By Leila Abouzeid. University of Texas, 1989. 103 pp. List: $8.95; AET: $6.95 for one, $8.95 for two.
Contemporary Moroccan fiction is both vibrant and varied. It is a young literature, still in the process of testing boundaries and searching for its voice. At one end of the spectrum there are the consciously literary novels of authors working in French, including Driss Chraibi, Abdelhak Serhane and Tahar Ben Jelloun, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt.
At the other end there is the group of writers and storytellers like Mohammed Mrabet and Mohammed Choukri, whose works have been translated from Arabic into English by the American expatriate author Paul Bowles. Their narratives stem directly from Morocco's rich oral tradition, and indeed are often recorded and then transcribed rather than written. Apart from differences in language and methodology, Moroccan literature also encompasses a wide variety of aesthetics, from Ben Jelloun's dreamlike tales to the sharp and cynical styles of Chraibi and Serhane and the colorful depictions of the seedier side of life in Tangier and the Rif by Mrabet et al.
Yet there are also a number of common themes. Moroccan writers often employ the character of a storyteller or a first-person narrator to relate the events of their stories, and there has also been a tendency to use the struggle for Moroccan independence and its aftermath as a setting for these narratives.
This is the context in which Leila Abouzeid writes. Her Year of the Elephant also uses a first-person narrator and focuses on the period surrounding independence, but in many ways the work is unique among the growing body of Maghrebi literature in translation. Year of the Elephant is the first novel by a Moroccan woman to be translated from Arabic to English, and thus provides readers with a different vantage point from which to view North African life. Many of the events of Abouzeid's narrative (divorce, the struggle against poverty, interfamilial conflict, etc.) are common themes in contemporary Moroccan literature, but are presented here in a new perspective -- that of a woman.
A New Perspective
The story is told from the point of view of Zahra, the protagonist. After independence, Zahra's husband, now rising through the ranks of government bureaucracy, no longer wishes to be married to his traditional wife, who does not speak French, eat with a fork, or sit with men.
Cast out of her husband's house and with no real family to fall back on, Zahra is forced to fend for herself with only the single room that is her inheritance and "whatever the law provides" from her husband. She returns to her home town and finds comfort and solace in religious values and in the person of an old and learned sheikh. Gradually she manages to construct an independent life for herself on her own terms. Within the framework of describing the divorce, Zahra relates episodes from her childhood, her marriage, and the struggle for independence, during which she assumed an activist role. …