Rereading “The Sheikh”: Drama in the Desert

I’m rereading a Thai novel, “The Sheikh”, originally published in 1987. The story follows the life of Dawid ibn Sharbaz, the only son of a murdered sheikh, through the changing times in the fictional North Africa country of Byderhabad from 1941-1970. Things to note is that while it’s international in scope, this novel was written through the lens of a Thai novelist. Also, there is a lot of political commentary and observation in the novel which is the author’s forte but I choose to focus on the drama side of it. Because, well, that’s why I’ve been rereading this book since 1992!

Where we left off: Dawid was about to graduate British military basic training. To earn his rank as a sergeant, he had to complete the final task, managing his old Bedouin village, now a British military property.

Part II: 1945. British-occupied Byderhabad

Chapter 21-22

Dawid is back with his tribe/village. Over breakfast, he tells Captain Rogers about the legacy of his father, Sheikh Sharbaz.

Breaking from their nomadic ways, Sheikh Sharbaz decided to settle his tribe at this oasis, and invited other tribes to join him. His vision is that with combined resources, the tribal village is easier to defend and can sustain themselves without having to roam the desert. In time, more and more tribes settled here and became a village that it is today.

That evening, Dawid sheds the British military uniform and dons the traditional Bedouin attire to meet with everyone. “I’m here to honor my father and while I can never be the great sheikh that he was, I will do my best to fill in his footsteps. So, I’m in charge now. If you don’t like it, pack up and leave before noon tomorrow. If you decide to leave after that, you can leave with the clothes on your back and enough food and water to travel. You leave your tent, your possession, and livestock behind.”

Nobody leaves, to Dawid’s relief. Dawid ponders with Rogers how he could make lives better for his people. What difference can he make?

Meanwhile, in Farwah, Abbas Yemir hires Mustafa (this desert is VERY small, yo) to kill Dawid. His feisty 15-year-old daughter Hazar eavesdrops and disapproves of her father’s business with the bandit. AY tells her Dawid needs to be dealt with and made an example of for being a traitor, a Christian lap dog, and of course, for bringing shame on his own family. (How is it Dawid’s fault for you taking the deal and run, douchebag?) This sparks a flame in Hazar.

Chapter 23-24

Over in the English countryside, Prince Faisal picks up Lady Ann in his red sports car. (Of course, he does.) They go on a picnic back at Merlin’s cottage. “I’ve never been further than this castle my whole life.” “I can show you the world…” …shining shimmering splendid… Got ya singing now, eh? LOL

I wasn’t going to translate this next bit at first, but damn Faisal is smooth. “I think Merlin’s magic is still at work here because I’d never imagined I could ever be this happy. And if he were actually here then I’d ask him to freeze this moment so I can be here with you like this forever.”


Image by jarekgrafik from Pixabay

Back in the desert, a rainstorm is coming. Hazar takes shelter with Old Man Harun of another herding tribe. She is on her way to kill Dawid in her father’s honor. Say what you will about this writer and Thai traditions but his female characters are all fierce AF in one way or another. But as much as I gave him credit for strong female characters here, he didn’t break from Thailand’s most problematic trope which is coming up in a couple more chapters.

The rain hits Dawid’s village. Dawid finally figures out his chance to make life better for his people. He orders the soldiers to dig a pond and line it with as many tents they can spare to take down. At dawn, the villagers gather to see the marvel. A pond! In the desert! Alas, it only holds water just long enough before the desert claims it all back. /sad trombone/

As the villagers and soldiers disgruntledly rebuild the tents, Dawid wanders off in defeat. Wallowing so deep in his failure, he doesn’t notice movement over the hill just beyond. A shot rings out and Dawid falls to the sand.

Chapter 25

For three days Dawid drifts in and out of consciousness and fever dreams from possible infection of his chest wound. Cue the clip show! He relives both his traumas and tender moments: shooting with grandpa, death of this dad, surviving the mega sandstorm, the night with Lydia, and the interrogation at the bandit camp.

Out around the village, Captain Rogers goes full CSI, combing the desert with his men for any clue to the identity of the assassin. He finds a shell casing with traces of gold dust on it. Hmm. Gold plated rifle. Who could that possibly be? Rogers puts out a reward for this “assassin.”

Meanwhile, Hazar lies low with Old Man Harun, waiting to hear if she actually killed Dawid. During the night, the old shepherd drugs her as he sneaks off with the golden rifle. (Deus Ex Machina here that he just happens to have “sleeping powder” on hand.)

Chapter 26-27

Old Man Harun turns up at Dawid’s village with the gold plated rifle and confesses to the assassination attempt. *Gasp* Like you could fool Captain Rogers, old man! Harun could barely see in front of him let alone hold up the rifle with both hands. The crafty Captain Rogers knows exactly what to do with this so-called confession. He roughs the old man up…I mean, interrogates him a bit then sends words to the villages that Harun will be executed by the firing squad in the village center the next day. Like the great Admiral Akhbar said in a galaxy far, far away, “It’s a trap!”

At the execution, just as Rogers–and y’all–anticipated, Hazar reveals herself and confesses to the crime to spare the old man’s life. Why did she want to kill Dawid? She went on a fiery and passionate rant, accusing Dawid of being a traitor and that no Bedouin should ever bow down to the Christians. This riles up the villagers and they start closing in on the troop menacingly. The Sudanese grabs Hazar as a hostage, putting a knife to her throat.

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