Nedjma’s The Almond

The appetite of Western readers for books about Muslim women shows no sign of declining. Take, for example, The Almond, a novel written by the pseudonymous Nedjma, billed as “the first erotic novel to be written by a Muslim woman.” It became an instant hit in France when it was published last year, selling nearly 50,000 copies. It received enthusiastic reviews from Alexie Toca in Lire and Marianne Payot in L’Express, and was recommended in Elle and Le Point. Foreign rights were quickly sold in the UK, Germany, Italy, Holland, Japan, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Finland, and elsewhere garnering a total of 500,000 Euros for the author.

When it was published in the United States last month, The Almond received a starred review from Publishers’ Weekly and considerable coverage in the New York Times (a Sunday review and an author profile.) At a time when only 3% of fiction published in the US today originally appeared in another language and when otherwise internationally renowned authors are having trouble finding American publishers, the attention heaped on The Almond is quite rare. But it is not surprising. It’s an excellent time to be writing about the “plight of Muslim women,” about “life behind the veil,” about “taboos in Islam” and so on. What is troubling, however, is that, in their rush to hear about the sex lives of Muslim women, few reviewers have bothered to engage the novel critically. And, even more telling, none of these reviewers appear to be Muslim, Arab, or North African, much less Moroccan.

The story told in The Almond is one many readers of erotica will recognize: A village girl (Badra) escapes from her loveless and sexually barren marriage to the big city (Tangier) where she lives with a liberal relative (Aunt Selma) and meets a handsome, experienced man (Driss). He introduces her to the pleasures of the flesh, and the two of them carry on a torrid affair, ultimately ruined by one of the lovers’ insatiable desire for novelty. The book is written in a straightforward style that occasionally manages to rise above the mundane, particularly in Nedjma’s sexy description of Badra’s first night with Driss, which is written with boldness and obvious pleasure.

Most of the novel, however, is consumed with descriptions of Badra’s village life, which contrasts sharply with the more liberal one she has in Tangier. To the careful reader, there are many details that make these accounts of life in Morocco rather unconvincing. For instance, Badra claims to love the comedian “Bzou” a curious amalgam of the famous comedic duo Bziz ou Baz, who ruled the stand-up scene in Morocco in the 1980s and who were intermittently banned in the 1990s. Elsewhere, a saint’s mausoleum is erroneously referred to as Sidi Brahmin, a rather Indianized version of the real saint, Brahim. A man who falls in love with Badra, bursts out that he has come for the “bent el hassab u nnassab,” an Egyptian expression that seems rather out of place in the medina of Tangier. The woman who comes to dress Badra for her wedding is named Neggafa, without a hint of irony. (Neggafas are a cross between hairdressers and wedding planners, and their role is to prepare the bride for her big day. Imagine if a novel featured a character named “Hairdresser” while everyone else is blessed with simple names like John and Jane.) There are references to village brides wandering as “far as the sand dunes,” a rather difficult geographical undertaking since they are in the North of Morocco, hundreds of miles away from the Sahara. In the hammam, young Badra describes women who carefully wrap themselves in big cloths and hide behind bathroom doors before undressing. Clearly, Nedjma has never stepped into a Moroccan hammam.

But does any of this matter?

Probably not. After all, The Almond is a work of fiction, not a treatise on village life in Morocco. However, if the novel’s problems were simply restricted to authenticity, they could easily be shrugged off and attributed to poor research. The greater problem here is not factual truth; it is emotional truth. The characters in this book never fully rise above the caricature, never convince us that their struggles are real, never make us feel any emotions for them beside sorrow or titillation. Badra’s mother, sister, cousins, friends and neighbors all make brief appearances in order to deliver their lines of dialogues like so many grenades. They service the plot, and then they disappear. Unsurprisingly, the roles that they have been given are to demonstrate, bit by bit, their sexual repression. Here’s the long-suffering mother who advises Badra that she “must accept her fate like the rest of us.” Here’s the mother-in-law who ties Badra down to her bed to enable the husband to deflower her more easily. Here’s the sister who leans over and whispers, “Close your eyes, bite your lips, and think of something else.” Here’s the sister-in-law, who is treated like a leper because she had the misfortune of getting pregnant out of wedlock. None of these characters are memorable, none stick around long enough to have a distinct identity. They are only ideas, not people made of flesh and blood, with desires and dislikes, aspirations and contradictions. If all writing is a war against cliche, then Nedjma must be an avowed pacifist.

In the prologue to The Almond, Nedjma declares, “My ambition is to give back to the women of my blood the power of speech confiscated by their fathers, brothers, and husbands.” Despite this lofty claim, there can be little doubt that this book was not written for an Arab audience, but, rather, for Western readers, for those among them who will be suitably shocked at the catalog of horrors perpetrated on women, those who will be flattered when they are told that having “European skin” is desirable, those who will nod with approbation at Driss’s literary recommendations (Simone de Beauvoir, Boris Vian, Louis Aragon). This book is not literature; it is comfort. And I prefer to get my comfort by other means.

When she appeared on Thierry Ardisson’s television show “Tout Le Monde En Parle” in France, Nedjma hid behind a hat and glasses, and her voice was altered. The camouflage was necessary, she said, because she feared reprisals from Islamists for the erotic material in her novel. And yet, for years, Moroccan women have been writing about their lives, including their sex lives, without the need for such simulacrum. Who bothered Fatema Mernissi when she wrote Dreams of Trespass and Beyond The Veil? Who bothered Soumaya Naamane-Guessous when she published her wide-ranging study of sexual practices among men and women, Au Dela De Toute Pudeur? Who bothered Ghita El Khayat when she published The Affair? That Nedjma, who’s written a novel that is so unremarkable, could claim that she fears for her life is not only ludicrous, it is an insult to the women who dare to speak about their condition, face unveiled, and live with the consequences.