Apr 26 2012

Divorce Islamic Style by Amara Lakhous

Ryan Healey

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If the Strait of Sicily is something of a Styx—on one side a new throng constantly collecting for departure—then its Charon is a flotilla of rusty fishing boats tagged in Arabic script. In the past year, upwards to 54,000 migrants fled North Africa by sea to pitch tents on the rockbound coast of one sleepy island in Italian territory—Lampedusa, permanent population 6,337. The Italian Interior Minister has announced a state of humanitarian emergency for what former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi once called a "human tsunami." Qaddafi was reported to have personally ordered some of the flood, saying that he wanted to "turn Lampedusa black with Africans."

Some African migrants might be lucky enough to make it past Lampedusa to the greater documentational limbo that awaits in the Rome neighborhoods portrayed in the novels of Amara Lakhous. These novels could read doubly as comprehensive, humanizing almanacs for new arrivals. Here you can learn what to expect from a residency permit: "immigrants have to wait Biblical lengths of time, as long as two years, so it's possible to get a residency permit that has already expired." Here an Egyptian might find the whole passage for naught: "In the early days it seemed to me that I was still living in Cairo. I saw so many Egyptians around that I wondered, a little astonished and bewildered, 'Where is this Rome?'" And as Egyptians begins to replace Romans, you're certain to encounter natives sympathetic to bombast like that of Lega Nord, a conservative political party whose leader suggested the Navy open fire on those fishing boats approaching la bella Italia. Influxes like that on Lampedusa are often bent into bad, xenophobic metaphors for "the Italy of the future, as the sociologists say": an increasingly geriatric (and thus increasingly dead) native population overwhelmed by stranieri.

Lakhous's second novel, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, pitted these two demographic camps in a chain of ten alternating monologues that range from nativist to near-jihadist. Tenants of a racially charged building answer to a murder investigation in a progression that patterns a kind of dialectical Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, but between Milanese professors and Afghani fishermen. As might be requisite for a novel spread ten-ways, a great polyphonic energy fleshed out the shapes of Italian xenophobia and immigrant life, but the exclamatory voice steadily became homologous and undersold the finer points of the characters' Dickensian idiosyncrasies.

Thankfully, in his new novel Divorce Islamic Style, Lakhous pares down the vocal cast in order to more wholly inhabit the names on the residency visas. It's 2005, in media res of the heady Bush terror years, and after the Madrid train bombings, governments begin to affix the European Muslim population with time-bomb tropes. The Italian intelligence agency enlists the Sicily-born but ethnically Tunisian Christian Mazzari, a court interpreter who uses university-learned Arabic to infiltrate a "made in Italy" terrorist cell concentrated around a Muslim neighborhood in Rome. Taking the name Issa, Mazzari abandons his life in Palermo to call prop relatives in Tunisia, live in an overcrowded dormitory, work as a pizza maker, but mostly to palaver with totally harmless immigrants about politics, religion, and their lives while Al Jazeera plays in the background as a debate topic moderator. One half of the novel is this nuanced "going native" story, as Issa becomes intimate with counterfeiters and dishwashers and his original mission recedes behind newfound empathy and altruism—the bildung of the "Robin Hood of the poor immigrants on Viale Marconi."

Entwined with this is the much more compelling domestic drama of Sofia, a dissatisfied Egyptian immigrant in the same neighborhood. A practicing Muslim who prefers multicolored veils, Sofia accompanied her arranged husband to the "Mecca of fashion" and now works furtively as a hairdresser. Sofia's fraught marriage bears the novel's best conceit: under sharia, divorce is predicated on the triple talaq, in which a divorce is complete when the husband simply states "Anti talaq"—I divorce you—three times. Sofia has been told "anti talaq" two times now, and considers the third with equal anticipation and dread. There is anticipation because of "a true religious somersault"—if she wants to reunite with her husband after divorce (as is expected), she must first marry, sleep with, and then divorce another man, a muhallil. In two mirrored movements—the disintegration of Sofia's marriage and Issa's nascence in the neighborhood—Lakhous builds up to a synthetic climax that elevates Issa to muhallil prospect No. 1, upturning the poles of his Tunisian-Italian background.

The lifeblood of Divorce Islamic Style is a pious negative capability that props up Lakhous's vocal seesaw between Issa and Sofia. This is an incision unique to the novel, something nonfiction couldn't quite do without some trappings. In an essaying nonfiction you'd have pressures of fact-based mimesis that would dilute a novel's portrait of crude but convincingly real characters. A description in Issa's voice, of a butcher nicknamed Signor Haram, would sound tonally outlandish or even jaundiced in a nonfiction: "He has plenty of time to spend on his bullshit. He seems to have a taste for terrorizing poor Muslim immigrants, especially Egyptians, with extremist judgments…he sees prohibitions everywhere. He earned his nickname by coming up with a new prohibition every damn day." Fictions are permitted a suspension of belief that is all the more crucial when working with intimate scenes opaque to native Westerners. (But of course—this has been the opportunistic porthole for all Orientalists from Flaubert to Mike Daisey.) Lakhous therefore must be taken at his word, which can be specious, but there is at least the up-front consolation that it's not Facts he's pushing. That ubiquitous subtitle on paperbacks, A Novel, is an inaugural signpost that indicates that the book's larger Truth relies primarily on its internal coherence and its verisimilitude to referents we share across contexts and cultures. This lets us focus on voices and relations rather than the persuasion implicit in nonfiction (because after all, it's our actual, immediate world—the one we can intervene in).

As a novelist of culture clash, Lakhous has the faculty to maintain colorful voices with the luxury of introducing political themes as instantiations of character. Lakhous isn't interested so much in accurately portraying demographics as he is in reporting the subtleties of immigrant/native rhetoric. By way of a focus on voice, these culture clash relations are taken individually as such, rather than as a convenient cultural aggregate.

Though Divorce Islamic Style is quilted as a novel of issues—people in internet cafes and park benches debate extremism, amnesty, fatwas, Islamic and Western sexuality, domestic violence, female circumcision, the afterlife for women—Lakhous's accent is on building characters through their political convictions. For Lakhous, characters are really only fleshed out in their mini-treatises—and everyone has their take. In conversation with her Italian friends, Sofia sharply distinguishes herself by condemning implants, because she intends to return a body that is on loan to God. Indeed, it is difficult to separate characters from their political affiliations—they are political creatures through and through, which is something that risks a bald allegory—but personal history layers them out of flat Everyimmigrants. Sofia soon tempers her disapproval of breast implants by identifying it in personal caprice, rather than damning religious edict. This is the complicating function of the novel, that which stratifies the metaphor of a "human tsunami" with sympathy and faces, against the dark, "teeming" crests about to crash down on a pale Capri beach.

Amin Maalouf wrote that cultural identity is like "a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound." Throughout his determinedly Arab/Italian hybrid of a novel, Lakhous beats away at his particular pair of timpani in a comic rhythm of all'italiana and all'islamica, building on inter-Mediterranean antecedents ranging from Fellini to Abdel Halim Hafez. Something of a stand-in for Lakhous the Tunisian-Italian himself, Issa is appropriately a chameleon—nicknamed the "Arab Marcello" by Sofia (after Mastroianni)—who speaks in dual cadences of Arabized Italian and Italianized Arabic, but without coming across as a larger symbol of Globalized Multicultural Man. Such figures, and such authors, are indispensable when they straddle these rich street-level dramas and help cast blood onto geopolitical ghosts. It is Lakhous' accomplishment in Divorce Islamic Style to render a Rome entirely alien to the cachet of documentation—legal or otherwise.

Ryan Healey is a writer and translator living in New York.

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