What a delectable title! The cover of this book drew intrigued glances from travelers on the F train and provoked a prolonged conversation with a stranger in a Lower East Side bar. Leïla Marouane, an Algerian writer who was born Leyla Zineb Mechentel and has lived in Parisian exile for the last two decades, chose well, and did so with a wink or three.
For anyone familiar with recent French writing, this novel will likely remind them of the scandalous and widely noted copulative memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M, a Story of O for this century, by Catherine Millet. And who does not feel both mildly horrified and mildly titillated by the juxtaposition of sex and Islamism? Yet the biggest wink of all soon becomes clear: The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris is in fact a work of humor and irony. Marouane has written a light and unusual feminist tract about Arab male impotence—sexual, religious, and otherwise.
At first sight, Mohamed Ben Mokhtar seems to exemplify the integration success story in Republican France. Born in an Algerian bled (or village), Mohamed came to France in his childhood, studied hard and graduated from the elite business school HEC, and by the age of forty, made a brilliant career at an unnamed Parisian bank. But like so many Arab immigrants to France, he feels trapped between his two worlds. At night he goes home to a project out in Saint-Ouen, a shabby banlieue (or suburb) near Paris, the kind of place that hosted weeks of rioting in 2005. He lives there with his strong-willed mother and his pious brother. A handsome man, he is a virgin who rejects the mail-order brides from back home chosen by his mother. He was religiously fundamentalist before extended contact with this “debauched country” made him discard his faith.
When we meet him, Momo makes a snap decision. He will start his life anew, in a beautiful apartment off Boulevard Saint-Germain, and make up for lost sexual time. He had found a way to live incognito in the white world of Paris by day—so why not by night? Back in high school, he had officially changed his name to Basile Tocquard. “I realized that Mohamed, Sami, or Elias: it’s all one and the same,” he says. “Only a completely French name, with nothing suspicious about it, would allow me to blend into the mass of white people.” It is common knowledge, apparently, that no self-respecting landlord in the 6th arrondissement would ever consider a tenant named Mohamed, no matter how strong his financials. He cuts off his Maghrebian locks to cover up his “true origins,” though “there were still a few tight curls that resisted the expert fingers of my coiffeur.” His olive skin could pass for an Italian. So he musters the courage to tell his mother he is moving out, and embarks on the life of the Western hedonist.
This portrait is something of a caricature but it also rings true. Poor education, the absence of job opportunities (particularly lower down the scale) and discrimination (in housing and work) hold back France’s Muslim minority, the largest anywhere in Europe. But the Republic has done better than arguably any other nation on the Continent to integrate them. Momo—or say, in the real world, the soccer phenom Zinedine Zidane—isn’t all that unique.
Nor is his existential confusion. Older immigrants from North Africa know who they are; but the next generation, who either left at an early age or were born overseas, often find themselves in a no-man’s land, disconnected from the land of their parents as well as their adopted France. So you see swings, above all among the men, in North African communities in France—from complete immersion (a French spouse, a whiskey at night and offspring named Pierre or Nathalie) back to religious fundamentalism (the beard, native clothes at prayer time, membership in extremist organizations). And the swing goes the other way, too.
In addition to the generational complexity, the other fault line is gender—the stereotypical Arab patriarchy. Yet exile in Western Europe has put some severe strains on it. Scholars of French Islam sometimes say that the underlying tension in the banlieues is not so much us vs. them—the Muslim immigrant against the Christian native—as sister vs. brother: the woman who wishes to escape to a life of Western clothes and men, and her brother, feeling threatened by the unbridled liberation of their new land, who beats her back, shrouding her in a veil or marrying her off to a first cousin in the bled or the banlieue. (Mohamed has three sisters himself: one got sent off to an arranged marriage in Algeria and lives in virtual captivity in a godforsaken village; another married a French convert to Islam; and a third, who seems happiest of all after her mother threw her out of the family for hooking up with a highly successful and non-Muslim Frenchman in Paris.)
Marouane goes still further. The patriarchy, in her portrait of it, is a sham. Her men are weaklings, and the sisters mostly get their way. Poor Mohamed: he dreams his forbidden dream, “a blonde with firm round breasts,” but somehow the newly fashioned “Sultan of Saint Germain” is thwarted at every turn. He manages to meet only Algerian women—older ones, at that. Try as he might, he cannot give away his virginity. One potential conquest says that her husband would smell him on her; another does not want him to endanger an incipient pregnancy; a third says she does not have condoms big enough for him. (His size is the one thing going for Mohamed, but even this endowment is for naught.) It is fair to say, though, that he is not the only man emasculated here. His French brother-in-law Alain, nicknamed by his new Algerian family Ali, was circumcised to complete his conversion to Islam, and his snipped foreskin, bathed in formaldehyde, sits in a pickle jar on his mother-in-law’s shelf.
As it turns out, Momo’s mother is the only woman who cares enough to try to seduce and conquer him, but not—let it be clear—in any sexual sense. Away from her, he becomes delirious and slowly goes mad. Eventually he succumbs again to her domineering personality. In his schizophrenia as in his sexual frustration, Marouane means Momo to stand for the Arab Everyman in France—or perhaps for everyman everywhere?
By the last third of her novel Marouane resorts to enough post-modern hocus pocus to make one yearn for firmer ground and more concrete and continued insight into the French Arab universe. As the story winds down, I start to scratch my head. What was really going on? Did all this happen, or was it imagined by Mohamed? Still, Marouane deserves to take her place in the growing and impressive fraternity—or more precisely, sorority—of North African novelists working in modern France, and her “Non-Sexual Life of a Religiously Lapsed and Culturally Confused French-Arab Male” (as it were) is a daring and often enjoyable book.
Matthew Kaminski, a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, was based in Paris from 2002-08.