"The Pickup" by Nadine Gordimer

A white South African woman finds unexpected fulfillment living in her Muslim husband's homeland.

Published December 6, 2001 5:42PM (EST)

Julie Summers, the main character in Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer's new novel, is the daughter of a prominent citizen, raised in the affluent suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa, a child of privilege. Hyperaware of and almost embarrassed about her upper-class roots, she rejects the materialism of her parents' world and moves to the urban center of Johannesburg, where she rents a small cottage, and forsakes the fancy car her father has put at her disposal, preferring to drive a used wreck. Though she works as a public relations hack and schmoozes with rock stars and countless other VIPs, her life revolves around the EL-AY Cafe, a local boho hangout straight out of a Hemingway novel or 1950s Greenwich Village.

When Julie's car breaks down, she meets a man who calls himself Abdu, a Muslim immigrant who is in the country illegally, seeking refuge from his unnamed Arab homeland. The two quickly become lovers, and Julie tries to bring Abdu into her inner circle -- the crowd who gather around The Table at the cafe -- but he is obviously uncomfortable among her friends, self-conscious, an outsider.

Their roles reverse when immigration authorities catch up with Abdu, ordering him to leave the country. The two marry (against the wishes of her father) and return to Abdu's native land, where Julie learns his real name -- Ibrahim ibn Musa -- for the first time. Now Julie becomes the outsider. She doesn't speak the language, and must wrestle with the constraints placed on a woman living in a Muslim society.

While Abdu desperately tries to escape again, applying for visas to every Western country he can think of, Julie finds her place among his family, relishing the role of teaching English to the people around her. Through Julie, Gordimer illustrates how privilege is not something that can easily be renounced. The latitude it allows to those born to it persists even when their circumstances change. While Abdu struggled as a "grease monkey" in South Africa, Julie is able to enjoy endless contemplation of the desert in her new home. It is this unequal ability to experience freedom that remains the gulf between the two lovers.

The divide between Julie and Abdu hints at an unnerving gap -- not just between cultures but between individuals as well -- that isn't easily bridged. Despite their intimacy, Julie and Abdu remain strangers to each other, each on a personal, parallel journey. Instead of trying to grasp the truth about each other, they are ultimately unable to see beyond themselves -- "he is not looking at her when his regard is on her" and she is simply "looking for herself reflected in those eyes."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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