“I have to constantly remind myself that I’m Tunisian, and this neighborhood is full of Egyptians. Many people don’t know that there are rivalries among the Arabs. For example, it’s not smooth sailing between Syrians and Lebanese, between Iraqis and Kuwaitis, between Saudis and Yemenis, and so on and so on. It’s why they can’t come up with a plan for unity, in spite of common history, geography, Arabic, Islam, and oil. The model of the European Union will have to wait!”
In the superb novel Divorce Islamic Style, two characters narrate and propel the events in Rome: Christian, a Sicilian who speaks fluent Arabic and works as an operative for the Italian government; and Sofia, an Egyptian immigrant who runs a hair salon in defiance of her strict Muslim husband.
Christian’s assignment is to uncover a terrorist cell in the Viale Marconi neighborhood. Going by the name of Issa and changing his appearance and mannerisms he infiltrates “Little Cairo” as a Tunisian. He rooms at a boarding house with numerous other immigrants and takes a job washing dishes at an Italian restaurant run by an Egyptian, who turns out to be Sofia’s husband.
I’ve acquired certain habits, like sleeping nude, temperature permitting, or reading before I go to sleep; I love biographies of famous people. Here it is not a good idea to be the self-taught immigrant and passionate reader.
At a hangout spot where people watch Al Jazeera and make calls home, Christian meets Sofia who attracts him with her striking looks and mannerisms. Surprising to Christian, she wears a veil, uncommon in Rome, in Italy, in many Western countries. He discovers that Sofia neither acts conventionally or predictably. Several days before her wedding, Sofia’s husband asked her to wear the veil.
“Put on the veil? Maybe I hadn’t understood. Were we going to live in Italy or Iran? Is the veil compulsory in Rome?
The real problem is that we live in a society where the male is both the opponent and, at the same time, the referee.”
In writing about Sofia’s plight, author Amara Lakhous astutely provides a feminist perspective to this novel in a natural and provocative manner. He brilliantly depicts Rome’s Arab community “Little Cairo.” He satirizes the immigrant community as deftly as modern day Rome and its idiosyncrasies and fears.
I understand the comfort level of creating one’s own community after immigrating to another country. Beyond that though I don’t understand why some immigrants do not assimilate more by learning the new language or befriending natives. Lakhous explains the minutiae within the Arab community and what motivates many to move to other countries. Much can be explained in looking at opportunities in Western countries versus Arab countries where rules might be stricter and prospects fewer. Some Arabs stay in these Western countries and become citizens while others work for a while to better their family situations in their home country.
Born in Algiers in 1970, Amara Lakhous earned degrees in philosophy and cultural anthropology. He now lives in Italy. I adore Divorce Islamic Style so much that I’ve mentioned it several times in casual conversation. I want to recommend it to everyone. It’s fantastic. Snappy. Sharp. Intelligent. Humorous.
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