What struck me most strongly about this work is the intense male supremacy it highlights. The laws of inheritance that Ahmed/Zahra’s father’s deception is designed to subvert are significant, and the voice-shifting, fragmented, erased and reiterated narration of Ahmed/Zahra’s experience provides an interesting perspective to embody gender conflict, but I am most haunted by the seven nameless sisters, the meagre Macabeas who, being female, are excluded from public and narrative space.
Ahmed/Zahra’s pain is murderous, driving her to suicidal thoughts and to flee her family. The sadness she describes reminded me of the ‘gender sadness’ Julia Serano mentions feeling before her transition. She longs to live as a woman, yet fears to give up the rights and freedoms of a man. She speaks about her tormenting conscience – but Ben Jelloun does not take this hint at feminist solidarity(?) further. She also speaks of being taught to consider herself superior to women, something difficult to unlearn.
The first storyteller says that Islam is the source of the social inferiority of women, and later another character describes the Koran as a book whose words have “the force of law yet lack a woman’s perspective”. But the story reveals how some men will go to great lengths to maintain the concentration of economic and social power in male hands, subverting Islam and the law. Ahmed/Zahra’s own authoritarian behaviour in early adulthood is particularly revealing of the consequences of patriarchal socialisation. This is a skillful and nuanced part of the story.
Ben Jelloun makes careful efforts to socially place his various narrators, and perhaps I missed many of the significances of this because I lack experience of Moroccan society. However, the impression I got was that Ahmed/Zahra’s story is not uncommon. While the focus on an individual (though divided) consciousness allows intense interior reflection and some character development that helps empathy, the fragmentation of the narrative suggests to me both public obsession (like the circus) and a multiplicity of people in Ahmed/Zahra’s situation.
Ahmed/Zahra’s body is constantly referred to as a secret that will betray her, but she also has a distinct male self with whom she corresponds. This self is fascinated by her and sometimes admonishes, but never objectifies her. For most of the book, the first storyteller speaks of Ahmed/Zahra as he/him, but switches when she begins to live, still ambiguously and partly in secret, as a woman, appropriately marking a social transition. This is the last moment of clarity for me, except a few subsequent mentions of political struggle, brief and vague but intriguing.
This style of writing, images flowing in succession submerged in interior reflections and unobtrusive transitions between tellers, is rarely a success for me. I find the bulk of the text unmemorable and the constant mention of dreams, death and so on wash over me as unaffecting commonplace despite its eloquence and poetry. I accummulate an overall discomfort at sexually explicit descriptions and images of illness, aging and burial, but I find it hard to make sense and meaning from these passages.