There’s an elaborate ruse at the center of Amara Lakhous’s new novel, Divorce Islamic Style, so clever that the main character, Christian Mazzari, does not realize that he is being tricked into doing one thing, while actually doing another. The ruse cons the reader, also, into believing that the story is about one thing, while it’s about something else. Even the title throws us off-guard. A comedy perhaps about Islamic divorce? Unlikely, given the novel’s focus mostly on Muslim illegals in Rome, where the daily issues are largely economic survival and avoiding the police and, thus, being deported.
Christian Mazzari, born in Sicily though of Tunisian extraction, is recruited to work for Italy’s SISMI, military intelligence, after they have identified two terrorist groups (spin-offs of Al Qaeda) in Rome’s Little Cairo, presumably plotting to blow up a government building. Most of the events in the story take place in Viale Marconi, which includes a call center where illegal immigrants make inexpensive phone calls back to their homes in North Africa. Christian is given a new identity and a new name, Issa, and it is his narration of the story that largely focuses on the threat of terrorism in Italy.
The second narrator is Sofia, the frustrated Egyptian wife of a university-trained architect, Said, who can’t get a job commensurate with his education and works, instead, as a pizza cook. Sofia, who thought her husband was liberal, discovers that Said, known as Felice, expects her to wear the veil and live as a traditional Muslim woman in Rome, in spite of all the Western temptations that confront her every day. On the sly, Sofia has been cutting women’s hair and hopes eventually to become a beautician.
It takes most of the story to bring Issa and Sofia together, though their paths overlap a number of times before they actually meet. As dual narrators of the novel, the two of them present a broad swathe of Rome’s Islamic community, with their stories focusing on hardship and frustration—and continual harassment by authorities and the racism they and their peers confront every day. Issa stays for a while in the squalid premises of a rich Italian woman who rents out sections of her house to illegals at exorbitant fees, confining them to six or eight to a room, where she has slapped together bunk beds. She’s even got them sleeping in her kitchen because she doesn’t want to lose the income from any leftover space under her control.
An on-going theme of the novel is “immigrant failure,” which prevents many illegal immigrants from returning home. Sofia observes that though she can speak to her family back in Egypt frequently, she can’t be honest about most of her feelings and what is happening to her. “Immigrants prefer to lie to their relatives when they’re unemployed, or exploited at work, or treated badly by the police, and so on. Why? They’re afraid of not being understood, of being considered failures. That’s the key word: failure. Every immigrant is condemned to be successful.” They’re expected to send money home to their families every month. Many of the men have left wives and children back at home who depend upon their remittances for survival.
This economic enslavement conjures up images of literal slavery (Africans brought to the New World) though the irony here is that the illegal North Africans in Europe have mostly made the decision to cross into Europe because of the lack of opportunities at home. That’s no surprise to most of us who keep up with international affairs but Lakhous doesn’t leave it there. He provides a larger context, again, using Sofia as his voice:
“Every immigrant who goes home for vacation wants to demonstrate that he’s been successful. In fact, he has to act like a rich guy, play the part of the American uncle. First of all, he has to dress like a movie star, then he has to hand out money right and left. The script is heavy and repetitious, and has to last the whole length of the visit Worse than any soap opera. Mistakes are not tolerated. The performance has to be perfect.
“My dear immigrant, I advise you strongly not the talk about the unpleasant or negative aspects of immigration. Like? Well, there’s an embarrassment of choices. I’ll be content to cite just a few examples: unemployment, off-the-books employment, high rent, racism, fear of losing your residency permit, absence of family, etc. etc. But it’s all pointless—no one will believe you. If someone asks, ‘How do you live in the West, in Europe, in Italy?’ remember the right answer: ‘It’s a paradise on earth!’ This is fundamental. And there’s no harm if you add a little something from your rich imagination.”
During the many years that I taught literature at American University, in Washington, D.C., I encountered a number of international students who were stuck, who couldn’t go home because of failure. I remember one man, no longer young, who was literally trapped. He couldn’t pass his exams for the M.A.; thus, he could not get his degree. And since he could not get his degree, he could not go home. To do so would be humiliating for his family. I don’t even know what finally happened to him. He disappeared into the cracks—all because of the pressure to succeed.
Amara Lakhous records the numerous pitfalls, the obstacles confronting immigrants (both legal and illegal) living in Italy—the ways that they bond together, even though they may be from different countries; their survival methods; and above all the enormous difficulties trying to hold on to traditional cultures in the midst of in-your-face Western mores and temptations. The translation from the Italian by Ann Goldstein is vibrant and alive, especially the dialogue spoken by Lakhous’s memorable characters.
Amara Lakhous: Divorce Islamic Style
Trans. by Ann Goldstein
Europa, 184 pp., $15
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.