Rughum and Najda is a tale of two women living different lives, living in a patriarchal world in which they fall in love and dream of living happily ever after, but does the cliché ever come to plan?
Before reading the novel I had an abstract notion that the Middle East was a fantasy world of riches, gold and powerful rulers. A world with large castles and bustling markets quite similar to the land of Telmar in the Narniaa books, or even the setting of Aladdin for those who have been deprived of the fantasy world of C.S Lewis . The story of Rughum and Najda somewhat revived my preconceived notion of that ancient Middle East yet also matured my understanding of the way the world actually is - rigged with oppressive power structures, discrimination, injustice and tainted with male domination.
The story is set in the scorching heat of the city of Baghdad, a couple of hundred years after the demise of the Prophet Muhammed and the spread of a new Abrahamic religion of Islam. In the opening scene young teenager Rughum is being treated by a sheikh to ‘produce a reduction in her male like-behaviour’. Already scarred by the treatment in her delicate youth she is hastily married off to an old man whom she fails to please sexually due to her hearts’ desire for something she can’t really explain - a desire she cannot seem to fulfil with her loving husband and kind master.
Parallel to the life of Rughum is the story of Najda, an adopted daughter and apprentice of Um Saad, who was a devout follower of the Prophet Mani. Um Saad’s ritualistic treatments and ointments for illnesses brings Muslims and non-Muslims alike from far and wide to meet her. It was Rughum’s failure to please her master sexually and Najda’s mother’s famous mystical treatments that collided both women’s worlds together birthing a sordid and forbidden love story. The couple have aspirations and plans of living happily ever after, quite similar to many tales set ‘in a land far far away’, however quite similar to reality, as we know it, Najda’s past quickly catches up with her.
The novel unravels different perspectives on homosexuality in the 9th century, but does not limit itself to discussion of homosexuality but also explores the various degrees of religious acceptance and tolerance. The author quite effectively grabs the reader’s heart strings in such a way that the reader starts to live and understand the world from the point of view of a person who lives amongst the injustice and corruption and feeds on its riches. Therefore, one becomes accepting of certain occurrences in the book without questioning the underlying inequality in the story.
Samar Habib is simply great story writer, it is quite rare that an author can successfully write on a taboo subject, such as homosexuality within Islam, unless it was writing on the punishments a person should face for being gay. The author shows a now little known world in which gender and sexual diversity thrived under an Islamic caliphate. Simply writing about being gay and having faith provides a platform for many writers yet to come in the future. It also clearly shows that it is not religion that is homophobic; it is the people who practice the religion. Samar Habib effectively portrays this by writing an excellent lesbian love story.