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Killer Landscape

by Scott Cheshire


Triple Time
by Anne Sanow. 168 pgs. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. $24.95.


More than ten years ago, I watched my grandmother’s slow decline as Parkinson’s and other indignities bent her like a pulled and drying root. I have little difficulty now imagining her face, but more often what I remember is this: the wan, pea-green walls of her hospice room and the aluminum bars on the sides of her bed, an opened skeletal ribbing. I picture the place where I last knew her.

Wallace Stevens said as much: “I am what is around me.” “[W]omen understand this,” he wrote—we are “portraits,” “merely instances” framed by our surrounding places. Thoreau claimed something almost opposite: whether land or water, all place is “storied.”

Anne Sanow’s rich and dense debut collection of stories, Triple Time, paints from both perspectives—those of person and place—and does so largely through the eyes of women.

The tales of Triple Time are nothing if not narratives of place, each of them set in and around the Rub Al-Khali in Saudi Arabia—“the Empty Quarter,” some 250,000 square miles of desert that takes up most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. Her locales range from “moonscapes . . . terrain that seems not to belong on this earth or in this time,” to the outlying houses of “cheap wood and tin . . . in neat rows, surrounded by walls,” where a fourteen-year-old “boy stands guard, holding a rifle,” to the nearby “high gleaming towers” of Riyadh, where light glares “from the windows like a beacon” and the nouveaux riches ponder the world below them from a terrace, a “tiny oasis in the sky.” 

But these are not stories of an oil-rich kingdom. You’ll find no hackneyed image, no sheik sporting a brilliant grin while waving from a lowered limousine window. In fact, you’ll find no reference at all to the Saudi Arabia of the 2000s. Rather, this is the portrait of a rising nation in the 1980s, only decades after it ranked among the poorest on earth. Sanow’s Saudi Arabia is a country struggling with and recovering from tremendous upheavals: the Yom Kippur war of 1973, the ensuing oil embargoes, recurrent regional conflicts, a consequently poor economic infrastructure, and the recent siege of Mecca—a direct challenge to Royal Islamic orthodoxy and arguably the defining moment for contemporary Saudi society. The Islamists responsible were vehemently anti-Western and demanded an end to all oil exports to the United States. Even so, the Ayatollah Khomeini called the seizure “the work of criminal American imperialism.” The event continued to fuel radical Islam throughout Saudi Arabia, during years when the country was also increasingly influenced by Western cultures.

In the early 1980s thousands of American civil servants expatriated themselves to the dunes and scattered villages dotting the Empty Quarter. One such place was the agricultural community of Al Kharj, a central space for Sanow’s stories. In “Hayloader,” expatriate farmers await payment from an absent Saudi landlord, while cocaine, hash, and alcohol make waiting all the easier. However, Todd, the story’s recently divorced, lonely narrator, longs for something more. He laments the lack of “decent female company” even as he “fools around” with the “city chicks” from Riyadh who “like to party.” Todd contemplates the beauty of his male coworker, Bo, his “lips like a high-school sweetheart-cum-porn star,” but hastens to add: “[I]t’s not like I’m about to make the switch to the other team. It really doesn’t happen here like you might think it would.”

In “Date Farm,” three expatriates tease a young American girl named Jill—“You’ve really got to see a beheading”—though it’s unclear how serious they are. “Take me, she says. “I want to see it.” They refuse. “I’m not taking you to bloody Chop-Chop Square,” one says, and so readers are spared the bloody spectacle. Yet this context of sharia violence renders much more disturbing the eventual vision of a young Saudi girl “struck in the head” for letting her veil fall. In “Pioneer,” the elegant story that opens the collection, construction workers raise the walls of “cheaply built prefab housing” while a young Saudi boy’s leg is crushed under a fallen concrete slab. In “The Grand Tour,” a Texan named Gus is found buried alive in the dunes holding his dead male Bedouin lover, Basim, with “every intention of letting the desert swallow them.” Gus, “a man without a place,” spends the following decades traveling with the nomads who saved his life, forgetting his native English language and depending on the hospitality of strangers.

Triple Time presents the sensual picture of a singular place and the displaced inhabitants who people it. There are Americans who lose themselves in the sands of the Empty Quarter even as they farm it and Saudis forced to renegotiate title to their own land as thousand-year-old traditions are upended, offended, and adapted. But above all, there are the women—the pregnant American mother who gives birth in her “hot, little house because the hospital is too far away”; the teenage girls who get “kicked out of boarding schools,” trading heavily in alcohol and sex to avoid tedium, often “up to no good in the city that always prays.” Elder women secretively flip through pages of Vogue, dressed in “just the right amount of Dior here or Chanel there,” even as younger generations stuff their veils and abayahs under airplane seats the moment they leave Saudi airspace.

Sanow devotes much of Triple Time to two women in particular: an American, Kimberly, “a weird kind of lifer,” and Thurayya, a Bedouin woman, both of whom we first meet as children in the desert. Kimberly, at nine years old, lives with her father, an American colonel, and a woman she insists is not her mother. Her bedroom is “covered in posters. Rainbows, kittens and Teen Beat heartthrobs all blur together in a haze of pink and purple.” Yet place undoes utterly this typical portrait of an American family. Young Kimberly sits outside with a young neighboring boy “at the end of the block, where tired palm trees make a thin shade over the picnic tables.” Nearby, a “chain-link fence” bars leaving the desert compound, where a guard watches, automatic rifle in hand. She abruptly excuses herself and tells the boy, “I have to go home, or I’ll get killed.”

Thurayya is the youngest of five sisters. The others do not “dare to show . . . interest in what [lies] beyond the confines of their settlement.” Young Thurraya, however, claps and cheers on watching an airplane take flight, “lov[ing] this new thing that she s[ees],” as her older sisters shake their heads disapprovingly and go back “to the safety of the tent.” After a brother strikes her, Thurraya says, “Don’t touch me again.”

Sanow tells the stories of these two women in fragments throughout the collection, giving them brief appearances in some stories while making them the occasion for others. In “Rub Al-Khali,” the concluding story, their lives have become fully enmeshed. Kimberly, now a young woman not yet thirty, is under close threat of deportation. She binds herself to Thurayya, now a grandmother, and enters Thurayya’s family through marriage. In some ways the book is theirs equally, and by its end we have the careful intimation of two lives fully lived—two generations of female experience in a society patriarchal and non-secular.

Only in Thurayya’s story—specifically in the early episode of “Slow Stately Dance in Triple Time”—does Sanow falter slightly. In a book already packed densely with rich detail, whose characters often bleed into each other’s stories, “Slow Stately Dance . . .” attempts to encompass several Bedouin generations and multiple points of view in barely twenty pages. The story employs a kind of choired narration, but some voices fail to clearly identify themselves. The result is something like a sandstorm. Powerful, yes, but the view is blurred.

The real achievement of this book, which has deservedly won the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize, is its abounding, elegant evocation of places both natural and manufactured. Sanow’s Arabia is at times a “flat, stretched place where the dirt smelled sour and . . . people let the landscape win”; at other times, “[c]hickeny orange and yellow cranes jerked and bobbed across the skyline.” This desert is both a “floor lush with green and flowers” and a land of canyon chutes, sharp brows of rock, and drifts “meant to claim” and “swallow”—a “sand-locked nowhere,” “a waiting room, only there was no nowhere you were waiting to go.” Not so far off stands Riyadh, “paved over with new high-rise buildings and malls”—an “omnivorous” city, its “construction eating into the desert, new streets and buildings digesting another spread of it week by week.”    

Peter Carey has described the influence of Australia on his own fiction, its brutal outback and encroaching metropolis: “Landscape forms character, of course, and ours is a killer.” Sanow’s landscape, too, is remorseless, and her portrait of it is a lasting one, at times quite haunting. The women who survive the travails of this place are all the stronger for it. Which is no small thing in 2010. Just months ago King Abdullah appointed Saudi Arabia’s first female deputy minister, in a country where—at the time of this writing—women are still denied the right to vote.

 

Scott Cheshire is an MFA candidate in the fiction program at Hunter College, City University of New York. He is at work on his first novel. (1/2010)


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