Dreams Fulfilled and Betrayed
Reviewed by Nadia Boudidah Falfoul
Children of the New World: A novel of the Algerian War
by Assia Djebar
Translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager
Afterword by Clarisse Zimra.
New York: The Feminist Press, 2005, 233 pp., $15.95, paperback
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
by Laila Lalami
Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2005, 208 pp., $21.95, hardcover
For the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, the 1950s and 1960s were marked by the wars of liberation from French colonial rule. War was a haunting theme, especially for Algerian writers, who had endured and resisted the French colonizers for more than a century. Assia Djebar, the most distinguished Francophone woman writer to emerge from the Arab world, and a top candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, was born in 1936 in Algeria. She has written numerous novels, poetry, plays, and short stories, and directed two films. In her widely honored work she explores Muslim women's struggle for social emancipation and their world in all its complexities. She is a lucid critic of gender, history, and subjectivity in colonial and postcolonial contexts.
She wrote her third novel, Les Enfants du Nouveau Monde (1962), following her own involvement in the Algerian resistance to colonial French rule. The novel has only recently been translated into English. Set in the small Algerian mountain town of Blida, the story takes place during a single chaotic and perilous day, May 24, 1956, in the early years of the fight for national independence. In it, Djebar examines the tragic costs of war and the circumstances that drive oppressed communities to violence.
Children of the New World focuses on women's interlocking lives, as they are drawn into the resistance and joined in solidarity, sisterhood, and sacrifice. Each of its nine compact chapters is named for and features a single character, around whom the other eight revolve. A third-person narrator moves with abrupt or sometimes nonexistent transitions from the mind of one character to that of another. Djebar sets up no clear hierarchy among the individual perspectives of her characters-traditional wives, educated women, liberated students, and political organizers-just as she seems reluctant to privilege any particular ideology. Indeed, Djebar's story of the escalating conflict, with its scenes of pain, suffering, humiliation, betrayal, torture, and death, suggests that taking sides is not simple.
Djebar's first chapter tells the story of Cherifa, an uneducated woman whose consciousness was awakened during her first marriage-three years with a man who had been forced on her, "a man whom everything in her had instinctively rejected." Her rebellious decision to break away from him was the first time she felt aware of her own existence: "Yes, all her life until that moment had been nothing but a long period of lethargy." A second significant step in Cherifa's awakening takes place during the revolution, when she leaves her home alone for the first time in her life and crosses town on foot to warn her second husband, Youssef, a member of a fellaga, or underground militia, that he is in imminent danger of capture by the French police. Walking out alone is almost unimaginable for a contented wife, who traditionally goes outside only if she is veiled and in the company of a man. Despite the hostile gaze of the men in the street, Cherifa urges herself, "Get to Youssef! He is in danger." Once Cherifa sees herself as an active agent, capable of taking initiative outside the home, she is a changed woman. By the novel's conclusion, she is determined to "act" and confront a new life, alone.
Lila, a highly educated young woman whose husband, Ali, has left her to join the guerillas in the mountains, experiences another type of awakening. Left alone, she loses her sense of self because, as her friend Suzanne thinks, Lila "conceives of friendship as she does of love-egotistically-as a mirror meant to return her own image." Lila hides Bachir, a relative who has just performed an act of sabotage against the colonizer, and is arrested. As she waits for questioning and possible torture, she feels "finally delivered from herself, from the tangles of her youth, from the plains of her solitude." She faces her solitary ordeal courageously, understanding that it is the price she must pay for the honor of participating in the struggle for her country's independence: "From here on, it's a question of her being born." She transforms her selfishness and egocentricity into positive action.
Like Lila, Salima, a 31-year-old schoolteacher, also experiences arrest and incarceration. She has participated in the national clandestine movement for Algerian liberation, and is involved with Mahmoud, a revolutionary who has escaped to the mountains. In prison, interrogated for days without sleep, Salima only hardens in her resolve to hide all information about her friends' activities. She thinks of her responsibility to her country and "the silenced women she used to know" as a "precious burden." During her night in prison she cannot sleep, because the guards are brutally torturing a man in the cell next to hers. His screams "form a long chant, a threnody." Yet she is seized by a wild exaltation: "This is the song of my country, this is the song of the future," she repeats. When the screams finally end, Salima wonders whether this means the end of life or the end of torture. As a militant, Salima consciously conceives of herself as a link in a long chain of national resistance. With other militants, she dreams of freeing her country: "She repeats the precious word, future...the future....[T]hat fundamental word connected her to Mahmoud."
Through the events of the day described in Children of the New World, a new order emerges from a jumble of perceptions-a hopeful revolution that will create a nation of free souls-amazighs in the Berber language. Djebar's community of women champions self-invention and rebirth. The social upheaval of the war pushes her characters, often for the first time in their lives, toward individual, instrumental, and radical decisions. Djebar also explores the tensions between the singular and the collective that feminist struggle involves. "The novel," asserts Clarisse Zimra in her Afterword, "is simultaneously a joyous celebration of a better society in the making and a foreboding of the eventual difficulties of achieving social justice for all."
Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Laila Lalami's debut novel, published 43years after Children of the New World, reveals a totally different picture of North Africa. Laila Lalami, born and raised in Morocco, is known for her literary blog, moorishgirl.com, which she started in October 2001. Moorishgirl features literary news, commentary, book reviews, and author interviews as well as occasional political and cultural links. Lalami's book is a collection of interrelated stories, set mostly in the Morocco she left in the early 1990s to pursue graduate studies in London and eventually the US.
Lalami begins her narrative with "The Trip," a story that throws the reader into a tension-filled night with thirty Moroccans aboard a raft suited for eight, as they prepare for an illegal crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar, which separates Morocco from Spain, Africa from Europe, and reality from dream. The risks of the journey are huge. Thousands of Moroccans try to emigrate illegally to Europe in small boats; the Spanish border police estimate they catch more than 12,000 o each year. Some don't live to make it that far. A slang term in Maghrebian Arabic describes these emigrants-harragas, meaning "those who burn." In moorishgirl, Lalami once wrote, "Whether they were burning their papers, their lives, or their futures, I couldn't tell." Before leaving their country, the emigrants hear horror stories about "the drownings, the arrests, and the deportations." But they also hear stories of people who managed to get to Spain and to build a new life there. These stories nurture their hope for "better luck tomorrow," for a new sense of self and for "a new beginning in a new land."
Lalami focuses on four of the emigrants: Murad, a college graduate and avid reader who earns pocket money by taking Paul Bowles fans on informal tours of Tangier; Faten, a young religious woman who leaves her country to escape its corruption and poverty; Aziz, a jobless newlywed who desperately seeks to prove himself worthy of his wife; and Halima, a struggling mother who takes her three children and flees her abusive husband, whom she fears would receive custody if she divorced him. All four characters are so burdened by their families and the lack of opportunity in Morocco that crossing the Strait is their last alternative: "Fourteen kilometers...separate not just two countries but two wholly different universes." Faten remembers how on holidays like Eid, "there were never any new clothes to wear or a barbecued lamb to eat or shiny coins to feel in her pocket." Aziz weighs his family's warnings of the dangers in his plan "against the prospect of years of idleness, years of asking them for money to ride the bus, years of looking down at his shoes or changing the subject whenever someone asked what he did for a living." Murad's pride has been lacerated from being permanently out of a job while his sister works and helps the family. In a memorable scene, he envies a young American tourist in the streets of Tangier: "the ease with which she carried herself, the nonchalance in her demeanor, free from the burden of survival."
The modesty of these characters' aspirations is heartbreaking. Halima wonders, "Would she have an apartment, a washing machine, maybe even a car?" Meanwhile, Aziz envisions his homecoming after earning a living on the other side of the Mediterranean: "His new car would be stacked to the roof with gifts for everyone in the family." While on the boat, Murad "comforts himself with a fantasy that had sustained him back home": he imagines the office where he'll be working and "pictures himself going home to a modern, well-furnished apartment, his wife greeting him, the TV in the background."
Lalami contrasts these four characters with the affluence and ugly corruption of Larbi Amrani, a fanatic, rich and highly positioned official at the Ministry of Education at Rabat, who abuses his powerful position and accepts all types of bribes.
After "The Trip," the collection divides into two parts: In "Before," the narrator moves back in time and displays the appalling conditions that drive her characters to emigrate. "After" reveals how their lives change following their desperate voyage.
Faten and Aziz make it to Spain, only to be confronted with a disappointing reality. To make a living, Faten must transform herself from a religious woman who wears a hijab (headscarf) to a prostitute. She becomes intensely aware of the irony and absurdity of fate, as she contemplates her humiliating nights of working the Madrid streets, dispossessed of any sense of dignity or freedom. She often wonders what a normal life would be like: "never having to see the men, being able to sleep at night, being able to look around her without worrying about the police at every turn."
Meanwhile, Halima and Murad are deported. Murad's self-concept and dreams change dramatically. He realizes that his compulsive search for work and fulfillment in immigration and his obsession with a better future in Spain had gradually taken away an essential part of his being. For every new bit of "imagined future," he bitterly reflects, he had to "forsake a tangible past." He had embarked on the most desperate mission of his life, only to be betrayed into silencing his voice-betrayed by his own dream. His obsession with life in Spain made him forget all the constituents of his culture, including story-telling as an essential part of his patrimony. He fears that in the future he will be unable to recount for his children the stories he'd heard as a child; he will be a man "as mute as if his tongue had been cut off." At the end of the novel, Murad decides to regain his voice and commits himself to the creative task of writing his story. Thus, the novel ends on a hopeful note of cultural reawakening and self-recognition. In Murad's dream, as perhaps in Lalami's, the word produces the deed, the desire forges the object, and the imagination makes the world. The creation of any world, whether real or fictitious, begins with a word. Therefore, Murad's writing of his own story will be an "act of faith" in the power of language to create a new world and ultimately to liberate him from the illusionary bonds of the dream.
While Djebar's characters find meaning in their struggle against cultural amnesia, injustice, and subjugation, Lalami's are entangled in a postmodern world of crisis, poverty, confusion, and corruption, in which it is not geographical or political boundaries that determine identities, but rather an amalgamation of factors that go beyond the traditional idea of a nation. Their country has deluded them, obfuscated their hopes, deferred their dreams, and blackened their future. They are endlessly in pursuit of the bits and pieces with which to make and remake their identities. In this social and economic environment, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is increasing alarmingly. The youth are trapped between three bitter alternatives: "destitution, delinquency or death."
In fact, Lalami has insisted that one of the novel's fundamental, but suppressed, functions is to deal with poverty as an urgent global phenomenon. She believes that writers of fiction must address class divides and pay attention to the daily struggles and sufferings of the poor. "I never had to look very hard or very far to find the kind of misfortune that drives people to desperate acts," Lalami wrote in her blog. "It would seem I have nothing in common with my characters, but I could just as easily have been one of them, if the lottery of life had dealt me different numbers-if I had been poor, if I had not found a job."
In contrast to Djebar's patriotic men and women who fight a common enemy and work toward a common dream, Lalami's isolated characters share only their desperation. Although the French colonizer left Morocco decades ago, these people are estranged and displaced in their own country. Djebar's fellagas, who sacrifice their lives for their country, have been replaced by Lalami's harragas, who sacrifice their lives to flee it.
What strikes me about these two North African authors is that they have "been there," as the American phrase has it. They know things about commonplace endurance and courage. Although their characters are Arabs, their sympathies are with all people caught up in the horrors of poverty, injustice, and desperation. Each has her own individual style and outlook, but both express the aspirations, bewilderment, and resentment of their fellow citizens. Each seeks to re-appropriate her cultural heritage and to construct a new story and a new world.