In Hassan Najmi’s Gertrude (trans. Roger Allen, 2014), the author quietly inserts a Moroccan from Tangiers into the tumultuous turn-of-the-20th-century lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. This quietness echoes with the oddness and invisibility of Tanjawi Moroccans in the works of American authors who spent time in the international zone — Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, and others.
Najmi’s Gertrude, released in 2011 in Arabic, runs on two tracks. First, there is a frame story about the book’s (ostensible) Moroccan author and his American girlfriend, Lydia. Within, there is the inner-chewy-center about the narrator’s friend Muhammad and his relationship with the American writer Gertrude Stein. The novel takes its inspiration from a short trip that Stein took to Tangiers.
That is true, but from there it re-invents: A Tanjawi who Stein meets not only deflowers her, but also follows her back to Paris and becomes a part of her life. There, he is a member of her entourage and a rival for her affections.
Gertrude’s frame story — about the “writer” and his American girlfriend — has too much fat, and the novel would be better off if it began on page 45. Still, the frame is important in that it kicks off a series of echoes. This book is not just about Muhammad, an artist who could’ve written, but who lost himself in the shadow of Gertrude Stein. This is about the relationship between literary center and periphery, between those writers who are heard and those who aren’t.
The frame story takes place in contemporary Rabat, and the romance between Lydia and the narrator is placed on a twenty-first century footing. Yet it continues to have colonial echoes, as when Lydia tells the narrator “In fact we actually know more about your country than you do…” And although the narrator apparently does publish this book, he also “fails” like Muhammad does, and falls away from publishing.
The silencing of Muhammad, whose talents are overshadowed and consumed by Gertrude’s, is also interesting in the context of those expat American writers who lived in Tangiers before it became part of independent Morocco. Julia Melcher describes the world of these expat American writers in her essay “Invisible Interzone,” in the most recent issue of Critical Muslim. Melcher notes about William Burroughs in particular that, “He did not want to be seen by them [Moroccans] and equally, he did not want to see or acknowledge them, particularly not in his literary experiments. His focus lay on the unreal nature of Tangier, on the possibilities of a city that gave him the opportunity to escape the state control and bigotry of the US, a place where he could express his homosexuality.”
Muhammad also escapes into a new place — Paris — although the experience did not give him room to experiment. The landscape is not “unreal” to him, as Morocco is to Burroughs or Bowles. And although Muhammad is invisible, he spends a good deal of time observing the lives of others.
Many of these observations resonate with our expectations of Picasso, Anais Nin, and others. But there is an interesting divergence when it comes to sexual politics. Najmi, from the beginning, has Muhammad inserting himself between Stein and Toklas. Although Gertrude Stein does not become heterosexualized (thank God), she does become more traditionally feminine, and has a long, passionate affair with Muhammad.
In general, Stein reads very differently in Najmi’s book than she does in Western framings. In Gertrude, she is more credulous, more romantic, and — well — gushier. She is still a powerful woman, but she’s the sort of person who would say, “Good heavens, Muhammad… You know a whole lot about your country!”
As a biographical narrative, it’s not, and it shouldn’t be read as such. It’s a novel, and it plays around with historical characters as loosely as it likes, as loosely — perhaps — as Moroccan characters have been played with in the novels of American writers.
Read an excerpt: