A review of
The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris
by Leïla Marouane
Mohamed Ben Mokhtar—or, as he has somewhat absurdly Gallicized himself, Basile Tocquard—is a Muslim bachelor fleeing the constraints of family for sex and freedom. Once (perhaps) a believer, he now intends to live a debauched life, writing poetry and sleeping with as many women as possible. But when Ben Mokhtar finally escapes his mother’s clutches, he does not find himself pursuing the snow-white Frenchwomen he desires. Instead, he’s mired in the stories of Algerian women: the prudish student of astrophysics, the promiscuous filmmaker, the pregnant lawyer.
And yet, it is uncertain if these women exist beyond the confines of Ben Mokhtar’s literary imagination. The months after he leaves his mother pass in a spiraling, pill-fueled dream. Is the liberated Ben Mokhtar/Tocquard finding himself? Or is he creating himself from the books of Loubna Minbar, a fictional Algerian novelist who “steals people’s lives”? The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, although seemingly told by Ben Mokhtar, never belongs to him. We are regularly reminded that he is not the true narrator: While the rest of the text is in the first person, some variation of “he said” is appended to the first sentence of each chapter. The identity of the shadow narrator is almost certainly Loubna Minbar, who is almost certainly based on (strongly feminist, also persecuted) Leïla Marouane herself.
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—M. Lynx Qualey