Garry Craig Powell. Stoning the Devil. Skylight Press, 2012.
If your notion of the Middle East is limited to God-fearing Arab men answering the call to prayer five times a day and pious Arab women with their identities disguised, and their individuality silenced, by head-to-toe burkas, Garry Craig Powell’s new linked story collection Stoning the Devil (Skylight Press) should act as an appropriate curative. It will also prove to be one of the more consuming reads of your year. Set in the United Arab Emirates, a country in which the author lived in for several years during the 1990s and early 2000s, Stoning the Devil’s picture of the Persian Gulf describes a veritable encyclopedia of nationalities, a dictionary of diverse characters, and a cornucopia of both licit and illicit pleasures from which its characters must try to rescue themselves.
Far removed from the Middle East of oil fields and deserts, Stoning the Devil takes place mostly in Dubai, which Powell reveals to be a teeming modern metropolis of bars and nightclubs and international hotels; of cafes and universities and glassy posh apartments; of late night cab rides and traffic jams and at least one motorcycling showboater who stands on the seat of his bike as it moves, arms extended, controlling the vehicle only with the tilt of his body; a city with a population as diverse in character and nationality as any major contemporary city, perhaps even more so: Egyptians and Emiratis and Palestinians and Lebanese and Indians and Filipinos and eastern Europeans and Sri Lankans and Americans and Sudanese and Chinese and British.
Powell is particularly determined to show Gulf women as something other than the mousy, victimized specimens of popular caricature. For instance, there is Badria, an Emirati who after being raped by her father at aged fifteen, and during a hajj no less, grows into a risk-taking, religion-loathing, headstrong woman, one who starts a falconry club at her university, initiates affairs with both sexes, and eventually joins the army. Rather than being ruined by early devastation, Badria emerges from it to stand as one of the strongest characters of the book. There is Randa, a Palestinian trapped in a passionless marriage with Marwan, her Palestinian-Lebanese banker husband, who has begun paying prostitutes and trolling the internet for Lebanese women with whom to have an affair. When Marwan discovers that Randa has carried out internet flirtations of her own, he insists on a divorce wanting to punish her, but it is Randa who emerges from the divorce as the victor. She has no problem earning and keeping the attention of men; she chooses to become the mistress of a well-off Emirati; and then she finally swears off men altogether, happily deciding to forge her own identity as a professional.
Nor are all of Powell’s strong Gulf women Arab by ethnicity. There is the Russian Oksana, a shrewd and self-possessed—even surly—cafe waitress who seems to dominate any space in which he presides, no matter the relative wealth or social status of whoever is there. And there is Kamila, a once-upon-a-time actress and classical music lover from Poland, who must resort to prostitution to earn her airfare home. Kamila survives a particularly brutal gang rape by three supposed customers (who never pay her). Instead of folding beneath the weight of the trauma, she insists that the men be arrested, even knowing that the chances of their being prosecuted is slight and that she herself will be thrown in prison as a result.
Stoning the Devil is as much a book about sexual politics as it is about global politics, and the reader will be surprised to witness the rigorous infighting that takes place among the men and women of the culturally conservative Middle East. Even more surprising is that in all this sexual skirmishing the ones who often fare better are the women. The wayward husbands in Stoning are often self-defeating, sowing the seeds of their own ruin. Marwan, who vengefully insists on divorcing Randa, winds up drifting, lonely, and pining for her. Worse, he admits this to her, and it makes no difference. He, the vanquished, cannot get what he wants. In a similar situation is Colin, a Brit who teaches English at the university. At one time adored by several of his female students, and assured enough to stray sans guilt from his Palestinian wife Fayruz, Colin ends up the loser in his domestic battle of sexual profligacy. He cannot have his wife, but other men can, and this thought tortures him nearly to the brink of self-extermination.
Powell describes his collection as a novel-in-stories, and it is most gratifying to report that Stoning the Devil is precisely that. Sometimes the “novel-in-stories” moniker is applied merely as a selling point to a fundamentally disjointed story collection, but here it applies perfectly. We not only witness repeating characters and similar settings from story to story but are able to follow those characters’ clearly defined, and often interconnected, story arcs as they are developed over body of the book. Even though the stories of Stoning the Devil work powerfully—and were originally published—as individual pieces, when joined together there is a cumulative effect, an overarching sadness for what this group of characters has suffered through, just as one feels when reaching the end of complicated, multi-faceted novel.
What makes Stoning the Devil such a powerful read, however, is not merely the surprising strength of its female characters, or its cutting insight into contemporary gender politics in the Gulf states, or its ability to connect multiple dramatis personae over a series of individual short stories, but how Powell’s attention to language and to detail creates such crystalline renditions of scenes. Take, for example, his tour de force “Sentence,” a five-page story that is exactly one sentence long and which falls smack in the middle of the collection. The story describes an execution witnessed one very hot afternoon by the first person narrator (a left-leaning British journalist) along with an enormous crowd that has gathered—family-picnic style—to observe this grisly form of entertainment. As it turns out, “Sentence” is a kind of hinge in Powell’s narrative arc, with its action being crucially important to one lightly observed character who becomes far more significant in the book’s second half. What draws and holds and astounds the reader in the moment, however, is how carefully Powell observes the scene, how minutely and compelling he describes, drawing out every bit of latent horror:
his son told him in the harsh Arabic of southern Arabia that the security guard had been Syrian, like one of the killers, so it was likely that his kin were not in the country and couldn’t avenge him in the proper manner, to which the old man replied that in that case the jailors ought to dispatch the curs before everyone was tired and hot, and I daresay everyone agreed except the three men who sagged at their posts, their bearded heads drooping, their bony shoulders bowed, their yellow prison-issue dish-dashas flapping like sails in the undecided, dusty breeze, their mouths opening from time to time as if they were pleading for a drink, but no one gave them a drop…
So it proceeds for an excruciating, intoxicating three more pages as the day gets hotter, the prisoners more thirsty, the crowd more impatient, and the atmosphere less that of a carnival and instead something closer to bloodlust. At least, until the inevitable finally happens:
in a whirling blur I glimpsed the orange dunes of the desert and nearer at hand the white and pink mosques and villas of the town, the green groves of date palms, and deep in that eternal moment an officer barked, guns sounded like firecrackers, crimson splashes appeared on the yellow nightshirts, and the rag dolls jerked and jumped as if they had been electrocuted, then hung at unnatural angles, and everyone sighed, suddenly relaxed like moviegoers at the end of a tense thriller…
The story continues for another fifty words or so, but I cannot bear to deny readers the pleasure of reading Powell’s triumphantly ironic ending on their own, in full context. As they say, you’ll just have to buy the book.