The Crime of Music Brings Fame, Danger to Yarmouk Refugee in New Autobiographical Novel
“Dedicated to the political prisoners of Syria, Aeham Ahmad’s memoir, “The Pianist from Syria,” recounts his momentous journey from diligent student to hopeful young father and musician to YouTube sensation and finally to a hunted man forced to flee Syria as a refugee in Germany. His unusual story begins with his remarkable father, a blind Palestinian violinist who finds refuge in Yarmouk, a suburb of Damascus, and defies fate by becoming a skilled maker of musical instruments. As a child, Aeham became his father’s guide through the streets to homes where he gave lessons and tuned instruments, and this gives the reader a wide-ranging view of Syrian society before the war.” (An excerpt from Lynne Rogers’ review of “The Pianist from Syria: A Memoir” to be published in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 79, 2020).
Yamina Benahmed Daho’s New Book Intertwines Two Assaults, One Sexual, One Political
(On the left, Aeham Ahmad performing amid the destruction of war in 2014, photographed by Niraz Saied.)
New Year’s Eve, 2011 – returning home from a friend’s party, Alya is assaulted and nearly raped by an unknown assailant. She struggles and manages to escape, but the event shakes her to the core, and her attacker remains at large. Her life has changed entirely. “I am afraid to leave my house. And now, I am afraid to return to it,” she told her friend.
Thus begins Algerian Francophone writer Yamina Benahmed Daho’s recent work, “As I Remember” (De mémoire, Gallimard, 2019), written in monologue format as a series of letters, and drawn from her own experience with sexual assault. Through the eyes of Alya, readers witness the traumatic despair of a young woman as she is forced to relive her story through several retellings: to the investigator, the doctor, the psychologist, and the judge. She struggles with anxiety and looming fear, having isolated herself and dropped out of university, and yet not being able to move on due to endless court proceedings. Alya describes how “being a woman on the street during the night was a risk in itself.” Even sleep becomes difficult as she fears her attacker will return to finish what he started.
Daho’s “De mémoire” emerged in the midst of the “MeToo” movement in Europe. This coincidence “did not make the author change her project or her way of writing, but rather reinforced the idea that what she was writing goes beyond her individual position to touch upon the position of many women,” according to Antoine Jockey in Independent Arabia, which led some critics to describe her text as “feminist.” Although Daho does not disagree, she prefers to call the book “political.”
Tawfiq Belfadel, writing in the French website The Literary Cause, goes a step further in describing Daho’s book. Indeed, “De mémoire” is a reflection on “the female condition reduced to its body, precisely to its sex.” In his reading of the text, being outdoors constitutes a permanent danger for women, rather than freedom, because, as Alya notes, “Public spaces were thought by and constructed for men. Streets and squares mostly have male names.”
Combating the trauma of the attack remains a focal point of the book. Daho, who studied philosophy and literature, avoids dramatizing the events and gives important insight into psychological effects. This is perhaps best described by Belfadel, who noted that the book is light on plot and action, while “the abstract and psychological character is the center.”
However, as cited in Independent Arabia, Daho states, “I don’t intend to use writing as therapy, but rather as a valuable literary document.” In writing “De mémoire,” she also discovered more about herself: the story of her family – who had left Algeria for France during the war of liberation against the French – and who struggled with adaptation, assimilation, and the difficulties of living in exile as an immigrant. In the words of Jockey of Independent Arabia, “The writer approaches her main subject to tell the other story of the Algerian war and its consequences for her and her family, as if her individual memory had awakened her collective memory of the war.”
The Algerian war plays a central role in the novel, one that becomes inextricably intertwined with Alya’s assault. With the help of a psychoanalyst, Alya reconstructs the memory of the attack, but in doing so, reaches deep into her own past and that of her family. In a 2019 interview with Johan Faerber of the French website Diacritik, Daho said that “In placing this event at the center of the story, I was echoing older violence, inherited from a family history that is itself inscribed in a history at once social and political, in which the violence is multiplied tenfold because it is collective.”
Vengeance and ‘Honor,’ Not Compassion: New Novel by Yasmina Khadra Examines Husband's Self-Centered Response to His Wife's Rape
(Photo: On the left, a photograph of Yamina Benahmed Daho, courtesy of Gallimard.)
Algerian Francophone writer Yasmina Khadra (the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul) has returned with a dark crime novel, the first installment of a new trilogy, “L’outrage Fait à Sarah Ikker”(“The Assault of Sarah Ikker,” 2019), published by Julliard. The story follows Idriss Ikker, a poor young man who leaves his rural home for Tangier, Morocco, in order to escape his fate as a shepherd, the family trade. Idriss studies law in the city and enrolls in the police academy, though he realizes that without a wasta (connection), he will have no chance of becoming an officer. He soon finds himself drawing the attention of Sarah, the headmaster’s daughter, who comes from a higher social class. The two fall in love and get married, but the halcyon days do not last for long.
One day, Idriss returns home to find Sarah bound and unconscious on their bed, physically assaulted and raped. While his colleagues and Sarah’s father try to keep him from the investigation, Idriss takes matters into his own hands and embarks on a quest to find the perpetrator. Honor – and by extension, the topic of honor crimes – comes into play as the thought of revenge consumes Idriss to the extent that he becomes cold to his wife.
Idriss’ obsession with revenge is used to discuss the status of women in North African society. This was described most succinctly by Mohammed Aissaoui in the French magazine Le Figaro, when he noted that Khadra confronts his readers with “implausible scenes in which a woman is violated, but it is her husband who complains.” Wholly preoccupied with his own sense of violated honor, Idriss is indifferent, and even hostile to his wife, precisely at the moment when she needs him most. It is Sarah’s mother who addresses Idriss’s misplaced sense of honor at several points throughout the text, for instance when she says that “A woman is always guilty of being the victim,” or, even more unsparingly, that “You were the one who was raped, but he thinks that he is the one suffering. Your profaned flesh weighs less heavily on him than his own pseudo-honor.”
Critics have questioned whether “The Assault of Sarah Ikker” is a crime novel. Though Idriss’ mission remains at the forefront of the conflict, this does not stop him from dismantling and exposing the systems of corruption rampant in Maghrebi societies along the way. Khadra touches on the arrogance of rich and elite families, the hypocrisy of society, and the difficulty of life for women in Morocco. When asked about the novel’s setting, Khadra was quoted in Sawt Al-Ahrar Online, “My new novel came at the request of my readers in Morocco, including some of the women of Tangier who asked me to write something about their city. To achieve an old Maghreb dream, I always hope to see the borders that divide the Arab Maghreb disappear.”
Writing in Independent Arabia, Antoine Jockey says, “In-depth, it is a political novel par excellence, aside from being a thriller that holds our breath until the last page along with its psychological dimension. It is true that the rape of Sarah constitutes her central story, but her hero is Idriss. It is true that this man is a policeman, but he is also a complicated and dark figure.”
Khadra himself classifies the novel as police comedy – as, despite the heavy topics, he softens the atmosphere of drama and suspense with humor. He adds that “the detective story in Africa, outside Egypt, is completely forgotten...reading detective stories should become obligatory, especially for young adults, because it is the best way to see ourselves in the mirror.”
(On the right, photograph of Yasmina Khadra from Independent Arabia.)
Baalbeck International Festival: 'And the Band Played On...'
"Sad and moving is Baalbek’s concert (part of the annual Baalbeck International Festival) tonight. As if saying goodbye to the Lebanon we knew and dreamed of. Lebanon, which was destroyed by the ruling clique, an alliance of sinister militias and capital. But we will not give up and will not be silent, and the sun will rise again from all the cities and villages of Lebanon." (Edited translation from the twitter page of Professor Jad Chaaban). Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and other circumstances in Lebanon, this year's concert was streamed and broadcast via TV channels, and YouTube. All Lebanese TV stations carried the concert Except Al Manar, Hezbollah's TV station.