by Spencer Dew
In Leïla Marouane’s intriguing new novel, the main character is a bundle of contradictions. Mohamed used to be, as he says, “the good Muslim, the kind of Islamist—nowadays we would say ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘terrorist’—who was respected and solicited for advice by the entire neighborhood. To such an extent that I was called on to lead prayers, or recite a sermon, or give my opinion on questions from simple to complicated.” A veteran of “whitening creams and hair straightening sessions” with a self-chosen “Gallicized name,” Mohamed embraces association in another “we” from that in which, as the son of Algerian immigrants to France, he was born and raised, but while he has amassed enough of a fortune that he can finally move on up to a better (read: whiter) neighborhood of Paris, renting an apartment he intends to use as a place in which to “roll about with creatures to tempt angels and demons alike,” he has yet to move beyond his Algerian Islamic upbringing.
That culture, and its intricate mesh of religious ideas and laws—the very questions that, as “the good Muslim,” Mohamed helped his neighbors wrestle with, questions hinging on interpretation of divine statement or prophetic precedent and the myriad prohibitions and prescriptions of the faith—can still tangle up a forty-year-old virgin desperate to live out fantasies of being a modern Parisian playboy. Even in these erotic fantasies, however, his religious background rears its head. Contemplation of Adam and Eve segues straight to sticky sheets, and Mohamed has a special obsession with that famous Quranic vision of paradise so often glossed by later commentators. After one would-be conquest wipes away his over-eagerness with a tissue, he recites a passage from a theologian with which he has something of a fetishistic relationship: “Every time one sleeps with a houri, she is a virgin. The rod of the Chosen One does not decline. The erection is everlasting. To each coitus corresponds a pleasure, a delicious sensation so unusual for this base world that if a man were to feel it on earth, he would fall down in a faint.” “That’s hot,” says the woman, but for Mohamed, unfortunately, this otherworldly ideal is more of a trap.
Mohamed may know what tradition teaches about the houris awaiting the faithful in Paradise, but he has little clue how to woo an actual woman and is utterly unprepared for their shocking frankness, their comfort in their bodies, and their social location. The women in this book—like Mohamed’s sister, for instance—can be at once Muslim, immigrant, and French. Some might be a little nutty—one collects underpants from male visitors, another emerges from a string of “suicide attempts, psychoanalysts from the Primo Levi Association, or something like that, without whom, she whispered, she would not be here calmly having dinner with me”—but they seem open, at least, to their own peculiarities, whereas Mohamed, hiding behind his “white name” and terrified that his new neighbors will take him for a terrorist, lives like a covert agent, deceitful and desperate.
The main woman in his life remains his mother, even as, like his Algerian past, he vehemently attempts to ignore her. She leaves messages on his phone; he erases them. She enters his dreams, dying her hair blonde and donning a short red skirt and talking about toleration and assimilation—it is a nightmare for Mohamed, but an obvious reflection of how easy life seems for the women around him and how impossible it all feels for him. His life, in the end, has been shaped too much by literary visions and not nearly enough by reality, a state that comes to a surreal head when he finds that, indeed, his life is being manipulated by the authorial voice of this book, a female novelist who Mohamed fears is reducing him to a puppet and pulling his strings. This, too, is an obvious expression of the fear Mohamed has that he simply cannot abandon his past. He can give up on prayer, pop pills with his whiskey, miss the start of Ramadan, and chase a fantasy of life very different from his upbringing, but the conditions of his birth haunt him nonetheless.
The Muslim identity described in these pages is not so much a matter of submission to theological claims or adherence to practice, but rather “unconscious obedience” to a mindset Mohamed can’t escape precisely because he’s put so much effort into highlighting it in his consciousness through his attempts to isolate and erase it from his life. While his sister fits in to Parisian society without undo exertion, Mohamed’s inherited identity becomes more rigid for being so rigorously concealed, and the world of the assimilated—the “white” world he seeks both to be accepted in and to bed—remains bafflingly foreign to him. At the same time, he realizes, with some discomfort, that the Islamic identity imposed upon him by society likewise isn’t the same as commitment to Islam: “What if,” he asks himself, “I had never possessed the faith. What if it had been nothing more than the product of a long, assiduous education, merely glancing off my soul without ever burning into its fiber?”
So he dreams of returning to the straight path, embracing religion, and in one such dream the pious pilgrims who come to his apartment for a couscous dinner show up clean-shaved, in firefighter uniforms, presumably so as not to attract suspicion that they might be terrorists. This throbbing paranoia about being labeled as a terrorist ultimately defines Mohamed more than anything else—more, even, than his tangled lust and horror in regard to women. It is repeatedly emphasized in this book that the religion of Islam is predicated on the notion that God is infinitely merciful and forgiving, but Marouane presents a situation in which being identified as a Muslim male in contemporary Paris—whether by self or other, whether religiously, culturally, or ethnically—generates a kind of guilt. Mohamed knows that according to Islam all his sins can be wiped away (and, like young Augustine, he makes this eventual redemption part of his agenda as a sinner), but precisely because he obsesses over it—and because he lives in a society that obsesses over it—his heritage, his Muslim identity, can’t be so easily erased.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011