The anonymous author has penned a new book, but lives in fear of reprisal for her writings that celebrate female sexual pleasure and castigate "Arab arrogance" and subjugation of women.
PARIS — It's a heck of a thing to get to see a woman who usually lives her life in the shadows. At first, Nedjma wanted to talk only by phone. When she finally agreed to meet during a short trip to Paris, we found her at her editor's headquarters in the 13th arrondissement.
It's the day after the Charlie Hebdo attack, and she's locked herself in an office. After we signal our presence, she opens up, lets us in, locks the door again. "You're witnesses that I exist," she says.
Indeed we are. Wearing a large hat and big black glasses that hide her face, she begs us not to record her voice. There's not much left to identify her: a pretty nose, a well-drawn mouth, hands that suggest a pretty woman.
"In my country, nobody knows who I am," she says. "It's impossible to make a connection between me and my books. There, I'm protected. I don't need this costume. Here, I don't have a choice. Charlie didn't wear a disguise. I'm not that brave. Yesterday's attack brings me back to a state a fear, the fear of the fatwa."
Nedjma says she's been living with this fear since a Pakistani imam wrote on the Internet, "I allow you her blood." That was in 2004, a few weeks after the release of her first novel, The Almond ("L'Amande"), which she describes unashamedly as "the first erotic novel written by a Muslim woman."
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A friend had dared her to write it. Without saying a word to anybody, she accepted the challenge under the pen name Nedjma that means "star" — and that, coincidentally, she shares with a femme fatale character in one of Algerian writer Kateb Yacine's novels. "All the better if it's a tribute to Kateb Yacine," she says.
The Almond sold 40,000 copies in France and was translated into 10 languages, but not into Arabic. "When you place what's intimate in the public sphere, using crude words a woman's mouth is never supposed to utter, you become a big problem," she says.
In fact, the problem has become so big that all Maghreb countries deny she's a national. Nedjma refuses to say where or how she lives. She once agreed to appear on television, on a French talk show, disguised and with the image blurred, her voice distorted. She "had a really hard time" afterwards and never did it again.
Living behind the book jacket
She sometimes says she's single and in her 50s. Other times, she dodges the issue, as if to confuse people. "Of course, this schizophrenia gives me nightmares," she says. "But you tell yourself that if you have kids or loved ones, they can get hurt. I'm forced to lie about everything. Fiction is the only place where I can't lie anymore."
Her strange clandestine activity has become "exhilarating," she says. "Like many Arab women, I have a lot of anger within me. Writing made this anger resurface. Then it became a source of pleasure, like an orgasm. Now, I'm comfortable writing against Arabic arrogance. But it wasn't a militant thing for me."
In the end, she simply considers herself a woman from the Maghreb. "I'm not breaking up with my homeland, I'm not looking for scandal," she says. "On the contrary, I align myself with the Muslim culture. Except that Islam, which I practiced by praying, has nothing to do with that of Boko Haram, which burns schools. The Islam I was taught says to "look for knowledge from the cradle to the grave." It's a religion in which pleasure is not a sin. There's a whole literature on how the Prophet would make women come."
In Nedjma's new book Of Amber and Silk ("D'ambre et de soie"), it's clear from the very first page that she doesn't go in for half measures. "The worst race is my own," she writes. "The lepers, the swollen, the nobodies, the illiterate, the ones that are so ugly it makes you cry, the goat fuckers, they are all my own. And it makes me vomit."
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Holding nothing back
This audacious novel, daring in every possible way, fits in with the tradition of the Arabian Nights stories, but with the narrative scheme in reverse: Here, the man tells the story to the woman.
Returning home, the young Moroccan narrator explains how, after having been "his cousin's official masturbator," he went to Paris to lose his virginity with all sorts of French girls who weren't asking for anything more than to "have fun in bed" with an Arab (which can, by the way, be interpreted as criticism of certain Western customs).
The man talks about being an "Arab, a thousand times Arab, certain of his sexual superiority." He wonders whether his "wild sexual frenzy" doesn't come from the "terrible deprivation he suffered" in his youth.
In the book, the woman listens to him with a mixture of sadness and arousal, remembering Driss, a lover without equal whose "sex she worshipped." She remembers the Frenchman who told her that she was "programmed to fuck." She takes on "imams with cloven hoofs," on the "ferociously hungry glances" of "bearded men," on a religion that has become that of "ignorants itched by testosterone and disoriented by Arabic money."
From under her large hat, Nedjma clearly thinks along the same lines as her fictional characters. "The revolutions, which bring jihadists, can bring down Gaddafis — but what do they change if the image of women remains the same?" she says. "The real Arab revolution should be a sexual revolution. In the meantime, I'll keep my mask on. Sometimes I'm dying to take it off, just to piss my people off. But it's not a game. Or if it is, it's a tragic one."