January 2011
A review of

The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris

by Leïla Marouane

Central question:Who is caricaturing whom?
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.”

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.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

—M. Lynx Qualey

M. Lynx Qualey lives in Cairo, where she writes about the Arab and Arabic literary landscape. She blogs at arablit.wordpress.com.

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