In April 2020, when we were all still locked down in our homes, Rakha sent me this debut novel in English, Amna. I read the PDF of the manuscript over a few days and looked forward to eventually reading the published version. Yet, the manuscript, now titled The Dissenters (yes, there are more women committing suicide in this one) has not been picked up by any press, big or small, in the UK or the US. I’m perplexed by this, especially after Rakha’s two translated novels received such high praise.
In his previous work I had noticed the eye of a poet, a dreamer exploring a broken, fragmented city. Here I noticed a son, a writer telling perhaps his most important story. And Rakha had decided to tell it in English, one of his languages. Some people might call it his “second” language, but that is a misnomer. I thought about the choice of language only briefly at first, at the very beginning of the manuscript when I first encountered words in Arabic or French, unitalicized, perfectly at home, nested within the English. And then again months later when with some sadness I began to wonder why publishing in English would prove to be so difficult. I felt sadness, but also surprise because I had felt that I was reading in an English of the place, of the time(s) and of the country:
A mawwal is one of three colors depending on the story it tells: white for moral and spiritual instruction; green for nature, virtue and benevolent love; red for human vice and destructive passion. All mawwals start with the ancient and mysterious call ya lail ya ain, the ubiquitous vocative followed by the word for night and then the word for eye. I can see now the two words invoke not so much a time of day or a sense organ as the night of the soul and the source of all vision. They evoke consciousness and its opposite, life and what happened to Mouna.
The language feels alive, varied, rich. Dare we say origin(al)? …
The Dissenters is a beautiful book, funny and raucous and also incredibly tender and sad, both in personal and political terms. While reading it, I was enchanted by Rakha’s voice in English, by his unique ability to mix formal and informal registers in a way that is at once authoritative and playful. The novel is maximalist, glamorous, and intensely psychological: the kind of thing I’m so desperate to encounter in contemporary English-language fiction and so rarely do. His use of Arabic words within the text is seamless, adding to the texture of the prose without distracting the reader or slowing down the action.