Straight from the Horse’s Mouth (304 pages; Other Press; translated by Emma Ramadan) was originally published in French as La vérité sort de la bouche du cheval by Éditions Gallimard, Paris, in 2018. One reads a tremendous amount of work in translation these days, and it is a bounty, what translators make possible for us. I am forever grateful, and particularly, most recently, for this first novel by the Moroccan-born writer Meryem Alaoui. The novel is a vivid, and vividly angry, first-person portrait of Jmiaa, now thirty-four, but forced into prostitution by her destitute husband before she is twenty. Jmiaa is biting, funny, oh so streetwise, and not a bit ashamed of her work. You can be ashamed for her, should you dare, but the more Jmiaa’s story unfolds, the more her spirit amazes, springing up off the page. She’s chosen her no-good husband, against her mother’s wishes, and she loves Hamid, even after all he’s done to her. Alaoui’s writing never shies from the hugeness of spirit that lights Jmiaa. In Jmiaa we inhabit irrational human behavior, are swept up into it. Years after Hamid has immigrated to Spain, leaving Jmiaa stranded in Casablanca with a baby daughter, she is still sending him money she has earned on her back. At work in Jmiaa is a strain of empathy that derives from her understanding that one uses whatever is at hand in order to survive. She was Hamid’s last asset, and she still sees herself as such…and she is in equal parts furious.
The novel is refreshingly a referendum on hypocrisy, and though Jmiaa may be a paradox, she is not a hypocrite, and when she is serendipitously in a situation of plenty, she enjoys herself into leglessness. Oh, was she supposed to be polite, eat and drink like the lady she is not? Only someone who has been treated far better than Jmiaa has could carry off that charade; only someone who has steadily had much more can afford restraint. As she says indignantly at one point, “Why would they bring out all that booze if they didn’t want people to party? It’s not like I was a nasty drunk or got into a brawl or anything like that. I drank and I fell over, that’s all.” Jmiaa acts like no other than herself, and all of that trauma is on full display, along with the strength of character it has taken to survive.
Always get the last word.
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Into Jmiaa’s life emerges a young film director who seeks expertise within the world’s oldest profession. Chadlia wants her film to be legitimate, authentic, but when casting fails to turn up an actress as explosively convincing as Jmiaa herself, opportunity presents itself. I am happy to report that Jmiaa picks herself up, after a few more drunken stumbles, and lands rather beautifully on her feet. “No one understands how I managed to learn so quickly. Even though from the start I’ve been telling them that I’m sharp.”
I wish to note that Other Press makes a beautiful book, with French flaps and pages that float with Moroccan Arabian mandalas, and majuscules in Arabic script that start certain passages. Presentation is a subject in Straight from the Horse’s Mouth. Which djellaba does Jmiaa wear today to stand at the entrance to the market place? What are the other women wearing, how is a hem lifted to entice, and when all the window dressing of this age-old transaction get shuttered, what naked realities emerge, and what beautiful spirit remains as though architecture, art? Here is a novel worth your reading time; here is a novel beautiful to hold.