"Muslim" - A Novel

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

"MUSLIM"-A NOVEL by Zahia Rahmani is a small, potent book about the author's life. Caught between two dissimilar cultures, Arab and French, Rahmani feels she has never belonged to either. She was born in a corner of Algeria where the people spoke Tamazight. "It was a minor language," Rahmani explains, "a language that was passed on orally, a language that was never read...A Berber language that throughout the incursion of history was guarded tightly by its people for what it knew. For the people of the Atlas Mountains, in the regions of Kabylie, in the Aures Mountains, where the Mozabites and Tuareg lived, it was in their language and in their spoken traditions that Islam was introduced."

When Islam became the dominant religion in Algeria, the Berbers were obliged to call themselves Muslim, even though they still identified spiritually with their own heritage. Rahmani was also incorrectly labeled when the Algerian nationalist revolution erupted and her family fled to France (because her father had been an officer in the colonial army). The French authorities could only see her as Arab and treated her accordingly, as a potential enemy.

Is the heroine of MUSLIM Rahmani herself or a fictional character? I'm not quite sure, but I don't think it matters. The author is telling the truth about her people and their nightmarish sufferings in recent times. Thanks to her intelligence and drive, she was able to fight back against her oppressors and become one of France's leading art historians and writers of fiction, memoirs and cultural criticism. But her heart and soul still belong to the desert where her nomadic ancestors once roamed.

"Whoever makes light of the desert underestimates its power," she writes. "There isn't any better army than the desert. It reigns supreme over all military strategy and over every army. Those who try to conquer it will be conquered themselves for their pains. Not even an atomic bomb can defeat the desert. Nothing can. There's no question of humans taming it. You can't tame the desert. It tames you."

(Translated from the French by Matt Reeck; published by Deep Vellum, deepvellum.org)