What drew me to this novel: the Paris setting. How has France dealt with its influx of African migrants? The ones who do the dish-washing and dog-walking – the ones whose chores grow less appealing as their skin grows darker?
When I lived in Germany 25 years ago, the increasing population of Turkish and Italian “guestworkers” was becoming an issue. In Japan 20 years ago, Nigerians washed dishes in all the restaurants; Iranians sold stolen phone cards on the streets; Israeliis hawked homemade jewelry.
Now I wondered, how would a fictional maid from a Tunesian island fare in France, and could two Americans really get inside her mind and her spirit? (Yes, we can.)
The idea that a writer of one race has no business creating characters of another – to me, that’s nonsense. Why, that would mean I could never have male characters in my book! Or people older than me; I haven’t been that age, how would I know how an older person thinks? Feels? Sees the world? My position is that it’s ok as long as the author is aware…and the reader takes it into consideration.
Disclaimer: Authors are not Tunesian. They are New Yorkers – he is the European editor at Conde Nast Traveler.
Rachida & Fatima
Having just read Infidel, by an actual Arab-African woman living in Holland, I think the character of Fatima is a little too Western. Inside. Upon her arrival in Paris, for example, she doesn’t turn a hair at 1) being embraced by a strange American man or 2) seeing prostitutes in a park. Ayaan Hirsi Ali would have been (and was) deeply shocked and repulsed. On the other hand, Ms. Ali is a Somali who lived in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, and she takes pains to point out the vast differences in the treatment of women in the Muslim world.
Fatima and her sister Rachida are from the island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunesia. Perhaps that culture is more relaxed about women’s bodies? (Sadly, while I usually sweep the Geography category in Trivial Pursuit, I have never before heard of Djerba, the largest North African island. They need to make a cartoon with talking animals.)
So Fatima is portrayed as a typical Muslim woman who is looked down on at home because she has no children and far worse, no husband. But the authors paint her as knowing deep inside that her ex, cousin Muhamed, would have been the pits to live with so she’s better off. I’m not sure she would carry that conviction yet – not without a long time in the West first – if indeed she ever did. Look, I long ago left the fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist religion of my childhood – but at 39 I sometimes STILL get worried about hell. It is damned near impossible to to overcome emotional childhood programming with logic, though you can try. That said…this is a delightful, appealing, wonderful, heartwarming book.
The French bits
They still have nobility! They drink red wine at cafes early in the morning! They have concierges and they adore little dogs! They think their national character is “rational” based on the Age of Reason! I thought this was funny because I have always perceived the French as irrational, impulsive, over-emotional, escargot-eating comic characters who are snobbish about their precious language. Apparently this isn’t at all how they see themselves. (Or how New York authors see them as seeing themselves.)
Like Water for Chocolate, if you loved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, you will love Fatima’s Good Fortune. (I love Google for doing what humans could not – If you had told me while I worked at Auntie’s Bookstore, “I’m looking for a great book I read years ago. The cover was canary yellow. It was about some Arab shopkeepers in England…Pakistani I think…” I would not have been able to help you.)
Truly, we are sent nothing but angels; we are given nothing but miracles. One such is the possibility of escaping our individual prisons, as Fatima does: Whether we built them ourselves from addiction or low self-esteem; whether imposed by family, culture, or something deep inside…
I love that Fatima in a foreign land is still who she is…a “traditionally-built” woman in a bright orange djellaba; that something deep inside her prompts her to help others even when she cannot help herself. Maybe especially then.
I love that every sentence in this book was as delightful to read as lying on a beach on an island off the coast of Tunesia, watching camels try to drink the saltwater. I love that every sentence in this book made me think that perhaps drinking red wine at 9 a.m. in a Parisian café called the Jean Valjean might not, after all, be completely unreasonable.