Work took me to Iran seventeen years ago. I was one of only two women in our group, the other an Iranian who moved from Tehran to London years earlier. On the advice of this colleague I dressed very conservatively during my stay, even by local standards. Each morning, before departing my hotel for business meetings, I cocooned myself in a chador that she lent me—a leftover from her Tehran high school days. Black fabric draped my body down to my ankles and encircled my forehead, ears and chin, leaving only a small oval of face visible. I followed my colleague’s recommendation and wore no makeup, not even lip balm.
Of my many memories of that trip, my strongest recollection is the feeling that my identity had been erased. My personal preferences—the fit and fabric of my clothing, the way I add color to my eyelashes and lips to accentuate their shape and size—were nullified. I felt generic, depersonalized in a way that was new, unsettling, and I felt ill-equipped to handle it. These uncomfortable memories were triggered over and over as I read Raja Alem’s unruly and provocative novel, The Dove’s Necklace, a work preoccupied with how women are perceived by others and perceive themselves in modern-day Mecca.
The novel’s exploration of issues facing modern Islamic society is bookended by a traditional detective story. Policeman Nasser al-Qahtani is assigned to investigate the death (and possible murder) of a woman who fell naked from a window onto the Lane of Many Heads, an alley in a poor section of Mecca. Positive identification of the dead woman is complicated by the disfigurement caused by her fall and by the silence of collective shame that hovers over the victim’s exposed, naked body.
Rather than focus on a possible killer or motive, Nasser is consumed with identifying the dead woman and his investigation quickly narrows to Azza and Aisha, residents of the Lane and close friends who both seem to have vanished just prior to the victim’s fall. In his search for clues Nasser uncovers and devours dozens of titillating and rambling emails that Aisha wrote to her German lover. For Nasser this correspondence unleashes an obsessive lust for the missing Aisha that overwhelms his ability to progress the investigation.
Ms. Alem’s writing is sensual, a mirror of the inflamed passions of men and women for whom the other sex remains apart and therefore alluringly mysterious.
I can barely make out his whispering. “Men may dream of kissing your lips, but I don’t dream of anything except for this foot. Your foot running over my lips, washing over my face.” I shudder, terrified God might punish me for enjoying the man’s desperation. This same man who doesn’t dare lust after anything above my foot.
While the novel’s setting is contemporary, Ms. Alem tinges each page with the musky, byzantine ambience of Mecca and the Lane, an atmosphere faithfully rendered in Katharine Halls and Adam Talib’s nuanced translation. And the book’s labyrinthine structure enhances this mood as real is joined with imagined, essential with extraneous. Too often, however, the threads of the plot unravel due to subplots and digressions that create a jarring cacophony of scenes and voices.
Despite these excesses, Ms. Alem’s skill as a storyteller is ever present in her fictional portrait of the actual fissures confronting modern Islam, such as the status of women, a subject about which she, as a resident of Mecca, has first-hand knowledge. Unlike outsiders for whom restrictions are less severe, local women, even when completely covered, must remain inside their homes and away from doorways and windows so as not to be seen. Books other than the Qur’an and religious tracts are forbidden, as is any form of self-expression, like wearing nail polish, a colored hair ribbon, or a string of beads. Travel requires a male guardian’s consent. Taking photographs of women, even with the head and body totally covered, are taboo except when practical considerations, such as passport photos, require it. Women are ghosts to themselves and to others, faceless in life, in death, and even in dreams.
In his wedding night dream, he followed Azza until he pinned her against a wall. She didn’t mind when her abaya slipped but she clung on tight to her face veil. He was having sex with a faceless entity. He couldn’t visualize its features at all—only the features of Azza as an eight-year-old, which was when he’d last seen her face.
As the trappings of the outside world leak into this closed society, the disparity between what is permissible for men versus women is striking.
“Sometimes I ask myself, what’s life like for my sisters? Even television is a novelty to them. Look…” Nasser looked over at the black triangles that huddled in the doorway of the Imam’s house: Mu’az’s sisters dressed in abayas that covered them from tip to toe, cones of black crowding one another to peek through the narrow crack in the door at the television in the café. “When they’re sleeping sometimes I wish I could see beneath their eyelids. I want to see how they make dreams without the help of a satellite dish…”
The Lane of Many Heads narrates the first third of The Dove’s Necklace, but as the story progresses, the Lane’s voice grows fainter until it is finally silenced altogether by the demolition of its homes and shops to make room for the construction of high-rise office buildings and luxury hotels. Nasser allows himself to be compromised by the Lane’s developer and, in the process, sacrifices his professional and personal integrity. His downfall is an allegory for the city of Mecca and, in a larger sense, Islamic society, underscoring modernity’s potential to contaminate traditional values while at the same time questioning whether those values can be sustained without some accommodation of today’s world.