October issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 14 years ago

Discussing Islam in Europe can be a humourless affair. The eternal spectre of Islamophobia in Britain, the headscarf affair in France, and the recent Danish cartoon controversy have all reminded us that European Islam has been the subject of a good deal of prickly and defensive writing. On every side of the debate, it has been hard to avoid politically correct platitudes or ideological hyperbole.

In this sometimes rather sterile picture, fiction has regularly offered a fresh perspective on the challenges and ironies of immigrant Islam. In the 1980s and ’90s, for instance, Hanif Kureishi expertly picked apart the daily experiences of first- and second-generation Pakistani Muslims in suburban England in books like the Buddha of Suburbia (1990). And, more recently, Nadeem Aslam skillfully depicted the pathologies of a Pakistani community in the north of England inMaps for Lost Lovers (2004).

Yet, whatever the individual merits of these books, they still offer a rather one-sided picture of the Muslim experience in Europe (if there is such a thing at all). What is missing is the view from other European countries, most notably France and Germany, where the ‘problem’ of Islam and the integration of Muslims has obeyed different historical imperatives and taken quite distinct forms.

Indeed, one suspects that the highly successful marketing of South Asian immigrant literature in the English-speaking world has (unwittingly) contributed to the marginalisation of these non-English voices almost as much as the simple challenges of translation. To take a case in point: between a Salman Rushdie and a Tahar Ben Jelloun, there can be little doubt about who enjoys greater notoriety in the English-speaking world.

The reasons for this imbalance are complex — and I certainly do not want to diminish the value of literature that deals solely with the experience of Muslims in Britain. But the end result is very often a repetition of themes, images, metaphors and personalities.

Fortunately, the translation of authors such as the Algerian Leïla Marouane offers us an imaginative, funny and intelligent way out of this problem. Her book The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris gives us a pungent portrait of the strictures of the Algerian household, the repressed life of the good Muslim boy, and the cracks in France’s republican model. As a sketch of Muslim and Algerian life in France, it is masterful — and it provides an exciting new angle from which to view literature that has dealt with similar questions in the British context.

The book’s central plot revolves around Mokhtar, a successful forty-something Algerian-born, Paris-educated businessman. The novel opens with him making the decision to buy a new apartment inside Paris — a momentous decision for a man who has, until now, lived at home in the arms of his overwhelming mother.

In some ways, the move away from home is the final stage in a long process. As Mokhtar was growing up, he was the perfect son: a good Islamist, with a perfect knowledge of all the suras and hadith, committed to his religion and his family. By the time we meet him, however, he has mostly lost his faith and cannot bear the oppressive confines of his mother’s house in suburban Paris. By choosing to move away, he rejects both the depressing stereotype of the impoverished Franco-Maghrebi Arab he has fought so hard to escape, and the tentacles of his judgmental family.

His choice of neighbourhood in the city — St Germain des Près — is highly symbolic: it is the heart of the affluent, white and bourgeois Paris. But he does not simply want to move up the social ladder and live in an expensive apartment: Mokhtar also wants to lose his virginity. With this goal in mind, he goes in search of women in St Germain’s chic cafés, hoping one day to conquer a real woman rather than fantasise endlessly about females.

Much of the novel’s plot is built around Mokhtar’s encounters with members of the opposite sex, which afford Marouane a wonderful opportunity to deconstruct the sexual repression of the Franco-Algerian male, as well as sketch a series of picturesque women, most of whom turn out to be of Algerian origin.

Predictably, Mokhtar fails to conquer any of the women he meets and, as he falls deeper into depression, he becomes haunted by an ever-growing number of fantasies. He imagines his mother calling him 15 times a day; he imagines the pert breasts of the lily-white estate agent who sold him his flat; he dreams of rediscovering the Islam he abandoned…

By the end of the novel, dreams and reality have blurred into one. We no longer know what is pure pathology, what is ‘reality’ — we do not even know who is narrating, although the frequent references to a narrator going by various female names beginning with ‘LM’ suggests that Marouane wants us to see her as the observer.

And what a wonderful observer she is! Mokhtar himself comes across as a complex, multi-faceted figure, at once the repulsive stereotype of the North African Muslim man — misogynistic, sexually repressed, dismissive — and, at the same time, a confused, immature young man uncertain of his role in his family and French society. The secondary cast of characters is equally diverse: all kinds of first- and second-generation women carrying their own baggage and, more often than not, leading the hapless Mokhtar astray.

Marouane is also a perceptive observer of French society. We are reminded of the fiction of colour-blind republican integration when we discover that Mokhtar had changed his name to the ridiculous “Basile Tocquard” when he was young. And there are some wonderful lyrical moments as Marouane expresses the deep roots and complexities of the Franco-Algerian relationship.

In a memorable passage, one of her characters says, “For us Algerians, Paris had no secrets. Algiers was an extension of Paris … Paris received its echoes and waves, as if the scirocco wind was blowing across the Tuileries Gardens.” There can be few more evocative descriptions of two centuries of French colonial history.

If anything, Marouane’s feel for her context and language is too acute to survive translation. The translator, Alison Anderson, has done an excellent job with a text that was clearly full of colloquialisms and French references, but there is still a noticeable heaviness to certain phrases.

However, the author’s caustic humour remains intact. We can easily picture Mokhtar fantasising about pearly women in his oval bathtub or imagine the excessively pious French convert who marries his sister and delights his mother. On every page, there are small insights into France and its image of itself, refracted through the lens of immigrant life.

In an interview in the Algerian daily El Watan in 2007, Marouane explained that the book was, in part, a response to the birth of her son. She wanted to write a letter or cautionary tale warning him of what would await him as the son of an Algerian woman growing up in France. In fact, what she has produced is a fable for a whole generation of second-generation Muslim men in France and beyond.

Unlike Hanif Kureishi, who in much of his work celebrates the raw power of sex and the (male) libido, Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris punctures this sexual bubble and leaves us with a picture of fractured identities, male pathologies and hypocrisy. At a time when the question of the headscarf and the burqa has focused so much attention on Muslim women, Marouane’s study of the Franco-Algerian Muslim male is a welcome change. It reminds us that in Europe (and elsewhere), the responsibility for any reform of Muslim practices and values rests squarely on the shoulders of men.