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The pleasure of ferocity.

A Fortnightly Review

Something Strange, Like Hunger: Short stories
by Malika Moustadraf,
translated from Arabic by Alice Guthrie.

Saqi Books | 176 pp | £9.99. $13.41



THIS IS AN extraordinary and poignant collection of fourteen compelling stories. Their author died at 37 of chronic kidney disease, having been – according to the translator – refused essential medical treatment in Morocco, and denied a visa to travel to Germany for treatment. The apparent reason for this neglect was her outspoken feminist messages, tackling sexual mores, prejudices and religious constraints, breaching taboos on gender/sexual subject matter. Latterly, she also criticised the health system for its inadequate approach to treating kidney disease patients.

These stories are harrowing…from Moustadraf’s point of view, this is the underbelly of life in Casablanca.

The little which did appear in Morocco fell out of print, until an Egyptian publisher took on her fiction in 2020, which means that her work is once more available in Arabic. The current edition is available ‘under license from the Feminist Press in New York’, and is the first full-length translation of her work into any language.

Translator Alice Guthrie provides an affectionate account of Moustadraf’s short life, giving us necessary biographical information, as well as framing the Moroccan cultural context. There are informative footnotes and a selective glossary, providing historical and etymological illumination.

The translation is finely tuned; some Arabic words (romanised) incorporated for cultural directness, some English slang words slotted in. This sensitive combination has produced a fluent ‘feel’ to the stories, as if they were actually written in English, with interpolations from another language — no mean feat. There are familiar terms, such as halal (according to religious law), and less familiar ones, such as jihaaz, the bride price provided by the groom’s family.

Critical comment.The latter convention takes us into the cultural reach of the stories’ content. These are harrowing; sexual prejudice and violence; unwilling prostitution; marital misery; cruelty to children and animals; the detritus and chaos of the domestic and urban environment, with cockroaches and decaying food. From Moustadraf’s point of view, this is the underbelly of life in Casablanca which the stories reveal.

So, does the unrelenting harrowing content result in a harrowing read? Paradoxically, ironically, even, no, not during the reading process itself. The fourteen short stories rarely exceed a handful of pages. They are fiercely and delicately written, packing punches galore. The action is swift, time changes are cinematically rapid, the piling up of detail is unrelenting, and yet the aplomb with which each story is paced, allows space for the time it takes to read and absorb.

Moustadraf’s understanding of the twists and turns of fiction drives the pace. The opening story, ‘The Ruse’, races from a mother’s ‘discovery’ that her about-to-be-married daughter, Fatima, is not a virgin, to the mother’s discovery of her daughter’s real ‘job’. The end of the story is witty and mysterious, as Fatima’s marriage to an Italian is ‘saved’ by evidence of an apparent virginity.

Escape by marriage to a European can be one way out for a woman, but not for a man, in ‘Delusion’.  For others, not hemmed in by gender attribution, cross-sexual prostitution in public and familial violence are the norm, in ‘Just Different’. Moustadraf’s feminist tracing of female experience is not exclusive. Men are just as trapped by their inability to understand or control their sexual desires, and while the narrative voices are mostly female, the occasional male narrator is shown as often bewildered by his own situation. However, there is no easy sympathy here, when it extends to emotional and physical violence towards women. The recurrent view of the dystopian sexual relations in Moroccan culture is unavoidable, and deeply sad. A breast-feeding mother is forced by poverty and cruelty into prostitution; marriage is shown to be often a predatory male-female relationship. ‘Claustrophobia’  and ‘Blood Feast’ venture into the world of delirium and fantasy, for men and women, so traumatised that they don’t know where they are, with little or no control over their lives.

If there is such a thing as palatable indictment, this posthumous collection enables it. It does so because the reading experience is painful, fierce, while mercurial and mercifully short for each story. In the final two stories there are tiny hints of ways in which survival is made tolerable. ‘Housefly’ shows a woman in an unhappy marriage finding some consolation in erotic texting with a stranger, and ‘Death’ has viewing violent news reports as a way of continuing with daily trivia, in the face of the horrors of war abroad.

It would be naïve to pretend that these stories are bedtime reading. Nevertheless, like so much literature which reveals the horrors of the daily lives of the oppressed, it is a reminder that the tropes of fiction are as political as other forms of writing. There is a paradoxical pleasure in admiring the fierce talents and accomplishments of a courageous woman writer who is no longer with us.

Michelene Wandor is a playwright, poet, short story writer, reviewer, broadcaster, theatre historian and musician with degrees from Cambridge and Essex universities and from Trinity College / University of London. She has taught in Britain at the Guildhall School of Drama, London, the City Lit, London, London Metropolitan University and at various universities abroad. She held a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship from 2004 to 2008. Recipient of many awards and nominations, particularly for her radio dramatisations (see her ‘Dramatising Mrs Dalloway’ in the Fortnightly). Michelene Wandor is also an accomplished musician, performing Renaissance and Baroque music with her early music group, The Siena Ensemble. Her latest poetry collection is Travellers (Arc Publications 2021).



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