Kaddour’s work is nothing short of genius. He navigates through the Maghreb, moving past the picturesque landscapes and diverse populations, highlighting colonial prejudice and mindsets, the bold ideas of young reformers and the ideas of educated youths who perceive colonization as oppression as well as the blasé attitude of those who find colonialism backwards, but do not regard it as slavery.
The book opens with 23-year-old Rania, the daughter of Si Mabrouk Belmejdoub, an important figure and former minister of the sovereign. Widowed at 19 after her husband dies in a shell attack in Champagne, her father pressures her to remarry. However, Rania finds that marriage will not fix her heartbreak, she needs something more, something she has been craving — control of her own life.
She is a woman who “read more books in Arabic than in French” and not only that, she is taller than most average men, something her father sees as a “handicap.” Sent to her uncle’s farm on the outskirts of Nahbés, a city in the south, Rania helps around the fields when her aunt takes ill. It is there that she begins to find herself among the farm, the fig trees and fields. She begins to read all of her uncle’s books, which makes him unhappy. “His niece wanted to know more than men, which wasn’t good for her or the family.”
The first sign of prejudice that Kaddour tackles in the book is that of gender, which he captures brilliantly and continues to reference throughout the book. For Rania, in the Maghreb, a woman who desires education and seeks to explore the world she lives in, is a danger to not only men, but to society. Such a woman is even perceived as a danger to French society, as educated natives are more dangerous than uneducated ones. If she is not content with living in the small box that she has been put into, she is a menace to herself and others. She reads newspapers and speaks of reform and people’s rights and her uncle is furious. For a woman to have thoughts such as these in a city occupied by colonizers is troublesome because, as her uncle knows, those kinds of ideas amount to nothing when an occupier stands over you.
The French, the colonials in particular, are “much more civilized than all these natives” and are the decision-makers in Nahbés. They have kept a fine balance in the city, “a dual city resting on a plateau on the shores of the sea and cut in two by a deep valley perpendicular to the shore; a city that for centuries occupied only the right side of the valley, the left side having been exclusively (occupied) by the French colonists,” who allow themselves to live freely and keep the natives under tight wraps by Senegalese soldiers who keep order by standing on the bridge that connects the cities. On the native side are walls, mosques and souks and on the European side, a post office, train station and Jules-Ferry Avenue.
The French are content with their way of life until the Americans arrive to film “Warrior of the Sands.” They are noisy and indiscreet, men and women sit together and women show too much skin and drive cars — it is enough to rattle the natives and the French. They look like the French, but are not like the French and may even be against colonialism.
What ensues after their arrival is a mix of ideas, cultures, prejudices, social upheaval and much more. There is a culture clash as the Americans invite the natives and the French to their parties and disrupt the existing social order. There you meet brilliant characters such as young Raouf, the caïd’s son and an activist, the American actress Kathryn Bishop and her director husband Neil Diantree, the French colonizer Ganthier and French journalist Gabrielle Conti.
Kaddour’s characters are brilliant in their perfection and simultaneous flaws. The situations they find themselves in, and the wit that ensues during these controversial events, is unadulterated. Kaddour’s book touches upon the many contradictions in society in the form of gender prejudice, racial discrimination, ageism and social prejudice.
Kaddour’s work is a take on Edward Said’s seminal book “Orientalism” in fiction form. The prevailing attitude is that of the oppressor who views natives as exquisite or rare because the idea that a native could be like a European is too unfathomable to believe.
The story is told through a beautiful mix of poetry, verse and literature from England, North Africa, Persia, the Middle East and France. Kaddour explores the complicated relationships that are to be had under colonization, the misinterpretations of cultures and the clarity that comes when you live without prejudice. His every character is allowed to observe and judge for themselves.
The power in the first few pages of Kaddour’s book is profound and continues to grow as the book moves forward and as readers encounter loved and much-hated characters. Politics drive the characters, their lives intertwined with their oppressors and their futures blocked by them.
Kaddour conveys the dangers of xenophobia and orientalism, of close-mindedness, isolation and the mindset of exclusivity. When the aim is to oppress, the outcome is never good. It is relevant because, even today, we can see that the consequences of colonialism are never-ending, nor is the entitlement of being from a particular race, culture, religion or family.
Kaddour’s book lays out the contradictions and misfortunes of powers that find strength in oppression. In the end, it amounts to heartbreak and delusion — the idea that the oppressed will turn around and love their oppressors and obey without question. Kaddour makes it clear in his book, as he writes, “you needed life in the illusion. Others were wrong in wanting to produce the illusion of life.”