When a novel is titled Poker after the famous card game, the reader would expect a story about the world of gambling which contains rich material that has not been discussed enough in Arabic literature.
In conservative Middle Eastern societies, gambling is an activity that no one speaks of; we see it sometimes in movies but not in literature. Saudi writer Helana Al-Sheikh in her novel unfortunately did not touch on that subject, which was a disappointment.
The title is irrelevant to the novel.
The main character is a writer, a political rebel and a difficult personality to deal with; imprisoned for printing and distributing political leaflets against the Jordanian government. He discovered his womanising skills after years of being deprived of seeing women. He is victim of the circumstances he was born into. As a Palestinian refugee he managed to study in spite of the dire conditions he lived in. He took up a writing career after his prison time.
The female character is an older woman, who realised her womanhood late in life. Her story is that of a young Jordanian girl who married an older Saudi man to get him a son instead of the many girls that he got from his previous wives in exchange for a financially secure life. Eventually, she failed in her mission and got another girl to complete the drama.
Returning back to Jordan after living the first four decades in conservative Saudi Arabia where no culture could reach women in her living conditions (as a young girl, a married woman then a divorced one) was an eye-opener. She participated in the cultural circles and lived a decadent life with her newly discovered love.
The writer was able to describe life in Saudi Arabia with precision that takes the novel to the last century: a real desert for women, no social life outside the house limits, her friends are the other divorcees of the same man who kept them in the house to take care of them financially (something that rarely happens), and the discrimination that she suffered from in the family because she was a light skinned blonde.
The writer was able to describe the intimate scenes and emotions in details. The rebelling writer and the insatiable older woman: from passionate love and desire, to despising themselves for having a relationship built on carnal impulses; from finding a mother and a caring person with the extra benefit of having a stable squeeze for the writer, to the feelings of jealousy and inadequacy that the older woman felt.
With characters who have such a complicated background the reader remains curious, albeit neutral, about the outcome of the relationship between a young man and an older woman. The writer kept both characters nameless, insinuating that this kind of relationship has happened and will continue happening no matter what traditions and societies think of them.
Women “sold” to older men through marriage and men spending a good portion of their youth in prison for whatever reason is a story that has been repeated in various shapes and forms all over the world.
The interesting female character came in the second half of the novel, Zeina the girl that the male character fell in love with. We find a traditional girl, a bit rough on the edges, a courageous character that speaks her mind, straighten our man out and would not allow him to touch her before getting married. With her humble background of a drunkard father who had intended to “sell” her through marriage to whoever will pay a higher price, she managed to marry the man she loved, and even tamed his rebellious personality to lead the life of a family man. This was an unfortunate turn of events since the rebellious character is always more interesting to the reader, while the family man is more of a normal everyday character.
The writer boldly condemns fake, shallow writers in cultural circles, especially when they are women. The older lady who suddenly discovered her life and body became a writer as well. The author made a point of mentioning the embarrassment that she caused her man when she spoke about any subject when they went out together. She basically spoke about what she does not know and the men in these circles accepted her mediocre level of culture for benefits related to gender rather than refinement or sophistication. In brief, she set herself to be an easy lay, the price was name recognition and sometimes even prize winning; this is a daring notion that many writers and critics bring up when prizes are announced, novels are published and articles are written by women.
When introducing her characters, the author started at a middle point in their relationship, when they were about to break up, then she went back in time to bring these characters to life. She gives their background with a hint of a not-deep-enough psychoanalysis. This kept the reader interested in the novel; she used accurate literary language which made the novel a challenging read, yet with an unfortunate lack of substance.