First published in Beirut in the mid-90s, Thani Al-Suwaidi’s The Diesel was labeled a “shock-novel” by early critics; this novella’s protagonist shifts gender identity and moves in a world of desire that spans not only the range of hetero- and homosexual yearnings, but stretches to encompass the sea and the sun. The book has since gained acceptance, and, according to translator William M. Hutchins, Al-Suwaidi has become an important Emirati author. As the United States continues to awaken from cultural isolationism and its political activists are inspired by uprisings in the Gulf region, this important translation is more relevant to English-speaking audiences now than when the book was first written.
Hutchins’ scholarly introduction comprises the first third of the book and seeks to provide a context for what follows. Through his inclusion of media coverage, scholarly discussion, and his own work insights on literature in Arabic, Hutchins describes literary precedents that are more open to sexual variety than a Western audience might imagine. Hutchins also places The Diesel in a storytelling tradition where the novel is only a recent development. Storytelling, like the world in this novella, is caught between a mythic, pre-Islamic past and the consumer-driven, linear culture that craves clean lines and an easy answer.
Much of the scandal surrounding the book has to do with the often violent sexual themes and the gender fluidity of the protagonist, who takes on the name the Diesel. NPR reviewer Alan Chuese calls the Diesel a djinn, a demon who bubbled up from the oil beneath the Emirates, born with the body of a man and the soul of a woman. It is easy enough to name this character transgender and not-human but these labels limit possibilities. The author is a poet: his language seems to complicate rather than answer questions about boundaries.
The Diesel, after sexual trauma in a mosque “spare[s him] making choices that otherwise would have eventually confronted [him],” decides “to configure this body in a novel fashion to return the man to his original memory.” Dancing among the women, the Diesel declares: “I felt for the first time that I possessed a woman’s body and would no longer be able to resist this feminine force.” Body, not mind or soul. Time and methodology are unclear (and probably unimportant), but it seems that at one point, the body shifts to match the woman’s soul inside of it.
Yet, the Diesel is drawn to women by “masculine desire” and once he becomes an unparalleled success as a performer, the Diesel states that he “understood why a man might have a stronger artistic instinct than a woman” and is referred to by masculine pronouns. It seems the Diesel has access to both masculinity and femininity, both inside and out. Later, the Diesel describes how his “all-woman” troupe “became the town’s kings, who could make it rejoice or weep.” Perhaps Hutchins chose the word kings instead of queens to convey a nuance about power. But power and gender are linked systems, and both demand a compliance undermined by the Diesel.
As his popularity grows, the Diesel’s performances cause marital chaos when the various scents of his male followers become indistinguishable:
[T]hey would return home carrying in their sandals sand clotted with sweat. The moment one of them entered his dwelling, his wife would know her husband had arrived. Frequently what happened, though, was that this smell of sweat and sand was so similar for all the men that any one of them could sleep with any woman in town, because she would think he was her husband.
When one man smells like another, and a man can also be a woman, where is order? The Diesel, it seems, comes to break down: “The town was suffering from dust that blanketed its face. Oh, how wretched people are when dust doesn’t enter their houses to rid their possessions of the lethal cleanliness they invite.” Yet the association of chaos with women is troubling.
To a woman upholding the existing social order, associated with fathers and mosques and worship of the virginal, the Diesel says, “So you are the way you are, a female who perfumes this day with her breaths and who receives the prayers of males to return males to their true nature and their origin . . . to woman.” Women are, in fact, among the most likable characters in the novella. It’s cool that women get to dance and sing, and that his sister thinks fish swimming around her menstrual blood means she gave birth to them; however, I’m not sure how the protagonist’s statement here is so different from the male character in Wide Sargasso Sea who sees maleness and Englishness as order, goodness, and reason but brown-womanness as undifferentiated matrix, as passive desire receptacle or evil stimulator. If the Diesel is, in fact, a supra-human being, he must know something more about the way the world works, and his dismissal of the conservative woman, his constant chasing of veiled dead-or-not-dead women seems to imply a natural alignment of women with nature and truth.
I like to think men are grown-ups, no more or less moral or natural than women, and that gender-essentialism, particularly the bit about women being the body and men being the mind, is part of what got us into this whole mess in the first place. I’m not saying that women’s hip shaking isn’t particularly striking, or that men don’t perpetuate the bulk of the sexual assault, but viewed through a lens other than realism, The Diesel offers other possibilities. Some reviews of the book seem to view the protagonist as a reliable narrator, privileging his narrative over others, and it’s true: many characters, including the muezzin, are mute through much of the novel.
But if a poet with one novel can be an important novelist, and oil can become embodied, then why can’t its sister really marry the sea? If men can become women, did women once become men? It’s more interesting to think that instead of a special, powerful creature, the Diesel might represent a more full view of human possibility, one that achieves fullness not by moving humans to one side of a line or another, but rather by paying attention to people instead of lines.