Ali Ghalem, A Wife for My Son (trans. G. Kazolias) (Chicago: Banner Press, 1985).
Fatiha and Hocine come from nice families, who only want the best for them. So things are arranged, then the kids informed. Fatiha’s mother takes her to an old woman who strips away her pubic hair, and invites in a midwife who slyly pokes her vagina for a virginity test. Hocine’s father sends a telegram to a Paris suburb, where Hocine lives with several fellow Algerians in a coffin-like room. Hocine heads back to a world he knows as one of doting mothers and drinking buddies, soon to be a husband. What ought to be the beginning of happily-ever-after becomes a journey into the special hell reserved for the young in societies bearing the burdens of late capitalism without its rewards.
Ali Ghalem is an Algerian filmmaker. A Wife for My Son, like the film of the same title, has won awards and a wide and enthusiastic international public. All deserved, too, for this story of sex and underdevelopment. Ghalem writes lucidly (originally in French; Kazolias provides an adequate but occasionally clumsy translation). The novel is not great literature, but it is a vivid introduction to this world usually closed to a Westerner’s casual curiosity. It is a reminder of the value of old-fashioned story novels as armchair journeys into other lives. Ghalem has an eye for the revealing moment, and his prose flows unpretentiously. He is good at mixing the concrete details — the prurient finger, the envious gaze — with the feelings they trigger. The style is no more subtle than the situation, but Ghalem is always in control of it.
The focus of the tale is Fatiha, and you might apprehend the novel as an expose of the plight of women in Arab society today. Fatiha is an ordinary girl with a smattering of education and dreams of becoming a clothing designer. Married at 16 to an inarticulate husband who goes out drinking with friends on his wedding night, she soon realizes that he is doomed to return alone to his coffin-flat in Paris, if he is ever to find work. And she is now trapped for the rest of her life inside another coffin, the home of her in-laws, able to leave only shrouded in a veil. Life promises days of sorting beans, months of pregnancy, years of stupefying animal boredom. Her faintest efforts at relief — even to write a letter to a girlfriend — are thwarted by people convinced that any sign of personality is a threat to the family.
In fact, the family is threatened by much larger forces. The young men can never become patriarchs; they can’t even find work. The young women cannot simply imitate their mothers; not only do schoolbooks and radio shows promise them other options, but economic insecurity denies them a future as traditional wives. Still, the pressure of a cruel modernity — a pictures-of-refrigerators kind of modernity — pushes everyone, young and old, into a futile search for stability in tradition. Everyone, that is, except the young bride, the only one who gets no rewards from clinging to a past symbolized by the veil.
The story lets you see and feel how this process affects all the members of the family. Even though you could get claustrophobic along with Fatiha — the nicest thing that happens to her in the book is a hospital stay, when she can talk freely with other women — this is a novel without villains. The subjective description extends to Hocine, who is baffled and threatened by his new wife; and to Hocine’s mother, who bullies Fatiha in a desperate attempt to salvage a serviceable new family member out of this uncooperative girl. It is a mark of the novel’s success that when Hocine’s brother rapes a family guest it is shocking; and yet you understand why she cuts short her visit without a word about it, and why it never occurs to him to feel guilty.
This is a view from the genitals of social crisis. And it works, not only for the reasons that soap operas get bigger audiences than public affairs shows. One family’s turmoil over sex roles is the incarnation of gross and violent processes outside the home. In Algeria, just like here, the “family ethic” is an unhealthy response to a much bigger problem.