- The Woman Without A Head
Marlène Amar's novel The Woman Without a Head examines the trauma of exile experienced by Jews for millenia through the prism of the experiences of the French-speaking Jews expelled from the Arab countries when nationalist fever spread through the region. Amar's parents' families had deep roots in the North African Jewish communities and prior to the Algerian war for independence led a comfortable life, seemingly at peace with their neighbors. When the war broke out Jews were no longer welcome and the Amar family was forced to emigrate to France. For several reasons Paris was a logical destination for the French-speaking Jews. Algerian Jews, unlike Algerian Muslims, had held French citizenship since 1870. In addition, the schools of the Alliance Israelite had for almost a century promoted French culture as part of its "civilizing mission."
However, the close ties between Algerian Jews and metropolitan France did not make the family's move an easy one, as Amar's novel makes painfully clear. The move was an involuntary one, viewed not as homecoming but as exile. Each member of the family adapted to [End Page 123] the new culture in a different way. The prophet Jeremiah counseled the Jews exiled to Babylon to assimilate, to adopt the ways of their hosts (Jeremiah, 29:18). But to what degree, the prophet did not say, leaving it to the individual to decide how much of the birth culture she will shed as she adapts to the new one.
The assimilation process that follows immigration always involves translation, even when the language doesn't change. Words and gestures have different meanings: the gray sun of Paris has little in common with the Algerian sun, greetings are performed in a different manner, family relationships are altered, expectations revised. It is the central character of the novel, the nameless and finally headless "sister," however, who most dramatically, and most tragically, embodies the drama of the exiled individual. The poignancy of The Woman Without a Head resides in the fact that the translation from one culture to another is effectively and brutally inscribed on the body itself. It is not metaphoric and it is not abstract. The words have been traced by the surgeon's scalpel.
The Woman Without a Head
Everyone in B. was crying when we left. Women were scratching their cheeks, as they did on days of mourning. The men, with red eyes, kept quiet and pressed their kippas in their hands.
I understood that something serious was taking place, that it was possible that we would never return. I started shaking uncontrollably. My mother looked at me with a vacant air and reached into her bag for a pill that she handed me mechanically.
I was six years old and on that day, my nose glued to the car window which was beginning its journey in the desert, I saw, as we were leaving the Ouakda oasis, my last mirage: at the edge of a vast expanse of water of an almost fluorescent green a camel was smiling at me. I smiled back, then the vision evaporated and, under the influence of the pill, I fell asleep.
The strange thing about mirages is that they have the diabolical clarity of reality. This camel that was cooling himself on the banks of a lake that appears on no map in the world is lodged in my memory as distinctly as if it were made of flesh.
By contrast, everything that followed when we had settled in France seemed to me unreal. However, it was there that we would have to live from then on. Or at least pretend that we lived.
That first summer we spent in Paris I remember that I took a summer course in a Catholic institute. Every morning before class we were taken to the chapel where I witnessed a mass for the first time. I didn't want to be noticed so I pretended to sing like them by reading their lips as they sang the hymns.
"Practice makes perfect," my mother often said at...