Umm al-Chanasir is a super pig. Their offspring amount to four dozen piglets per year, and they continue to reproduce quickly into the hundreds. The pig invasion is a thorn in the side and a nuisance in the nose for the devout Muslims of the place. It makes sense that the profession of pork butcher in a small Jordanian town on the border with Syria is associated with certain frictions and risks. Was it a good idea that after his early retirement as an army officer, Hussein decided to make his living in such a disreputable way?
In doing so, he accommodates Muslim sensitivity and sells “nothing dishonest” on Fridays, just goat and sheep meat. But the Arab youth has little sense for such practical compromises. Right at the beginning, Hussein is harassed by an angry crowd in his shabby delivery van in front of a mosque. If it came out that the boxes of boar semen ampoules delivered to him had a Hebrew label on them, then “all his work would go up in smoke and flames”. For his part, Hussein has “given up all religious beliefs”. His life experiences – eighteen years in the army, one serious wound – have made it “impossible for him to continue believing”. Instead, he now has a drinking problem.
The many problems in the Middle East
Hussein is the main character in the novel “Mother of All Pigs”, one of nine sons and four daughters whom the patriarch Jabir Ahmed Saber fathered with two wives. Malu Halasa tells of an extended family that you can initially only see thanks to the sketch of the family tree in front of it. It’s a Christian family, although that doesn’t really make much difference. A large number of children and traditional patriarchal structures seem to be more of a characteristic of the region than of religion. The author Malu Halasa was born in Oklahoma, but her father is Jordanian, her mother Filipina; today she lives in London. Much of her novel is likely to have autobiographical traits.
The situation of women is a central theme in the novel, which brings various female characters and attitudes into conversation with one another. There is the devoted matriarch Fadhma, there is Hussein’s wife Laila, who works as a teacher, there is his unmarried sister Samira, who secretly joins a “women’s committee” and runs errands for Syrian opposition groups. And there is his niece Muna, who is visiting Jordan from America. The “Arab Spring” made her curious about her parents’ country of origin. As a guest gift, she brings Western clothing for her relatives that should not be worn on the street because it leaves too much skin uncovered. This is not the only reason for heated discussions.
The strangest figure is Hussein’s uncle Abu Satar, nickname: Ar-Rish-Aschanah, “the batman”. He is the master of the “bargain emporium”, a general store of labyrinthine proportions and a treasure trove for electronic waste and equipment of all kinds, from the “syncopated doorbell” to the “hotel trouser hanger”. The dealer embodies the tension between the traditional and the modern; its emporium is half a technical museum, half an arsenal of progress. For him, religious and national conflicts are just a “bickering”. However, he knows how to benefit from any political upheaval. It was also Abu Satar who gave his nephew the business idea of pork. He himself can serve with vitamins and dietary supplements for pig breeding. He still has plenty of it in the Emporium, because years ago he wrongly assumed that the town was about to experience a fitness boom.
A world in conflict
In her novel, Malu Halasa ambitiously addresses the diverse problems of the Middle East, which she previously explored as a reporter and non-fiction author. Sometimes she overloads the storytelling with her knowledge, especially in the very discursive dialogues, which is a forgivable weakness. Not entirely convincing, too, when some sections are told from the perspective of the mighty sow who does not want to leave any of her countless piglets to the “sausage master”. She decides to eat the brood herself.
It doesn’t end well, not for the “mother of all pigs”, not for Hussein. There is an almost Houellebecqian twist when Seinab, the mentor in the women’s committee, enters into an alliance with the Islamists of all people because they have resources, networks and weapons. It’s all a question of power and tactics. That is precisely why Samira is stunned: “They are against everything that the Women’s Committee believes in – everything you have taught me.” Malu Halasa’s novel offers a social panorama that offers little hope, but with clever reflections and black humor – over a world in conflict between the chop and the Koran.