Subtle and convincing portrait
Resistance or resignation are the only options, or so Mariam, the central character in Rachida Lamrabet’s Vrouwland (Woman Country), believes. A Moroccan woman in Antwerp who has chosen a Western lifestyle, she embraces her personal freedom, but not without encountering opposition and doubt.
The cultural conflicts in Mariam’s life emerge in her tragic story. At the end of a holiday in Morocco she agrees, without thinking, to marry Younes. For five years he waits for her to return. Meanwhile Faïza hopes that Younes will notice her instead. Finally, deciding to deliver one last desperate letter to Mariam in Europe in person, Younes dies on the illegal crossing to Spain. A survivor carries the letter on to Mariam.
To pay her final respects, Mariam goes with her brother to visit the place where Younes’ body was washed ashore. In southern Spain she decides to make the crossing to Morocco. There she faces not only confrontation with Faïza but incomprehension and criticism of her rejection of traditional values and customs. ‘Are you happy?’ a sympathetic aunt asks her. There can be no simple answer.
It is Lamrabet’s convincing interpretation of the characters’ points of view which makes Vrouwland so captivating. The novel presents a Moroccan outlook on the differences between Moroccans in Morocco and those who have emigrated; between their own values, which often marginalise Moroccans in Europe, and Western values, including the rampant consumerism that causes such envy in Morocco; between tradition, which so tragically impedes Faïza’s life, and the modern ways of thinking that men find so hard to deal with. ‘Woman Country’ is how they refer to the West, where they believe emancipated women have taken charge.
Rachida Lamrabet creates above all a subtle and convincing portrait of a fascinating woman, who, standing firmly by her decisions must pay the social and intellectual price. Whether in Morocco, where as a woman on her own she cannot find a hotel room, or in Belgium, where a political party exploits her activism for its own ends, she constantly has to struggle against prejudice. In the cemetery in her native village, filled with melancholy and doubt, she is finally able to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of her choices in life. In Vrouwland we are in the hands of a promising writer with a distinctive voice of her own.