Muslim immigration and European xenophobia are serious issues, but that doesn’t mean that one need write about them in an awed, timorous manner. If you disagree, consider perusing Amara Lakhous’s second novel. Perhaps the only consistent feature of Divorce Islamic Style, with its two narrators’ desultory, stream-of-consciousness musings, is the story’s irreverence.
And that’s a good thing. The lion’s share of credit for keeping this slight and slender novel engaging must go to the Italian-Algerian author’s cheeky and cheerful approach to his subject matter. Kudos as well to the efforts of Ann Goldstein, who also translated Lakhous’s first novel, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio (the very title of which indicates the author’s flippant approach to the sensationalized) and who, in her capacity as an editor at The New Yorker, has helped bring Lakhous to the attention of North American readers.
Christian Mazzari is a young lawyer in Sicily whose life is turned upside down when he accepts an offer to work for the Italian secret service. The spooks value his knowledge of Arabic, acquired from his Tunisia-domiciled grandfather, his childhood friendship with Tunisian fishermen’s sons in Sicily and his university studies. Mazzari’s mission is to pass himself off as Issa, a Tunisian immigrant, and infiltrate a terror cell of Arab Muslims in the Viale Marconi district of Rome.
Identity-bending can be tricky. “I try to remember how my Arab acquaintances speak, especially the Tunisians. I even have to imitate their accent,” Issa observes. “The ideal is to speak an Italian with a dual cadence: Arab, because I’m Tunisian, and Sicilian, because I’m an immigrant who has lived in Sicily.”
Issa insinuates his way into the goings-on at Little Cairo, a café-cum-call centre-cum-unofficial employment agency for immigrants – and also a possible terrorist den. Owned by an Egyptian who may be part of the supposed terror cell, Little Cairo is also a place frequented by Sofia (“Safia” in Arabic), the other narrator of Divorce Islamic Style.
Sofia, an Egyptian immigrant with a wonderful daughter and a lousy husband (setting the stage for a possible romance with Issa), is both Muslim and inquisitive. Having heard a good deal about the sloe-eyed virgin females awaiting male Muslim martyrs in paradise, she ponders issues such as “the billion-euro question” that many will not ask: “What does a Muslim woman get if she has the good fortune to set foot in Paradise?”
Meanwhile, Issa finds accommodation with 11 migrant workers in a two-bedroom hovel, and lands a job as a dishwasher in a nearby pizzeria. The chapters narrated by Issa include several rich vignettes depicting the lives of unskilled workers and peddlers – legal and illegal – eking out an existence on the margins of Italian society. Of course, much of what Issa struggles with as part of an experience he knows will be temporary is a permanent feature of Sofia’s life. Plus, Sofia is a woman, so she faces double the hardship.
Make that triple the hardship. In addition to being an immigrant in Italy, as a woman she must contend with the fact that “in Muslim society the male is the opponent and the referee at the same time.” But she also grapples with Italian reactions to her head scarf, which marks her out more than anything that might give away her male coreligionists’ identity. “I was always arm in arm with a crowd of ghost companions,” Sofia complains of how she is perceived. “Their names? Jihad, holy war, suicide bomber, September 11th, terrorism, attacks, Iraq, Afghanistan, Twin Towers, bombs, March 11th, Al Qaeda, Taliban.”
A minor but entertaining tale, Divorce Islamic Style will help diversify novelistic treatment of fraught and contentious Islam-related issues. Of course, the thriller genre has long relied on Islam and Muslims as fodder for its stories – but generally in the form of caricatures. This novel is part of a different trend. Itself literary fiction, albeit middlebrow, Divorce Islamic Style joins an increasing number of novels and films that shun sombre pontification in favour of satire and farce when tackling Islam and the West, and demonstrates the talents of an author who may well produce more substantive work in the future.
Rayyan al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut, Lebanon.