Ramble#4: Goat Days

by Benyamin

[I’ve changed the title from Review to Ramble because I find that I’m not just reviewing the book but rambling about other related topics.]

I was looking for a novel, in the world literature category, preferably from Asia, from the 20th century or later. What attracted me to Goat Days was the premise, a foreign worker in Saudi Arabia and his tale of woe.

Having lived myself in Saudi Arabia, in the 1960s days of Yemeni workers as well as later in the 1980s during the influx of South Asian and Southeast Asian workers, I have heard my share of tales of woe. I was just curious as to why this particular tale won literary awards. Plus, of course, I needed something to serve up to my students.

I was surprised by how much I was impacted by Najeeb’s story, by his highs and lows in his faith in God, by his struggles, by his simple directness. My familiarity with the setting probably helped along the way. But the story strangely resonated strongly with my deep sense of survival.

The story is simple. An Indian / Malayalam young man, married and expecting a son or daughter, decides to sign up for a few years’ work in Saudi Arabia for financial reasons. He is joined by Hakeem, a young teen from the same region, whose mother recommends to his care at the train station. Neither speaks Arabic. As they arrive at the Riyadh airport, other workers are picked up by their sponsors, or arbab, but theirs doesn’t show up. Eventually, at night, one Arab shows up, dirty, stinky and rough. He goes around twice before picking them up and driving them off in the back of an ancient pick-up truck. After a few hours of driving off the road, they drop off Hakeem at what seems like nowhere in the middle of the desert, and arrive at a goat farm where Najeeb, hungry and thirsty, is expected to sleep with the goats. The Arab sponsor himself lives in a tent.

The next day, he is shown a pair of binoculars and a rifle. The use and efficacy of each is demonstrated. Najeeb gets the message. I’ll watch you and shoot you if you try to escape. He meets a “scary figure”, another Indian with long matted hair and beard, also stinky and dirty, who speaks only Hindi, so the two cannot communicate anyway. Soon, after Scary Figure has taught Najeeb what to do and how to milk goats, he disappears. The arbab doesn’t seem fazed by it.

The bulk of the novel describes his life in the following three years and four months. His first impulsive attempt at escaping. The usual beatings. The food he ate: pita bread and water, plus goat milk in the evening. The loss of hygiene because of water scarcity. The discovery of a human skeleton buried in a shallow grave nearby. Finally reconnecting with Hakeem who works in a neighboring farm, the two manage to communicate now and then surreptitiously behind their sponsors’ backs.

Eventually, Hakeem tells Najeeb that there’s a new worker on his farm, a Sudanese named Ibrahim. This man knows the cities and roads and will be able to escape and take them with him. Finally, one day, the arbabs go to attend a wedding, and the three run away on foot. They get lost in the desert and Hakeem dies of dehydration. Just as Najeeb thinks it’s his turn, they come upon a small oasis. After a few days recuperating at the oasis, the two set off again. Finally, just before they reach civilization, Ibrahim disappears mysteriously.

Once in town, Najeeb is rescued by other Indians. Eventually, he and Hameed –another escaped worker– decide to voluntarily surrender to the police so they will have a chance to be repatriated. Hameed’s arbab shows up at the prison and takes him back amid Hameed’s wailing and the arbab’s insults, blows and kicks. Then, Najeeb sees his own arbab walking into the prison. Surprisingly, he only patted Najeeb on the shoulder. Later, a friendly policeman told Najeeb that the arbab had recognized him, but that Najeeb “wasn’t on his visa”, otherwise, he’d have dragged him back. So, it turned out that he had been illegally kidnapped back upon his arrival, and used as a slave for three years, April 1996 to August 1999.

My first and last thought, upon reading this story, was: What kind of life was this for the arbab? True, he did not do the backbreaking labor, but he lived alone in a tent in the middle of the desert, and ate food barely better than that of his slaves. So in his mind, the conditions for his “slave” weren’t that bad. No tent, but there was some shade under the cot. Bedouins don’t sleep on beds but on thick mattresses. They don’t sit on chairs or sofas but on padded seats on the floor.

Slavery was still alive in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and was eradicated only in the 1960s. So for many Bedouins, the concept of an immigrant worker was quite alien in the 1980s and 1990s. They often treated them as slaves. No wonder the word salary or pay never appeared once in the book.

What fascinated me was not so much the suffering and spirit of Najeeb as the why and wherefore of his arbab. When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I heard many tales about the maids and drivers we all employed, both from my friends –the employers– and the maids. I always loved a good story, and lent an indulgent ear to my maids’ sagas. There were two categories of foreign workers, the legal ones and the illegal ones.

Only Saudi families could hire legal maids and drivers, so all my expatriate friends hired illegal ones. I wanted to do the right thing, so when, after giving birth to my third child, I discussed with my husband the possibility of hiring a maid, we tried to do so legally.

Well, the conditions were, number 1, you have to be a Saudi national. We didn’t even qualify on the first condition! The rest were just as bad: #2, you have to have at least five children. #3, you have to bring a doctor’s letter stating your health doesn’t allow you to do housework. Well, I knew that every single Saudi friend I knew had often more than one maid and driver and did not fulfill #2 and #3… In other words, everyone was hiring illegally. All my expatriate friends were quite open about their illegal maids. So I was forced to hire illegally too.

I’ve always pondered the possibility of writing one day about that sub-strata and network of illegal immigrants in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and 1990s. One of my Filippina maids gave me a very thorough depiction of it. She arrived legally but got into a sexual tangle with her employer’s son and so ran away to join other illegal workers. There were “tribes” consisting of a few “families” living in an apartment with rooms subdivided by hanging sheets. Each “tribe” had its leader who was the law. When she chose to join one of those “tribes”, she was asked to choose one of the single men to “marry”. She chose the youngest one, who at least did not have a wife back home.

Don’t be shocked. Many of these immigrant men had a wife and often children back home. That was why they came in the first place, to make enough money to send home. Many of the maids also had husbands back home. But somehow, once in Saudi Arabia, they seemed to have entered a parallel reality where society operated on a different set of laws. Whoever they married was only a husband or wife under the law of the tribe within the immigrant sub-strata. Marriages were complete with paperwork and ceremonies. But if they returned home, be it the Philippines or Indonesia or Bangladesh, these were dissolved and they returned to the reality and the law of their land.

Inevitably, this situation led to a number of tragedies worth a good Hollywood movie, such as a wife working as a maid for years while the husband back home used the money she sent to marry another wife. But overall, it was a situation that arose to deal with an impossible situation: hundreds of thousands of people under the radar of the law. And it worked mostly quite well.

But to return to the psychology of an employer: most of us never took in school a course entitled How to treat employees. Then many of us suddenly became the proud employer of one or more maids, plus one or more drivers. (Women could not drive legally, thus the need for male drivers.) I’d have friends tell me I should not allow my maid to chat with the neighbor’s maid, or any random maid we’d meet in the shopping centers or parks. Or use the telephone. When we starting the maid out to dinner with us so she could look after the children and let me eat in peace, my friends were shocked! Fawzia is paying for her maid to eat at restaurants! And let me add that my friends are otherwise perfectly normal human beings.

Yes, you might say, but being mean to a maid is a far cry from starving, beating, whipping, and mistreating a man without paying him a salary. My take is that these are simply different shades of the same color. An educated woman in an apartment or a villa will also mistreat a maid but to a different degree. I’ve heard of people making the maid sleep under the dining table because they didn’t have an extra room or did not want to spend money buying an extra bed.

To come back to the book, my takeaway is the incredible spirit of survival of Najeeb, his constant conversation with God to keep himself afloat spiritually, but also the eye-opener of the living conditions of the Bedouin goat farmers. As Najeeb puts it, “if my arbab lies down in a tent in the middle of the desert, where am I going to stay?”

Review #3: Drawing from Memory

by Allen Say

Published in 2011 by Scholastic Inc.

In short, I LOVED this book!

It’s a picture book, soft cover, slightly narrower and shorter than an A4 size. And it’s probably meant to be a read-to-your-child type book. Let me say here that I prefer soft covers because they’re so much easier to handle, though a hard cover would probably be costlier to produce and therefore cost more, bringing more profit to the publisher.

But I digress.

Why did I like it? Oh, so many reasons.

First, it was a memoir. I absolutely love memoirs. I find memoirs so much more fascinating than fiction, probably because the plot of a memoir is written by God (or destiny, depending on your belief), and contains some divinely inspired theme and lessons. Whereas the plot of a novel is usually crafted in the mind of a human, even if the author drew examples from real life.

Secondly, the illustrations were a mixture of realistic watercolors, sketches, comics, photographs, and charcoal/pencil drawings. There was even a Chinese style calligraphy of the author’s Japanese name. Why was this was so joyful for me? Well, let me explain. I’ve been working on several different books, each on a different aspect of my autobiography. I have already drafted the earliest part, tentatively entitled Life of a Rooster, but I envision it as a picture book. I mean a thick book of 100-300 pages, but with illustrations on every page. Some would be sketches, some would be photos, and some would be realistic watercolors. So, you see, this is a thinner version of my book with just 63 pages. Someone else realized the same concept! and won a Caldecott medal in the process!

Thirdly, this memoir celebrated the success of determination and joy of living.

It’s the story of the author’s childhood and youth in Japan up till the day he left for the United States. Allen Say is both the author and the illustrator of this book though in his childhood he just wanted to be able to draw comics. Despite his parents’ and grandmother’s negative attitude towards his drawings, despite their divorce and his moving around, he kept on drawing. By the time he was the ripe old age of 13, he was sent to live by himself so he could attend middle school.

This made me tear up. All by himself? My own parents sent my sister and me back to Paris when I was 11 to live with my aunt and her family, also for the sake of education. Though I was in the middle of a loving family, I felt lonesome and rejected by my parents. I cannot imagine how this young boy felt then.

He describes his feelings as freedom at last. He could now draw as much as he wanted!

Next is something I would never ever have had the guts to do at age 13. He went to the studio of a famous cartoonist that he admired and asked to become his apprentice / assistant. And even more surprisingly, he was accepted.

The cartoons threading the story through the book are in the clean realistic style similar to the Tintin books I grew up on. Larger scale events depicted are given dramatic space. For example, the drawing of a anti-government demonstration he got engulfed in one day takes up the entire page. The police force that stood waiting for them were grimly depicted in black and white on the entire next page.

By the time he was 15, his father suddenly decided to include him in his new family and asked whether he would join him and emigrate to the United States. He ends the book with a five-page “Author’s Note” describing his return to Japan many years later to visit his old mentor.

It’s a very moving memoir. I enjoyed and admired the illustrations over and over again. But most of all, I feel now vindicated. My idea about how to present my childhood story is not so silly after all. If someone else did it, I can do it too.

Review #2: Snow White

1987 American movie / musical starring Diana Rigg

I jumped on this movie because I’d never heard of it before! Diana Rigg was one of my favorite British actresses, especially because of her role in The Avengers –the 1960’s TV series, not the recent Marvel movie. Then, I realized she couldn’t have taken the role of Snow White because of her age, so… yup, she was the witch. Ah, well. Can’t win them all.

The other reason for watching this is of course because of my interest in fairy tales. After all, I am writing a series (“The May Fairy”) based on retold fairy tales, or stories that could have been fairy tales. I love picking at the weird illogical strands in fairy tales and twisting them into a more palatable story. Strangely enough, I’d never studied the inconsistencies in Snow White, maybe because the story was too well entrenched in my childhood.

The movie bases its plot on the original German fairy tale, not the Disney version of it. This meant three attempts of murder, and the prince only appearing at the end.

It started with the prince returning from a trip of treasure-gathering. Whatever. I’m going to refrain from criticizing this part. The only reason I see for this innovation is to explain why they had a cart right there ready to transport the glass coffin. Let’s move on.

Then the dwarves recount the story of how Snow White ended up in the glass coffin. Flashback. The queen (the first one) pricks her finger, not embroidering, but because the king came from behind and surprised her! [rolling eyes] I guess it would have shown her as a poorly skilled embroiderer? Now I don’t know why the “wish” was changed from “lips red like blood” to “cheeks red like blood”. Really? Can you visualize a girl with a face like a Japanese doll, totally white like snow, and two red circles on the cheeks? Maybe bloody lips in a white face brings up visions of vampires?

Anyhow, the next surprise is that the king is actually alive during Snow White’s childhood. I wonder why I never asked about his total disappearance from the original plot. How could he not know that his darling princess was dressed in rags and made to work as scullery maid? We know Cinderella’s father died, giving free reins to the stepmother to act as a wicked stepmother. But we were never told about Snow White’s father’s death. If he did die, then did the witch rule the country?

The huntsman’s attempt occurs on a hunting trip, which makes sense if the king doted on his little girl. He would have questioned why a huntsman was taking his daughter out for a stroll in the forest… right? Next, a wild goat was substituted for the deer, and the liver for the heart. Is it because of environmental factors? Goats are OK to kill for food, but not deer? Whatever.

The other surprise is that Snow White is still a child when she runs into the forest. A pre-puberty child. Why? Is it inappropriate for a teen to live with seven dwarves? However, she does go on to grow up right there in the little cottage, so what was the point?

Interestingly, the dwarves dig for “anything”, from truffles to diamonds. I mean, suddenly one day, one of the dwarves (named Liddy, Giddy, Biddy, etc) finds a huge perfectly cut diamond on the floor of a cave. I can see jewelers rolling their eyes here…

Anyhow, the mirror tells the queen one day she is not the fairest in the land any more. By the way, I always wondered about this part. Why that particular day? Did Snow White suddenly get her period and therefore qualify as a woman? Or did her beauty suddenly appear that day? How does a mirror decide?

By the way, I haven’t talked about the songs. Because it’s best not to talk about them. One thing about Disney movies, starting with the days of Walt Disney himself: he always picked lovely melodies. This one tried, but…

The queen starts off with a corset. Hum, I seem to remember it was a scarf… But a corset will do. Tight corsets do cut off breathing. I have no quarrel with corsets. Failure. The queen changes her disguise and the second time appears as… you won’t believe this… a Chinese/Japanese woman (they can’t make up their minds what she is) with aforementioned white paste all over the face, to sell combs. Please, European women also used combs. Why an Asian? Just so she could say, “I have traveled a long way…” ? Or because a poisoned comb sounds more Asian? The fake Asian accent killed me. Sorry, Diana, I still love you, but the director, or script writer, did not do you a favor.

The apple now was interesting. Originally, the doctored apple was half red and half green. Here green was changed to white. White? Why didn’t Snow White question why an apple would be half white? Then the worm. What was the point of the worm? To prove there was no poison? She was going to bite it anyway…

I like the return to the apple dislodging and falling out of the throat, instead of “Love’s First Kiss”. I know it sounds romantic, but it isn’t really. I mean, a guy strolls through a forest, comes upon a dead body and starts kissing it? So here, the prince begs the dwarves to allow him to take Snow White back to his palace so he can guard the body better than they can. Makes sense. Still, I don’t see why Snow White would wake up and happily jump into the prince’s arms instead of freaking out.

Now, the two returned to the castle, and ruled “together”. Hahaha. Nod to women’s lib. However, totally improbable in the Middle Ages. But which castle? It wasn’t clear. Snow White’s father had “died in a battle faraway” with no one ruling at all, unless it was the witch. The prince would eventually rule his own kingdom, so unless his father the king had died, he couldn’t have ruled there. So, was the kingdom then Snow White’s? Was the prince a younger son, not the heir to the throne? and therefore happy to have found another kingdom to rule?

This version is definitely better on the logical side, though still leaving plenty of loopholes for my logic-addicted mind. But all in all, I enjoyed watching it very much, only yawning during the songs. They did try to create some digging song for the dwarves, but couldn’t match the greatness of “heigh ho”.

Review #1: The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali

By Sabina Khan

The review claims that this book “will break your heart and then piece it back together”. Right. Let’s see whether it will break mine. I was looking for a BIPOC author and Sabina Khan definitely is one, hailing from Bangladesh ethnically and presently living in the US. This book is categorized as Young Adult, so I imagined it was probably about a Muslim teen dating and hiding it from her strict parents.

Well, I was sort of right. I stifled a yawn at first, hoping it was not going to go down the well-trodden dating-is-better-than-matchmaking road. Very quickly, however, the readers find out that Rukhsana is actually gay. OMG! I mentally scanned all the Bengladeshi families I personally know and realized this was a bomb waiting to explode. My yawn was gone. I felt like kicking Rukhsana’s friend/lover who is Caucasian and cannot understand why she won’t just tell her parents about them.

The plot takes us through the typical teen-sneaks-behind-parents escapades but I am now on edge, knowing what thunder and lightning are threatening behind the clouds. Then, it happens. All hell breaks loose. Till now, everything seems predictable, and I am wondering how the author plans to wind up the story, when I realize the book is barely reaching the midway point.

Spoiler Alert!

Stop right here if you plan to read the book.

It turns out that this is just the turning point leading to the meat of the plot. There’s a lot to unpack here. The parents whisk Rukhsana home to Bangladesh under the pretense that her grandmother is dying and wishes to see her favorite granddaughter one last time. Rukhsana is American-born and bred and cannot understand how her parents could “kidnap” her thus.

I have to give it to Sabina Khan who manages a tour de force. It is very difficult to present the parents’ actions as loving and protective to an audience of American teens who, like Rukhsana, will only view the ensuing plot as manipulative, evil, and hateful. The protagonist is “introduced” to a slew of potential suitors –reminding me of a similar circumstance happening to my own sister almost forty years ago — whom she starts by rejecting. Then, (this is FICTION, so unrealistic coincidences are OK!) the one suitor who seems adequate turns out to be gay too!

The two happily realize that agreeing to the marriage would solve both their problems. But of course, Sabina Khan needs to turn up the suspense factor by making Rukhsana plan an escape back to California during the wedding.

At this point, we are given the grandmother’s journal. Sorry, but this is the only point that seems a bit contrived. Nicely selected passages inserted at intervals into the storytelling. Sometimes, one wonders why the protagonist would suddenly flip through the journal at this point instead of moving on with the plot. But I agree that the journal is a good tool that opens a window on the background of women’s status in Bangladesh and the baggage Rukhsana’s mother came with. The grandmother’s experience is rather extreme, to say the least. I would venture to guess it was not the norm. Yet, though Rukhsana’s mother managed to move to the US and leave the social traps behind, as expressed by Amy Tan, she still wasn’t able to shield her own daughter from them. In fact, she herself was the main actor, re-enacting the old traditional expectations. In a way, this was a grandmother-mother-daughter cycle à la Joy Luck Club.

It took nothing less than a murder to stun Rukhsana’s parents back to sanity. A bit extreme? Maybe. I guess extreme plot twists are needed to break through extreme constraints. But the reader is given the smooth landing after the roller coaster.

Kudos to Sabina Khan for juggling the thorny issues of gender identity and religion, further mixed together with cultural traditions. I guess it takes courage to cut through such a messy Gordian knot.

So did the book “break my heart and piece it back together”? Truth be told, my tears did flow. You want to read it? Get a box of tissues ready.

%d bloggers like this: