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May 4, 2016

Book Notes - Raja Alem "The Dove's Necklace"

The Dove's Necklace

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Raja Alem's novel The Dove's Necklace is a compelling and nuanced literary mystery.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Alem, the first woman to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, blends surrealism and mystery in this challenging novel."

In her own words, here is Raja Alem's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Dove's Necklace:

1) Edith Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien"

"Non, Rien de rien
Non, Je ne regrette rien"

"No, I regret nothing

Not the good thing,
Nor the bad things, it's all the same to me.

It's paid for, swept away, forgotten."

When I left Mecca, I was overwhelmed with sadness and anger, due to the ultra-modern changes overtaking the holy city. I felt the changes robbing me of my references, crushing the city and my spirituality. As a reaction I started writing this book as a eulogy to my childhood. This book was like ground zero, the base on which I reconstructed what is holy to me, a mixture of being human and godly at the same time. All the pain I witnessed in those small alleys, I tried to capture in words and embrace.

But, as the book progressed, I felt a gradual relief of that inhuman weight, and reaching the end coincided with hearing this song for the first time. I felt Edith Piaf was lighting a bonfire with my eulogy.

"I don't care about the past.
With my memories I lit the fire.
I start again from zero."

Nevertheless, up until now, the book and song merged, whenever I hear it, I feel the pain again and again, but finally I reached a state of catharsis where I was embracing Mecca's new face.

And after all, spirituality is not about the outer form or location. My new home near Notre Dame in Paris echoed the chants and incense of the home I left in Mecca. I found what I lost on the Seine's banks.

2) Muddy Waters' "I'm Ready"

"I got an axe handle pistol on a graveyard frame

That shoot tombstone bullets, wearin' balls and chain

I'm drinkin' TNT, I'm smokin' dynamite

I hope some screwball start a fight

'Cause I'm ready, ready as anybody can be

I'm ready for you, I hope you're ready for me."

It represents the alley of Abu-Alroos, who is narrating part of the story in The Dove's Necklace. The song brings to life the alley's readiness for war. The misery lurks in its crumbling sheds and in the faces of the desperate poor and illegal residents, who overcome their harsh conditions by prostituting or drinking glue or TNT. The alley has a human voice, and what is obvious in the novel is its quarreling moods, especially when deserted by its favorite girls who escaped either by death or running away.
3) Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black

Amy roars, "And I go back to black," the same sentiment Aisha, the heroine in The Dove's Necklace, sharply experiences. Aisha transfers to Germany, falls in love with her therapist, and is immediately pulled back to the alley where she was left limping in the dark, out of life and love. The emails she exchanged with her lover are summed up in these lyrics:

"And life is like a pipe

And I'm a tiny penny rolling up the walls inside
I died a hundred times

You go back to her

And I go back to Black Black Black."

Aisha is the real black behind walls of norms and traditions in her primitive neighborhood, and she reveals what women underwent in their relations with men. The physical and mental pain inflicted on her by the deserting husband reminds her of Antony and the Johnsons or Cripple and the Starfish. Aisha is the cripple inviting pain.

"And it's true I always wanted love to be
Filled with pain
(and bruises)
So please hit me
I am very, very happy
So please hurt me
Watch, I'll even cut off my finger
It'll grow back like a starfish."

4) Esther Phillips' "Home is Where the Hatred Is"

The characters of my books usually rebel and rebuild their lives. I was especially helpless with Azza, who has no control especially in the methods she invented to escape her father's taboos and restrictions. And I remember I was following Azza's evolution when we were first trying to settle in Paris, after losing our home in Jeddah in the flood along with everything we owned. We were literally uprooted, and my sister Shadia—who was preparing to represent Saudi Arabia in Venice Biennial 54—played this song over and over again.

"Home is where the needle marks

And it might not be such a bad idea

If I never, never went home again."

Azza catches the fire, and the notion of escape swells in her mind. I cowered from tackling a girl's rebellion, and then took it to the extreme, escaping a family home. Still, Azza is possessed with the song, and I almost heard her humming it while closely watching her heartless father.
"Hang on to your rosary beads
Close your eyes to watch me die

You keep sayin', kick it, quit it

Kick it, quit it, kick it, quit it

God, but did you ever try to turn your sick soul

Inside out so that the world can watch you die."

I expected the worst of Azza.

The Dove's Necklace is about turning the soul inside out to watch a world dying.

5) Sammy Davis Jr.'s "Mr. Bojangles

He could jump so high,

jump so high,

and then he'd lightly touch down."

Mr. Bojangles reminds of Khaleel, the expelled pilot. He gives the feeling of an acrobat yet he is part of the elite, and he comes from a family that lost its fortune and ended up in the alley. Still, he holds on to the false pride of their lineage.

For me, despite Khaleel's seriousness, he represents a clowny attitude while roaming Mecca's street as a taxi driver, challenging his clients with his provocative masquerade clothes and mockery.

"I met him in a cell

He looked to me to be the very eyes of age

as the smoke ran out,

talked of life, lord that man talked of life,

He grabbed his pants,

took a bitter stance, 
jumped up high.

That's when he 
clicked his heels.

Then he let go a laugh,
lord, he'd let go a laugh."

6) Pink Floyd's The Wall, "Hey You"

This special song represents all the suffocating taboos in the alley: what stifles the spirits of the people either in the small jobs they strive to keep, the schools where girls are crushed, or the prison where they wait for whatever savior.

"Hey you, don't help them to bury the light

Don't give in without a fight.

The wall was too high, 
As you can see.

No matter how he tried, 
He could not break free.

And the worms ate into his brain."

This album is like a pomp, contained in the song.

"All in all you're just another brick in the wall." 
7) Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart"

This song is originally by Erma Franklin 1967, but I love it especially from Janis Joplin. Her voice gives me goose bumps.

This song talks about Nora, who is a mistress of the tycoon Khalid. She makes that choice where she finds herself, as if offering her heart to the pig.

"Take another little piece of my heart now, baby

Oh, oh, break it."

And while dressing like a queen roaming the world, discovering herself and the new world around, she is torn deep inside between what she really wants to be and what she is presenting to others, swept and consumed by Khalid's lust.
"You're out on the streets looking good
And baby deep down in your heart I guess you know that it ain't right
But each time I tell myself that I, well I can't stand the pain
But when you hold me in your arms, I'll sing it once again."

8) David Bowie's "Space Oddity"

Taking this song with its space rock and psychedelic music, one would think nothing is further from my book, which takes place in Mecca.

But, in a way, I found nothing but this song could describe the situation Nora experiences when escaping to Sheikh Khalid.

"Now it's time to leave the capsule if you dare
 I'm stepping through the door

And I'm floating in a most peculiar way

And the stars look very different today

For here

Am I sitting in a tin can

Far above the world

And there's nothing I can do
Though I'm past one hundred thousand miles

I'm feeling very still." 

Like this astronaut who cuts off communication with earth and floats into space, Nora floats beyond the realm of gravity, in a trance with no connection whatsoever to the dear people she left behind or the taboos which suffocated her all her life. She is reference-less and ready to start new.

9) Léo Ferré's "Avec Le Temps, With Time"

Writing in Paris was a new experience for me, after being in the family house in Jeddah where seclusion was not a great sacrifice. But in Paris I would write for hours, and then suddenly I would feel the horizon closing in. I needed to feel the call of this endless city. Then I would go out walking the routes of Paris, charmed with unexpected music coming from the houses.

Once I was walking in the nearby rue des chantres, which was inhabited in the middle ages with Notre Dame's chorus singers, when I heard this legendary French singer Léo Ferré's song "Avec Le Tepms."

I was struck by the longing in the song. I felt as if that were the voice of the road, talking about time passing, and the people and events we shed as we go.

The closing sentence of that song summed up the fears in my novel,

"Avec le temps on n'aime plus."
"with time we don't love any more."

10) Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne"

I was listening to this song when discovering Mushabbab, the black man who carries the glory of the past, who plays like a kind of a guide to joy, attracting the youth in the Alley.

"And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him.
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.
And you want to travel with him, and you want to travel blind
For he's touched your perfect body with her mind."

His meeting with the heroine Azza is like Suzanne. She led the boys of the alley to discoveries, and at the same time she discovered the outer life.

"And you know that she's half-crazy but that's why you want to be there

She's wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters

And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers

There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning

They are leaning out for love and they will lean that way forever

While Suzanne holds her mirror."

Azza is that mirror in which the alley's youth see their longing for freedom.
11) Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas":

"Do not leave me
I will invent for you
Foolish words,
Which you'll understand."

I heard Yusuf's voice. Courting Azza since an early age with letters smuggled behind her father's back, he manages to break the siege drawn around her and he considers himself her lover. That's why when he suspects that she is promised to another man, he goes mad.

"I will hide myself there
To watch you
Dance and smile
And listen to you
Sing and then laugh
Let me be
The shadow of your shadow
The shadow of your hand
The shadow of your dog."
12) Billie Holiday's "What a Little Moonlight Can Do"

"Ooh, what a little moonlight
Can do to you
You only stutter
'Cause your poor tongue
Just will not utter
The words, I love you

Wait a while
Till a little moonbeam
Comes peepin' through"

It's a love song, but represents Muaaz, the son of Imam. Muaaz is passionately in love with Mecca and its glowing past, almost obsessed as he goes possessively around with his camera, trying to capture Mecca's ancient faces before they were demolished, keeping his treasure a secret.

Raja Alem and The Dove's Necklace links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Chicago Review of Books review
New York Journal of Books review
Words Without Borders review interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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