Leila Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris
M. Lynx Qualey
Mohamed Ben Mokhtar—or, as he has somewhat absurdly Gallicized himself, Basile Tocquard—is a Muslim bachelor fleeing the constraints of family for sex and freedom. Once (perhaps) a believer, he now intends to live a debauched life, writing poetry and sleeping with as many women as possible. But when Ben Mokhtar finally escapes his mother’s clutches, he does not find himself pursuing the snow-white Frenchwomen he desires. Instead, he’s mired in the stories of Algerian women: the prudish student of astrophysics, the promiscuous filmmaker, the pregnant lawyer.
And yet, it is uncertain if these women exist beyond the confines of Ben Mokhtar’s literary imagination. The months after he leaves his mother pass in a spiraling, pill-fueled dream. Is the liberated Ben Mokhtar/Tocquard finding himself? Or is he creating himself from the books of Loubna Minbar, a fictional Algerian novelist who “steals people’s lives”? The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, although seemingly told by Ben Mokhtar, never belongs to him. We are regularly reminded that he is not the true narrator: While the rest of the text is in the first person, some variation of “he said” is appended to the first sentence of each chapter. The identity of the shadow narrator is almost certainly Loubna Minbar, who is almost certainly based on (strongly feminist, also persecuted) Leïla Marouane herself.
The shadow narrator’s portrait of Ben Mokhtar is rarely sympathetic. While we’re told that he’s highly educated, both in secular and in Muslim institutions, he is neither a clever talker nor a persuasive Islamist. His extreme anxieties do make him, at times, sympathetic. But his grasp of women’s minds and of his religion is almost absurdly simplistic: he believes, no matter the evidence, that females gaily spread their legs in response to wealth, and he cannot keep straight even the most basic tenets of Islam. If this were a book about just Ben Mokhtar, the narrative scorn would be unbearable. However, the story is never really about our protagonist, but rather about how he is created. How much of Ben Mokhtar is “real” and how much is a political or orientalized fabrication? Is Ben Mokhtar his own caricature, the culture’s, Minbar’s, our own? In a mid-book epigraph, the fictional Minbar is quoted as saying: “No books are committed without a motive.” The shadow narrator’s motive—whether to reveal a certain truth, to support her views, to achieve fame or money—is left to the reader’s imagination.
Only at the very end—when the curtain between the stories and Ben Mokhtar’s sanity is collapsing—do Ben Mokhtar’s brother, sisters, and mother begin to seem like real human beings rather than caricatures. We find that his pious brother knows Shakespeare, and that his mother, after all, may be truly concerned for his well-being. And, as the book nears its end, more of its seams are revealed. Ben Mokhtar, in his madness, conflates Minbar and his concierge. He asks: “What else are writers, they’re concierges, my mother, they feed on other people’s lives.” So is Minbar (Marouane) feeding on fellow North Africans’ lives?
Whoever is telling Ben Mokhtar’s story has a clear, sometimes cruel contempt for him and his supposed values. But Marouane succeeds in portraying such an unsympathetic pair by keeping the reader in a perpetual state of questioning, and by continually pulling out the underpinnings beneath her often-absurd (and sometimes absurdly funny) characters.
—M. Lynx Qualey
Translator: Alison Anderson; Fictional dedication: “With thanks to ‘Mohamed’ for his trust and his outspokenness”; Partial list of violent descriptive phrasing used in jacket-copy blurbs: “Pot shots,” “stinging,” and “lyrical stabs”; Plot summary: a forty-year-old Algerian French virgin leaves his mother’s home in a Muslim suburb and moves to a ritzy Saint-Germain apartment, where he tries to chase women and loses himself; Representative passage: “‘Islam is the only religion where sex pleads not guilty,’ I continued, carefully enunciating each syllable, thus allowing my ulterior motive to filter through, but my semi-mistress did not pick up on it.”