Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- According its publishers, ‘Al-Intiqaam’ (Revenge) is the first ever Saudi Work of Fiction. The book was first published in 1935 at the expense of the writer who did not enjoy the publicity that contemporary Saudi novels in the age of satellite channels and the Internet now experience; however, the Short novel would not have been brought to light had it not been for these new works that preoccupy both critics and readers today. What was the Saudi novel like 70 years ago? What is the nature of this novel that deserves to be crowned mother of Saudi works of fiction?
It is both interesting and useful to compare the dozens of contemporary Saudi novels and ‘Revenge,’ which has recently been published by Beirut’s al Intishar al Arabi, and Tawa Publishing and Media.
The 62-page novel, which was printed at the writer’s expense in 1935 and is presented by the publishers as the beginning of Saudi fiction – exclusive of the book ‘Al To’aman’ (The Twins) published in 1930 for two reasons; the first is technical and secondly because it predated the founding of the kingdom – raises a long list of questions about the literary, stylistic and social shift witnessed by Saudi Arabia over the last 70 years. In the introduction, writer Muhammad al Jawhari described his way of thought as he introduced, at the time, a new art to the reader. He hoped that someone would shed light upon it. “I have pleasure and interest in the novel only as a literary genre. I am so passionately fond of it. I wish I could find a guide who would proceed step by step towards the sought after perfection of this fine art,” he wrote. “Finally, I put my faith in God and decided to write a short novel, observing the novelistic rules as much as possible. I will present it in a printed form to fellow writers, hopefully to receive some correct guidance and sincere and fair criticism in order to combine these two factors to gradually perfect the Saudi novel.”
For anyone who reads the book, it is evident how the writer selected his words, refined his style and was careful in how he narrated his story to make it interesting, graceful and useful at a time when writers felt responsibility towards the homeland, the nation and readers, which accounts for the moral aspect of the book. The hero, a young man called Najeeb, was left behind by his family at an early age with a substantial fortune, which he soon enough wastes on entertainment, surrounding himself with bad company. A friend of his steals the last of his money and flees to Egypt.
The story begins in Taif. Frustrated and exhausted, the hero moves to Mecca wishing to start anew and lead a normal life on the straight path. There he meets a physician who diagnoses him with several illnesses and prescribes placebo to him in an attempt to cure his sick soul. He succeeds and is married off to the physician’s daughter. This simple story that seeks in various ways to reconcile interesting literature with morality and good social values ends with a lesson that novels no longer find agreeable and readers are unlikely to accept. Najeeb meets his old friend Sulaiman, who had deceived him, in hospital where he was being treated for syphilis that he had caught because of his deviation and immorality. ‘Natural Revenge’ is the original name of the novel that explains itself through the book as we see Najeeb indifferent to pursuing or punishing Sulaiman or any other individual who did him wrong. Rather, it is life that recreates balance, takes revenge and opens the doors of happiness to those with good intentions.
Saudi novels today do not have great confidence in the justice of life but rather raise more questions than provide answers. The new Saudi novel is haunted by exploration, inquisition, trial and the breaking of taboos and prohibitions, which is exactly the contrary to what we find in ‘Revenge,’ where the writer has a clear vision and provides answers to the intricate questions of life.
If Muhammad al Jawhari showed intense concern in his introduction over style and narration and bringing joy to his reader, new writers in this regard feel they rely on a major experience in the Arab novel and an accumulation of stylistic adventure that enables them to break through the creative arena easier than al Jawhari could. Reviving and reproducing the novel by the man who was ignored and fell into oblivion will pave the way not only to examine how deep the changes of the Saudi novel are but also to grasp the amazing shifts undergone by concepts, visions and social values. While we see al Jawhari showing interest in promoting the spirit of preserving traditions and adhering to principles, contemporary Saudi literature wages on blasting what exists, destabilizing what is fixed and disrupting anything that it can.
Therefore, reading ‘Revenge’ is not only a reading of a 72 year-old work of fiction but rather will provide the joy of reading the first novel that paved the way for the endless torrents of Saudi novels.