Recommended reading from feminist narratives in the Arab world:

How long had she been living on the top floor of this empty building that stood by the side of the road? Lila couldn’t say. She didn’t question it; why count the days? It might have been before dawn today or yesterday at daybreak or perhaps three or four days ago that she was slinking around and had entered this freshly painted sunny place, as if mere chance had driven her in this direction. She had followed a hurried little man, the concierge. The elevator? No, she wouldn’t take the elevator. Yes, she wanted to see everything, go through everything at the same pace; she had all the time in the world. (What did time mean since Ali’s departure? A black ocean sprawling before her with nothing moving across it, not a sail in sight, no open view, nowhere to go.) The little man in front of her rushes, explains: “Two apartments on each floor. I would suggest a southern exposure . Sun all day long. It’s a new building, completed last year for civil servant families. A special architect from France. Yes, it’s still empty. Well . . . with what’s happening today some people don’t want to risk living here. It’s far, you know. The neighborhood as well. Are you alone?” “I’m alone,” Lila says to herself. “I’ll be living alone. What’s the difference?” “Pardon me, little lady, but what I was telling you was just meant as advice. You should carefully choose a fatma to work for you.”

“One fatma always chooses another fatma with care!” She was accustomed to responding in this vein; her lack of aggression, with just a hint of cold irony, always puzzled those who, because of her bearing, her clothes, and her complexion, took her for a European and therefore in all good faith played on this form of solidarity. The concierge takes the answer as a snobbish foreign quirk; but he, too, has his doubts and dares not pursue it any further . He will see her name later, unless, he thinks, she is one of those, unfortunately too many, French women who come from France with the sole purpose of marrying an Arab. Lila had spent the whole morning there. She had seen every one of the apartments on all six floors. She had inspected everything: the whiteness of the walls, the way the water heater worked in the shower room, the view from the windows over the town and then over the river; the concierge didn’t recommend the latter. “Why?” She asked the question nonchalantly and as he answered, the little man thought: “Yes, she really has to be a foreigner, because she doesn’t avert her eyes from the plot of wasteland and the wretched shacks piled up there where the shantytown begins behind the hill. Or she really is a fatma, as she said; why not? No, she has nothing of the hussy. Even when those people want to look like us, something of their origin always remains. A fatma never has green eyes!” he concluded , to reassure himself. She said, “Why?” and stayed to contemplate the river, and sure enough, he could tell she was hardly paying any attention to her own question. She began to go through the whole place again, empty hallways, steep stairs, at the same calm pace, as if she were far away, wandering, uncertain, with that same look, a shimmering gaze she would quickly train on others before she turned it back inward to her dreams and their smoky whorls. A strange young woman, the concierge thought again. He made an effort to hide his growing, nasty mistrust of her beneath a garrulous flow of words, providing her with information to which she wasn’t listening; he knew it and was hurt. A strange young woman suddenly emerging from nowhere without any luggage, as if—good Lord!—our town no longer was an embattled place but a resort for solitary tourists attracted by rest and exile. Why here? There were plenty of hotels in the center of town where she could have stayed. Her desire to live here alone, in an empty building on the edge of town, was truly very odd. For she was moving in. “I’ll take this apartment,”

– Lila’s story in Children of the New World by Assia Djebar, published in 2005, translated by Marjolijn de Jager.

Image: A man serves the tea. Atlas Mountains, Morocco.

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