Imagine if Kathy Lette — or possibly Julie Burchill — had written a feminist, magic-realist saga that sent four women on a road-trip around the broiling hotspots of the Arab Spring. No, not easy to do — yet the intrepid Turkish journalist and writer Ece Temelkuran has, in this novel, come up with just that sort of pantomime chimera.
Temelkuran, an outspoken truth-teller whose fearless reportage has jeopardised both her livelihood and security in Turkey, flings together a quartet of ill-assorted travellers — one of whom resembles the author. She whisks them around the crisis zones of the eastern Mediterranean just as revolutions flare and tyrants tumble. Our four heroines, ‘fated to take refuge in a story’, zigzag from Tunisia after its dictator’s fall to Libya during Gaddafi’s endgame, to Egypt as the Tahrir Square protests erupt, then across the sea to a showdown in Lebanon.
The Turkish narrator plays the outsider’s role on this desert journey with three Arab companions (Ottoman imperial history makes this a tricky relationship). Yet the women’s growing rapport establishes an ebullient, quarrelsome micro-state of mirth, memory, confession and heresy — ‘an island garlanded with laughter’.
Madam Lilla, the former Cairo courtesan and spy-mistress who leads the pack, seeks a passage to Beirut to confront the suave swine who betrayed her. Both Amira, the Tunisian dancer and blogger-activist, and Maryam, the melancholy Egyptian academic obsessed with Dido, Queen of Carthage, have secrets to reveal and missions to fulfil. As has our runaway storyteller. In part a shrewd satire on the ideals and illusions of the Arab Spring (‘You have lost yourselves in an Al Jazeera drama’), in part a picaresque girls-together adventure, in part a female-first upending of Middle Eastern myths from Dido herself to the smugly macho ‘poet leader’ of anti-Gaddafi rebels, the narrative lurches, bumps and meanders like some Western Desert track.
It’s diffuse, digressive and sometimes pretty silly. Still, Temelkuran has zest, and heart, and guts, to spare. In her sights, the region’s sacred cows go down like fairground ducks, from besuited Islamists and NGO careerists to slick correspondents for CNN. The translator Alexander Dawe deserves a shout on many counts — not least for capturing the effect of one such glossy hack trying out her ‘American-accented classical Arabic’ in the Libyan maelstrom: ‘From what I have gleaned from the women innkeepers, you are indeed an esteemed personality…’ For a beach-read with brains and bounce, give this gang a spin.