Through a Duwaydar's Eye

Zayd Mutee' Dammaj
The Hostage [Al-Rahina]
Translated from the Arabic by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley.
Introductions by Robert D. Burrowes and 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Maqalih.
Preface by Salma Khadra Jayyusi.
New York: Interlink Books, 1994. xv, 151 pages.
ISBN 1-56656-146-9 and 1-56656-140-K (pbk)

Reviewed by Steven C.Caton

Yemen Update 36(1995):34

This extraordinarily fine novella,characterized as a "historical" novel by a number of critics, comesfrom the pen one of the most distinguished writers in Yemen.

The action of the story takes place inmostly one locale, the hermetic, claustraphobic, if also sumptuous,interior of the palace of the Governor of Sanaa, sometime in the latenineteen forties. A handsome boy has been sent there from theFortress high atop the mountain overlooking the city where he washeld a hostage, a practice, as Robert Burrowes explains in his usefulbackground essay, that was common in the days of the Imam. The hopewas to forestall tribal resistance by imprisoning the relatives ofpotentially hostile tribal leaders.

In the Governor's palace the boy becomes aduwaydar which, we are told, "was, among other things, a boy whohadn't yet reached the age of puberty . . . who now did the work oncedone by the tawashiyeh, or eunuchs" (p. 24). In other words, becauseof their youth and presumed sexual innocence, the "duwadera" wereconsidered to be safe companions and servants of the pampered palacewomen. Why they should have been considered safe is another question,for it is clear that they soon become the prey of these lonelycreatures who desperately seek attention and intimacy.

Among them is the beautiful, spirited, andhaughty young sister of the Governor, the Sharifa Hafsa. Because ofher position and wealth she is a powerful individual, nearly asinfluential as her brother, but it is the sheer force of herpersonality that at once intimidates and captivates those around her,including the protagonist. Though willful and at times ruthless, sheis nevertheless capable of generosity, kindness, and even tendernesstowards her duwaydar. His infatuation with her becomes an obsession.It is never clear whether she loves him in return or rather thehandsome and wealthy court poet, who visits the governor's palacefrom time to time and for whom the duwaydar acts as a reluctantgo-between with the Sharifa. The poet is more of a tease than evenSharifa Hafsa, alternately spurning her, then giving her reason tohope. As it turns out, he may be more attracted to the duwaydar thanthe latter's mistress. Nor is it clear that she loves the poet or issimply hoping to benefit from a liaison that will get her out of thepalace. Brooding over her fate, she identifies with her duwaydarbecause she too is a hostage in a world that is both cruel andimplacable. At the end of the story, through an unforseeable set ofcircumstances, she fixes upon him, ironically, as a means of escapefrom her gilded cage.

The protagonist is not the only duwaydar inthe palace, however. Befriending him on the first day of his arrivalis the "handsome" duwaydar, a lively, humorous, and intelligent youth&emdash; as well as an elusive figure &emdash; who teaches therecalcitrant country bumpkin the ropes. Eventually, he seems intenton having himself replaced by his clumsy pupil as the palace'sdarling. The reason for this substitution becomes clearer when welearn that he is in the advanced stages of tuberculosis. Inappreciation for his friend's kindness, the protagonist takes overmore and more of his duties, though he refuses to massage the obesegovernor's feet and turns a deaf ear to hints that he should servicemore than the women in the palace. It is by performing other acts ofresistance that he maintains his dignity. In any case, theirrelationship becomes one of brothers. The "hostage" duwaydar tends tohis friend's care on his death bed, tenderly cradling him in his armsuntil his coughing fits subside, and then single-handledly preparinghis body for burial.

But it is not the death of the "handsome"duwaydar that is the denoument of the story. Because the palace isinsulated from the outside world, political events are heard onlyindirectly like the sounds of a gathering storm. A radio broadcast; aconversation in which the Free Yemeni Movement is mentioned; a reportof the Imam's assassination; the victorious return of the CrownPrince who declares Sanaa an open city to be sacked by his tribalsupporters in payment for their loyal service: these are the thepremonitions of a revolution raised and then tragically lost. Whathappens to the Sharifa Hafsa and the hostage amid the turmoil? I willnot give away the story's ending except to say that it is hopeful andbitter at the same time.

Much of the novel's intensity comes from thecompression and carefully wrought structure that one associates withthe short story form, of which Dammaj is a recognized master. Theauthor also uses the full resources of irony, allusion, and humor tocreate a complex world, one which is resonant with emotion but devoidof sentimentality.

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