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On Translating Zahia Rahmani’s Invisible Tongues

By Lara Vergnaud

Lara Vergnaud’s translation of an excerpt from Zahia Rahmani’s “Muslim” appears in the August 2017 issue: The New French.

Zahia Rahmani’s writing is a conversation—one-sided, with absent or distant interlocutors. Attempting to reconcile herself with her Maghrebian heritage and a modern-day France hostile to North African immigrants, the author dialogues with her ancestors, parents, siblings, and teachers—living and departed—and, reservedly, with her readers. I say reservedly because her work—a loose trilogy of autobiographical novels: France, Story of a Childhood; Moze; and “Muslim”—offers us only a veiled window into her past. Through remembered conversations and stories, the author allows us guarded glimpses of intimate and formative events in her life.

The spoken word, conveyed through memories replete with legends, fables, songs, and dreams, is central in all of Rahmani’s writing. Words and phrases in Kabyle, the Berber dialect of her parents, and in French alternate to represent the past and present. In Moze, the author speaks with her father’s ghost ten years after his suicide. In France, the author leads a solitary conversation with her dying mother, Ourida. And Ourida’s shadow looms over the translated passage from “Muslim,” in the stories passed down orally that shape the narrator’s childhood.

Indeed, Ourida is arguably the most important voice in all of Rahmani’s books. The magic of the novels is contained in the family lore she imparts to her children to protect them from a turbulent world. The legends serve to anchor her family in the foreign, isolated Oise region of France where the family moved after the Algerian War of Independence. Already marginalized like other North African immigrants living in France, Rahmani’s family was further alienated by their patrimony. Rahmani’s father held the disgraced status of a Harki, an Algerian who aided French forces during the Algerian War of Independence. Thus the family was scorned on both sides of the Mediterranean. In Algeria, five-year-old Rahmani was pelted with stones. In France, the neighborhood children sicced a dog on her and laughed when she was bitten.

In “Muslim,” the author explores questions of religious and cultural identity, notably the role of mothers in shaping those identities, a prevalent theme in so-called “Harki literature,” and the influence of language on that maternal transmission. In this work, as the narrator struggles to find a place in between two worlds—one of the unwanted “‘survivors,’ those caught in the middle”—language serves as both barrier and entryway. By abandoning Kabyle, the young Zahia can ease her way into French culture. She accesses the family’s new surroundings in a way her monolingual mother cannot. Though never truly assimilating, the narrator can at least “beat ’em” by excelling at school. She also finds sanctuary in French-language books, both the French classics and American works in translation.

French thus serves as the language of literature, scholarly achievement, and escape from family strictures. (Though Rahmani rejected her parents’ faith as a child, she is largely identified as a “Muslim” in France.) But even as Little Tom Thumb, the hero of France’s most beloved fairytale, guides her through an overwhelming new world, he reminds her of where she came from: “Like Tom Thumb, who had to save his own, I needed to face the ogres and defeat them.” As she belatedly discovers, Kabyle is the language of family, pride, and cultural transmission—though, because it is a primarily oral one, it is a largely invisible (at least in France). And so for the young Zahia, initially resistant to any vestiges of her family’s former life in Algeria, particularly the Berber language, Ourida’s mythology grows to be a source of comfort and pride. However hostile their new neighbors—rural, white inhabitants who rarely encountered outsiders, let alone Muslim immigrants—Ourida’s recitations are a benevolent shield that extends from across the Mediterranean Sea.

The result: “Muslim” is a patchwork of linguistic influences from family narratives, Berber legends, the Quran, and French nursery stories. The “Magic Pit and the Tree of Adversity” is as important in Rahmani’s childhood as Little Tom Thumb. Though written in a simple and accessible style, “Muslim” contains a complex tapestry interweaving past and present, Algeria and France, resentment and pride. But the narrator comes to appreciate her linguistic heritage too late. The “night of the elephants” has done its damage. In the same way that she can never go home again, the author can never fully reclaim her lost language.

Published Aug 23, 2017   Copyright 2017 Lara Vergnaud

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