Who’s a Muslim?

When Zahia Rahmani was announced as the 2020 winner of the Albertine Prize, a literary award created by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States to honor both the author and translator of an outstanding French work recently translated into English, a common reaction was, “Who is she?”
Zahia Rahmani. © Courtesy of Deep Vellum Books

Zahia Rahmani, who was born in 1962, is a French author with North African roots whose complex relationship with both her adopted country, France, and country of origin, Algeria, as well as with the stereotypes surrounding the word “Muslim” form the core of her prize-winning, semi-autobiographical novel, “Muslim”: A Novel (in French, “Musulman” roman).

Despite the sound of her name to Western ears, Rahmani is not an Arab. She is a Berber, a term which refers to descendants of one of the largest nomadic tribes in Africa. She spoke exclusively Kabyle, the Berber language, until she was five years old and her family moved to France, where she was schooled and learned French, Arabic, and several North African languages. She has made clear on numerous occasions that she has no religious beliefs, but is deeply opposed to religious intolerance and racial hatred. Today she makes her living as a writer and translator of North African literatures into French.

Rahmani’s successful integration into Western society (she spends a good bit of time in the United States as well as France) has not stilled a lingering sense of alienation, of never feeling completely at home. She believes she remains something of a pariah (her word), someone not fully accepted for who she is in either France, the United States, or the Arab world. She imagines herself a wanderer, a modern day Bedouin, forever moving within three continents, Europe, North America, and Africa. Her presentiment of never really being at ease anywhere also has a deeply personal source. Her father was a Harki.

“Harki” comes from the Arabic word harka, which means “war party.” It refers to native Algerians who served in the French army during the Algerian War (1954-1962). Their reasons for doing so were varied: a way of avoiding the widespread unemployment in Algeria, a means of protecting family and property, a reflection of a dislike of the political and social aims championed by the FLN (Front de libération nationale, National Liberation Front), part of a family tradition of service in the French military. When the war ended with the Evian Accords in 1962, the Harkis were promised protection and safe haven by the French, while the FLN swore there would be no reprisals. Neither side kept its word. For the French, Harkis were potentially violent immigrants of the wrong skin color, while the Algerians thought they had betrayed the revolutionary cause and were potential insurrectionists. De Gaulle tried to keep as many Harkis as possible out of France, and the ones that did manage to get in (often with the help of French soldiers under whom they had served), were relegated to detainee camps in remote parts of France where their presence was not appreciated by the local population. The new Algerian government swiftly turned on the Harkis who remained in Algeria, torturing and executing thousands of them.

On a broader scale, two traumatic events confirmed Rahmani’s awareness that people often refuse to see others as anything except what they already imagine them to be, and then based on these simplistic assumptions, form negative judgments about them. Images of violence and death dominated our memory of 9/11, but what also stood out to some were film clips of Arab women dancing in glee at the destruction of so many of Satan’s minions. Two years later, photos of naked Iraqi prisoners being humiliated by male and female American soldiers in the prison of Abu Ghraib were similarly demoralizing to Rahmani. For her, the oversimplification of the complex remains a source of so much of the world’s misery.

“Muslim”: A Novel transforms many of Rahmani’s personal beliefs and experiences into fiction. The novel begins and ends with an unnamed female narrator confined to a cell in an Algerian prison camp. She has left her stable life in France and has been wandering across North Africa to escape the social profiling that victimized her in the Hexagon. The woman is a well-educated Berber of no religious persuasion who works as a writer and translator. Yet for the French and the Algerians, her personal and social achievements, not to mention her individuality, hold no significance. In their eyes, she is just une musulmane. If the connotations of this word are somewhat different for the French and the Algerians, the term is for both an amorphous concept which cloaks a variety of prejudices and clichés. In French eyes, a Muslim is an ill-educated Arab who speaks Arabic, hates Jews, manages to communicate in a heavily accented, approximate French and tends to live off the dole. For the Algerian militants, many Muslims in France have turned their back on Allah and their Arabic brethren, and have embraced crass Western values. That this young woman does not really fall into any of these categories is lost on the Algerians and the French.

Although the narrator is largely powerless against the multitude of idées fixes surrounding her, she does possess one weapon with which she can push back against her tormentors: her ability to deploy words effectively and ironically. When she is questioned by a French official in a detainee camp, the man is unable to grasp why the woman does not conform to all the clichés associated with les musulmans, and for this reason thinks she might be a terrorist. When he tries to ask what he hopes are leading questions, she answers ironically. At one point, she says she is an engineer. The Frenchman immediately thinks of sabotage, but then she explains that writing and translating require careful engineering for a text to be successful and achieve its ends.

The Algerian interrogation reprises the French one. The questions voice suspicion while the responses exude irony. When asked to give her name, she replies, “Elohim.” The interrogator seems perplexed and notes that it is not a common name in Algeria. She remains silent, but one can assume she takes some pleasure in evoking in the midst of an Arab prison one of the Hebrew names for God.

For Rahmani, musulman is a bloated, overused term which confuses more than it clarifies. This is probably why “Muslim” is in quotation marks in the title, followed by “A Novel.” The scare quotes call into question the multiple abuses of the word, and “A Novel” suggests that in all too many cases what “Muslim” purports to mean is nothing other than a fiction.


“Muslim”: A Novel by Zahia Rahmani, translated from French by Matthew Reeck, Deep Vellum Publishing, 2019. 145 pages, 14.95 dollars.