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When the world spins out of control...

By Sally Bland - Nov 26,2017 - Last updated at Nov 26,2017

Mother of All Pigs
Malu Halasa
Los Angeles: The Unnamed Press, 2017
Pp. 259

Having read the non-fiction books edited or co-authored by Malu Halasa, one would expect her first novel to be unconventional, and “Mother of All Pigs” does not disappoint. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of Middle East politics and culture, Halasa portrays the frustrations and pressures of the current regional situation as they impact on the Sabas family, who live in a town easily recognisable as Madaba. Though it may appear to be a sleepy provincial town, under the surface things are boiling due to the conflicts in surrounding countries, and the on going tug-of-war between tradition and modernity, human values and consumerism, and tolerance and bigotry. 

“Mother of All Pigs” is written in a realistic style, true to historical and social realities, but Halasa adds her own imaginative twists. Well-placed irony and exaggeration create a surrealistic aura that aptly expresses people’s perceptions that something has gone terribly wrong, that their world is spinning out of control. The book’s title is one example of this hyper-realism; another is the pig having a narrative voice. As she is stuffed into a too-small crate and transported from Cairo through occupied Palestine and across the Jordan River, one thinks of refugees torn from their homes and shunted towards an unknown fate, or hapless innocents caught up in an anti-terrorist sweep and delivered to torture chambers. 

Though external factors unleash some dramatic events, it is the complex, well-drawn characters who drive the plot. Hussein Sabas is at the epicentre of most of the novel’s contentious issues. Disillusioned by his army career, especially his role in an anti-terrorist squad (Arabs killing Arabs, as he sees it), he breaks with tradition by selling off most of his dead father’s land in order to build his family a new house and establish a profitable business — selling pork. His decision not only alienates him from his father’s land but also from the old man’s values. Al Jid (Grandfather), as everyone called him, looms over the story from the afterlife, symbolising stability and all that was good in the old days. He was a Christian who “always sought to reconcile the various faiths he lived among, not estrange them… a natural unassuming leader, a man of worth… a tenacious farmer known for his love of history and storytelling”. (pp. 8-9)

Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, Hussein, out of weakness, choses the path of his uncle, a caricature of a small-time war capitalist who has found a way to profit from every crisis in the region from 1948 onwards. “Abu Za’atar was just the kind of hot-tempered young man that pan-Arab nationalism should have appealed to, but the free market economy had already stolen his heart.” (p. 45)

It is he who arranges to import the giant sow to be the breeding machine for the pork production. Yet, Hussein’s new house already shows signs of decay and lacks a regular water supply, and his business puts him at odds with his Muslim neighbours, especially a new breed of fanatics. Instead of pleasing Leila, his wife, who wants all the modern conveniences, Hussein dissolves into drink, showing the perils of abandoning the old without a clear path to the new.

Ultimately, it is three women — Fadhma, her daughter Samira and Leila — who anchor the family, managing the household, tending the children and keeping up relations with the community. Al Jid’s widow, Fadhma has raised thirteen children, her own and his from his previous marriage, but only Hussein and Samira remain with her. The rest have immigrated abroad and stopped sending money home long ago. Though her health is failing, she still undertakes major tasks, such as assuring that the family has water, as women have done over the ages, but she feels undervalued, forgotten and somehow cheated when she recalls Al Jid’s insistence that having many children was insurance for their old age. Like her deceased husband, she represents the good in traditional values, but her current situation reveals the drawbacks of patriarchy even if Al Jid’s was of the benign variety. Or maybe she is a victim of globalisation reaching Jordan’s villages, luring the young away with new opportunities.

Samira is the most self-aware of the lot. She knows she does not want to get stuck in a traditional marriage, but she is not sure what she wants to do with her life, until her friendship with a Palestinian woman, a refugee from the Syrian war, draws her into a circle of women doing support work. Yet she ponders whether it is enough to organise support from afar.

The arrival of Muna, a Sabas cousin from America, and Mustafa, Hussein’s old army friend from Afghanistan, sets the family’s dilemmas in relief and catalyses some new thinking among them, but one does not know where it will lead. 

With an uncanny ability to link the big events with what goes on in people’s minds, Halasa tells another type of truth, revealing the dark underside of hypocrisy, gratuitous killing and war profiteering that lies just below the surface of official media and political slogans. “Mother of All Pigs” tells what happens to ordinary lives when violence and intolerance reign, but also hints at new horizons for those who are ready to mobilise the positive assets of their culture to challenge rigid gender roles, greed and militarism.


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