The Others by Seba Al-Herz (Seven Stories)
Seba Al-Herz’s gripping novel, The Others, is a multi-layered story about a young Shi’a woman growing up in the Sunni province of Saudi Arabia. The title applies to nearly every aspect of the unnamed narrator’s life, from her gender, to her epilepsy, to her same-sex relationships with other women.
The Others captures a year in the narrator’s life and opens with her most recent separation from her lover Dai who “knew how to turn things on their heads, how to fabricate a long chain of reactions to the single and sickly action that I was.”
The relationship, which much of the book records, is tremulous, passionate and filled with fear and desire. “Did I say, The act of love is exhausting? Then what about the act of desire!”
As the narrator struggles with this separation, we learn how the relationship began with the two women meeting at the local women’s college. When they finally reunite, they go away on a trip with other closeted lesbians for the weekend, and the narrator is seduced by one of Dai’s friends, Dareen.
Al-Herz writes about desire in beautiful prose that ranges from the poetic and surreal to startling moments of clarity: “We awoke. When I say we awoke I mean it literally. We woke up from the bewitching trance of words, from the honey sweetness of dreams, to an electric shock that flew from her bare forearm to mine … Staring through the window at some distant point, she whispered, I want to kiss you. I did not say a word.”
Dai soon learns about the betrayal and she takes out her jealousy and anger through an act of sexual violence. It is the final break, and the narrator finds comfort with Dareen. Their relationship is sweet and romantic, but haunted by the narrator’s unresolved feelings for Dai, and Dareen’s love for her first girlfriend.
The narrator encourages Dareen to return to her first love and then tells her close male friend, Omar, about her relationship with Dai. He is entirely supportive and claims that it doesn’t change the way he sees her. With Omar’s support, the narrator contacts Dai again, but their reunion is not what she hoped for or expected.
Throughout The Others, the narrator struggles with her developing sexuality under very real restrictions, and she sleeps with women and flirting with a man online.
Al-Herz weaves this story of identity and love against the backdrop of intense political and cultural tensions. The translator provides additional context in the extremely interesting afterward:
Although this novel has drawn notice for its portrayal of same-sex relationships among young Saudi women, its forthrightness about life for the Shi’i minority of Saudi Arabia seen through the eyes of young Saudis, may be more radical.
Seba Al-Herz is actually the pseudonym of a twenty-six-year-old Saudi woman from al-Qatif in Saudi Arabia. The Others, her first novel, is a powerful, important and engaging work. Though the end is underdeveloped and difficult to interpret, the story brings the reader into a world and mind with beautiful specificity and insight.
It is an eye-opening reading experience. Highly recommended.