A Review of "The Almond" by NedjmabyMungoParkIII©
Given the subtitle of the book is "The Sexual Awakening of a Muslim Woman" I was not initially surprised that the author used a pseudonym, picturing her writing from beneath the veil in an oppressive country for women like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. As I began reading the book though I found she was from Morocco, where the oppression is much less intense. While Nedjma has stated, "...I had to write it under a pseudonym. It would have been suicide to do otherwise when we stop to consider the fate that is reserved by the Arab-Muslim world for its freethinking and libertarian artists and thinkers," others have questioned whether she really faces the danger.
Lalia Lalami, a female writer from Morocco stated, "And yet, for years, Moroccan women have been writing about their lives, including their sex lives, without the need for such simulacrum. Who bothered Fatema Mernissi when she wrote Dreams of Trespass and Beyond The Veil? Who bothered Soumaya Naamane-Guessous when she published her wide-ranging study of sexual practices among men and women, Au Dela De Toute Pudeur?" (1) Lalami feels it is an insult to the above "...women who dare to speak about their condition, face unveiled, and live with the consequences." (1).
Whether or not there was an actual need for the pseudonym I did find the graphic details of how women are treated by men in Muslim society and the author's depiction of the general male attitude toward women beyond what I had imagined. The author seemed much more contemptuous about these attitudes and the religion than anything I read in Rushdie's Satanic Verses for which a fatwa was issued. Perhaps because the derision is directed toward men and not specifically the religion, or perhaps because she is Muslim or perhaps because the book is not widely known in the Muslim world, Nedjma has not raised the ire of Islam as Rushdie did.
Beyond the controversy, the story begins as Badra, a young Muslim woman, newly married to a much older, abusive husband in the village of Imchouk, escapes, catching an early morning train to Tangiers. Once in Tangiers she moves in with her Aunt Selma and begins her life again. The story moves between flashbacks to Badra's youth and eventual marriage in Imchouk, and the present where she slowly becomes involved with Driss, a doctor with a more modern approach to women and sex.
In the flashbacks, in spite of a strict upbringing, Badra discovers her blossoming sexuality and through a number of contacts with others she begins to understand the burden she is faced with. While she proclaims that, "I am the one with the most beautiful cunt on earth, the best designed, the best developed, the deepest, warmest, wettest, noisiest, most fragrant and singing, the one most fond of cock when they rise up like harpoons," she finds herself forced into marriage with a man she cannot stand, a sterile man who marries women and then blames them for not being able to produce children (Badra is his third wife).
Between the flashbacks, Badra's relationship with Driss allows her to attain her sexual desires in some often poetic erotic passages. Her love for the man grows as Driss moves her into an apartment, however, he does not move in with her. While their passion intensifies, Badra becomes frustrated because, while Driss professes his love for her, he doesn't speak of marriage. Badra continues seeing him even as he brings in a pair of lesbian lovers, often taunting her with his sexual contact with them as she watches.
Badra withdraws from him in anger, but continues to return to him, her sexual desire for him is too strong for her to fight. It soon becomes a struggle as she tries to deny him, tries to tear away and yet is drawn closer and closer to him and the two women until the relationship explodes on all four lovers.
The book does delve deeper into the sexuality of Muslim women, a topic that I have found intriguing and dangerously mystical, than anything else I have read. What it does not do is give much of a look into the lifestyles that would give the sexual awakening and behavior some context. The author provides some look at the lives and morals of a small village (Imchouk), but is very scant on the details of the surrounding life while in Tangiers. Badra's Aunt discourages the relationship and her niece's actions, but otherwise all the increasingly extensive sexual activities could be happening in New York City as opposed to Tangiers.
There are a number of extended, explicit sexual scenes in the book, but the passages, while beautiful and poetic, may not sustain the interest of someone reading for stroke value alone. It is more of a peek under the black robes of female Muslim sexuality and the eroticism that is so deeply hidden that provides the erotic interest here. Beyond this eroticism, the storyline works to some degree and the reader will get a few glimpses into rural Muslim life in a more moderate Islamic country, but as far as a definitive study of Islamic life, there are many other books that will be much more informative.
The book was originally written in French and published in France. C. Jane Hunter translated the book from French to English. The book was released in the United States in the summer of 2005 and is available at Amazon(dot)com as well as other book stores.
1. Lalia Lalami, "Nedjma's The Almond