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Positioning Gender Fluidity in Francophone Maghrebi Literature

[A screenshot from Tahar Ben Jelloun's film, La nuit sacrée. Image from Universcine.] [A screenshot from Tahar Ben Jelloun's film, La nuit sacrée. Image from Universcine.]

The journey of self-discovery is a recurring theme in Francophone Maghrebi literature and film. Authors and directors place characters in a struggle against forces in both French and Maghrebi society, evoking various themes through which characters define themselves. While these characters embark on different paths in terms of their search for self-discovery, they prove that identities are not rigid. A multitude of factors contribute to the formation of these identities, illustrating a fluidity that breaks down common perceptions and narratives. One common way characters embark on this journey of self-discovery is through gender identification. Two such characters are Nina in Garçon manqué (2007) by Nina Bouraoui, and Zahra in La nuit sacrée (1993) by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Bouraoui’s Garçon manqué is a semi-autobiographical novel, while Ben Jelloun’s La nuit sacrée is a film adaptation of his previous work, L’Enfant de sable, published in 1985. Both pieces address the issue of self-identification in the context of contemporary Maghrebi society after independence from French colonial rule. In both Garçon manqué and La nuit sacrée, the main characters demonstrate the complexity and fluidity of gender as not simply a nominal label but a product of desires, power relations, violent histories, and politically charged narratives. Throughout their characters’ evolution, they flow between identifying as male and female. In both stories, gender remains central in the quest to define the self.

In Garçon manqué, Nina narrates her experiences as the child of an Algerian father and a French mother. Nina must explore her identity in a world of "opposing dualities," as she frames it. Despite the fact that she was born in France, she grew up in Algeria and most of her self-discovery takes place there. Amidst and beyond the conflicts she faces as a person of mixed origins, she finds refuge in the creation of alternative identities that serve multiple objectives. During her time in Algeria, which constitutes the first half of the book, Nina finds refuge in her identity as Ahmed. She conducts this crossover in response to Algerian patriarchy, seeking to attain male privilege. This decision may appear voluntary, but in many senses, it is a compulsory rejection of her vulnerability. Nina says, “I want to be a man. To be a man in Algeria means to become invisible” (Bouraoui 37). Her aspiration for embodying masculine privilege reappears in Nina’s description of her childhood friend, Amine: “His body is what I desire” (Bouraoui 28).

Nina’s embodiment of Ahmed results in a series of physical and psychological confrontations. She decides when to cross-over at her convenience. It is not enough that she convinced herself of this male identity, but she must come to terms with the fact that society only accepts her as female.

In juxtaposition to these temporary crossovers, Zahra in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s La nuit sacrée outwardly projects her male identity as Ahmed. Zahra’s father, in an attempt to secure an heir for his family business, decides to raise his youngest daughter as a son. Zahra grows up as Ahmed, her name for the first half of the film. Zahra-Ahmed embraces this imposed masculinity. She dresses as a man. She acts as a man, adopting social and traditional norms of late twentieth century Moroccan society. Zahra-Ahmed is empowered to impose a certain hierarchy in the household, including in the presence of her father. She makes her sisters and mother cook and clean for her; they rush to wash her feet when she comes home from work. She also takes on a heavy misogynistic tone towards the household’s female members, as exhibited through the limited instances of dialogue between them.

But conflicts arise when Ahmed’s masculinity clash with Zahra’s biological femaleness. The onset of Zahra-Ahmed’s menstruation cycle is one such heavy blow. She reasserts her masculinity through violence and aggression. An example of this is a scene following her initial discovery of menstruation blood, where she is keen to physically intervene in a brawl near her father’s business. She also decides to reinforce her masculinity when she decides to marry her female cousin. This is one crossover the family, especially the father cannot condone. The father who initially imposed this masculine embodiment must now kill it. On his deathbed, the father’s last wish is Zahra’s renouncement of Ahmed. Zahra-Ahmed initially reacts with anger. Eventually, Zahra abandons Ahmed, burying his objects alongside her father’s corpse, such as the jellaba and the breast binding cloth. Ahmed then embarks on both a literal and psychological journey to discover Zahra, the focus of the second half of the film.

This gender crossing complicates the process of self-discovery and identities in a postcolonial context. These stories evoke the exclusive and violent construction of national identities in Morocco and Algeria. They bring to mind the marginalization of the majority indigenous populations in both countries of the Imazighen. After independence, both the nationalist Istiqlal Party in Morocco and the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria pushed forth rigid definitions of national identity as Arab. The majority Amazigh population was buried in the legal framework of what and who was “Moroccan” or “Algerian.”

The characters’ struggle in Garçon manqué and La nuit sacrée echo the violence of consolidating an Arab national identity. The self-identification as males expresses a desire to acquire the privilege that comes with that identity—a privilege that is a product of entrenched patriarchal hegemony.

Similarly, the Moroccan and Algerian regimes instituted an Arab privilege that marginalized non-Arab populations. This Arab privilege manifested itself through language policies that initially attempted to limit the public presence of Tamazight, economic programs that unequally funneled public and private investments often times based on ethnic demographics by region (such as the state-sanctioned economic marginalization of the Rif region in Morocco), and public education curricula that produced problematic historical narratives that were meant to legitimize the Arab national identity, among other methods.

Beyond presenting the nuances behind these characters’ pursuit of self-discovery and how it relates to the broader picture of national identity, the gender crossing that takes place in Garçon manqué and La nuit sacrée problematizes static binaries along multiple lines. Nina, for example, constantly evokes her position vis-a-vis France and Algeria, “East” and “West,” the past and the present. As she navigates between identifying as male and female, it is through this perspective that these binaries are shattered. For Zahra, she remains suspended between two gender binaries up until the death of her father. Amid her biological femaleness and imposed, yet self-identified masculinity, Zahra forges a space that is neither female nor male, but somewhere between both.        

Through the characters of Nina and Zahra, Bouraoui and Ben Jelloun narrate the self-discovery of one’s identity through underprivileged voices. The rejection of what could be best described as their “natural” identities marks Nina and Zahra’s evolutions as characters. Within this framework, Bouraoui and Ben Jelloun encourage readers removed from the regional and historical context of these stories to reexamine the sources of power in these countries that essentially reproduced colonial hegemony. And as Morocco and Algeria, among other countries in the region, continue to experience transitional junctures, these stories serve as effective reminders to problematize perceptions of masked change coming from the sources of dominant power.  

[An earlier version of this article was published on Bil3afya.] 

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