (and effectively told) and, coming very near the beginning of the novel, it reverberates over much of the rest of the book, drowning out much of the more everyday story.
       Early in the novel Munira wonders why her colleague won't speak up about what is happening in her home. The answer is a simple one:
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 tranquility.
       Al-Mohaimeed means to show that practically the entire Saudi world is such a household, in which appearances are upheld but where the cost of keeping quiet and covering things up and ignoring the obvious is an enormous one -- taking an especially large toll on women. What seems like a perfect home and stable family is, decidedly, not. Unfortunately, al-Mohaimeed tries to send this message a bit too hard: it's not that he weaves too many stories into the novel, but he doesn't weave them in seamlessly enough. In addition, the central relationship and betrayal isn't an entirely convincing one.
       Still, Munira's Bottle is an interesting attempt to convey the Saudi -- and especially the female Saudi -- condition, and, though flawed, is also worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 May 2010

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Munira's Bottle: 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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