France is the 2017 Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Writers from the Francophone world are invited for the occasion, in particular those from the former colonies. Franco-Moroccan Saphia Azzeddine is currently among the most interesting voices.
With the character Bilqiss, 37-year-old Saphia Azzeddine has created one of the most courageous figures of the contemporary French literary scene:
Orphaned aged 13 and forced into marriage with a brutal 46-year-old, she decides to make her daily life more bearable through education. She wins support from her teacher Nafisa, who doesn’t want to submit to the anti-women laws of the novel’s unnamed Islamic country, and advises her pupil to bury music cassettes and books in the garden. When Nafisa slits her wrists out of desperation, Bilqiss continues her fight for freedom and batters her husband to death with the frying pan, as Azzeddine relates with plenty of irony and some narrative exuberance. Two GIs, who are stationed in the country, help her to disguise the grotesque murder as an accident. Nevertheless, Bilqiss still lands in court for a far more harmless act. The novel starts with her court case whose outcome is fixed from the start: stoning, because instead of the drunken muezzin, she dared to call the entire village community to morning prayer. Not without pressing the point that Allah is not angry with a baker or teacher, if they don’t continue a life of prayer, but pursue their work. Here, she refers to the one of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that, “To spend more time in learning is better than spending more time praying”.
This is an incomprehensible provocation in a country where only the men are permitted to interpret the word of the Prophet, as they think best, to justify violence and repression. But Bilqiss will not be silenced. In quick-witted dialogues with the judge she exposes his ludicrous interpretations of the Koran:
– You only need to ask forgiveness, Bilqiss, and I will do everything to spare your death.
– Why should you do that?
– For Allah, of course.
– Is everything that you do always for Him?
– Naturally! All our actions should be in thanks to Him.
– Don’t you find that arrogant of Him? Do you believe that a just, wise and intelligent God would only create mankind so that it can prove itself the whole day long by giving thanks?
The public in the court room can hardly wait for the stoning, but the overwhelmed judge, who has fallen for Bilqiss, continually delays things.
The ripple effect of the court case reaches the U.S., where far from her homeland, Bilqiss becomes a heroine for liberty who features on coffee cups. The American journalist Leandra arrives to rescue Bilqiss who wants nothing to do with her do-goodism. With the same sharp tongue, Bilqiss exposes her Western dishonesty:
Ah, how you love them, repressed Muslim women, isn’t that true? You’re obsessed with this species. The more barbaric the persecution, the greater your sympathy. You step up to defend us and all this is so measured and with the right facial expression (…) And what about your neighbours, are you also outraged on their behalf? Do you organize solidarity marches for the millions of anonymous white women who die at the hands of men, or do you prefer them to remain as an anonymous mass in official statistics?
“An excellent book, original, bold, necessary, driven by vitality and rage”, is the verdict of Livres Hebdo. It’s not the first time that Azzeddine vents her anger. The daughter of a Moroccan immigrant knows what it means to live between the Western and Arab world. Aged nine, she moved with her parents from Morocco to France where her father worked as a tailor. Her debut novel, Confidences à Allah (Zorngebete), appeared in 2008 – a taboo-free dialogue between Jbara, the young girl from the Maghreb, and Allah. It is furious and submissive, complaining and grateful, poetic and vulgar – just in case the Almighty doesn’t see and understand everything.
In her novel Mein Vater ist eine Putzfrau, Azzeddine refers to her father’s story, and acknowledges him in the afterword of her novel Bilqiss. Among other things, she thanks him for “teaching her his religion wisely instead of clumsily imposing it on her, and that he believed unconditionally in his wife, his daughters and his sons.”
He is also to thank for Saphia Azzeddine becoming one of those committed writers who cannot be recruited for anyone’s cause, who is neither Charlie nor anyone else and whose next novel will always stand up for her freedom.
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright