Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Almond — Nedjma

Sometimes you will be walking through a bookstore and a book will just catch your eye. No matter what you do, you can't avoid it, because it just has one of those covers. And if you're lucky, it will actually be a good book. The Almond was this book for me, and I won't deny that the subject matter drew me in even more than the cover: "The sexual awakening of a Muslim woman." My curiosity was peaked.

I am not one to go into a bookstore and pick out erotica. That's not to say I don't like reading about sex in books — on the contrary, it has been known to make me like books I otherwise wouldn't (Atonement, anyone?), and no one can deny that Sex Sells. But books about it tend to turn me off, simply because they look cheap, dirty, without a shred of taste. And while The Almond is certainly graphic and unapologetically erotic in both language and detail, it managed to avoid triteness and contrivances, exploring a real woman's discovery of sex.

"Nedjma" is a nom de plume, designed to protect the identity of the author. She tells her story centered on Badra, a woman from Imchouk forced at the age of 18 into a marriage with a much older man. Some three years later — her sexuality destroyed, her understanding of love non-existent — she escapes to Tangiers to live with her aunt. There, after a few years of hiding, she meets Driss, a wealthy doctor who over the course of ten years teaches her the glory of sex and the body.

The author tells Badra's story, going back and forth between the present and the past. In the past, she remembers a childhood wrought with sexual curiosity, innocent and powerful, and the events that led to later understandings about sex. As she describes her relationship with Driss, it is extremely graphic, but written with a poetic lens that fills the book with color and extravagance.

Her experiences are empowering, and not just sexually. In the 24 years following her escape from Imchouk, she discovers her own sexual powers in a world ruled by men and an Islamic world that is attempting to immerse itself in Western cultures and ideas. She describes her struggles with love, jealousy, abuse and, of course, the delectable nature of sex.

I really enjoyed reading this book, for it's a memoir that could very easily have gone in a different direction. The simple idea that it deals with a Muslim world, and a woman who (during her marriage) looks like the stereotype that the Western world has adopted of oppressed women, drew me in — she illustrated how sexuality is natural to everyone. You can either oppress it, as most in her world do, or learn to understand and enjoy it.

Again, it's graphic, and not necessarily happy and positive. But it's her story. And I admire her desire to share it. It's a good read, poetic and beautiful, but it can drag at times, as well as get a little repetitive in some parts and not descriptive enough in others. I would have liked to know more about her later life, though the point is mainly about what gets her there.

A good read, but far from perfect.


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