By Romain Leick
Is this really the way an Arabian femme fatale -- a woman who has become an underground literary warrior -- looks? Can this short brunette with the impish eyes really be the face behind the courageous author who has published the intimate details of an Arab woman's sexual awakening for all to read? The young Moroccan with the lively hands calls herself "Nedjma," a pseudonym which means "star." Were her real identity to come out, she says she would be stoned on the streets.
The reason is simple: Nedjma wants to shock the world. Using an odd coupling of semon and prayer, she breaks the traditional wall of silence behind which Islamic women live and behind which their sex lives are obscured. Her new book -- now available in French, German and soon English -- supposedly contains actual if not autobiographical tales garnered from women's lives. Its mere publication is an act of provocative political revolution. It's the tantalizing story of how a Muslim woman lost and then reacquired her sensuality, her physical desire, her body and her words.
On the Internet, Nedjma is derided as a "whore" and an "affront to Islam," but so far, her fanatically religious tormentors haven't been able to figure out who she really is. Not even her own family knows just how far she has gone in breaking taboos. The book came out a year ago in France and her French publisher, Plon, feted it as "an erotic masterpiece."
Nedjma does not allow herself to be photographed. She prefers to remain nameless and faceless, but does let some personal details slip. She's in her early forties, is unmarried and childless and has a white collar job that allows her to travel often to Europe. In truth, she says, she lives a "schizophrenic life." As a writer, she exists only abroad and even there, she is only a phantom, with un-provable secrets she neither can nor wants to divulge. In France, more than 40,000 copies of The Almond have already been sold, and the sale of the foreign rights brought in close to €500,000.
Loss of virginity
At the beginning of Nedjmas story of sexual emancipation, there is a horrific moment of humiliation: the night a young bride loses her virginity. The young Badra, the novel's heroine, is taken from the village she grew up in and married to a much older man, the local dignitary, Hmed, a notary public. Hmed has already abandoned two wives because they did not produce any children. After her mother-in-law personally inspects her hymen to make sure she is a virgin, Hmed climbs into bed with Nedjma, anxious to get a piece of what he called his "tasty little queen."
In vain. Hmed gets his mother and his lawfully wedded wife's sister to help him. They tie Badra securely to the bedposts with a scarf and grab her legs. With the assistance of the two women, "Hmed pierced me, and for the first and only time in my life, I fainted."
The wedding guests bang on the door outside and demand the proof of virginity. The blood stained shirt that gets passed from hand to hand "proves nothing -- except the stupidity of men and cruelty against subjugated women."
After three years of devastating marriage in which Hmed tries unsuccessfully to get her pregnant, Badra breaks out of her prison one night. She flees from the village to her Aunt Selma in the cosmopolitan port city of Tangiers. There, she begins an affair with a rich, refined doctor, Driss, a frivolous, amoral free-spirit, who, as her "master and executioner," initiates her in all the pleasures of the flesh: "A cunt never lies."
During her obsessive love for the always-potent Driss, Badra gradually grows up. As in a bildungsroman, the personality of the dumb farm girl develops into a mature, canny and independent woman.
In the end, she realizes that she must also free herself from her master, Driss, to achieve true independence. "As I woke up, I said to myself that Driss was a trap that I had to escape." Barda decides to become the gravedigger of a love whose will-less instrument she's been for so long.
Through sexuality to freedom
Anger, says enigmatic author Nedjma, was probably the main motivation that propelled her book. Anger over the backwardness, the fanaticism, the delusion, the ignorance, and violence in the Arab world. Sexuality, pleasure in her own body, the separation of love and sin showed her the way to freedom. All the evils of an Islamic society that feels itself threatened by the West, and therefore constantly tempted to close itself in cultural autism, are mirrored in the oppression of women.
After her bitter first work, Nedjma wants to continue her fight under the same pseudonym. A lot of time will have to pass before she can do that in Morocco with a public face, despite the brave reform of family law a year ago. Morocco's king, Mohammed VI, enacted the laws in an effort to reduce polygamy and the abandonment and paternalism of women.
"In Morocco," says Nedjma, "1001 nights and the worst misery exist next to each other." Her book couldn't be printed in Arabic, and she had to turn to France to get it originally published. "Literature has the power of a deadly weapon. Thus, I've used it for myself," she says.
The English translation of Nedjma's novel, The Almond, will be published in June 2005 by the Atlantic Monthly Press. 256 pages.
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