When Edward Said penned Orientalism in 1978 he professed that Western attitudes towards the Middle East were built on a “constellation of false assumptions” – highlighting the “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.” What has followed in the world of literature is a series of works that attempts to deal with issues of de-colonialization and cultural independence now known as ‘post-colonial’ literature. But in attempting to deal with the veritable minefield of post-colonial identity and the broken shards of structural racism many authors have strayed into error and enforced hazy new definitions.
Into the mix comes the English author, Garry Craig Powell, who after years of teaching in various countries, including the United Arab Emirates, seeks to delineate those cultural experiences in the first Persian Gulf set novel by a western author since Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. The Englishman’s account of the UAE sets the post-colonial alarm bells off just for the historical context alone, not to mention the fact that Powell could not have picked a more difficult locale for his subject. The country, already teeming with immigrant cultures, is complex and stratified at its very root, as a federation of seven emirates governed by hereditary emirs under a single president. As Powell takes us into the heart of the Trucial States it is inescapable that he is the lingering representative voice of the 19th century British colonials that finally coordinated a truce with the local sheikhs – but he takes to his task remarkably with a sense of depictive parity and representative fairness.
Stoning the Devil is a novel set in the United Arab Emirates, a country of paradoxes, of seediness and glamour, of desert grandeur and Disneyland vulgarity, where public executions and other barbaric customs are winked at by the western expats who somehow still run the economy. But in Powell’s miasma of swirling cultural enclaves and religious collectives no one is exempt from the human condition that blights us all. The characters are very complex and lifelike, and the pace and interweaving of their stories is rendered to perfection. Britain’s representative, and perhaps the author’s alter ego – a professor of literature – is not the ‘typical’ expat, ignorant and interested only in pleasure and his stock portfolio, but a speaker of Arabic and an admirer of Arab culture – or is he? To his Arab wife, he is an Orientalist who exoticizes and patronises the locals, unaware of his latent racism. Powell compliments his stories with a complex and contradictory set of Arab characters, which are a far cry from fundamentalist stereotypes. Indeed all the characters, whether Russian, Pole, Jew, Palestinian, or other, are cleverly portrayed as cultural distillations – not so much archetypal – but embodiments of certain historicisms that have become associated with their countries. All this is masterfully done by a novelist presenting his first full work of fiction to the world – as Naomi Shihab Nye attests:
“Stoning the Devil is a mesmerizing read. You will not find another book like this one. Garry Craig Powell has an astonishing ability to create characters with swift and haunting power. His intricately linked stories travel to the dark side of human behaviour without losing essential tenderness or desire for meaning and connection. They are unpredictable and wild. Is this book upsetting? Will it make some people mad? Possibly. But you will not be able to put it down.”
Powell also explores the nature of gender entrapment in various difficult cultural settings. He gives women in the Gulf a voice –as none are completely submissive – but their hard won freedoms are excruciatingly incremental and are easily thwarted, similar to the ancient Canaanite women in Diamant’s The Red Tent. He plays with the Foucault’s notion that people’s genders have become increasingly tied to their identities, and not just in the Western world. The sex in the story is gritty and subjected to repressive socio-political underpinnings no matter which set or combination of cultural characters are involved. Of course, this can’t be separated from various religious and spiritual intrigues, as the great call to prayer is often a tolling bell for some poor unfortunate soul.
Stoning the Devil is a powerful novel-in-stories and one that matches the power and ethos of Erdrich’s Love Medicine – or later works by Robert Olen Butler and David Mitchell. Written by an author that spent a good deal of time in that part of the world, the Gulf is presented as a crucible in which people of different races and religions are forging a new humanity, in spite of the abysses between them. In that sense it echoes all the concerns of the great Arab writers, Mahfouz, Munif, and Kanafani regarding the post-colonial world. Perhaps Powell’s greatest strength is his deep sense of place, in the same way that Durrell’s Alexandria is presented almost as its own character in the Alexandrine Quartet. The novel is full of local colour, shape, contours, juxtapositions, as Powell gives the reader glimpses of fashion, snippets of cuisine, snapshots of the great vistas, and the turgid shadows of the repressive wastelands. Here we have interweaving histories, lacing iconographies, clashing prayers and entangled castes. As Roland Barthes might say, it’s a painterly work with the telling brushstrokes of an author full of fresh verve and vigour.
Stoning the Devil is available from various retail outlets such as Amazon, Amazon UK, or direct from the Skylight Press website. It is also available as an eBook in the Kindle format.