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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Where Pigeons Don't Fly

Yousef Al-Mohaimeed

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To purchase Where Pigeons Don't Fly

Title: Where Pigeons Don't Fly
Author: Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 389 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Where Pigeons Don't Fly - US
Where Pigeons Don't Fly - UK
Where Pigeons Don't Fly - Canada
Where Pigeons Don't Fly - India
  • Arabic title: الحمام لا يطير في بريدة
  • Translated by Robin Moger

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Our Assessment:

B : decent look at struggles of younger generation in hidebound Saudi Arabia

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The National . 4/12/2014 Lucy Scholes
Publishers Weekly . 25/5/2015 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mohaimeedís mission to expose the prohibitive conditions under which young people are forced to try to lead their lives is undoubtedly the driving force within the text. So much so that sometimes I felt as if I was reading something more akin to a study of social history than a piece of narrative fiction. The novel, however, doesnít conform to a strict realist structure; instead the plot is fractured and fragmentary, slipping between the points of view of different characters and different periods -- a structural device that mimics the fault lines, chips and cracks the author identifies in the very society heís describing" - Lucy Scholes, The National

  • "Stilted and rife with exposition, dialogue isnít Al-Mohaimeedís strong suit (.....) But the fractured storytelling style, filled with memories, is perfect for what is ultimately a sonís loving tribute to his father, who tried to encourage joy in a place where it was easily snuffed out. Al-Mohaimeed also deftly demonstrates how women especially pay the price in this society." - Publishers Weekly

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:

       Where Pigeons Don't Fly opens with Fahd al-Safeelawi taking the train from London to Great Yarmouth. In Britain for almost a year now, the Saudi native reflects on his life and what he left behind during this journey to what is now his home, the narrative repeatedly returning briefly to the trip he is on but most of it devoted to memories of his life in Saudi Arabia, as:

     The train set off and Fahd's memories galloped in its wake, wild and panting.
       Yes, Al-Mohaimeed can get a bit carried away, but the memories themselves are, by and large, more straightforwardly related. The first is also one of the last, from almost exactly a year earlier, in his hometown of Riyadh, when he picked up his girfriend Tarfah and took her to a Starbucks -- brazenly entering the coffee shop's Families Only section, a big no-no in Saudi Arabia, where unrelated men and women are not allowed to be together in such great intimacy (i.e. sharing a table in a café). Bad luck has it that this turns into: "his Day of Reckoning", as the morality police spot them and both Fahd and Tarfah are -- separately, of course -- led away. You don't fuck with morality -- or the superficial appearances of what passes for morality -- in Saudi Arabia, as the ever-vigilant Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is quick and happy to remind Fahd.
       It's apparent that this event is what led Fahd to leave Saudi Arabia, but Al-Mohaimeed only slowly fills in the details of what happened and, for example, his relationship with Tarfah, as Fahd's memories conveniently unspool largely chronologically. Nevertheless, the narrative doesn't completely follow a neat timeline, and in particular events of 1979 (before Fahd's birth), around the siege of Mecca, when extremists seized the Grand Mosque, play a significant role. Fahd's father was peripherally involved with the Salafist group at the center of the attack, and he was jailed for four years -- a past the story returns to several times --; the father of Fahd's closest friend, Saeed, was even more directly involved.
       Fahd's father, Suleiman, hardly needs to be reformed in prison -- his heart hardly ever really seemed to be in the Salafist cause -- and he becomes a model worker, husband, and father, and an avid reader. Tragically, he dies while Fahd is still in his teens; far more tragically his place is soon usurped by his brother, ultra-devout uncle Saleh, who insists the proper thing is for him to marry his brother's widow Soha -- not for his sake (he already has two wives), but for the sake of family, honor, etc. etc. A creepy fundamentalist of the worst sort, he imposes his ways on the household, converting Fahd's helpless innocent younger sister Lulua into what amounts to being little more than a zombie-drone (i.e. Saleh's ideal of the submissive Muslim woman), as well as ultimately driving Fahd from it.
       From a happy childhood home, the household Fahd grew up in changes to the unrecognizable, his uncle putting his foot down about almost everything that he interprets violates religious commandments. Fahd's behavior, of course, particularly galls him, especially since he can't completely control his nephew/stepson, but he has complete control over the womenfolk and in that way is able to more or less impose his will. In these descriptions, Where Pigeons Don't Fly describes fundamentalist lunacy as it could be found almost anywhere on earth (well, some places more than others ...); stories of similar backwardness are American staples, and (far too) common among other ultra-devout groups as well (see, for example, this recent story from The Economist, with almost identical issues to those found in the novel). To send the message home even more strongly Al-Mohaimeed goes so far as to afflict Soha with cancer -- and for Saleh to refuse to allow her to undergo proper (or much of any real) medical treatment because, you know, it's not god's will and way and whatnot -- leading also to horrific unorthodox treatments in her finals days. As someone explains to Fahd:
     The disease had spread to her lungs and there was no hope of recovery, so we tried curing her with the Qu'ran. We'd heard that God had cured many people through traditional Islamic healing.
       (Of course, this sort of attitude and approach to disease isn't unique to Islam, either; similar horror stories are all to familiar in Western countries as well.)
       Where Pigeons Don't Fly is also a primer to hooking up in contemporary Saudi Arabia -- a more explicit Girls of Riyadh. Tarfah isn't the first woman in Fahd's life, and the description of the women he has been involved with and their relationships is a welcome insight into Saudi life. The contortions they must go through to meet -- lots of texting and calling and driving down dark streets -- are both amusing and numbingly boring, but Al-Mohaimeed's sometimes endless-seeming descriptions of yet another rendezvous feel like accurate reflections of the waste of so much in this nation bent on keeping up appearances.
       Fahd is an interesting protagonist because he is so callow and weak -- representative of his generation, young Saudi's who embrace technology and ambitions beyond the ones the authorities want to limit them to but who are incapable of anything but the lowest, most self-serving shows of opposition. Fahd leaves his mother and daughter essentially to their fates: aware that his mother is ill, he nevertheless doesn't even try to convince her to seek out proper medical care, and while he loves his sister he does nothing to counter his uncle-cum-stepfather's noxious influence on the young girl. His relationships with women, even in intimacy, also feel stunted -- hardly surprising, given the repressive environment he lives in, which presumably make it difficult to engage in any sort of 'normal' behavior between the sexes, even in private. Fahd also isn't in any way political; the only 'solution' he finds isn't in opposition to the system, but rather to pack his bags and leave. Barely out of his teens, one can't really expect too much from Fahd, and admirably Al-Mohaimeed doesn't try to make him any sort of hero; yes, he has some artistic impulses, but basically he's just a pathetic youngster who doesn't know any better about anything, and certainly has no ambitions to try to affect any change in even the smallest circle around him.
       Despairing, Fahd observes to his close friend: "this is a crazy country, galloping after myths and dreams" -- but of course the situation he finds himself is only a variation on similar ones from around the world, not just in theocracies but in other totalitarian nations (as fundamentalism, and intruding on citizens' private spheres, aren't restricted to religiously-driven ideologies). Still, some of the Saudi-specifics certainly are interesting, as Al-Mohaimeed does very much provide an insider's view.
       The final chapter returns Fahd to the English train again, opening:
     The journey from London to Great Yarmouth was not a long one and it would have been pleasant were it not for the crying jags and painful memories that overwhelmed and upset Fahd the whole way.
       Well, yes .....
       Fortunately, readers aren't treated to too many of the crying jags, and the memories aren't simply painful. Where Pigeons Don't Fly is a decent novel of contemporary Saudi Arabia -- albeit a limited sliver of it --, and while Al-Mohaimeed is prone to some stylistic excesses, he recounts the episodes and stories quite well. Layering on the stories of Fahd's and Saeed's fathers and the events around 1979, also adds to the novel, and the understanding of the Saudi situation.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 September 2015

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Where Pigeons Don't Fly: Reviews: Other books by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

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

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