“I’ve been here since I was born,” the narrator tells us in the opening lines of Thani Al-Suwaidi’s The Diesel, and yet the slim novella is nothing if not a tale of journey. Written in the United Arab Emirates in the early 1990s (but judged too shocking to print there), The Diesel was first published in Beirut and is now available, in an English translation, from upstart Austin-based publisher ANTIBOOKCLUB. The book follows the narrator’s own interior journey, which plays out in the space of story rather than geography, from a young boy in an Emirati fishing town to a transgender singer and insurrectionist. Through a series of densely symbolic and, at times, cryptic episodes adapted from traditional folklore, the character who comes to be known as the Diesel finds his voice, one that would beguile all those who heard it. “I had never wanted anything else besides this while I searched for it,” the Diesel reflects, “and here I was returning to find it, even though it had eluded me for a long time.”
The text also reverberates with other voices: the muezzin’s call to prayer (the townsfolk irreverently wish he would contract pneumonia), and the sermons of the imam. Indeed, the Diesel traces the awakening of his gender identity back to a sexual encounter with an older male cleric, an encounter that translator William Hutchins glosses, not entirely persuasively, as a rape. Regardless, rebellion against religious authority and rejection of its hypocrisy are central themes of The Diesel, and last month’s riots in Tunisia reminds us just how incendiary art that takes this theme can be. Yet while the Diesel poetically observes that “civil unrest acts like blood’s tobacco,” his song carries with it no particular political platform: it calls, instead, for the proliferation of pleasures and the free play of imagination.
Still, The Diesel resists an uncritically celebratory reading as a narrative of queer liberation, if only because Thani Al-Suwaidi has described the novella as an allegory for the petroleum age. The first tanker full of Emirati oil left Abu Dhabi fifty years ago tomorrow, and the resulting revenues have made Al-Suwaidi’s homeland a wealthy nation in his lifetime. Yet the development initiatives championed by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan also changed the social fabric of rural life in the Emirates, and The Diesel lyrically represents this unseen force with liquid images of squid ink and seawater. “For a long time we have been waiting,” one man tells the narrator, “for you to anoint our heads and immediately bless us, spreading over our bodies as if you were skin that hasn’t yet adhered to flesh.” Reading The Diesel with an eye for energy tempers the sensuality of this image, renders it ambivalent. A lover’s embrace becomes a stinking oil slick.
Embodying both the medieval figure of the mukhannath and the contradictions of petromodernity, the Diesel is one of the most intriguing characters to grapple with questions of gender, sexuality, and belonging since Jess Goldberg, the protagonist of Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues. Thani Al-Suwaidi’s highly stylized prose makes for slow going, at first, but the book rewards multiple readings and ANTIBOOKCLUB is to be commended for commissioning its translation. Through dreams, proverbs, and flights of fabulation, The Diesel offers a meditation on what’s lost and what’s gained as we “reach deep under the dirt and kiss the dark water there at the height of the roots.” It succeeds, not as polemic, but as provocation.
Note: The translated text uses masculine pronouns and honorifics to refer to the Diesel, and I have adopted this usage in my review.