This conversation between Moroccan novelist Karim Ahdad and translator Katherine Van de Vate originally ran in August 2020. Ahdad and Van de Vate have since been shortlisted for the ArabLit Story Prize, and an excerpt of Cactus Girls appeared in The Markaz Review. Her second novel, Turkish Dream, also came out in 2021.
By Katherine Van de Vate
Karima Ahdad is a Moroccan novelist whose day job is as a journalist with TRT Arabi in Istanbul. Her first novel, Banat al-Sabbar (Cactus Girls), is a witty, sardonic look at the struggles of a family of Moroccan women after the death of the patriarch leaves them homeless and impoverished. A fierce indictment of injustice and inequality, the novel won a regional Mohamed Zafzaf Prize in 2019.
Katherine Van de Vate You’ve had success very early in your career – you published two prize-winning works before your 25th birthday – a short story collection, Nazif Akhir Alhulm (The Last Haemorrhage of the Dream), when you were 21, and Cactus Girls when you were 24. For a 26-year old writer, you have a strikingly critical view of society. You don’t spare anyone or anything in Cactus Girls – religion, society, marriage and government, they all seem to work against the interests of women. What’s the reason for your strong views?
Karima Ahdad: When you are a writer from a country like Morocco, you can’t remain detached; you have to take a stand. You’re a writer but you’re also a citizen — a citizen who lacks the most basic rights, who doesn’t enjoy citizenship in the full meaning of the term. Before I’m a writer, I’m a Moroccan woman, and according to the law, my value is half that of a man’s. When I walk in the street, I can’t avoid constant sexual harassment, which the law doesn’t even punish. So women’s issues are part of my daily life, and in a society that is male-dominated to its core, governed by a legal system that is just as male-dominated, women’s sufferings are inseparable from their lives. In a society like ours, I can’t just shut my door, make a cup of coffee, and say I have the right to write regardless of whatever is happening outside the door.
I really enjoy the creativity of writing fiction – of inventing characters and lives and other possible existences. But I can’t create characters who are divorced from their social setting. When I write about Moroccan women, I’m not able to separate their behaviour and attitudes from the prevailing mentality. I have to connect their fates to the context of their lives, in which tragic things can happen to them just because they are women.
That’s the logic behind my novel. It’s about a family living in the city of El Hoceima in the Moroccan Rif, where there were huge protests in 2016–2017 against the marginalization of the countryside. The novel starts with the death of the father of the family. Because he didn’t have any sons, Islamic inheritance laws dictates that his widow Louisa and her four daughters have to sell their house, which is their only asset, and divide up the proceeds with the father’s siblings. This leaves them homeless and nearly penniless, so they have to start their lives from scratch. This isn’t just a Moroccan story; it happens a lot in other countries where the law views women as having half the worth of men, and inheritance law prevents them from accumulating any capital. When a woman is from a poor background, access to capital is a life and death matter. There isn’t any place for such discriminatory laws in the 21st century.
Societies have developed in the direction of greater individualism, and families are no longer dominated by tribal thinking. But the law hasn’t kept up with this change; it’s as if it even refuses to acknowledge it. The contradiction between society and the law leads to tragedy for many families, like the one in my novel.
KVV: Why did you call your novel Cactus Girls?
KA: Cacti grow everywhere in Morocco, under the worst conditions. They are used for protection, but they also symbolize strength and endurance. In the 1950s and 1960s, houses in the Moroccan countryside were surrounded by cacti to protect the women from the prying eyes of strange men. Women in those days used to do almost all the heavy work, everything from bringing water from distant wells to planting and tilling the fields, but the men did the harvesting and kept all the proceeds for themselves.
The women in Cactus Girls lose everything they have built and worked for, just because they are women and inheritance law is unfair. They’re forced to endure poverty, humiliation, religious extremism, and sexual harassment, but, like cacti, they manage to survive against all the odds. As Sonya, the eldest daughter, says: “Like all the women I’ve ever known, whatever their education or social background, I’ve become a cactus. We’ve learned patience, and how to survive and thrive through thirst and fire and drought, as if we were born from the cactus, we live in the cactus, and to the cactus we’ll return when we die.”
KVV: Critics have praised your novel for its direct, clear style and its polyphony. Each chapter features a character who speaks or thinks in the first person; for example, when Sonya talks about the absurdity of having to wear a jilbab instead of a coat:
“I knew that even if I justified myself from sunrise to sunset, no one would understand, because I didn’t understand myself. How can it be forbidden for women to wear coats just because they aren’t mentioned in the Qur’an? I mean, the Qur’an doesn’t mention TV, cars, bicycles, trains, brick and cement houses, washing machines, pressure cookers, chairs, wheelchairs, computers, mobile phones, satellites; even trousers and underwear. Does that mean they’re all forbidden too?”
Your use of polyphony and the first person take us right inside the minds of each character. Why did you choose this style?
KA: I relied on polyphony because I wanted to give each woman her own unique voice to express her cares and her sufferings. But I also gave the male characters, like the father, individual voices, not just to show how their chauvinist mentality harms women, but also to emphasize that men are poor and marginalized too; they have to fight to survive too. In areas like the Moroccan Rif that have been marginalized by the state, where the poverty level is high, the oppression of women increases.
I also believe writing should be accessible. This era needs a kind of writing that can reach the new generation, connect with their emotional lives, and encourage them to enjoy reading. That calls for clear, simple writing which draws its subjects, its metaphors, and its aesthetic from today’s language and imagination.
KVV: Is there a particular character in Cactus Girls who exemplifies your approach?
KA: The story includes several generations, from the Berber grandmother who lived in the 1940s to the youngest daughter Safaa, who is still a schoolgirl. One of the key characters is Shadia, the second of the four daughters. Shadia manages to get out of El Hoceima and go to university in Rabat – incidentally, that’s what I did too – but she’s torn between her desire to live a modern life and the strict expectations of a male-dominated society. When she gets the phone call about her father’s death, she’s just finished a one-night stand. Here’s an excerpt:
“Apart from his name, all I knew about the man I’d just spent the night with was that we’d met in a bar in downtown Rabat…. I skipped class the next day, as usual with no regrets. I’m the kind of person who lives totally for the moment.
As I took a final drag on my cigarette, my mobile rang. It was my mother calling to tell me my father had died.”
KVV: The critics love your work; it’s been reviewed in dozens of magazines and newspapers in Morocco and you’ve spoken about Cactus Girls at literary festivals in Europe. What kind of popular reaction did it have in Morocco?
KA: I’ve been inundated with messages on social media. Many women wrote to tell me that the novel reflects their lives, that they see themselves in Louisa or Sonya or Shaima, and young men write to say that I’ve described our male-dominated society perfectly. That’s probably because I drew so much on my work as a journalist. Ever since I was 18, I’ve travelled all over Morocco meeting every kind of people, and I put their lives in my novel.
KVV: Cactus Girls hasn’t been translated yet, but we hope to see it in English before long. What are your future writing projects?
KA: I’d love to see Cactus Girls reach a much wider audience. I’ve just finished The Turkish Dream, a novel about a Moroccan couple living in Turkey that I hope will be published soon.
KVV: We look forward to seeing your new novel in print!