This is a book I read during our cruise in France. I picked it out ahead of time because of its connection with French culture. That is, it was written in French, and it is a sort of commentary on a work of French fiction, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, though I admit it really is more concerned with Algeria than France. It is itself a work of fiction, and I normally don’t comment in this blog about fiction since I have no particular talent at literary analysis. But I do want to make a few comments on this work.
The Stranger is narrated by a Frenchman, Meursault (no first name given, I believe), living in Algiers in 1942 who gets into a dispute on behalf of a neighbor that leads him to kill an Arab. (The neighbor is sexually involved with the Arab man's sister, and he was angry about the way she was being treated.) The Arab is never named in the novel, and Daoud’s novel tells the story from the vantage point of the Arab’s younger brother. The younger brother is incensed when he learns that not only was there a novel written about his brother’s murder, but also that the victim was never named in that novel. He was just some Arab. This is, of course, typical of Western arrogance about non-Western people. We learn in Daoud’s novel that his name was Musa, and his brother’s (the narrator’s) name is Harun. (A last name isn’t given.) In other words, their names were the Arabic versions of Moses and Aaron.
So, this sets the stage for what would seem to be a book that will delight all the professors of postcolonial studies out there, who will assign it to their students to show how the “Other” really thinks about things.
There’s just one problem as far as the postcolonialists are concerned. The narrator in Daoud’s novel hates religion, and since he is living in an Islamic society, he hates Islam. Uh-oh. That’s no good. Furthermore, the author in real life has been threatened with a fatwa by some imam. That is what attracted me to the book in the first place, by the way. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have touched it. But I’m sure the postcolonialists will believe that the author deserved it.
Let me note that much of this book is a rant. There isn’t much in the way of action, and much of it is a rant against the way that his brother wasn’t named in Camus’s book. But a not insignificant part of his rant is a rant against Islam. He is a drinker, and he is angry that bars are being shut down in Algeria. He wonders why wine is forbidden here on earth when it is allowed in Paradise (p. 51). He detests Fridays, the holy day for Islam, just as Meursault in Camus’s book hates Sundays, the holy day for Christianity (65). He complains about a neighbor who reads the Koran at the top of his voice on Fridays, but is angry that he has no power to silence him. He also complains about another neighbor who claims to be a “veteran mujahid” when everyone knows that he’s a con man who has stolen money from actual mujahideen (90). He scathingly observes that “religion is public transportation that I never use” (65) and also that he detests “religions and submission” (66). A few pages later he observes again that “I abhor religions,” adding that that extends to all of them (69). He says that “children fall silent when I approach them, except for some who mutter insults as I walk by” because he refuses to go to the mosque (70). He notes that a certain type of woman – “free, brash, disobedient, aware of their body as a gift, not as a sin or a shame” (135) – have disappeared in Algeria as a result of the increasing influence of conservative Muslims. He desires to climb the minaret of the local mosque and belt out a lot of blasphemies: “I don’t pray, I don’t do my ablutions, I don’t fast, I will never go on any pilgrimage, and I drink wine” (139). He calls the local imam “Monsieur” rather than “El-Sheikh,” and when the imam complains about it, he grabs him by the collar and shouts out his atheism at him (140-2). Finally, he expresses skepticism of prophets by asking, “How can you believe God has spoken to only one man, and that one man has stopped talking forever?” (70-1)
My point is that the rant against religion is part of Harun’s identity. He does not dismiss Islam merely in passing, but rails against it several times, sometimes in passages that are several paragraphs long. It is easy to see why he would have a fatwa laid against him. At first, I thought of him as an Arab nationalist, the sort of person (who is becoming scarce in the Arab world) like Egypt’s Nasser who was secular but who was strongly in favor of pan-Arabism. But Harun, although secular, seems to have no such feelings. Presumably, he likes the idea of Algerian independence from France, but is very disappointed with the way things have taken such a religious turn. However, he is more wrapped up in his own personal problems than he is with Arab nationalism, and since his personal problems (regarding his relationship with his mother) are of no political interest, I will ignore them.
Here are a couple more comments.
• He notes that Meursault was wrong to believe that the Arabs (or at any rate, Musa and his friend) were interested in killing the French, and says they were merely waiting for them all to leave (60). Maybe so, though I believe the war of independence was particularly vicious.
• He mentions several times that there was no sister for whose honor his brother was fighting. Maybe it was a girlfriend, he speculates. Daoud doesn’t say so, but given what we’ve heard of honor killings, this makes a certain amount of sense. A brother would be more likely to kill his sister than to defend her honor, the idea being that the sister has dishonored the family by taking up with a non-Muslim.
As I said, the postcolonialists are going to have mixed feelings about this book because Daoud refused to have his character bow down to Islam. I believe that Daoud has said this is just a work of fiction, implying that Harun’s views are not his views. Whatever the case, his work tells an important story in addition to the one that postcolonialists want to hear. It shows what the Muslim world was like before the current era. It shows that ordinary people in the Muslim world had no problem with leading secular lives, that they saw no particular reason to live the way the Islamists are now saying they should live, and that women in particular were freer in the Muslim world than they are now. His book shows us a country that is regressing back to the seventh century.