Debut novel transplants Romeo and Juliet to an even more unforgiving setting, as a forbidden correspondence draws a young African immigrant into a passionate, potentially dangerous liaison in Saudi Arabia.
Naser, a 20-year-old refugee from the conflict in his native Eritrea, washes cars in the blistering heat of Jeddah. Missing his mother and abandoned by his friends, who have fled the city for the summer, Naser chafes under the precepts of Wahhabist Islamic fundamentalism that confine this black-and-white society, captured with perceptive detail by Addonia (himself an Eritrean now living in London). Naser is limited to the company of ivory-draped men who pursue distorted desires under the repressive rules. They’re allowed to hold hands, stalk pretty young boys and, in the case of Naser’s sponsor, rape younger men, while women are buried under long black veils. Naser is startled when a shrouded woman drops him a note: “I am writing to you in secret. No one knows about this except me and Allah. I just want to say that I like you and I would like to write to you again.” A fretful, cautious dance plays out as Naser schemes to exchange notes with the woman while avoiding the intense scrutiny of the formidable and merciless religious police. (The author sets his story in 1989, before technology made furtive communications easier.) The letters between Naser and “Fiore” (flower), as he nicknames his paramour, can be rather florid, but Addonia gives the story tension by spotlighting the dichotomy between the lovers’ naive ardor and the deadly fate that awaits them if they’re caught.
The love that blossoms between innocents is special, and its rare gift is given solemn gravity here.