Friday, September 22, 2006

The Almond by Nedjma


The Almond by Nedjma

Translated from the French by C. Jane Hunter
Grove Press, 2005










This book, according to its publishers, is about the sexual awakening of a young Arab woman. The woman in question is a 17-year girl from a traditional North African Berber village who after spending 5 years as wife #3 to a much older man in a terrible, loveless marriage, runs away to the big city of Tangiers to live with her fun-loving aunt Selma. In Tangiers she meets a man who sweeps her off her feet and engages her in a passionate and torrid love affair. It is at this point that the book disintegrates into the young woman's audacious celebration of her varied sexual adventures. Don't get me wrong, the prose on every passion-soaked page is beautiful, (and the passages on self-love are very interesting) but how much of it do we need to read in order to grasp that here was a woman rebelling against her repressive upbringing? To me, it was made abundantly clear after her first sexual encounter, I certainly didn't need to read about 15 other ones!

There have been many books on sexual awakenings, "The Sexual Life of Catherine M" by Catherine Miller is one that comes to mind, but "The Almond" has generated the most buzz because the sex life of a Muslim women is not often the subject of contemporary literature. "The Almond" went flying off the shelves in Europe, the readers hoping perhaps that Nedjma, the author, might might open a window into a closed world, however, it appears to me that the content, especially descriptions of some of the barbaric rituals inflicted on young, African Muslim girls were written for shock value with the explicit and almost pornographic sex scenes included only to titillate.

I don't mean to put you off the book, but do be warned that this book is quite graphic - like one Amazon reviewer puts it, "...this book is simply a catalogue of every kinky sexual activity one could think up" What redeems it is its sometimes exquisite prose, the cultural commentary on the women in rural Morocco and ummmm, the cover. Sorry, couldn't think of a third redeeming factor, but now that I've mentioned the cover, I think it was quite a clever idea to have the woman swathed in cloth with her head and feet covered - symbolising her repression perhaps? But then I notice that the belly has been left exposed, so are we being prompted to see her just as a body, a piece of meat and not as a person? Upon further reflection I think the cover was the most interesting part of the book.

For further reading - Moorish Girl
& fellow blogger, An Academic Life

Addendum: Who is Nedjma? Noone really knows. Nedjma is a pseudonym. The author has never revealed her real name, never been photographed and her family and close friends are not aware of the book she has written. The few details we have of her tell us she's in her early forties, is unmarried and childless and has a white collar job that allows her to travel often to Europe. She will never reveal her identity for fear of reprisals from Islamic fundamentalists.

19 comments:

sruthi said...

hi lotus! thanks for the review. i saw this book at borders over the summer, and wanted to read it but i had so many other books in line and i kinda forgot about this one. I'll put this back on the list now after this one love story i'm reading now called "Ali and Lilo" and "in the country of men" as you suggested. also, i've been browsing through your "my books" section... how cool is it that you have read aaaaallll those books, that's amazing!

Susan Abraham said...

Hi Lotus,

A stupid question. What is that delicious picture on the cover with such striking colours? If you tell me that there was even the smallest possibility of it being a woman's anatomy, I'm going to die of envy.

It was interesting to observe how quite a few bohemian female characters in novels run away to Morocco to find themselves. There was a really famous novel to this effect but can't remember the name now...a mother and daughter told from the daughter's point of view and the setting took place in Marakesh. I'd much prefer Casablanca, wouldn't you.

love

Saaleha said...

Debate setting if you will. To me it's of no consequence, since I have yet to venture beyond the southern tip of Africa.

But this sounds like a book I'd gladly miss. Nothing gratuitous ever works for me. There has to be meaning. And of course, being a Muslim means that I don't take kindly to books that confuse culture with religion.

a.c.t said...

I read The Sexual Life of Catherine M and only managed to read half and I rarely put down a book without finishing it. I found it quite tedious in the sense that it was sexual encounter after sexual encounter without any passion. And it was all very matter of fact. How did you find this in comparison? At a guess I get the feeling this would be more interesting, especially as it's from the perspective of a muslim woman, so all this would be new to her, whereas it was nothing new to Catherine M as it was simply her job.

booklogged said...

The cover is beautiful. You sense that there are layers of symbolism in it. The woman is almost 'mummified' in the wraps that hide her from the world and hide the world from her. And yet the midrif is uncovered. I wonder at the significance of her face stretching forward. Were you able to ascertain the meaning of the title?

Beyond the interest of the cover, I think I can quite easily pass this novel by. The idea of a young muslim girl find sexual freedom, or any type of freedom, is stirring, but,like you, I can do without the shock value.

J said...

Sounds like a warning I will heed, and skip this one. I listen to an NPR show that I download to my iPod, called, "To the Best Of Our Knowledge". I just heard an interview with an author who might interest you. Here's what they said about her on their website (http://www.wpr.org/book/060903b.html) (where you can go and listen for free, if you want).

Betool Khedairi grew up in Iraq with an Iraqi father and a Scottish mother. She tells Steve Paulson that she still feels in Arabic, but solves problems with her Western part. Her novel is "A Sky So Close."

Lotus Reads said...

Hi sruthi!

I've heard of "Ali and Lilo". Can't wait to hear what you think about it. Oh, and those books are from my bookshelf - I haven't read them all however! ;)

Hi Susan Yes, Morocco does seem to be a popular place for our literary heroines "to find themselves" but I think the prize has to go to Italy - think "Under The Tuscan Sky", "Bella Tuscany", " A Thousand Days in Venice" and so on...

And oh, the model must be a size 00, she's just skin and bone, isn't she?

Well said Saaleha I don't quite know what to make of the book - I want to give the author the benefit of the doubt, but in the end I think she used the world's fascination with little-known cultures to write a book that would fly off the shelves. I don't even know if it can be classified as literature or not, to be quite honest.


Hi act I haven't read Catherine Miller's book, so I can't compare the two, but from what I see of the reviews at Amazon, it wasn't well received at all. "The Almond" on the other hand has had mixed reviews - there are some that have loved it and others who say it's nothing but porn.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi booklogged Yes, that is an interesting cover, isn't it? Hmmm, about the title, funnily enough, I was thinking the same thing as I read the book. I was convinced the almond had to be a metaphor for something, but I never did find out what - maybe I missed a subtle reference to it somewhere? God knows I was just rushing through those sex scenes wanting them to be over so I could get on with the story! :)

Hello J and thank you for the headsup, I am listening to the program now and loving it! NPR is such a great source for book recommendations. "To the best of our knowledge" is really a wonderful program, thanks for pointing me to it.

Angela in Europe said...

I agree with you on the excess sexual stuff. I am not a prude, but I "get it" after the first experience. I felt the same way visiting an art exhibit on intimate relationships. BTW, I am loving Entre Nous and so are my French girl friends. Thanks so much for it.

Anonymous said...

I really liked the cover of this book. reading your account of the content of this book, I wonder if it would even be sold here in Malaysia - what with our ridiculous censorship laws and all.

sruthi said...

oh just a clarification, upon further examination (basically by looking at the cover) i've realized that the name of the book i am reading is Ali and NINO, not LILO. how careless of me haha!

hellomelissa said...

bow-chicka-bow-bow, lotus! sounds like you picked up porn lit! i'll take it from your review that the title of "the almond" refers to the female part of the anatomy that is thus shaped. **blush** i will DEFINITELY skip this one! thanks for the warning, i may have grabbed it otherwise.

sruthi said...

and also... i actually think i will skip this one, ur right the only interesting thing is the cover. i read more reviews of it and they were all negative.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Angela So glad you're enjoying 'Entre Nous'. Do you think the author got it right when it comes to French women?


HiAneeta Absolutely thrilled to see you here! I will change my name to, ummm, Nedja, if the Malaysian authorities ever allow the book into Malaysia, there's just no way. But even if they did, I'm not sure you'd want to read it! ;)

Sweet sruthi You're not the only one - even I thought it was Ali and Lilo and I actually owned a copy one time, so there's no excuse! :-) And yes, stay away from "The Almond" , but I will tell you it gave me a few pointers on how to write erotica - not that I ever will! ;)


Howdy Melissa Hmmmmmmm, thanks to Prince, or rather the artist formerly known as Prince, I knew "Little Red Corvette" was a metaphor for that part of a woman's anatomy, but, silly me, I hadn't thought to connect the almond with it, but now that you mention it, it makes perfect sense! Well done! :)

Carl V. said...

Wow, sexy book cover image.

booklogged said...

I always learn when I come to your site, Lotus. "Little Red Corvette" and an almond both refer to a female body part. Who knew?! Oh, I heard the other day that the artist formerly known as Prince went back to being known as Prince. Only hearsay.

Lotus Reads said...

True, booklogged, he has changed his name more often than Tyra Banks changes her hair colour! I think you're right, however, he has gone back to being just "Prince".

Rosemary Esehagu said...

Sex sells, so people try to include it in as many things as they can. It irritates me when people confuse sex (in the name of "liberation") for literature. I understand that sometimes it is necessary to explore sexual freedom, but in my opinion, when you have pages and pages of nothing but sexual activity, it is no longer art.

Anonymous said...

Personally I love the book. It's all about a woman meeting her own body, pleasuring what she has missed. Perfectly fine. Plus the cover is great, I never thought of it as "an almond" :)