By Tinuke Adeyi
- Title: An Amber Scarf from Punjab
- Author: Laila Bouinidane
- Publisher: Top Press
- Number of pages: 95
- Year of publication: 2014
- Category: Fiction
‘…societies are different and what applies to one cannot automatically and easily apply to another because specificities of cultures are wildly disparate’ – Dya’e
An Amber Scarf from Punjab by Laila Bouinidane is a novella that strives to draw attention to the issues of religious tolerance, the quest for enlightenment, among others things, through a chronicle of the life of a young Moroccan woman. Dya’e is a devout Muslim, a rather introspective and open-minded individual with no judgmental bone in her body. Even though she takes great pride in her cultural heritage and religion, she appears unencumbered by prejudice, that ‘pesky’ veil through which most mortals filter the world and relate with its occupants. She privately enjoys poetry, writing and belly dancing, limiting her expressions of these interests to the boundaries set by her religion and society.
Working at an advertising agency affords Dya’e ample opportunity meet and interact with many people of different nationalities. This is how she first meets Rigoberto, a Christian and an American who arrives Morocco to do business with her agency. In the friendship that develops between them, she learns a lot about the arts, philosophy and philosophers, and American social etiquette.
Lihua, born of a Chinese father and Moroccan mother, helps Dya’e as an interpreter when she has to speak with a Chinese client. They become friends, and Lihua introduces Dya’e to archery, Yoga, Tai Chi, Qigong. She learns new things about the practice of meditation. She also learns how to use chopsticks.
By the time she meets Amrita Singh, a Sikh who ‘looks like a guru’, Dya’e is a young woman more at peace with herself and open to learning new things about the world. Through Amrita, she learns about the Bindu-wearing Sikh sect in India and their philosophy. The Bindu is a point or seed drawn on the forehead and is believed to be the focal point of all life’s energies, a symbolic third eye. It is Amrita who gives Dya’e the amber scarf bought from Punjab. Amber, the colour favoured by the founders and leaders of the Sikh way of life, is of great significance to its adherents.
From Amrita, she learns a great deal about Yoga and more about meditation. In her conversations with Amrita, Dya’e tries to draw parallels between Islam and Yoga, noting that ‘Islam preaches meditation too. It is recommended while performing daily prayers and Zikr all the times in one’s life’. Dya’e appears to be extremely tolerant of all religions despite her strict devotion to Islam. There are quotes from the Bible and other religious books that she sometimes mutters to herself, as if to underline this.
By this point, it should have become evident that Bouinidane intends to introduce new aspects of the life-views and evolving philosophies of the protagonist (and perhaps her own thoughts) through the introduction of one new character or the other in the garb of Dya’e latest acquaintance or friend. This style is repeated throughout the tale in a monotonous manner.
The central conflict of the story does not appear until about the middle of the book. Dya’e organises a surprise birthday party for yet another friend of hers, Sofia. She secretly invites their other friends, orders a cake and practices for a private dance performance in Sofia’s honour. There, with the amber scarf draped softly over her shoulders and secure in the knowledge that it is a girls-only group, Dya’e does a graceful and sensuous belly dance to the delight and pleasant surprise of her friends, who had no idea she could dance let alone that she had once taken dance lessons. That night marks the turning point in her life.
The video of Dya’e’s performance finds its way on to the internet and all hell predictably breaks loose. Morocco is an important member of the Arab League and an unfortunate twist of fate makes the posting of the video of the young Muslim lady brazenly belly dancing coincide with the Arab Spring protests. Social media enabled scandal travels fast, and the political uprising in North Africa only serves to complicate matters further. The young protagonist is soon besieged with lucrative offers, effectively giving her the same status as a commercial sex worker. The scandal sparks off internet debates, which are soon followed up with street protests for and against the young woman’s right to belly dance in public.
Protesters in solidarity go belly dancing on the streets, draped in yellow scarves in identification with the dancer in the amber scarf. Abolitionists for their part protest with a fervour equal to that characterising the Arab Spring. The ensuing media frenzy and social network storm comes as a surprise to Dya’e, but the greatest shock comes from the reaction of her ultra-conservative Muslim family to the perceived humiliation she has brought on them and on her religion.
Adam identifies his younger sister in the scandalous video by the famous amber scarf. In a rage, he alerts their mother, who is so traumatised at the news as to suffer a nervous breakdown and a dangerous rise in her blood pressure. In the confrontation that follows, Adam blurts out that Dya’e is not his sister by blood but was adopted as a baby.
Her birth mother, it turns out, was Zahira, a naïve belly dancer who fell for a wealthy, influential but philandering politician who repeatedly cheated on his wife. When Zahira got pregnant with his daughter, he had her thrown in jail on trumped up charges to save face. Dya’e was born in prison and given away for adoption, while the unfortunate Zahira died of asthma complications in her airless jail cell. Her birth father never acknowledged her, not even when Dya’e finds and confronts him in the thick of her internet crisis.
Dya’e ends up moving out of the only home she has known all her life. As for the amber scarf, the symbol of her needless suffering at the hands of intolerance and prejudice, she sets it on fire. Its ashes she gathers in a flacon that she sends to Amrita, who is to pour the ashes in the Ganges.
Unravelling the message of this fourth work of fiction by Bouinidane is no rocket science, owing in part to the extremely simple language in which the book is written but also to the style of the writer. She makes it clear from the preface to the book that it is an effort that will not depend on suspense or the element of surprise in capturing and maintaining the reader’s attention. The preface is a one-page summary of the tale and through it Bouinidane presents the themes of her message: kindness, tolerance, especially religious tolerance, the quest for knowledge and enlightenment, introspection, love, animal rights and altruism. These are all tenets by which every human must strive to live.
Perhaps An Amber Scarf from Punjab would have been better titled Dya’e and Friends and not just because of the overly simple nature of the language in which the novella is written. Dya’e conveniently meets a new friend each time there is a twist to the tale or a new angle through which Bouinidane wishes to explore her themes. Dya’e’s ideas on morality, faith and friendship are demonstrated, one painstaking episode after another, through her interaction which each new friend she makes.
An impatient reader may find the morally upright Dya’e inauthentic to the point of disbelief. She is the perfect daughter, the model animal rights advocate, the helpful but misunderstood work colleague, the guileless young girl who never has an ulterior motive, the everlasting victim. Relation to reality will be severely tested in the eyes of the more jaded reader, which does not bode well for the book’s reception.
Morocco, a predominantly Islamic nation with the fifth largest economy in Africa has an interesting language situation. In that ethnically diverse country, the written language is very different from that which is widely spoken. Most people communicate in Moroccan Arabic, known as Darija, and in Berber. The Arabic used in political and scholarly settings and in which judicial verdicts are delivered, the written Classical Arabic, is simply not the Arabic spoken on the street or in homes. The Moroccan writer for whom English is a foreign language but who produces a work of fiction in English must have tackled a very difficult obstacle course.
While the difficulty with language and translation that the Moroccan writer has to grapple with are well appreciated – and who better to appreciate this difficulty than Bouinidane, who has worked in the capacity of a translator in courts and embassies since 1997 – there are sentences in the novella that are outright ridiculous errors of editing and which make the reading of an otherwise light book somewhat tiresome.
Photograph: ‘Inside Amber Fort, Jaipur’ by Kannan Muthuraman
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