AL ARABIAN NOVEL FACTORY is a novel by Benyamin originally written in Malayalam and translated into English by Shahnaz Habib. This can be called as the sequel to JASMINE DAYS which won the JCB prize for literature in 2018. Jasmine Days speaks about the Arab uprising and the protests during that period. This book speaks about the after effects of the Arab uprising. Jasmine Days speaks about the immigrants who have come to that country long ago and worked hard to build it to its luxurious state, but are now deprived of the citizens rights. Al Arabian Novel Factory speaks about the lives of the local people and the unrest during the regime of the Government which is double standard and believes as power to be the only mode to rule over a country.
We have the main character Pratap an Indian settled in Canada who works for a weekly. He is asked by his editor, to visit the Middle East and conduct extensive research to collect material for a novelist’s new book. Along with a few other research journalists, from different parts of the world, he chooses THE CITY for his research. His ex girl friend Jasmine lives in the city and he longs to reconnect with her. Though they exchange e mails now, he wants to find her and rekindle the lost friendship from the bygone years. He is a happily married man and his wife knows about his desire to meet his ex, and with a few conditions she allows him to move to the city temporarily for the project. The author mentions the place of research as “ the city” and does not give the name of it. But we understand that it is a Middle East country and has a lot of immigrants from various parts of the world.
Here Pratap meets Daisy another college friend who had a crush on him and loves him still. Pratap accepts her friendship and also tries to understand her husband Perumal who is obsessed with his wife and wants her to be happy and is not ready to lose her to anyone or anything in the world. Perumal is a voracious reader and he tells Pratap about a banned book which was given to him by a second hand book dealer from “the city”. But before he could read it, the CID from the government, come to take it away. He tells the officials that a friend from Canada called Pratap has sent him the copy. Pratap thus finds out that he has been dragged into an investigation and he becomes uncomfortable.
Pratap works with a team of researchers. They are Riyaz from Pakistan, Edwin from Britain, and Vinod from India. Life in the city does not seem normal and healthy to them. We find people suspicious of each other and there is no freedom of expression. People who are in the city remain silent not because they are happy with the government but because they are used to its tyranny. People who are against the government go missing and their families suffer, Professionals are tight lipped and there are a lot of people murdered who tried to live with their original ideas and ideals. Though everything seems okay, there is anger, frustration and revolt everywhere. Terrorist groups are working with their suicide bombers and people are ready to sacrifice themselves for better lives. Pratap tries to find Jasmine. He emails her but she is not ready to meet him. The mysterious book “A Spring without Fragrance”, written by Sameera Parvin pops out from Riyaz’s personal collection. Pratap sees that his friend hides the book and never mentions about it. After knowing about the book through Perumal, and that the CID are searching for it, he becomes curious and so he steals the book from Riyaz’s room and reads it. Through this book we get to know about the riots and the people who endured them on the name of justice during the Arab uprising in the country. We are introduced to a few terrorist groups who have their own network in the city. On the whole the city looks like a bomb about to explode and we find people living under extreme pressure and fear for their safety.
An old doctor who claims to be very close to the royal family also plans to migrate to Cananda and finally succeeds in his seventieth year. This gives the live proof of the resentment people have towards the country and its rulers. Riyaz is arrested by the CID and with the help of a terrorist group Pratap succeeds in buying Riyaz’s security. On the whole the book speaks about the life of people who live in a system where all fundamental rights are just theory and where the rulers try to suppress the public with a strict fear for their lives. The writer tries to discuss the reality and tragedy behind the superficial luxury and comfort which most of the Arab countries show off. He describes extreme poverty behind the oil wells. We meet Arabs who believe in non violence and are not able to put it into practice in a country which is about to explode. Pratap meets a terrorist leader in the process of getting Riayz released. When they speak about banned books in the country, the leader says “My friend, when has any freedom movement, or to use your mocking words terrorist organization ever issued a fatwa against a book? And we do not follow fatwas issued by governments. That is why Salman Rushdie is still alive, not because he was good at hiding.” …… A point to be seriously thought about….
In another context the terrorist leader says, “Many of us hold on to religion and become fundamentalists as a last ditch attempt to hold on to identities that are in danger of being destroyed. Unfortunately, we don’t have another identity. The Kurds in Iraq, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, black people in America – they all have their own identity around which they consolidated their struggle, perhaps if we chose to identify ourselves as Arabs, the world would have accepted us more willingly. But our own internal conflicts prevented us from doing that.”…. this paragraph becomes the essence of the novel where the plight in the Arab countries is discussed.
The writer tries to explain the suffocation felt by the people who are oppressed and are living among a lot of restrictions amidst luxury to boast of. The powerful Police system has people who want to quit their jobs and return back to their countries. The locals have nowhere to go and therefore seek solace in terrorist organizations. Terror rules everywhere and this suffocation becomes a part of life in the Arab communities. Finally Pratap leaves the country without meeting Jasmine and without any information about Sameena Parveen the author of the banned book. What he takes backs is the restlessness of the Arab community and their thirst for peace and liberation.
AL ARABIAN NOVEL FACTORY cannot be ranked as a great book but it’s a sincere attempt made by the author to help the reader understand the plight of people living in a suffocative society. They may be immigrants who belong to another country, who have spent their best days building the city, or they may be the local Arabs or tribes who have their forefather lying in the graves around the country, but they all equally feel that they do not belong to the system and what they are offered as citizens is not what they rightfully deserve. We try to understand the life of common men in a country where everything happens under the scrutiny of the government and no citizen is privileged to have a private life. This story is a depiction of the common man’s life, when polished dictatorship rules the country and where men are only dictated and not allowed to live the lives of their choice.