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from Des Rêves et des Assassins*
Translated by K. Melissa Marcus

Born in Kenadsa, Algeria, a small mining town on the edge of the desert, Malika Mokeddem spent her childhood in a ksar, the traditional village built of earth. She was the oldest of thirteen children and the daughter of illiterate nomads who had only recently become sedentary. She grew up listening to the stories told by her Bedouin grandmother, Zohra. Although raised in a tolerant version of Islam, Mokeddem’s battles against the weight of tradition and custom began early. In her family and in her village, she was the only girl to reach the secondary level of schooling, in the neighboring town of Béchar. Once there, she was the only girl in a class of forty-five students. Once again, her grandmother played a major role in Mokeddem’s life by insisting that her parents put her in school. “She said that a sedentary person, which is what we had become, is someone whom death has taken by the feet and there were only words to bring back the nomadic memory,” explains Mokeddem (Elle, Sept. 4, 1995, p. 34). She spent her summers home from boarding school inside the house, sheltered from the ferocious heat of the Saharan desert. As her increased knowledge and learning separated her and exiled her from her milieu, she distanced herself further by reading late into the nights and then sleeping half the day. She escaped from her oppressive world and moved toward a multitude of different worlds by immersing herself in the literary classics of Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Faulkner, and Dostoevsky, among others. With wry amusement, Mokeddem quotes her mother: “There was always a book between me and my daughter.” She did not experience a mere distancing from her origins, but indeed the first of several states of exile, culminating in her definitive departure from Algeria. Mokeddem also broke tradition by refusing an arranged marriage. When an elderly uncle arranged the visit of a potential suitor’s mother, Mokeddem climbed out of the window and hid for the day. “I saw my mother, I saw the women closed up inside their houses and subjugated. I did not want to become one of them. I did not want to grow up. I dreamed of going into the desert to die, to be devoured by jackals. I became anorexic” (France Catholique, Nov. 26, 1993, p. 21).

After finishing her medical studies in Oran, Mokeddem went to Montpellier, where she specialized in nephrology. She married a Frenchman and remained in France. After practicing her specialty for several years, she discovered the importance of serving the mostly North African immigrant community in Montpellier, particularly the women. She opened an office of general medicine in a largely immigrant neighborhood. Since then, she has divided her time between writing and her practice.

Des rêves et des assassins is Mokeddem’s fourth novel. It is the story of a young woman searching for her roots through the mother she never knew. Through dry, staccato sentences, she communicates the hostile political and social atmosphere in which the heroine Kenza lives. [End Page 20] From the very beginning of the novel, Mokeddem sets the tone for a brutally frank first-person narrative. Kenza’s ongoing struggle is representative of the struggle of Algerian women to be treated as equals and respected in a society that initially promised them so much after their crucial participation in Algeria’s war with France for independence. Des rêves et des assassins is particularly relevant to the context of current religious, social, and political conflicts in Algeria.


Chapter 1

Long before my birth, something was already off balance in my family. My father had his own illness, sex. It seems he’d caught it at the moment of puberty. It seems that he was driven out by his own people for this reason. It’s true that the moment you see him, you can tell he’s a man always on the lookout. He hunts down everything. Skirts, haiks, veils. . . . Age doesn’t matter. Neither do family ties.

When there are no women around, he dreams...