This is my second book review and to my unanticipated luck, it is Qais Ghanem’s second novel as well. Two Boys from Aden College represents, passionately, the elegance of a heroic author who increases his page count in order to honor the decent, delicate, and dedicated Muslim women, as his first page of dedication demonstrates. Certainly this fiction salutes the dignity of women and recognizes their equal value within Western and Eastern borders. Nothing less would do for Dr. Ghanem; for anyone who is familiar with his first novel, Final Flight from Sanaa, will notice his high regard for neutrality and fairness - like a complementary dish with all the right spices.
Ahmed and Hasan, the two main characters and unquestionably the best of friends, have enriched the story in many ways, more than can be imagined. It is not to the complexity of a traditional Arabic and Muslim culture that I find myself attracted, but to the simplicity of character definition, and how two boys born and raised in the same strict customs can grow up to have such distinctive views; as distant as the crinkling grass to the moon. Both students depart to the United Kingdom determined to complete their studies and return to their native land, Yemen.
Hasan, who graduated as an accomplished and bright lawyer, was keener on his Islamic prayers which he performed five times a day regardless of any and all circumstances. Adherence to Islam was one of his strengths and no enticement to alcohol was ever successful. Despite his other progressive and secular Muslim friends, Hasan found no reason to abandon his religion or go astray in the city streets of a foreign country like England. However, he did somehow find a way to justify his carnal relationships with women - numerous women.
Ahmed, a passionate medical doctor, indulged in alcohol and did not perform his prayers or fast during the holy month of Ramadan; yet he was a noble and honest man who maintained his commitment to one relationship. To most in Yemen, he was the outsider. Like all cross-cultural experiences, the cultural shock of a westernized society quickly turns two young suppressed and naive boys into grown men as they face challenges that deeply perplex their values and Islamic beliefs. These challenges were due to numerous restrictions embedded into strict Arabic and Muslim heritage that provoked rebellious behavior by both students. Facing no more constraints, in a new and open society, where alcohol and sexuality were welcomed and embraced, Ahmed and Hasan found themselves swimming in a sea of honey, far from potential shame and dishonor. As they experienced British society separately, both friends matured in different directions and at separate speeds, and away from one another.
Interestingly, the story unfolds when the two boys return to Yemen after several years of westernized views and behavior mixed in with hard work and success. It is this event in the book that author Qais Ghanem beautifully portrays – the contradictions of Islam that an entire society, much like Hasan, uses in order to justify wrong and unethical behavior. The comparison and contrast between the two characters is, to my surprise, the most honest definition of a defective Islamic society. As a Muslim myself, I find myself in astonishment at how society ignores its failure but seeks justification to use a peaceful religion such as Islam in order to fabricate false assumptions of manhood, womanhood, honor, and equality. Much like in Two Boys from Aden College, society does not disgrace Hasan for his immoral behavior of degrading women and using them as sex slaves, in order to please his egoistic brainwashed dead cells, which only an ignorant man can maintain with such diligence. Instead, it commends him for his bogus religious beliefs which he displays to the outside world. While Ahmed is society’s bad apple, I identified continuously with his values and demands for fairness and equality. Ahmed was indeed the rare apple who truly understood the true significance of Islam.
I do hope this book goes far; challenging politics and religion. And I do pray that injustice to women, as Qais Ghanem stated in his dedication, can be limited in marginalizing these poor victims of circumstances, in many geographical locations. I salute Dr. Qais Ghanem, yet again, for his equal and fair outlook, depicted in this novel that is nothing short of the unfortunate truth about a male-dominated culture.
I also anticipate Final Flight from Sanaa and Two Boys from Aden College to be translated into Arabic. It is equally important that the dialogue begins within the origin of the problem.
Tamara Tarchichi, Ottawa, Canada