If The Almond's subtitle-“The sexual awakening of a Muslim woman”-is not enough to draw a prospective reader's eye, its cover almost certainly is. The American edition of the novel, published pseudonymously (as was the original French), shows a woman's body from the knees up, arms raised above the head, swaddled in saffron cloth-less veiled than caressed by the fabric, with only the midriff exposed but every contour suggested. This image is a good place to start thinking about the novel and its many contradictions, for with the figure's face and expression obscured we are left to examine her body parts. She could be seductive or shy; she could be powerful; she could be bound; she could be on display or in motion, the object of desire or the author of it.
Badra, The Almond's protagonist and narrator, is all of these things in turn. Escaping from a barren marriage and constricting life in her Moroccan village, she arrives in Tangiers in the 1960s to begin life over again. There she meets Driss, an older man, educated in Paris, who initiates her into a relationship of physical bliss. Their affair is chiefly of the body, but for Badra it is also of the heart.
The novel's celebration of pleasures of the flesh-specifically female pleasure, and female flesh-is its most controversial aspect, set as it is in the context of Muslim Arab culture. In a recent interview, the author, who identifies herself as a North African woman, explained her choice of subject matter as follows: “I had to talk about the body. It is the last taboo, one where all the political and religious prohibitions are concentrated.”1 Luckily, for the most part, she talks about the body well; she has the knack of giving erotic activity consequence-when, for example, an abstract concept like “happiness” is defined through a charged gaze and touch: “It's when the heart threatens to explode because it's beating, when an incomparable look is placed on your mouth, when a hand leaves a bit of its sweat in the hollow of your left knee.” The zones grow more erogenous as the passage continues. But beyond the intertwined bodies at the novel's center lies dexterous storytelling, noteworthy in its own right. Badra's sexual awakening is made compelling by the contrast, established in frequent flashbacks, with her furtive, haphazard, and at times appalling sexual experiences as a child and a young woman-ranging from her display of her genitalia to curious village boys to her violent deflowering on her wedding night. These vividly rendered episodes, both sharp and lyrical, provide us with a stark view of how far Badra travels to find not only pleasure but also self-knowledge in sex. They are also the kinds of stories that transcend one religion, one culture; there is a universal quality to Badra's childhood forays into sexuality and her resistance to the repression she encounters. The body, after all, is the site for taboos in many organized religions, not just Islam.
Indeed, Badra is such a vibrant character in these flashbacks that one wishes her sexual awakening did not seem to preclude a psychological one. But love enslaves, as it tends to do in literature, so that even as her body becomes liberated her mind seems to narrow and diminish; ultimately it is hard not to agree with Driss's lesbian companion when she says, “Badra, you are beautiful, but you're a dope!” And it is disappointing to see Badra, so unflinchingly direct about human emotion and human anatomy, succumb to Driss's condescension, to the vaguely colonialist course of study he prescribes of canonical French writers, to the “salary” he allots her to set her on her feet as an adult, even as he treats her like a child.
Still, there is a quiet triumph in Badra's final reconciliation with her desire, and in her return to her native village of Imchouk, which she accomplishes on her own terms. Her retrospective gaze, assessing her life as a lover, is in the end marked by the clarity and self-awareness that elude her while she is in it. Perhaps most impressively, though, she finds a way to write about female sexuality that acknowledges the struggle she has gone through to feel it, let alone set it into words. “I blushed about what I had written, then found it to be very right. What should prevent me from continuing?” The blush is there, but so is the conviction of rightness. That she does continue, with such great passion, is Nedjma's achievement.
1“A Muslim Woman, a Story of Sex” by Alan Riding, The New York Times, 6/19/05.
Radhika Jones is a Ph.D. candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.