Habib, Samar. 2012. Rughum & Najda: A Novel. Oracle Releasing. ISBN 978-0-9837161-1-2
I desperately desperately wanted to love this novel. Unfortunately, it fought me every step of the way.
Habib is a scholar of the history of sexuality, and particularly female same-sex desire, as reflected in medieval Arabic texts. This novel grew out of that research and weaves a complex portrait of the lives of several women recorded in 9th century Baghdad, at a time when it was possible--if not at all easy--for women who loved each other to make a place for themselves, sometimes in private but sometimes as public figures.
Habib’s research and scholarship is reflected in every paragraph, giving the women’s stories a solid grounding in the historic context and the social realities of the time. The story takes the scant and discontinuous facts and stitches them together into a complete fabric, filled in with plausibilities. We follow Rughum and Najda, the title characters, coming from very different social backgrounds but bound by mutual attraction. We see into the life of the poet Bathal who dared to sing in praise of the love of women in front of the Caliph. We learn of the shadowy world of the tharifas, the “witty women” who found each other in the face of their restricted lives and forbidden passions. And we are introduced in passing to the many scholars and authors whose observations and opinions left the evidence of these women’s lives for us to enjoy. We are treated to flights of language that are often lyrical, drawing on the rhythms and imagery of medieval Arabic love poetry.
What we don’t have, unfortunately, is a coherent novel. The text is fatally uncertain whether it wants to be a fictionalized history or historic fiction and falls, in the end, somewhat awkwardly into the former camp. The social history essential for understanding the characters is offered up in clinical info-dumps more suited to academic footnotes than a literary narrative. The portrayal of the women’s romantic and sexual relationships feels more like a set of case histories than a love story. I never felt that I was drawn inside their lives, but was always held off at arm’s length. The treatment of point of view and narrative voice is chaotic, not only head-hopping, but shifting almost randomly from third person, to first, to second. At times the narrator is the author, explaining events from the distance of centuries, at times it is a closer third person, speaking from a framework contemporary to the events, at times one character or another narrates in first person.
I feel broken-hearted because this story has so much potential and it’s one that would be hard for any other author to do justice to. At the very least it’s an appealing presentation of historic fact. If you’re interested in learning some solid history about the lives of women who loved women in 9th century Baghdad and the larger Arabic-speaking world, and you’d prefer to get your information in narrative form rather than non-fiction, this book will, at least, not lead you astray.