“I consider this mass gaze…to be a noxious type of male violence,” declares the eponymous heroine in the early passages of Wajdi Al-Ahdal’s provocative Yemeni novella A Land Without Jasmine.
Her declaration powerfully sets up a novel that is teeming with depravity, masculinity and violence. When Jasmine goes missing early on, the novella forces us to consider what exactly it is that is missed when a young woman disappears. Is it the woman’s safety, security, hopes and dreams? Or is it a repressive society’s ownership over that woman, and the opportunity to ogle and control her?
The young woman is asserting her authority in an authoritarian society in the only way she can: absence. In removing herself from a place in which voyeurism and stalking are rife, Jasmine is disappearing from the mass male gaze, robbing the men of the opportunity to objectify her. While the details of her disappearance are cloudy, the politics are clear: she performs a nakedly rebellious act - quite literally - that flies in the face of the objectification she is expected to endure passively.
Jasmine is also a cautionary tale of what becomes of male-female relationships when platonic friendships are not allowed to flower. Though this fate manifests itself hyperbolically in the most graphic scene in the story, it nonetheless warns of the dangers of paranoia and obsession.
While the novella is bookended by Jasmine and her mother, the four intervening, investigatory chapters are narrated through the perspective of four men in her life. Three of the men are, to differing degrees and in different ways, responsible for Jasmine’s fading. When the inspector searches for clues on the crime, it is to them he must turn because it is their eyes that have oppressively followed Jasmine for years of her life. The pathological detail of her daily routine that they recount is incriminating, not just in the crime of Jasmine’s disappearance but the greater crime of noxious male violence which Jasmine knows she must escape.
The novella could credibly be accused of orientalist tropes - the savages of the tribe brutally defending the honour of the virtuous young woman - and a hypocrisy in being penned by a male author who has the privilege to do so in a country where an equally talented female writer would not.
But these criticisms are blunted by the valour of an author who himself is Yemeni and who has personally sacrificed much in the pursuit of painting a picture that conservative societies need to see.
That is fitting, after all, for a novella that centres on the penetrating power of the gaze.