Zahia Rahmani’s « Musulman » roman hinges on a question that has gathered force in recent years: a witness is speaking, but will she ever be heard? The first time I put this book on a syllabus, it happened to come up for discussion the third week of November 2016—the week after apocalypse, as you may recall. The novel was first published in France well over a decade earlier, yet it suddenly spoke more directly and urgently to my students (and to me) than I could have foreseen.
The story begins and ends in a prison camp in an unspecified desert. It is narrated by a prisoner alone in a solitary cell. This might be anywhere, though the title of the book’s last chapter (“Desert Storm”) is suggestive. In the present-tense scenes that bookend the narrative, this prisoner has been stripped of her history. She has no nation. Her identification papers have been lost, as has her proper name. She wears an orange jumpsuit; she waits; she observes; she remembers; she speaks, but who is listening? Captured while wandering alone in the desert, she finds herself detained, interrogated, and condemned by an epithet she thought she had escaped: “Musulman.” The word is haunted by histories that elude its translation as “Muslim.” Because she cannot explain herself in terms that allay her interrogators’ suspicions, she is presumed to be a terrorist and held in a state of indefinite detention.
My students, their emotions raw and their minds troubled in November 2016, seemed to take Rahmani’s novel as both diagnosis and dire warning. In Trumpian times it will be difficult to read the book as something other than political parable, especially given how Rahmani channels the cruel and inane language now saturating our public discourse: calls to detain and deport peaceful immigrants, to put people in cages, to ban and terrorize Muslims, to build walls across deserts. Rahmani ventriloquizes the speech of former US presidents—“Either with us or against us!”—yet her writing is also far more idiomatic, nuanced, and particular than this stripped-down parody initially suggests.
« Musulman » roman, recently translated by Matt Reeck as “Muslim”: A Novel, is a fiction seeking a form to articulate truths for which no legal or political frameworks yet exist in any language. Reeck’s translation is thus attuned to the tragic brutality of our own time and place. The novel—if it is a novel—presents a seemingly infinite series of tales and memories told from inside a cage. This puts readers in the situation of listening to a voice never meant to be heard, of being exposed to impossible testimony spoken with a mutilated tongue in a forgotten minor language: “And in this camp where they want to kill me,” the prisoner observes, “I bring her back. A language always speaks.”
This narrator’s resurrected mother tongue is not English, French, or Arabic, but Kabyle, an indigenous language widely spoken in Algeria by descendants of the oldest inhabitants of the multiply colonized region of northwestern Africa now called the Maghreb. “I was born into a minor language,” she writes, “and escaped from a distant nowhere that didn’t want me.” This is a clue to reading the idiosyncratic quotation marks around the word “Musulman”/“Muslim” in the book’s title, a word that the narrator—an Algerian who is not a practicing Muslim—has been stuck with whether she likes it or not. She speaks, much like the genius Scheherazade, at an impasse and under ominous threat, defying annihilation with every word and spinning tales from her memory of an indigenous language that few others know.
Why should a French novel written in the afterlife of Algerian decolonization so resonate among contemporary readers in the United States?
Rahmani’s “novel” thus unfolds in tension with its own narrative frame—in a silent prison, language suddenly takes flight. The text offers a heterogeneous weave of intersecting and colliding voices and genres—at once plaint, historiography, scriptural exegesis, memoir, rant, invocation, and haunting. The vivid details generated by these multiple voices defy every reductive Orientalist and Islamophobic fantasy about Islam, in particular by tethering the narrator’s own deracinated identity to a popular, vernacular history of modern Algeria (a history that few readers in the United States will know, but that this novel may spark desire to learn). Some of « Musulman » roman’s most striking passages rewrite the history of the Quran’s composition as a work born in translation and transmission through multiple languages—Arabic, Hebrew, Kabyle, Chaoui, Tamasheq. Rahmani’s text is arranged as a prologue followed by five “acts,” whose titles immediately register her concern with the multiple and minor, and with transmitting the myriad stories she was told as a child: “The Night of the Elephant,” “The Little Poucet and the Magic Nut,” “My Mother Tongue Refuses to Die,” “Dialogue with a Government Worker,” and “Desert Storm.”
It is often noted that Rahmani’s writing hews close to the autobiographical; her genre-defying trio of works is often described as autofictional. She was born in Algiers in 1962, a few months after Algeria’s official independence from French rule; her mother was Kabyle, and her father, accused of being a Harki (an Algerian conscripted to fight on the side of the French military against Algerian revolutionaries), narrowly escaped the retributive massacres and purges that took place with national independence because he was temporarily imprisoned in a camp in the Sahara. He sought political asylum in France, where Rahmani joined him five years later and eventually became a citizen—and also where her father committed suicide by drowning himself in November 1991, a month before the cancelled presidential elections widely taken to be the start of Algeria’s deeply uncivil war, often called the “Black Decade.”
Why should a French novel written in the afterlife of Algerian decolonization so resonate among contemporary readers in the United States? Recall that Rahmani published « Musulman » roman in 2005, just after her government declared a state of emergency to quell the fury of young black and brown citizens rising up against police violence across the segregated cities of postcolonial France. This was also the time when grotesque photographs of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and humiliated by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison hit international news circuits. That both of these episodes evoke acts of state-sponsored violence that took place during the French counterrevolutionary campaign in Algeria (1954–62) is not a coincidence—consider, for a moment, that the Pentagon screened Gillo Pontecorvo’s iconic 1966 film The Battle of Algiers in 2004 to prepare military intelligence officers for what US troops would face upon the invasion of Iraq, or that “clean” interrogation techniques now used by the US military were first practiced by the French on Algerians.1
Rahmani invites us to suss out these obscured historical links between the French and American imperial projects. She draws multiple explicit connections between the fates of the North African indigène and the fates of enslaved and indigenous people in North America, registering the enduring global scope of white supremacist institutions of settler colonization and slavery. Her fiction also confirms that decolonization has not yet happened—and that forms of radical exclusion and genocidal violence have mutated and escalated rather than abated, although this violence has also been made to appear invisible to nearly everyone but its direct targets. Notably, Rahmani’s prisoner is not alone. She is surrounded by multitudes of other detainees also condemned, like her, by the enigmatic name “Musulman.” Their numbers grow by the day. None of them is meant to be seen or heard from again. “And if they all disappeared?” she asks, and continues: “But haven’t they already disappeared? Disappeared. Am I not one of the ‘disappeared’? I have a body. But alive or dead, aren’t I just the same? I don’t count … They don’t count. Like others, they don’t count.”
In particular, « Musulman » roman appears made to recognize and transfigure the full semantic range of the untranslatable word in its title without repeating the dehumanizing violence of that word’s peculiar history as a founding juridical category of French empire that was first tested in Algeria.2 This is more apparent if the 2005 novel is set alongside the other two literary works Rahmani published in quick succession during the years that the global war on terror gathered force after September 11, 2001: Moze (2003) and France, récit d’une enfance (2006). In 2016 Yale University Press brought out the latter, in Lara Vergnaud’s excellent translation, as France, Story of a Childhood; the former remains untranslated and is also out of print.
Together, the three novels, a loose trilogy, read like movements in a shared quest—literature searching for a way to write history other than it has turned out, and trying to make perceptible the profound violence that our political regimes insist is intractable, inevitable, and natural. While the narrator of Moze reckons with her father’s suicide and that of France speaks directly to her dying mother, the narrator of « Musulman » roman does both and more. Notably, wherever the word “musulman” appears in Rahmani’s prose, it is always enclosed by quotation marks and is frequently capitalized. This typography renders the word strange, unsettling, and inassimilable; it highlights its status as imposition, fabrication, epithet, and citation. Not once does Rahmani naturalize or neutralize the term, by this refusal summoning its repressed ghosts and setting the singular experiences of her parents and herself within a much broader historical frame.
Reconstructing history’s silenced possibilities and connections to make them available to readers at the present moment may be Rahmani’s most powerful move.
« Musulman » roman picks up and runs with a question about testimony that Moze leaves wide open. In Moze, the narrator casts her father’s suicide as the culmination of the long and paradoxical history of French citizenship in Algeria. (The philosopher Jacques Derrida, also born in Algiers, has described this as the most complicated history of citizenship in the world.3) In Moze, the term “musulman-indigène” comes to be viewed as a category of legal exception experimented with by the French in Algeria since at least its 1848 departmentalization—when the new French Second Republic annexed Algeria to France, divided it into three departments, and drew a distinction between French citizens (bearers of rights) and French subjects (subject to military conscription, forced labor, a disciplinary system that included concentration camps, and the infinitely deferred promise of citizenship) in order to facilitate exploitation of Algeria’s immensely profitable land.
An 1865 law further classified “sujets français” as either “indigènes israélites” or “indigènes musulmans,” a distinction with enduring consequences for Algerian Jews and Muslims. In 1870, the Crémieux Decree extended full citizenship to 30,000 “indigènes israélites” of French Algeria but reserved the ambiguous status of “sujet” for millions of “indigènes musulmans.” In short, the words “indigène-musulman” and “musulman” were never transparent religious or cultural descriptions in French Algeria; the latter is not identical with the Arabic word “muslim,” although it operates as its translation. Through World War II, “musulman” was a French legal term still used to classify which bodies the French imperial nation-state would protect and which it could dispose.
The monologues, dialogues, and diatribes that comprise Moze stage a series of testimonies on behalf not only of the narrator’s dead father, but also of the ghostly multitudes of Algerians violently erased from history by their subjection to that precarious legal status called “musulman-indigène.” This is the same impossible condition in which the imprisoned narrator of « Musulman » roman abruptly finds herself “yet again.” However, the narrator’s account of the moment she first learned the word “musulman” comes charged with a perhaps surprising memory of a different genocide. She sets the scene: “I knew about the name from the age of ten,” when she lived with her family in a small town in northern France. Forbidden to watch French television by her tyrannical and tormented father—“He never seemed alive. You could say that he was the living dead”—she does so in secret, and happens to discover there Alain Resnais’s short documentary film Night and Fog (1956).
Resnais’s controversial film, which Rahmani does not describe in detail, includes footage of the abandoned Auschwitz and Majdanek camps, of prisoners who had inhabited the camps, of the gas chambers and the dead. It also depicts the convoys of trains that arrived at the camps filled with deportees from France, scenes that had been censored from the version of the film that a young Rahmani might have watched on French television in the late 1960s.
The narrator of « Musulman » roman registers how stunned she was—a recently arrived political refugee in France—to learn of the horror that had so recently taken place, with the complicity of so many French citizens. The word “Musulman” (or “Muslim”) does not actually appear at this point in Rahmani’s prose, even as it describes how the young narrator first learns of its unsettling function as an epithet in the Nazi death camps. In Auschwitz—as Primo Levi has written—“Musulman” was the term used to designate those prisoners at the bottom of the camps’ brutal hierarchy, those who were already considered as good as dead.4
A strategic gap at this point in Rahmani’s prose summons enigmatic and overlapping histories of extreme violence and dispossession. She writes: “The film Night and Fog said, ‘There were nine million men and women killed. Killed because they were …’” There is simply an ellipsis here. “They had just one Name,” she writes. “One Name.”
The absence of the implied word (the violent Name, “Musulman”) holds open semantic space and provokes disquieting uncertainty. By refusing to resolve this ambiguity, Rahmani allows for a counterhistory of kinship between Muslims and Jews to emerge, the kind of nuanced history that current settler colonial regimes make nearly impossible to imagine. As Ariella Azoulay has shown in her critical reflection on archival photographs taken in Palestine during its forcible transformation into Israel, in 1948, aesthetic works can be used to train us to see what power does not want us to see. Azoulay calls this “potential history,” by which she means learning to understand history not as it is but as it might have been, and still could be.5
Azoulay’s insight illumines my approach to reading Rahmani’s fiction as more than political allegory. « Musulman » roman is an invitation to learn to see what has been forcibly rendered invisible and unthinkable: “It is not sufficient for such history to critique the existing situation,” writes Azoulay. “It must reconstruct the possibilities that have been violently erased and silenced in order to make them present anew at any given moment.”6
Reconstructing such silenced possibilities and connections to make them available to readers at the present moment may be Rahmani’s most powerful move in « Musulman » roman. “I would continue to love my mother tongue,” she writes, “and I would see how it linked me to Arab people, to Semitic peoples, to ‘Muslim,’ and to ‘Jewish.’ I wanted to learn everything that had been kept from me about these peoples and their language.”
Her intricate rewriting of the history of the Quran’s composition prominently features the origin story of the split in Abrahamic tradition between Jew and Muslim, but with a twist. As she retells the tale of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael, she points out that the Quran omits the name of which child Abraham almost sacrificed at Mount Moriah—was it Isaac, or Ishmael? Was it the son of Abraham’s legitimate wife, Sarah, or of his banished slave, Hagar, who was meant to be killed?
Protecting this ambiguity “like a treasure,” Rahmani redirects our attention to the point where Hagar vanishes from historical record without a trace:
She put her son on her shoulders and set out for the desert. Just as she was about to collapse, she happened upon a spring. She put her son down. And then history tells us nothing about her. Nothing. Her life stops. The boy finds himself without a father, and Hagar disappears into the shadows of legend. So perhaps I was a child of Ishmael, the abandoned child, the child born of a cast-off slave. Of a mother expunged from the record. Forgotten. Of a mother cut off from her progeny. I take this to be my lineage.
What would it take to write history that rejects the standpoint of the “victor” to take up as truly authoritative the lost testimonies of all the dispossessed, detained, deported, banished, forgotten, and disappeared?
This is the ethical and political terrain at stake for Rahmani, whose literary fiction is an instrument for truths that as yet have nowhere else to be heard. That the very nature of our political regimes requires intervention by way of fiction suggests that literature has an indispensable role to play in the ongoing work of justice.
This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley.
- Michael T. Kaufman, “What Does the Pentagon See in ‘Battle of Algiers’?” New York Times, September 7, 2003; Stuart Klawans, “Lessons of the Pentagon’s Favorite Training Film,” New York Times, January 4, 2004; Madeleine Dobie, “The Battle of Algiers at 50: From 1960s Radicalism to the Classrooms of West Point,” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 25, 2016. ↩
- On this, see Jill Jarvis, “Remnants of Muslims : Reading Agamben’s Silence,” New Literary History, vol. 45, no. 4 (2014). ↩
- Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin, translated from the French by Patrick Mensa (Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 77. ↩
- On this word’s strange function in the Nazi camps, see Primo Levi, Survival at Auschwitz, translated from the Italian by Stuart Woolf (Crane, 2012) and The Drowned and the Saved, translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal (Random House, 1989); Gil Anidjar, The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (Stanford University Press, 2003); and Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, translated from the Italian by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Zone, 1999). ↩
- Ariella Azoulay, “Potential History: Thinking Through Violence,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 39, no. 3 (2013), p. 550. ↩
- Ibid., p. 553. ↩