Dreaming of "Woman Country"

In her novel "Woman Country", Rachida Lamrabet describes the painful soul-searching of a Moroccan woman who has emigrated to Belgium. The young woman finds herself torn between a western lifestyle and the traditions of her homeland. A review by Volker Kaminski

photo: Koen Broos
Gripping tableau of a nervous generation of immigrants: Rachida Lamrabet

​​In Morocco, western Europe is referred to as "Woman Country". Because there, it is said, women call the shots. It certainly regarded as a place full of promise by young Moroccans, and many of them are attracted by the prospect of a free, self-determined life in a world of unrestricted consumerism, as it is so incessantly portrayed, chiefly by television images. But hardly any of the young men in Lamrabet's novel "Woman Country" really believes that paradise awaits them in Europe.

When Younes embarks on his reckless journey over the sea on a refugee boat, he is also not blindly placing his faith in the allure of the West. He is following his heart, searching for Mariam, a young Moroccan woman living in exile in Belgium, a woman he fell hopelessly in love with five years previously on the beach at Saidia. Back then he proposed to her on the spot, a proposal that she accepted in the heat of a romantic holiday moment.

Dreams as the driving force of the action

It is chiefly dreams – life dreams, but also quite real dreams that sometimes appear to contain hidden messages – that become the driving force behind the actions of the young people in Lamrabet's novel. It is not just Younes who follows his inner voice, a voice that allows him to give up everything he knows and embark on a journey to his doom. There are also other protagonists that he encounters in a variety of contexts who are full of dreams and yearnings.

Awarded the prize for the best Flemish debut of the year in 2008: Rachida Lamrabet's "Wrouwland"

​​Even Mariam, who in the meantime works as a local politician in Belgium and has long forgotten the holiday romance, finally realises that she still dreams about Younes sometimes. When she is told that Younes drowned in the waves of the Mediterranean in an attempt to be with her, she is not able to withstand the pull despite the apparent unassailable rationality and serenity that she has acquired in her life, and embarks on the long journey back to the homeland that she gave up many years before.

Mariam is the main protagonist in Rachida Lamrabet's novel "Woman Country", awarded the prize for the best Flemish debut of the year in 2008. The action does not however begin with Mariam, but forges a gradual path to her, initially via Younes and his tragic demise as well as a letter he penned and handed to a friend, and via other characters linked to Younes' fate.

Intricate eastern narrative tradition

This intricate narrative style, which calls to mind the narrative tradition of "The Arabian Nights", characterises the novel and makes it difficult for the reader to follow the action, especially in the first half of the book.

Half a dozen other characters play a role alongside the two main protagonists Younes and Mariam. But the storyteller succeeds in gathering up all the different narrative strands and linking up all the various locations. At some point the paths of all the protagonists cross, allowing the reader to retain an overview and follow with trepidation the journeys of people as they seek one another.

The fact that Younes fell in love in Mariam, read love poems to her on the beach and believed that she was just as much in love as he was, is the trigger for a tragic chain of events.

​​Mariam may have gone along with the holiday flirtation, and succumbed to the charms of the attractive and educated Younes. But her life thereafter represents a clear-cut break with her Moroccan roots. She has dissolved all links to her homeland, and she has even broken off contact with her family in Belgium. She is utterly focused on fleeing structures defined by tradition and religion, and assimilating herself into the western world.

She has established herself in Europe, is enjoying professional success as a human rights lawyer, has a Belgian boyfriend and sometimes regards the Moroccan women who come to her office to seek advice with contempt. She perceives them as living restricted lives, lacking the courage to free themselves from the dictates of marriage and family imposed on them by men.

The ghosts of the past

Lamrabet sketches her heroine as a determined, sometimes almost cold woman, who does not shy away from the conflicts that present themselves to her as a Moroccan woman with an extremely pro-western attitude. But as the story progresses, Mariam's bitterness and loneliness also become evident, the consequences of her headstrong way of life.

Although she feels very European, and believes she has secured a good social status for herself, and although she also makes many concessions to Europe (she even changes her first name and for a long time refuses any contact with her parents and siblings), she has to concede that she is unhappy, and that she has not dealt very well with the break with her past.

In this situation, the matter concerning Younes appears to be an opportunity to conduct some soul-searching. Her brother, a small-time criminal who has failed to carve out an upright life in Europe and served several prison sentences on drug dealing convictions, also has an undefined sense of homesickness, and also curiously dreams of Younes. So he suggests to Mariam that they travel to Morocco together, and on the way seek out the Spanish sea resort where Younes was found washed up on the beach.

A difficult path to finding oneself

The storyteller has the ability to draw credible portrayals of the inner life of her characters, principally that of Mariam.

The way that Mariam gradually undergoes the process of reclaiming roots she believed to be lost, the way that she breaks down her resistances, lives through inner conflict and pain, and how the inner conflict of the other characters who are also suffering as a consequence of their origins and the loss of their homeland is portrayed – considered together this results in a gripping tableau of a nervous generation of immigrants, no longer rooted by their family tradition and also not yet secure in their lives in the western world.

In the end, this entertaining novel is not just about the problems of young immigrants and exiled Africans. As they undertake their journeys Lamrabet's young "dream seekers" are actually on the difficult path to finding themselves.

Volker Kaminski

© Qantara.de 2010

Rachida Lamrabet, German title "Frauenland", published by Luchterhand.
Original Flemish title "Vrouwland"

Translated from the German by Nina Coon


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