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Leïla Marouane attended the "Time of the Writer" literary festival in Durban at the end of March 2012. As she was about to leave South Africa, she was kind enough to give IntoFrench a new text of her. This moving piece is about her country of birth, Algeria, and other themes that haunt her entire literary work: the lot of women, freedom, the process of writing... Enjoy!
The green and white flag with its red crescent and star had been fluttering above our heads for already two years when my parents came to Biskra. I was four years old. It was 1964. We were independent. It was the first time in centuries that Algerians had found themselves on their own, people said, without knowing at the time whether to rejoice or not.
In short, Biskra was an oasis town of red and ochre. I remember the young women went around by bicycle, and the more affluent women drove cars; they all wore trousers and miniskirts, sunglasses and lipstick, they liked going to the theatre and the cinema, to parks and restaurants, accompanied or on their own. And no one thought there was anything wrong with that. On the contrary. These young women were having fun, improving their minds; in short, they were obtaining their emancipation with the blessing of previous generations of women denied such privileges for a hundred and thirty years – something I would learn when I was not yet five years old. I recall that my mother was also one of those so-called ‘civilized’ women, and she told me how there had been years of struggle and bloodshed in order to get that far, and then, with a mischievous smile, how de Gaulle had been forced to abdicate and organize the historic referendum which led to our independence.Twenty years later, far less cheerful, at a time when I was in Algiers and at a loose end, she came to visit me in the hotel room where I was living like a recluse.
‘This is no way to live,’ she said.
‘It’s only temporary, my mother.’
‘You’d do better to leave, they’ll end up killing you.’
‘No, my mother, I won’t leave, the struggle is just beginning.’
‘I did my bit, for you and the four generations to follow. Besides, look at me, what do you think I got out of those years of struggle, those years spent trekking round the maquis in the cold and the baking sun?
But I didn’t leave, I went on writing my columns, attending meetings, wandering through the streets of Algiers, or dodging the police with my comrades, and sometimes we got away from their Black Marias, and other times we didn’t.
Then one day in February 1990, my mother again, bursting into the room I shared with a friend in the heart of the white Casbah, where the rejects of the capital lived.
‘You have to leave.’
‘I’ll go to Switzerland,’ I announced.
‘What will you do in Switzerland?’ she asked, astonished.
(A lover was waiting for me there, something I could not confess to her.)
‘Lie low for a while…’
‘France is the country that colonized us and you want to take refuge in Switzerland? It is the scars of France that have clung to your genes and you want to take refuge in Switzerland? Your father began the struggle in Paris, and you want to take refuge in Geneva? You ate your first croissant and drank your first café crème in Paris and it is the call of Switzerland you want to answer?’
So, A* waited for me in vain, twice, three times, at Geneva airport. I never managed to give him an explanation, let him find it here, let him see that my mother’s arguments brooked neither response nor objection. My mother, her memory as sharp as a three-dimensional image, the way she would watch as I bent over my schoolwork. Not long after I
started school she asked me to share with her the knowledge I brought home. I can still feel the seismic shock that overcame me when I realized she could hardly read or write, that her mumbled French was that of a child who is just beginning to speak. The secret compassion I felt for her then is still with me now, as is the gentle joy that mixed with her own when at last she started French lessons in a school run by Christian nuns. Then the compassion returned to disturb my childhood nights when she had to give it all up…My mother, pregnant up to her eyeballs, as she put away her notebooks, Later, I’ll pick it up again later, she reassured her classmates, adults like her, fighters like her who had been promised an education, once the green and white flag with its red crescent and star was raised.
The memory of my mother’s excitement before she headed off to school has blurred with the figure of a woman first pregnant, then breast-feeding, then pregnant again, then breast-feeding again, then still not knowing how to read or write, never speaking of her solitude, then ill, losing her blood. All that is missing are the memories of her funeral and the last goodbyes we did not say. But that is another story, and perhaps if I had the memory of it, it would only make it impossible for me to write.
‘Tell me, mama, how come your cousins read and write and speak French so well?’
‘My cousins have exceptional fathers. Because my father, your grandfather, had no sons, he decided to leave us behind in the country, to punish us, to make us pay for his bitterness…it’s true he was always the most conceited of all the brothers. Did you know that by taking to the maquis I managed to escape from the husband he’d found for me? But until then I had been his right hand. He taught me how to ride horseback. I went with him everywhere, to the markets, to town. He turned me into the son he didn’t have. I rode a mare with a luminous blue coat, she was radiant, a blue I shall never forget, that I’ve never seen since. Just as I shall never forget the day the soldiers took her away from me forever…Did I
tell you that they also relieved me of my first pair of golden earrings? The ones Mama Fatma had given me…’
Then a silence, a sort of absence, as if she were adjusting her thoughts.
‘In the country there were no schools for girls, there were barely any for boys…And in any case, in the towns school was optional for the natives.’
Upon independence in July 1962 school became mandatory, for boys and girls alike, and the man who was president at the time urged women to get rid of the veil, the haïk, which Frantz Fanon analysed in Year V of the Algerian Revolution, writing that ‘it delimits the Algerian colonized society very clearly. […] Algerian women are indeed those who, to the observer, are hiding behind the veil.’ In other words, the veil was a rampart against the colonizer, a way of preserving one’s identity to avoid any attempt at assimilation, and in no way a means of affirming one’s faith in Islam. In this oasis, and all over the country, the religious veil was not in fashion, and only the students of the Islamic Studies Institute would slip it over their miniskirts or their trousers just before going into the school, and remove it as soon as they left.
Was it because article 4 of the Constitution of 1963, which guaranteed the freedom of religion and opinion, was respected to the letter that proselytes were rare on the streets of Biskra?
Was that why we made fun of religion the way we made fun of everything?
‘Five prayers a day…Can you imagine!’
‘Ah, but don’t complain, God actually asked his creatures to pray five hundred times a day. Thank the Prophet instead for negotiating.’
‘Well, he could have done better, the Prophet.’
And so on.
There were any number of jokes like this, breaking taboos, causing even my great-aunt to smile; she was an educated woman, the daughter of ulama, an ascetic held up as an example who knew the Koran inside out and backwards, who devoured the difficult texts of great theologians such as el Bokhari or ibn Arabî, a woman who had been widowed at the age of twenty-two and had no children, remained single, and was compared to the Sufi women throughout Islam, Rabia’ el-Adawwiya, um Harun, Amina al Raliya, and so many others.
Between two pilgrimages to Mecca my great-aunt stayed with us. I could hear her in the morning, already at dawn, rising, performing her holy ablutions, going to her prayer rug, then chanting the Koran until the entire house was awake.
Sometimes, at my request, she would satisfy my curiosity – she was the first person I’d ever seen praying and fasting – and lavish some of her knowledge on me. I recall that I was never subjected to her anger, although I often voiced my objection to some of the precepts she evoked. One day, when citing the selfsame el Bokhari, she taught me that no angel would ever enter either a house where there were dogs, or one where there were images. As we had both dogs and images at home, I can still hear myself telling her that her piety must be taking a beating. Poor great-aunt. She just smiled, then spoke to me about tolerance, one of the essential qualities for someone who is a believer and respects his or her neighbour. I also recall having learned from her that a guest at the table of a non-Muslim must not inquire about the contents of his plate: thus would he honour his host. It is a matter of propriety, she added. And I will never forget the expression in her eyes when, at the age when one is embarking on what nowadays is called an ‘adolescent crisis’, I told her that I would never get married but, if my maternal fibre were nevertheless so inclined, I just might have a child, only one, and never mind the mayor, or the imam, or whoever might legitimise my motherhood. This was duly noted; great-aunt merely nodded her head, and hid her sadness, or her surprise,
or perhaps her disapproval. I will never know. But I do know that she took my ‘subversive’ thoughts with her to her grave. May she rest in peace.
My great-aunt, like the majority of the inhabitants of the oasis where my childhood was spent, respected the famous verse that says, ‘Lakoum dinoukoum iwali Dîni’, in other words, ‘To each his religion’ – and the cows will be well-kept, I feel like adding, something which, if she were still with us, might have got a smile out of my ascetic great-aunt. Or perhaps not. It is not at all sure, however, whether it would go unnoticed today in the eyes of those who like to teach people a thing or two, who like to ‘fabricate’ fatwas, who like to impose anathema upon people, such as the tacit one that struck both my books – censored in countries where freedom of expression is flouted by pious souls and military juntas alike – and my own person, when some years ago I denounced the application of sharia law for putting women at an unfair disadvantage.
Today I wonder what my great-aunt would have made of the letters I received, twenty or more years ago. Letters which, for the most part, were courageously signed. I can still see the crestfallen face of Madame Tolba, the editorial assistant at the newspaper where I worked, as day after day she brought me burlap bags fit to burst with letters each one more terrible than the next; I can still see the worried expression on the face of Maamar Farah, the editor-in-chief, as he authorised me to ‘take some holiday time’, urging me to send my columns in by fax, hinting that it might be better if I made myself physically invisible while I was at the paper. ‘You never know, some little lunatic might…’ He did not know how right he was; I’ll get to that.
So, all these letters, most of them signed. The Constitution of 23 February 1989, which guaranteed a multiparty system, had just been adopted, and the famous Islamic Salvation Front had been made legal, to the great displeasure of the left-wing parties, who were only too aware of the army’s intentions, and the satisfaction of my detractors, who now
had nothing to fear. On the contrary, they had everything to gain: the right to insult, humiliate, and kill with complete impunity. We know what came next, what went down in history…The black decade, from 1990 to 2000.
I still find it difficult to dig out these letters: according to a psychoanalyst I consulted with at the Primo-Levi Association in Paris, they were the origin of the Stockholm syndrome I was suffering from, which meant that during interviews I found myself defending my torturers … I recall that I could not understand why a certain Malika, a Christian woman who had converted to Islam, veiled up to her eyes, came to thank me after a broadcast, nor why Malek Chebel, a guest on the same programme, had murmured to me that I would never be invited again. This was in October 2001, not long after September 11 of that year, the broadcast was entitled What the Koran Says, Yves Calvi was the host, and he conveyed to me, in veiled terms, how surprised he was to see the contradiction between what I wrote and the ideas I had just put forth. But I had not yet met the psychoanalyst, Monsieur Calvi. And you didn’t know anything about me, or about those letters, a few excerpts of which I will now produce:
‘Why such indignation, Leyla? And all this unhealthy animosity towards Islam? Is it simply ignorance of the precepts of Islam or a refusal to accept the truth? Leyla is a facsimile from overseas – ideas, customs, behaviour.’ While we’re at it, let’s have another excerpt, before I start getting nauseous: ‘I would like to tell you, Miss Mechentel, that the article you signed entitled “Are you capable…” in the column “Reflections” in Horizons on Friday-Saturday 10-11 December 1989 is a disgrace, for if you went to university it was in order to represent Algerian women in a dignified manner, women who are Muslim first and foremost, and not to trade your personality and your culture for the benefit of another, Western, degrading culture. You write, “I call polygamy legalized adultery”. And I affirm, as a humble Muslim man, that you are nothing more nor less than a female Salman Rushdie, and therefore
I have the right to evoke chitane (Satan) at the mere sight of you…’ I will stop there, because the nausea is getting stronger and stronger, and it reminds me that after the letters came the attack. An attack done by the book, my assailants left me there on the pavement, bathed in blood like a woman dying. But that’s another story that could make it impossible for me to write. And whoever she might have been, I am sure that my great-aunt would have condoned my departure, once and for all, from this town on the coast called Bou Ismail, located to the north of what was known in those days as the ‘triangle of death’, where I had to hold my own amidst neighbours who took a dim view of a very young woman living alone. Just as she would have condoned my eventual departure from what used to be her country, and was hardly mine at all, and which would be exchanged for another one where I managed to build a new house, and give birth to books, then a child, and both books and child were completely French. It is the country where I vote, and enjoy the gentle shiver that causes my skin to prickle. A voté.
Shortly before her death, as she lay on her hospital bed and we held hands, my mother broke the silence that bound us by saying, unexpectedly, Why.
‘Why what, mama?’ I asked.
‘This independence, which felt so sweet when it first swept over us, why has it come to feel so bitter?’
Very soon thereafter, as I was putting the finishing touches to my first novel, I found the answer. My mother had already died by then.
But if paradise exists, I am sure that she knows how to read and write now, that she lives in the middle of a huge library, that she has no recollection of the word ‘solitude’, and that she is conversing with her many friends, among them Sartre and Beauvoir, Fanon and Vidal-Naquet, but also Hassiba Ben Bouali and Ali la Pointe, Larbi Ben M’Hidi and Mourad
Didouche, revolutionaries from either side of the Mediterranean, and they discuss this and that, and they drink an aperitif together and she tells them about my books, which all reach her in due course.
‘Because revolutions only benefit cowards,’ my mother. It’s on page 98 of The Girl from the Casbah.
You know what? I think she’s nodding with a smile, because in paradise, sadness does not exist…
I’ll stop there, because the great salt wave is rising, rising. And I would not want to dilute these words I’ve written for all the women and men in paradise with my mother.
Leila Marouane / Excerpt from If Paradise Exists, published in ALGERIES 50, Editions Magellan, February 2012. Translated from the French for IntoFrench by Alison Anderson.