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Stuck. Her characters, most often women, are stuck. Crushed between past and present, convention and insouciance, tradition and freedom, the individuals in Leïla Marouane's novels inexorably see their dearest dreams smash into the great wall of Algerian society. If they seek an escape – in studies say, or a boyfriend, or whatever could alleviate the sinking feeling of a wasting life – it is to be confronted later on with the shame and rejection of the ones they hold so dear: mother, sisters, friends.
Relentlessly, Marouane's heroines find themselves trapped between the betrayal of elites who spend their time in power delaying the reforms they once promised and the bigotry of opponents whose vision of a society conform to the scriptures barely includes a place for women. Exposing tragedies too real not to be true with a vivid style and a ferocious sense of humour – consider The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, her last novel's title – Marouane writes as she would shout, out of disgust and despair. The author attending the Time of the Writer literary festival in Durban between the 19th and the 24th of March, it is the ideal occasion to relay her powerful call.
A revolutionary legacy
Born in 1960 of a resistant woman who was hiding from both her imposed husband and the French army, Leïla Marouane is a daughter of the Algerian revolution. The hard-headed movement promoted gender equality and invited women to take off the religious veil, determined to shake the patriarchal order set up by tradition and colonial rule. “I remember young women passing by on their bicycles, the most affluent driving their own cars, all wearing trousers and short skirts, sunglasses and lipstick. They were going to cinemas and theatres, to public gardens and restaurants, alone or accompanied. And nobody would find fault” Marouane once recalled about the years directly following the revolution. In this context, her graduating in Medicine and Literature was not only a personal achievement, it was also the fulfilment of generations of women's dreams whose countless sacrifices had not been made in vain. But the high spirit of the early years was slowly crumbling, and the revolutionary ideals of emancipation soon left room to a political land lock that fostered another type of resistance, based on religious values and Islamic traditions.
True to her personal legacy, Marouane fought back. A journalist in Algiers, she denounced taboos of the Algerian society: the condition of Muslim wives, the status of unmarried mothers, the fate of abandoned children. Pressure on her became too heavy, though. “Your last article (…) brings disgrace on you” she remembers of one of the numerous letter of insults she received at that time. “You have studied in order to represent the Algerian woman with dignity, a woman who is Muslim above all, and not to lose your personality and culture for the benefit of a western and degrading one.”
Cruelty, madness and humour
Having escaped a physical assault that almost took her life, Marouane fled to Europe in the beginning of the nineties. She started to write fiction as a healing process, an attempt to put her tormented years in perspective. Along her five novels – among which three have been translated into English – some unbearably cruel scenes clearly carry the mark of the moral and physical oppression the author had to suffer.
The disoriented Hadda of La Fille de la Casbah (still to be translated) wandering in the streets of Algiers on a Friday afternoon is hard to forget. Having just learnt that she is pregnant, the young, unmarried woman desperately tries to reach her boyfriend while having to confront public humiliation, for women should not be seen outside during the Holy Day.
Other characters cannot bear the pressure. Faced with the loathing of their closest relatives, overwhelmed by social reprobation, they slowly succumb to madness. In Abductor, the narrator Samira Zeitoun is harshly beaten and half scalped by her own father for an alleged impertinence. Disfigured, abandoned, she starts inventing a world of her own, a paranoid universe where people are not who they claim to be any more.
Yet, in the same book, Marouane displays another distinctive trait of her writing: scathing humour. Verging on the absurd, the author's sense of irony is a powerful weapon against the horrors she denounces. If Samira's father is so prone to anger, it is because he lost his wife of his own fault. Having repudiated her for a peccadillo, he soon realises his mistake and tries to get her back. Problem: the Islamic law forbids a direct remarriage between the two... unless the wife is first remarried to another man and then again, repudiated. A complex imbroglio follows, that will ultimately lead to the defeat of the tyrant.
Mockery and tragedy always intermingle in Marouane's texts, often leaving the reader with a mixed taste of delusion and hope. In her free, unconventional style, Marouane exposes the pleas of a society that has lost its compass and looks for it in the wrong place; a society where women are both victims and heroines. By telling their painful fates, the author courageously claims the long-due revolutionary promise of freedom and equality.