Malika Mokeddem’s The Forbidden Woman (1998) was originally published as L’Interdite; the French text was published in 1993 and translated into English by K Melissa Marcus. This is a fierce and powerful novel and as a whole an indictment of Algerian society for the extremity and ugliness of the sexism which cramps, hampers and damages the lives of all its women. Sultana Medjahed – the main character – bears many resemblances to the author: she is a doctor specialising in nephrology (the diagnosis and treatment of kidney problems) who initially left her native village to attend high school and later her country to qualify as a doctor. The narrative starts with her return (for the first time) to Algeria where, from the moment that she enters a taxi to be driven from the airport in the nearby town to the village, she encounters – in the objectionable behaviour of the taxi driver – the type of conduct that caused her to remain in France. He harshly demands of her, the moment she enters his vehicle: “Whose daughter are you?” But Sultana refuses to be drawn into this gender hierarchy and coolly fends off his rudeness by her non-committal reply: “No one’s” (5). She tells herself that she has not forgotten the way any man in her country assumes the right to interrogate and control any local woman, yet she is startled and dismayed when a young boy yells “‘Whore!’” at her as the taxi drives off. Her shock is nevertheless preceded by her musing on what she describes as the “gangrenous” childhood of Algerian boys to whom, “from the youngest age, the opposite sex is already a ghost among their desires”; that boys routinely “hurl stones and insults at passing girls and women” and that they “never [learn] to love”. In the street she sees that public life is still marked by “its masculine plurality and its feminine apartheid” (7).
Sultana has returned to the village to attend the funeral of the man she had loved, but from whom she had long been separated, previously her fellow medical student, Yacine Mediane. Yacine was also Algerian, although from a different region, but he took a post at the hospital in the village of Aïn Nekla, where Sultana had grown up, in the probable hope that this would bring her back to him. In this village, Yacine had endeared himself to the more open-minded or needy members of the community. He had also fended off his loneliness by painting the desert landscape and some portraits. Evidently he had been a charismatic man: a deep thinker; a person of integrity and someone gifted with artistic vision. It is also clear that Sultana had never stopped loving him, but that her detestation of the fabric of social life in her homeland, as well as some ineradicable loneliness of spirit in her, made her unable to rejoin him. Though apparently comfortably settled in France, she knows that leaving Algeria and her own history there has left her “inconsolable”; even though “with time, you learn to conquer the worst fears” and “in the most burning moment of guilt” (when “regret is most hidden”, as Sultana paradoxically confides) “you can even jettison the inner conflict”; nevertheless “the inevitable baggage of exodus” never leaves you and you continue mourning the separation you chose and the loss you incurred (3).
Yacine’s best male friend, Salah Akli (also Algerian and a doctor, though practising in Oran), is also in the village to attend Yacine’s funeral. He bitterly reproaches Sultana for never visiting Yacine or answering his letters. He says, “He carried you in him like a deep abscess” (14) and even suggests that her physical and apparently emotional absence may have caused the death of this apparently healthy and still relatively young man. Salah wonders why Yacine had not transferred his affections to a less “complicated” woman than Sultana – later on he, too, betrays his attraction to her, however. For the moment, they are allies against the conservative men who want to exclude Sultana from the burial procession, which she insists on attending. He tells the men who object to her participation as “forbidden” and as “profaning the name of Allah” that their conduct is itself a profanation (15). As if to signal that Sultana no longer belongs in the village, the ksar (an area of mud-built dwellings of an earlier generation and in the oldest part of the village), where her family once lived, is in ruins. She and Salah will both spend the night in the house where Yacine had lived.
At this point Mokeddem suddenly introduces an unforeseeably different character – Vincent Chauvet, a French professor of mathematics who developed a sudden interest in and a determination to visit Algeria when he became the transplant recipient of a kidney that had come from a young Algerian woman who had died in an accident. It seems to be a sort of gesture of gratitude on his part that he now cares about Algeria and Algerians, so relieved is he to be free of the terrible discipline of regular kidney dialysis treatments and so delighted with his body’s acceptance of the new organ. Vincent confesses that he had formerly “haughtily disregarded” North African culture, but since the transplant he senses himself the inheritor of a “double métissage”: he declares that “surgery had implanted in me two seeds of strangeness, of difference: the other sex and another ‘race’” (21). Vincent decides to take a year off and sails his small yacht down to Algeria, staying in the town’s quite ill-equipped hotel, but happily roaming the streets and the desert environment. Here he encounters one of the novel’s most interesting characters: a little girl named Dalila. Dalila seems to be something like a child version of Sultana, though her family circumstances are not identical. She had made friends with Yacine, who evidently treasured this feisty girl’s companionship and had also been one of the people helping her to surmount the social and educational restrictions of the local community. He had bought her books and had made a painting of her and had also regularly met and conversed with her. It is in fact on an evening when she is expecting Yacine (of whose death she is still unaware) that she meets Vincent, who spots her sitting at the top of a dune which is one of her favourite places and decides to join her there. Dalila wonderfully describes the painting Yacine had made of her as resembling herself not so much physically, but “as if I were seeing myself in a dream” (25). She cannot take the portrait to her home, however, where it will be seen as a sin transgressing the Muslim ethos and not only earn her censure and punishment, but cause her to be forbidden to continue attending school and be confined to the family home.
Vincent also finds out that Dalila has a dream friend, an adult woman who may or may not represent her older sister, who, like Sultana, has left home, village and Algeria for France and will not return for the same reason that Sultana emigrated.
In the village Dalila fortunately has another important ally in the person of her schoolteacher, Ouarda. Babysitting for Ouarda becomes a means of escaping from her bullying brothers, who expect her to be at their beck and call because she is the only female child at home among seven brothers. Three of the brothers have joined the town’s mayor and the fundamentalist Islamic movement of his side-kick, the obnoxious taxi driver; little wonder in a backward village where there is little to do and few employment opportunities – a situation exacerbated by most of the brothers’ reluctance to exert themselves at their studies. Dalila, on the other hand, is intellectually curious and precocious; she revels in the reading opportunities that Ouarda’s home affords her and often escapes home to read and dream on her favourite dune-top perch.
Dalila is also a sensitive child who understands that her father, who breathes fury whenever he refers to the sister who absconded, secretly misses and worries about her. She reassures him tactfully that the sister (who directs letters to Dalila at Ouarda’s) is doing well without exposing the love he cannot bear to admit, since the older daughter “disobeyed” him and Islamic rules (as he sees it). Dalila also knows that despite her brothers’ denunciation of Samia (her sister) as a “whore”, she “just wants to study and walk in the street when she wants to and be left alone” (27) – simple enough desires, but ones that cannot be fulfilled in Aïn Nekla nor in most of Algeria, in Mokeddem’s portrayal.
Sultana (to whose perspective we swing back in the next chapter) enters Yacine’s home with bated breath. She intimates that she has been anticipating this moment throughout the journey back to Algeria, and had hoped to be alone when doing so, “to reconstruct a scattered past: a few small islands of happiness gnawed away by years of autism and aphasia and the cracks caused by absences and departures” (32). Salah challenges Sultana to explain why she had not returned to Yacine if she had cared for him – a question that causes her boundless irritation, because the “mystery” of love cannot be explained, in her view. Instead, she muses to herself (and communes with the reader) in a poetic evocation of the way she and Yacine found each other, as if they had “relearned to see together or one through the other, like two very sick people who have slowly come back to life through the same vision” (35). Before meeting Yacine, Sultana says, she had “put [her] eyes, covered with a tenacious film of melancholy, onto the scrap heap, in the attic of [her] outcasts”, but she adds that she found her sight again as if in and through Yacine’s eyes (34). She does tell Salah that shortly before her journey back she had received a note from Yacine and had decided to telephone and visit him, but when she called it was only to be told that he had died the previous night.
Salah misunderstands Sultana, accusing her of having had nothing but a “fussy French-style love” for Yacine, but the reader can see that his resentment springs largely from envy of the lifestyle to which she has access in France in contrast with Algerian circumstances, where (as he puts it) “our starving dreams eat at us. We hug each other against the walls, and we spend our time criticizing only to hold out in an Algeria that is fasting, the prey of all demons, behind its lice-infested beard” (37). Salah adds a further insulting interpretation of Sultana’s motives and character when he charges her with having returned “only to bury Yacine … only to prove [her]self in a place and in mourning, both of which are not [hers]”. He caps this by adding, “I hate everything that you are!” (38).
Sultana seems to understand that the real source of these terrible, bitter words (said while Salah is weeping, with his arms wrapped tightly around Sultana, who had attempted to comfort him) is Salah’s painful, inconsolable grief at having lost his only dear friend and companion. He and Yacine had (since Salah’s divorce) spent all their weekends together, either in the village or in Oran, he tells her, and informs her that conditions in Algiers (the capital city) are unbearable. When Sultana asks Salah about Algerian misogyny, he confirms her impressions, admitting, “We’re the kings of self-destruction and regression …. [and] above all, of poisoning ourselves at the source.” He adds, “We haven’t stopped killing Algeria inch by inch, woman by woman” (39). He confirms a pattern of the young men of the Left having bright, educated women as girlfriends while studying, but marrying the uneducated, submissive women their families want them to wed – soon tiring of these spouses, fleeing their own homes and spending their free time in drinking, “scheming and schizophrenia … We did and made everything [he admits] with no love, including our children” (40). Yacine says that even though he now tries to eschew misogyny, it “clings” (41) to everything done by the men, who imbibed it with their mother’s milk.
Sultana understands Salah’s vulnerability better after this. He makes up the bed in Yacine’s room for her, where she has a hallucination of Yacine’s presence. She even vividly imagines his making love to her, confirming the intensity of her longing for him. The various kinds of emotional stress to which she has been subjected are unsurprisingly beginning to take their toll on her.
The next day, Sultana and Salah move to the hotel, where Vincent is immediately fascinated by such an unusually free and confident Algerian woman (the only one in the hotel lounge). Every single set of male eyes in the place is glued on her. Vincent comments on this: “For the first time, I realize that an Algerian woman’s most ordinary act is, from the beginning, charged with symbols and heroism, because masculine animosity is so great, and so pathological” (53). He himself sees Sultana as having “an ardent mystery in her eyes”, yet as having “a look from elsewhere, that flashes without seizing anything; a look that makes [him] tremble” (52). Vincent’s description fits the Sultana whom the reader has encountered very well. When she and Salah go out to have cigarettes, he is indignant that all the local men are spying on them, but he does much the same, being delighted that Sultana evidently turns down Salah’s request to spend the night with her (his room is near their two rooms). The next day, Vincent sees Dalila on the dune top, but she is lying down. Once he has joined her there, Vincent finds out that the child is devastated by the news of Yacine’s death, given to her by Salah (whom she knew slightly as Yacine’s close friend) and Sultana, a stranger to Dalila, who sees Sultana as a person “who has space in her head and who wants more” or “like the ones [women?] who walk and don’t want to be like the others” – and also “like ones who stay alone” (56). At this point, Dalila sees Salah and Sultana driving off, apparently leaving the village (much to Vincent’s sad dismay). But he stays with the perturbed little girl and speaks seriously with her, responding respectfully to her fascinating remarks – sometimes poetic and sometimes acerbic. Eventually she leaves and Vincent states, “Since I can’t help her, I let her go” (61).
Before she knew that Yacine had died, Dalila had advised Vincent, who needs regular medical checks to evaluate the working of his transplanted kidney, to have this done at the hospital where Yacine had worked. Vincent goes there and to his delighted surprise discovers that Sultana has taken over Yacine’s post. She conducts the check-up with cool professionalism, but Vincent uses the opportunity to get to know her a little and to attempt to get her interested in him. After completion of necessary procedures he asks Sultana to go and see Dalila, saying that he thinks (in the absence of sister, whom Dalila has identified as a woman similarly transgressive to Sultana and also “looking for space” – 64), it will do the grieving child good to have an alternative sympathetic older woman to speak to about her loss, perhaps also about the absent sister. Back in his hotel room, Vincent discovers (to his delight) that his sexual capacity (lost during the years of his illness) has returned with his interest in Sultana. He dreams of the two of them making love.
The following chapter returns us to Sultana’s perspective. She has decided to stay on in the village and work as the resident physician at the hospital (where she would be the only available doctor and sorely needed) for the time being, despite her distaste for the sexist local social context. These are her thoughts: “And anyway, Algeria or France, what does it matter! Archaic Algeria, with its stale lie of modernity; hypocritical Algeria, who no longer fools anyone … [with] all of its errors; absurd Algeria, [with] its self-mutilation and its schizophrenia; the Algeria who commits suicide each day” (66). She sees France no more endearingly, describing it as “self-important and zealous”, terming it a society “who brandishes to the world its president’s prostate gland, truffle of its imperial democracy”; as a state that “bombards children” in Algeria, “who offers a banana to a dying African … pontificating France, now Tartuffe, now Machiavelli, dressed like a humanist” (66).
Anyone believing that the author’s and Sultana’s fury and detestation at the virulence of Algerian sexism (as she portrays it) springs from a colonial cringe and Eurocentric adoration of “French civilisation” would clearly not yet have encountered this particular passage. She describes her lingering on in the village as “a return that isn’t a return, Yacine’s death, this love abandoned on the paths of anguish that then returns like a boomerang into impossibility” and the return journey as a “fatal pilgrimage” (67). That night she dreams again of making love to Yacine, or hallucinates his presence in her room.
As Sultana leaves the hospital the next night, the odious taxi driver harasses her, informing her that he has discovered her local origins. She ignores him and goes to talk to Dalila on the dune top. Their conversation, too, bristles with the child’s profound and difficult questions: “[W]hy is Arabic just the language of fear, of shame and sins, especially when you’re a girl?” she asks Sultana (76), who advises her that a language “is only what’s made of it! In other times, Arabic was the language of knowledge and poetry. It still is for a few handfuls of rebels or of the privileged classes. You have to continue to resist and to take from elsewhere what you don’t find at school” (77).
Vincent and Sultana do get to know each other better in the course of the next day, revealing aspects of their personal histories to each other. The same night, Sultana telephones Vincent in his hotel room; she tells him that a strange, ghostly (seemingly empty) car has been following her all the way to Vincent’s place, to which she has returned. Worried for her safety and full of longing for her, Vincent goes to Sultana. She is exhausted and when he comforts her, she responds to his gentle caresses and they make love – but Vincent mentions that “[w]hen our climax reaches its highest point, she says with a sigh, ‘Yacine’” (99).
When Sultana walks to work the next morning, the abusive taxi driver stops next to her and screams that she is a whore who has been sleeping with both Salah and “the roumi” (foreigner or European), as he refers to Vincent. When he screeches off in his taxi, she runs into the hospital and slams the door behind her. “Within these walls,” she says, she has “always found a sense of peace and security” (101), and now it carries memories of Vincent.
Mokeddem describes Sultana’s working day in the hospital in considerable detail: the types of patients she sees and the conditions they suffer from; their poverty, prejudices, kindliness, odd beliefs, humility and probing curiosity about the new doctor and her life and background. There is one especially terrible case of a girl who (in the intensely overcrowded hut in which the family lives) was impregnated by her brother; subsequently taken by her mother to have an abortion and (evidently traumatised) became mute as a result. Sultana describes this dreadful situation as having resulted in “an inflammation of the soul and the being in a sixteen-year-old girl” – a girl who should be in the bloom of young womanhood.
The humane male nurse at the hospital, Khaled, is yet another man who takes a protective interest in Sultana, although in his case there are no erotic dimensions to his worries about her safety. Khaled warns Sultana rather to use the hospital car (instead of walking). Despite his anxiety, she remains defiant, declaring, “Misogyny stays and feeds and strengthens itself from failure” (109).
Suddenly Salah shows up at the hospital, having returned out of concern for Sultana’s safety, but evidently also out of competitive jealousy of Vincent, who (tellingly) answered the telephone in Yacine’s place in the early morning. Salah scolds Sultana for her defiant attitude which (he believes) provokes village men’s persecution of her and is foolishly risky. But Sultana is angered at his attempt at containment of her free spirit (as she sees it) and to disguise her “resistance” (11) in the way that the village women do – sensibly, in his eyes. Sultana explains to him that, painful as exile from Algeria is to her, “it’s nonetheless an invaluable source of freedom” that she would not exchange for anything in the world (112).
Incensed by this sort of conversation, Sultana that evening drives into the desert and into a sand storm. Again, the eerie and seemingly driverless car follows her, and no one answers her shouted question, “Are you Yacine?” (115).
Mokeddem provides the reader with a child’s-eye confirmation of Sultana’s vision of the local society during a conversation between Vincent and Dalila. When he suggests to the child that love is something “sublime”, she replies, “Love, it’s pretty, very pretty. But with us, it’s like the clouds, there aren’t many. With us, even the government is afraid of women. It makes laws against them. So love is just shame, which is nationally elected” (120). Most readers would agree that so sophisticated a social vision might be somewhat unlikely in a girl, but perhaps Dalila is echoing her sister’s thoughts, or her teacher’s – and the points made are certainly confirmed in her own family and school experience. Not long afterwards Salah confirms a similar impression when he “mutters … as if for himself”, in Vincent’s presence, “Algeria is swarming with holier-than-thous and prophets of the Apocalypse. Violence and greed are competing with helplessness and insecurity” (126). The two men are searching for Sultana, not knowing about her having driven into the desert.
A new character is introduced at this point: the boy Alilou, who is a sort of male counterpart of Dalila and quite unlike the horrid boys who earlier threw stones and swore at Sultana. Alilou, having heard about the search for Sultana, tells the men that she is in the ksar – the old neighbourhood of now crumbled mud dwellings, in which she had grown up. Vincent describes Alilou rather charmingly, stating, “He’s a very small boy with jet black eyes” (127). Alilou speaks to Salah in Arabic, which Vincent does not understand. He, too, had been a “great friend of Yacine’s”, and he, too, is a solitary child who wanders in the ksar and in the dunes, especially since the death of his mother. Salah thinks the boy is “a budding artist or poet” (127). Alilou has brought the news that Sultana is lying sleeping in the ksar; he leads them to her. When they find her, she is sitting up, but “her wide-open eyes are frighteningly and incredibly open” (128). The men take her home and warm her by making a fire in Yacine’s fireplace. They feed her and make her swallow spoonfuls of whiskey to help her recover. Then, at last, Sultana tells the men about a terrible turn her childhood took when her father, inflamed by the insinuations of the jealous taxi driver and mayor (who had earlier been her mother’s unsuccessful suitor), had assaulted her mother in a rage and accidentally killed her when she fell. After this, he fled the village, and Sultana had grown up with her uncle’s family. Sultana’s baby sister (a three-year-old) died soon after her mother’s death. The child Sultana was considered part of a cursed family, feared and shunned by other village children. Of course she became an unusual child, never conforming to local ways, terribly thin to the point of being anorexic. When a new French doctor and his wife arrived in the village, they befriended and nurtured the lonely little girl’s body and soul – much to the disapproval of most villagers. Returning here, then (Sultana tells the two men) reconnects her, even if painfully, with her past, and when she ministers to the villagers’ needs in the hospital she can nevertheless balance her judgement of them – “neither entirely good nor completely bad, but conservative and backward” (132). Sultana’s creed is that “pain is the strongest bond between humans. Stronger than all resentments” (133). She will, however, return to Montpellier in France, where she has been living, she says. The previous night vandals had broken Yacine’s kitchen windows; the hatred of Sultana and what she represents is clearly intensifying.
Vincent invites Sultana to go off sailing with him, much to Salah’s jealous indignation. Sultana neither accepts nor refuses the invitation, however. She bursts into strangely joyous tears and, reminded of her exhaustion, the men let her go to bed. She realises, the next morning, that even though both these men care for her, she needs to make them understand that she is not a woman who could ever “settle”.
The obnoxious mayor and taxi driver and a mob of other men arrive in the morning to order Sultana and her friends to leave the village. The horrid mentality of these men is even clearer when they taunt little Alilou with the word “queer” (138), so vile and cruel a deed that it energises Sultana. She shouts back at them, not in foul language, but by pitilessly analysing their underlying insecurities and their mob mentality, and she manages thus to shame and silence them.
When Sultana arrives at the hospital, Khaled tells her that the mayor had pitched up there with threats to hound her out of the village. But this was the last straw needed to bring the village women’s long-held fury against this awful man out into the open and they, too, make him back up. They taunt him with their knowledge that he hates Sultana because her mother had rejected him as suitor. The women also relate other terrible things that had been done to village women, particularly by the taxi driver. The women are so roused that when Sultana arrives she is addressed by their leader, an older woman who describes herself as a “former resistance fighter” and “a woman who doesn’t understand by what perversion our country’s independence deprived us [women] of our dignity and our rights, when we fought for it” (141). This present time of female degradation she contrasts with the past, when women were accorded social dignity and held in the highest esteem in their families.
In this atmosphere of “revolutionary” fervour, Sultana advises the women as far as she can, happy to hear that there are a few men in the village who are the allies of this local women’s movement. She refuses their request to be their president, however, referring them to the schoolteacher as a more suitable person to take on the task. The women start reminiscing about Sultana’s father, whose spirit and brawn they had admired, and enthusing about her mother’s independently minded attitude and beauty. They also confirm her impression that her father, the “foreigner” from the Algerian mountains, had profoundly loved her mother.
These reminiscences help Sultana at last to retrieve her own repressed memories of her father: “I see him, unrepentant watcher of the absolute, taster of differences”; and her thoughts also revive her mother: “And my mother also rises in me again … My mother, river of tears, in the twists and turns of my inmost depths, the inaudible trembling of my doubts” (150), is how the author evokes these precious, pain-filled memories of Sultana’s.
Later, the three friends go to buy Dalila some painting and drawing materials. She would not normally be allowed to keep or work with these, so Sultana pretends that the girl had won an art contest at school and that this is her reward; she also gives her the painting Yacine had made of her, pretending that it is the girl’s own work. Her mother, reluctantly, but fooled by Sultana’s bluff, goes to hide the painting where her sons and husband would not find it (they would destroy it as “sinful”) – under the sheets in the linen cupboard. Dalila is mightily impressed by Sultana’s skilful lying! She in turn will take the art materials to her schoolteacher friend’s house and work only there, undisturbed. They return to Yacine’s place to find that the mayor’s mob has set the house alight, but in retaliation the village women and their male allies have torched the city hall. Yacine’s paintings had, luckily and secretly, been moved to Khaled’s house before, so they would not perish in the conflagration.
On this perhaps melodramatic, but nevertheless appropriate, note, the narrative concludes. The three friends know that it is prudent for them to leave at this point, but Sultana leaves a message with Khaled for the women’s resistance movement, saying, “Khaled, I’m leaving again tomorrow. Tell the women that even from afar, I am with them” (154).
This sentiment probably echoes the author’s attitude to her countrywomen. Indeed, the entire text could be read as exhortation and inspiration; the contribution of an Algerian woman who left her country physically, but remains passionately committed to her country and to those of her compatriots who share her passion for freedom.
It might be noted, in conclusion, that Mokeddem opened a general practice for North African immigrants to France – particularly women – where she lives in Montpellier, but was forced to close it after receiving death threats.
Some readers may find the text biased, but there can be little doubt of its author’s sincere and deep conviction of the sickness of sexism from which (in her view) Algerian society suffers – or of the fact that her laying bare of the ugliness of violent patriarchy disguised as religious fervour is replicated in all too many other societies and communities.