ON THE WRITINGS OF ZAHIA RAHMANI
The works of Zahia Rahmani have begun to be published in the United States in the past few years, marking the appearance on these shores of an author who owes American literature “affection, respect, and lifelong loyalty” because, she says, “if I had never discovered their tragic fate—that of their black children and of all the women and men torn from their homes, fighting among themselves—I would have made a singular, constant mess of my life.” Instead, Rahmani has made a trilogy of books to situate that life amid its conditions, in such a singular and constant way that the theme of positionality, as a saving grace of the embattled intellect, emerges from them and leaves a trace in the mind.
The protagonist of Rahmani’s “Muslim”: a Novel has lived a life contained within the constraints of a pair of quotation marks. The exercise of her voice in the printed word—French in the original, English in a new translation by Matt Reeck—represents an effort to outtalk the multitude that would mischaracterize her and confine her to a type. She speaks out even though her efforts to liberate herself have only shrunk the bounds of her freedom.
Going first by the name of Rahman (Arabic, “the Merciful”) and later, while interned in a desert camp, Elohim (Hebrew, “God”), the main character, born in the Kabylia region of interwar Algeria in 1962 “in a society between times”, escapes with her family as “a child of Ishmael, the abandoned child, the child born of a castoff slave.” Her mother is Berber, her father a Harki, and existence has become impossible in their country where “in its fight, in its desire to construct cultural cohesion throughout its lands, pan-Arabism found that it had only one tool, Islam,” and where “it was necessary to extinguish the all too human light that remained in everyone else, the ‘survivors’ in that period between wars.” The family settles in Europe, “holed up in a little bit of the French countryside” in which the child strives to learn her mother’s language “from recordings borrowed from the deepest reaches of libraries.” She finds herself “no longer alone and abandoned” within this newfound maternal connection, but also finds—because she has a new identity in her isolation with her books where she “wouldn’t be just an exile, an immigrant, an Arab, a Berber, a Muslim or a foreigner, but something more”—the French language has imposed a harsh consequence: “because of my straying, she threw me out.” Expelled by the French language for her disloyalty, Rahman-Elohim goes a step further and departs the French nation. “It’s for that reason, that act of treason, that I’m in this camp.” And here, amidst the sand that “reigns supreme over all military strategy and over every army,” she renders her account.
The prose of “Muslim”: A Novel is compact, dense, lightweight, and swift. It orients a self amid a kind of compound menace made up of forces coming at her from all sides, such that the theme of positionality emerges, and we read in her consciousness that the human spirit dwells in contradistinction to circumstance. Rahmani’s theme is evident in her treatment of the historical conditioning of sacred texts (“Whether out of affection or necessity, Muhammad liked to listen to the stories of the Jewish people, a community that modeled faithfulness to God, which he respected”), the duplicity of revolt (“The slogans offered a way forward, and our fathers went to the pharmaceutical factories, where they were encouraged to join the strikes and demonstrations. They began to fear for their lives again”), and the weaponization of culture (“All of Algeria was forced to become more Arab. Not just to speak Arabic, but to become Arab”).
So, in the closing pages, Rahman-Elohim reaches the final impasse of tension between herself and her surroundings, with the following lines about her fellow internees, addressed to her anonymous captors: “I’m the one who’s scared. Not them. They don’t trust you. They don’t talk to you. You’re an abomination in their eyes. An abomination. Do you understand? Me, I’m scared. I don’t have their conviction.” The exactitude of the author’s art and the stark and uncompromising beauty of Zahia Rahmani’s prose combine to make “Muslim”: A Novel a contemporary classic.
In that sense the new book represents an abstraction from the memoirist mode of France: Story of a Childhood (2006), her only other book to be translated into English to date (2016)—or rather, since “Muslim” originally came out a year before France, perhaps we should say that France, with its intense autobiographical perspective on currents of social upheaval, is the true abstraction, from the fable of “Muslim.” But of course we don’t know the order of their composition. And then there is Moze, Rahmani’s other book, her first, published in 2003. To misquote James Joyce, history is a nightmare from which the author has awakened: Moze concerns Rahmani’s father, a Harki and sergeant in the French army in Algeria, captured and imprisoned without his country ever negotiating for his release, then escaping to France with his family in 1967 and drowning himself in 1991. The voice in Moze is indignant (“What his language wasn’t enough to describe was the system that allows the French state to form an army of dead soldiers without allowing them to be persons”) and accusatory (“it’s a crime to betray your brother but it’s worse than a crime to betray someone who has betrayed his brother for you, if you’re not doing it to give justice to the betrayed brother”). This indignation on the silent father’s behalf transforms into the trials, euphorias and complex negotiations of France: Story of a Childhood.
Here—if one may apply Rahmani’s description of her youthful idol, the American singer and poet Patti Smith, to herself—the reader encounters “this tough woman with the unusual voice” first as a girl and then as an adolescent. The author’s mother has fallen ill. Her efforts as a caretaker reawaken the intimacy of their close connection in her girlhood, and an onrush of memories and fears inspires the composition of the text. The struggle for liberation is the subject of France, from the main character’s earliest acts of self-determination as a reader locked in an attic with books purchased with her own money; to the defiance of her father’s commands, refusing to avert her eyes from the sensuous imagery of a soap commercial on TV; to her suicide attempt at the end of the book, as a prizewinning student threatened with lack of opportunity by her mother’s poverty and her father’s refusal to send her to school. Guiding and supporting her throughout the story, the mother is also the addressee of the text: “Maman, it will be the fight of your life to combat the negation demanded of me …. So you outsmart negation by evoking grandeur.” Her spirit animates the self growing into consciousness in the young woman, so that “My dawning reason coexists with warm visions populated by vivid, unidentifiable figures, whom I sometimes sense nearby, observing me.” That observation runs both ways, as the activity of a highly self-conscious participant in society who remains aware, meanwhile, of her status as an outsider within it, remarking of her young nieces, for example, that “they finally tell me that they don’t want anything more to do with a playground that confines them to the space within the Koran. They embrace that book smiling, they say, in order to preach the virtues of Gandhi.” Living in rural Picardy, where “no one is dreaming of a better future,” she joins her neighbors in their homes (“I crossed their doorsteps like a kitten looking for its mother”), into a cottage industry, doing piecework, making sausage casings and hair curlers for local plants, and helps the farmhands with husbandry and fieldwork, concluding of her connections with her fellow villagers that “I would need time, lots of time and wandering, to understand that I couldn’t distance myself from the European,” but that “I had to walk at his side. I was a part of this defeat, just as much as he was.” She comments also that a sense of belonging has resulted from these experiences, particularly when considered in light of successive waves of arrivals: “Those who now occupy these vast residential areas, who came from the Ile-de-France region to encroach on our isolation, know nothing of this shared past,” she declares. “Unlike them, strangers here, I am an inhabitant. Family.” And yet it is a notion of family that binds her to the place only insofar as her mother is there, for, as she confesses, “this country was you alone,” and “if we bury you here, we can no longer leave,” while, on the other hand, “if we take you to Algeria, we won’t stay, but we’ll have to go somewhere else, and never return here.” As in “Muslim”: a Novel the positionality of the protagonist is uppermost among the themes of France: Story of a Childhood, and the reader retains a strong sense of amidstness, as it were, on all sides. This is most poignant and powerful in the teenager’s sexual desire, hyper-awareness and self-restraint (“I deny myself, as aware of the seductiveness of the taboo surrounding me as of the strength it gives me”) and in the terrible honesty of the woman’s political analysis of Algerian independence (“Rare were those willing to admit to what point the despair voiced by Albert Camus and Kateb Yacine was also their own”). Finally one feels that the composition of this text allowed Rahmani to strike a balance between, on one hand, “the value of rupture,” the “revolution via aestheticism,” in which her own experiences led her to believe, and, on the other hand, the principle of “Din, action through speech” which her mother instilled in her.
Zahia Rahmani is Director of the Research Program on Art and Globalization at the Institut nationale de l’histoire de l’art. Her recent extended research project in Paris and Marseille culminated in a book and exhibition of colonial cartography, high and popular visual culture and contemporary art, entitled Made in Algeria: Geneology of a Territory, at the Museum of European and Medieval Civilization in Marseille. In a promotional video from this show, she discusses several artifacts of her heritage and the history of her birthplace. She says that she undertook the project first because, “to paraphrase Hélène Cixous, I have always had the cadastre in my head,” since the Algerian question is a territorial matter, and second because she was interested in, but ignorant of, the soil, the fauna and flora, “the bougainvillea and the dust” of Algeria, this land on the opposite shore. Watching Zahia Rahmani’s video and reading her books, one has the sense of an exceptional unity of vision—the writer, the researcher and the curator as one.