home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

divorce islamic style

5 january 2017

Amara Lakhous' Divorce Islamic Style is a spy-in-spite-of-himself novel, funnier than Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker and edgier, more topical than Jean Echenoz' Envoyée spéciale. But it shares with those books, and some others an ambivalence about a genre that depends on using a confidence trick in pursuit of some nobler goal. As Lakhous' spy-manqué narrator Issa puts it, "War on terror? Don't be ridiculous" (184).

Or as Leo G. Carroll puts it in one of Alfred Hitchcock's spy-in-spite masterpieces, North by Northwest: "FBI, CIA, ONI … we're all in the same alphabet soup." For the spymasters, our alphabet soup is like its enemy counterpart. Different letters, mirror images, dubious causes, shifting allegiances.

But the spy-in-spite story is just one thread in a braid involving the novel's other narrator, Sofia. Hers is a feminist immigrant tale, reflecting on how to cope with a culture that devalues her as a woman and a host nation that devalues her for being part of that culture. Born in Egypt and given the name Safia, she has followed a husband she barely knows to Rome, where everybody calls her Sofia instead – after Loren, whose role in Vittorio di Sica's film of Moravia's La Ciociara is a motif in the novel. Sofia cuts (non-Muslim women's) hair in an off-the-books studio, following her own artistry in directions that her family and culture do not approve. Thanks in part to her independence and to her husband Felice's impulsiveness, she's on her second strike – the second of the divorce pronouncements that becomes irrevocable after the third.

Because despite and because of its patriarchy, divorce is relatively easy in Islam (at least Felice's strand thereof). "Divorce Italian Style" back in the day was of course murder, the only recourse; but divorce Islamic style is rather too easy. And here's where, in a roundabout way, the other narrator, Issa, comes in. Issa is not his name either. He is actually Christian (both his nominal religion and his name); he's a Sicilian who has been recruited by the alphabet soup to infiltrate Rome's "Little Cairo" on account of his near-native Tunisian Arabic. It doesn't take Issa and Sofia long to develop a crush on each other based on some casual meetings and some glances across crowded rooms. Meanwhile, though Little Cairo offers all kinds of meat for xenophobic prejudices about terrorist Muslims, it doesn't take Issa long to realize that there's no terrorism there worth speaking of. It's still a tinderboxy situation, economically parlous, ethnically at odds, full of religious fervors and fanaticisms, with the spark potentially provided by the Issa-Sofia connection.

Things don't quite explode, though I won't go into all the details of how they don't. Serious on many a cultural and political issue (the veil, immigrant economics, linguistic diversity, slumlords, female circumcision), Divorce Islamic Style is still essentially a farce. It may be that farce is the keenest way to explore the tensions of post-9/11 contact zones.

Lakhous, Amara. Divorce Islamic Style. [Divorzio all'islamica a viale Marconi, 2010.] Translated by Ann Goldstein. New York: Europa, 2012.