Adama Hisham is more or less your typical teenager from the Saudi provinces. He's idealistic and a little naive. He reads Superman comics and Marxist tracts. He loves his pious mother and yearns for a peek behind the neighbor girl's veil.
But it's the late 1960s and change is trying to come to Saudi Arabia. After "the Setback"--1967's Six-Day War--nationalist parties are competing for the hearts and minds of kids just like Hisham, who are questioning the oppressive monarchy and looking for a little bit of cloak-and-dagger fun. It's the Baath party that attracts Hisham in Turki al-Hamad's novel Adama. But this coming-of-age novel is really a thinly veiled morality play, so it's impossible to miss the message: The Baathists are little better than the regime in power, willing to play politics and sacrifice principles to survive. Under Baath tutelage our hero learns to lie, evade his friends, and act surly toward his parents.
Adama is the third novel in al-Hamad's coming-of-age trilogy and the only one to be translated into English. His character's devotion to Karl Marx and timid teenage sexual exploration earned al-Hamad four fatwas, an official book-banning by the Saudi Arabian government, and hundreds of thousands of underground readers.
What is "explosive" in Saudi Arabia, however, reads as a little plodding and didactic here. Al-Hamad writes in the expository, propagandistic style of Maxim Gorky and the early Soviet writers. So when Noura gives Hisham a glimpse of her new petticoat we're less titillated than trying to piece together the political implications.
The exception to this rule is a beautiful passage in which Hisham crosses the desert with his family to visit relatives in another province. For a dozen pages or so it's an entirely different book: The language and the story breathe for the first time. It's clearly no accident: A cool desert night, drinking tea with one's family, surrounded by a full circle of the horizon--this is where your typical Saudia Arabian teenager, whether Hisham or al-Hamad, will feel most real and most alive.