(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
The Saudi novel Maymouna centers on stories that don’t often appear in contemporary literature. The scholar and poet Mona Kareem has called the book, published in 2001, “the most important contemporary piece of fiction on enslaved Africans of the Arabian Gulf.” She added that, “Equally as important, it’s written by a Black writer”: Mahmoud Trawri.
Black Saudis make up a thriving community. An estimated 10 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population is of African origins, with most Black Saudis living in the western part of the country, around Mecca. Yet there have been few books that focus on Black Saudis’ stories and histories.
In the years since Maymouna was published, it has become something of a cult phenomenon. It was first printed in Sharjah, then in Cairo and Beirut, yet a Saudi edition has yet to appear. One Saudi fan of the novel, Taher al-Zahrani, wrote on GoodReads in 2009 that the process of finding a print copy was exhausting. “And I do not know why this is!!” Finally, he wrote, “I got the novel from a bookstore in Riyadh that specializes in selling books outside the law; I don’t know whether the novel Maymouna is among them?”
Trawri said via email that his book is not banned, but that distribution requires a permit from the Ministry of Information, and “I’m not good at these things.” He added that he continues to receive requests for copies of Maymouna even now, almost 20 years after its publication. Lately, he asks friends who are traveling abroad to bring back copies in their suitcases.
‘I Wanted to Be Like Them’
Trawri began his writing career at the precocious age of 12, by sending commentaries to local newspapers and magazines. The author grew up in Mecca, where he remembers seeing the photos of a few locals in the newspaper, alongside their columns. He was particularly excited to see the photo of the prominent Black Saudi critic and translator Fayez bin Mahmoud Aba in the paper. “Perhaps subconsciously,” Trawri said, “I wanted to be like them.”
He was 15 when he began working for the Mecca newspaper al-Nadwa. Although he had written letters for his father, his family didn’t know about his burgeoning career. They found out about it when he criticized a local sports coach in the paper, and people came to his parents to complain. Fortunately, his family supported him.