By Nedjma. Translated from the French by C. Jane Hunter
Grove. 241 pp. $22
This novel, described on its cover as "the sexual awakening of a Muslim woman," is reliably crude and predictably faithful to the Western tradition of hyper-eroticizing the Arab female. From the odalisques of Ingres to contemporary harem memoirs, it seems that someone somewhere can always be counted on to exploit veiled Eastern women.
Written originally in French, The Almond was a bestseller in France last year. Publishers in America and abroad promote it as the first explicit novel by a Muslim woman. One German critic hailed its author as a literary guerrilla warrior. Reviewers in Holland and France described an Arab woman writing erotica as a courageous fighter for rights. And so it has come to pass that pornographic prose is original, dangerous and brave.
Author Nedjma, a pseudonym for a North African woman in her forties, has achieved all this by penning a semi-autobiographical story of a rural Moroccan girl named Badra. At 17, Badra's family encourages her to become the third wife of a childless man more than twice her age. On the wedding night, he rapes her with help from his mother. More typical deprivations are also described, including the isolated drudgery of Badra's days and her husband's inconsiderate lovemaking. When pregnancy does not materialize (he's sterile), he mistreats her.
Badra runs away to Tangiers to find her cosmopolitan Aunt Selma, who brings Badra to a party where the ingenue meets a high-society doctor named Driss. A libertine who borrows much of his philosophy from the Marquis de Sade, Driss occupies the center of the story. The Almond is essentially a recounting of his and Badra's sexual escapades, played out over several years. They explore various arrangements -- buggery, menage a trois, one small orgy, lesbian antics, humiliation, sadism, a dash of fetish. After her infertile rural husband, this constitutes Badra's sexual awakening. Throughout the book, there are also flashbacks to her childhood masturbations with other girls, her sexual play with naughty boys and various semi-racy tales of oppressed women she has known.
This is less a story of initiation than a long-running boast about Badra's sexual excellence. An example comes in the prologue, when she writes that her genitalia are "the most beautiful . . . on earth, the best designed, the best developed, the deepest, warmest, wettest, noisiest, most fragrant and singing, the one most fond of [male genitalia] when they rise up like harpoons." Perhaps there are readers who might enjoy Badra's lubricious self-love, and the delight with which she elaborates on it. What is less certain, however, is the claim Nedjma has made in interviews that it is somehow groundbreaking for a Muslim-Arab woman to write an erotic work. "Contemporary Arab literature does not know any explicitly erotic books, neither written by men, nor by women," she told the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung in March. What, then, of The Story of Zahra, by Hanan al-Shaykh? Or The Open Door, by Latifa al-Zayyat, The Smile, by Nafila Dhahab, or A Worthless Woman, by Hayat Bin al-Shaykh? What, too, of the memoirs Harem Girl: A Harem Girl's Journal, by M. Saalih, and Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, by Fatima Mernissi?
Nedjma, and the narrator of The Almond, dismiss this work. It begins, "Through these lines, in which sperm and prayer are joined, I have attempted to break down the walls that now separate the celestial from the terrestrial, body from soul, the mystical from the erotic." She continues, describing how she read the books of Arab literature belonging to her lover Driss. "I came back to the ancient writers, amazed at their daring that has no equal among their twentieth-century descendants, who, for the most part, are devoid of honor and humor. . . . I decided to write [like the ancient writers]: freely, informally, with a clear head and a quivering sex." Apart from her limited view of Arab fiction, this passage also shows some of the writing problems common in The Almond. "Sperme et priere" is indeed best translated into English as "sperm and prayer," yet it strikes this reader as neither sensual nor audacious to join sperm and prayer; it's bad writing in either language. And "le sexe fremissant" is aptly rendered as "quivering sex," but that doesn't stop it from sounding unintentionally comical.
C. Jane Hunter, the translator, is not to blame for instances throughout the novel when sexual passages are little more than confusing metaphors. It would be easy to quote many of these, except that it is impossible to do in a family newspaper. But perhaps a graver flaw is this unknown author's ignorance of the work that has gone before hers. She ludicrously calls 20th-century Arab writers "mercenary and spineless." One of those writers, Nawal el Saadawi, has written memoirs and novels that include explicitly sexual material. But unlike the author of The Almond, who lives somewhere in North Africa, Saadawi has been a political prisoner in her native Egypt, a target of an Islamist apostasy charge and a writer whose books often have sold only a few hundred copies. *
Lorraine Adams, whose novel "Harbor" won this year's Los Angeles Times Book Award for first fiction, lives in Paris.