This essay is an introduction and translator’s note excerpted from From Blood Feast: The Complete Stories of Malika Moustadraf, out now from the Feminist Press.
Malika Moustadraf (1969–2006) lived, worked, and died in the major port city of Casablanca, on the Atlantic west coast of Morocco. She published just one novel, a single short story collection, one other short story, and a few articles during her short life. After her death, three more short stories were published in a literary magazine. The short story collection and the four subsequent stories are what make up Blood Feast, the first ever full-length translation of her work. This slim volume is but a snapshot of a gifted maverick writer in her ascendancy, creatively going from strength to strength even as her health deteriorated during the final weeks before her death. Had her life not been tragically cut short, Moustadraf would undoubtedly have gone on to reach great artistic heights. In 2022 she would have been just fifty-three, eight years older than me. I would have certainly visited her in Casablanca over these last six years since I’ve been reading and translating her work, and would have gotten to know her. We would have spent time hanging out in her favorite café, working through the innumerable fascinating linguistic and cultural questions any serious literary translation project generates. Perhaps we would have enjoyed ranting to each other about the patriarchy, exchanging music, making each other laugh? And surely, by now, she would have become more widely respected and less persecuted for her feminist activist sensibility than she was at the turn of the millennium. But she did die in 2006, and so this modest oeuvre is all we have—the culmination of her life’s work, all but lost to the world over the last fifteen years since her untimely death.
Moustadraf’s first work was the novel Wounds of the Soul and the Body (Jirah al-ruh wa-l-jasad), which she self-published in 1999. As important as this debut was in terms of establishing her as a talented and radical voice, it was also very much the work of a beginner, an outsider artist. According to some sources, Moustadraf was still in her teens when she wrote Wounds, working on it in secret in the bathroom of her family home. Nevertheless, it demonstrated an early unpolished version of what was to become Moustadraf’s signature style: an unflinching look at the worst traumas of the female experience in patriarchal society, shot through with wit, wordplay, and razor-sharp political commentary. In addition to centering the survivor protagonist’s first-person account of multiple childhood sexual assaults, a central theme of that first book is sex work and the extent to which it props up the Moroccan domestic economy and underpins working-class urban family life. Wounds also poignantly examines women’s homoemotional bonding in the context of extreme gendered oppression, and the impossibility of equitable heterosexuality, with a strong yet delicate and understated queer sensibility.
The short story collection she went on to write after publishing Wounds, all translated in Blood Feast, very much built on that foundation, moving into uncharted territory in terms of both form and content. Professionally, she was taken seriously at last—the collection, titled Trente-Six, impressed the prestigious Moroccan Short Story Research Group1 so much that the authors and academics involved in the organization banded together to pay her publishing costs. Stylistically, the stories in Trente-Six demonstrate a new proficiency and confidence: the writing is more carefully thought out and reworked than Moustadraf’s previous material, and yet also more playful. Moustadraf reaches a new level of linguistic experimentation—especially in the last four stories she wrote, which conclude Blood Feast—featuring a wider use of Derija and realist linguistic hybridity, and developing what was becoming her signature “refragmented memory” device,2 playing with temporal modes and layered flashbacks. She seems much freer in these stories than she was in her novel, roaming through a range of topics, voices, settings, and points of focus—always keeping it “rebel realist”3 and feminist. In the Trente-Six stories, Moustadraf enjoys a newfound complexity: she likes her characters multilayered, contradictory, flawed, wounded, and human; for example, we encounter homophobia and misogyny in characters for whom we are simultaneously being moved to compassion. The writer has come of age and is blossoming in the approval of her literary peers—as well as weathering the inevitable misogynistic backlash.
Moustadraf had, in fact, intended to write a second novel, but her deteriorating health meant the work instead became a short story collection, composed in between dialysis sessions as her strength allowed. Interviewed by the young Moroccan poet Mouna Ouafik just after Trente-Six was published in 2004, Moustadraf sounded like she felt her major life’s work was still ahead of her, and talked of saving her full confrontation with society for later:
It’s not easy to stand naked while everyone looks on, seeing you in your nudity. But one day I really am going to get naked, right down to the last fig leaf. What violations and crimes I’ve been the victim of, and still am! I will try to rip off some masks, so that everyone can see just how ugly our faces look without them. But for now, I’ll settle for biting my tongue. I’m staying silent, so that I don’t waste my energy with too much talking, because when the time comes for the explosion, I want it to be an earthshaking volcanic eruption. . . . I want it to be a slap in the face for all those politicians and pimps who claim to be so virtuous and pure . . . the ones who turn our dreams into frustrations and sorrows.4
When she died, Moustadraf was in the early stages of coauthoring a novel with Palestinian poet and academic Aida Nasrallah.5 “Death,” the final story in Blood Feast, was the last story Moustadraf ever completed, as far as we know. The biggest question about any artist who dies young—especially poignant given the exponential stylistic development so clearly underway in her last four stories—is, What would she have gone on to write had she survived?
One of the conventions of translators’ notes is to recount something of the original author’s biography, especially if the author is dead, a woman, an outspoken feminist rebel, a Muslim, or all of the above, as is the case here. But what relevance does the true-life story of Malika Moustadraf really have to the works of fiction in this collection? The biographies of women writers from the global South are very often expected to inform and interweave with their fiction. It is much harder for these writers to have their writing received as feats of pure imagination than it is for others, especially white cis male writers. Marilyn Booth has explored this noted phenomenon in the specific context of arabophone Muslim women writers in her useful work on memoir fixation and Orientalist ethnographicisim,6 and it was something that Moustadraf herself was only too aware of. Throughout her life as a published author, Moustadraf was bombarded with speculation and accusation around the extent to which her writing was based on her own experience, something she found very intrusive, and which negatively impacted her quality of life and ultimately contributed to her death. In that same 2004 interview by Mouna Ouafik, soon after Trente-Six was published, she said, “The thing that really bothers me is when other people consider what I’ve written to be autobiography. Why can’t they acknowledge that [like men] women also have a broad imagination?!”
The issue is even more sensitive in our context, since the material that was seen as autobiographical in Moustadraf’s novel was a first-person account of surviving serial child sexual abuse. In the late 1990s and early 2000s in Morocco, the possibility that this was not fiction—and even the simple act of writing such stories at all—was vehemently condemned by some sections of society and public life. The novel’s central topics of rape and sex work were seen as inherently shameful—and so, by extension, was the author herself. As Moustadraf commented to Ouafik in the same interview, “Women have always been, and still are, accused of being the true protagonists of what they write. Why are women prosecuted for what they write, unlike men? Quite simply, because we live in a patriarchal society.”
The speculation and controversy over whether the accounts of child sexual abuse were rooted in her own experience continued after her death. Her own statements on record as to if and to what extent her novel was based on her own life are (perhaps understandably) somewhat contradictory, and this is not the place to make a judgment call on that issue. What is clear is that Moustadraf was not living and writing in a context in which she would have felt safe to tell a survivor’s story, had she even wanted to. Rather than giving definitive testimony one way or the other as to her own childhood experiences, she wanted her work to speak for itself, and to act on her behalf. As she put it to Ouafik, “I shoot down some of those who wielded their unjust authority over me, tyrannized and oppressed me, with bullets from my pen—and I inter them between the pages of a book.”
Has the world changed enough since 2006 that Moustadraf would be sharing more about her life, were she still alive? What would she want me to say on her behalf? The translator of a dead author faces many such unanswerable questions. The difficulty is compounded, in our current context, by the urge to believe survivors, and to honor that trauma she hinted at. But ultimately, I feel it’s a valid choice to focus instead on honoring the raging courage of her literary activism and cherishing the smart, sassy art she made around the central traumas of the patriarchal world, rather than on whether or not these things actually happened to her. In this way, we allow for the possibility, as Moustadraf herself affirmed, that women writers have a fertile imagination.
Even without making a call on the issues above, sketching an outline of Moustadraf’s brief and troubled life is not an easy task, due to the dearth and inaccuracy of available sources. This lack of a coherent record seems to be part of a certain abandonment of her legacy, despite the high regard in which her work was and is still held by many Moroccan literary folk, artists, academics, and critics. As a self-styled rebel realist woman writer, she was too much for many people to handle. Her work was only ever published within Morocco, and when she died in 2006, her two books had already fallen out of print. Her death generated various media tributes, which sparked a new wave of interest in her work and led to all remaining copies of her books, new and used, being snapped up by an engaged public. This was also when her final three stories were published for the first time, by the literary magazine QS—yet no one republished her two books. A book of scholarly and hagiographic articles on Moustadraf and her work was published in Arabic in 2017, featuring a few of her stories. But her books remained out of print until I introduced her oeuvre to an Egyptian publishing house known for its confrontational and feminist work, and they published new editions of both Wounds and Trente-Six in 2020.7
I first came across Moustadraf’s work in 2016, when fellow translator Emma Ramadan asked me to translate “Delusion” for a Words Without Borders feature on Moroccan writers. Moustadraf had been recommended to Ramadan by writer and curator Omar Berrada. Instantly smitten with Moustadraf’s work, I set out to find more of it, but I soon discovered that copies of this cult figure’s books were such rare commodities that fans were circulating low-grade scans of her work via word of mouth.8 So I, too, worked from those scans, and as I continued researching Moustadraf’s extraordinary life and work over the ensuing years, and publishing my translations of a few of her stories, I became a point of contact for this PDF traffic and would regularly be approached by strangers seeking to read her work. I was only eventually able to get a hard copy of Trente-Six due to the immense generosity of her original publisher, Abdelmajid Jahfa, who gifted me his personal copy. A couple of her stories had appeared in French and English here and there over the last decade before I began to translate her, but Blood Feast is the first full-length work of hers published in translation in any language.
Given the near extinction of her work, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the scant information about her life available online consists of repeated (and often distorted) versions of just a few original source pieces. There are frequent inaccuracies and anomalies, not least in the meager trickle of references to her in English over the years, several of which have her year of birth and death wrong. Many aspects of her story are a contested narrative. Accounts of her life made to me personally by her friends and associates often contradict one another, and given that her life story is a tragedy, it’s understandably a very charged topic for those who are still grieving her loss, just fifteen years after her death.
In many ways, Blood Feast (and the 2020 Arabic reissues) represents the culmination of a long project of literary recovery of a foundational body of feminist work that had all but disappeared; as part of that effort, I’ve compiled a sketch of what we know of her life, based as much as possible on her own words in the few extant published interviews.
So, who was Malika Moustadraf?
She was a feminist literary activist focused on sexuality, patriarchy, disability, illness, class, and women’s rights. Her friends remember her as having an intense and innate feminist rage, a keen eye for the ridiculous, and a ringing, infectious laugh—all of which sing out in her work. She loved music and was great friends with Nass el-Ghiwane founder Larbi Batma. She loved the color blue. She read widely, and was fascinated by the French “carnal artist” ORLAN. She lived with her extended family in the central Casablanca neighborhood of Maârif. She was very close to her young nephew, Issam, to whom Trente-Six was dedicated. In the 2004 interview with Ouafik, she talked of always spending her Saturdays with the boy, and feeling transported to a happy childhood state with him.
As an outsider, it’s problematic to talk about writers as “the only” or “the first”; those lazy, absolutist claims are made all too often, and erase nuance and multiplicity. There have always been feminist artists everywhere. But at the same time, it is important to acknowledge Moustadraf’s vanguard status: she was ahead of her time by just a few years—the contemporary Moroccan feminist artists and activists working on gender and sexuality now are just a generation (or less) younger than her.9 Had she lived, she surely would have been engaged with this vibrant scene. There are also two concrete firsts for Arabic literature in this collection as far as I can establish: “Head Lice” and “Housefly” feature what are probably the first ever published literary depictions of cybersex in Arabic, portraying a way of relating that would have seemed extraordinarily unfamiliar, even futuristic, to readers at that time. And in a more major potential first for modern Arabic literary fiction, “Just Different” features an intersex and/or trans protagonist. (It doesn’t seem to me that Moustadraf is spelling out, in this text, whether the protagonist—assigned male at birth and violently misgendered throughout their life—is intersex, or trans, or both. Various readings are possible.)10 Crucially, this is an ambitious and nuanced portrait, not only of the character but of the various dynamics in which they are engaged, including difficult medical scenes—interwoven with folkloric references and complex puns based on grammatical terms. And as in her earlier work, Moustadraf is inviting us to engage sympathetically with a sex worker. Marché Centrale, where the protagonist of that story solicits, is not far from where Malika lived, and she would likely have observed gender nonconforming sex workers there.
Whatever the exact details of Moustadraf’s experience as a child, there had certainly been some attempts made to silence her at a young age: she had been taught it was shameful to write about the topics she gravitated toward. And as an adult, she felt that society was ordering her to keep quiet, and that there was one set of rules for male writers and another for women. She told Ouafik, “Men can say anything and everything, it’s all accepted. But if a woman expresses what she’s burning to say, then shame on her, she’s got no manners. We’re accustomed to men saying everything on behalf of women. They want us to just be pretty and keep quiet!”
Moustadraf’s friend Aida Nasrallah also recounts in her memoir that a prominent male intellectual told Moustadraf that she “deserved” her illness for writing the way she did. Moustadraf reportedly suffered great distress over this. But none of this fully silenced her in the end—the things she observed in society that made her the angriest continued to come out in her writing throughout her life.
Moustadraf’s work was completed in the context of multiple oppressions in both the private and public spheres, and all while ill. Sources differ on exactly when she developed kidney disease and began dialysis, but we know it was sometime in her teens. She was unable to complete her university studies because of her condition. It seems creative writing was simultaneously her equivalent of an academic discipline, her life’s passion, and her mental health survival strategy: “For me, writing is a kind of drug: it keeps me from thinking about the pain, because if I kept on thinking about all the pain and the health problems I’m suffering from, then in all honesty I would go mad, or commit suicide. So writing is a kind of sedative for the pain I live with. It allows me to submerge myself in other worlds and other characters.”
As anyone living with chronic illness knows, however, what contributes to mental survival doesn’t necessarily aid the physical condition. It’s a sad irony that while her dedication to her art clearly improved her mental health, it also contributed to her physical deterioration: her condition was permanently exacerbated when she skipped doses of essential anemia and calcium medication in order to cover the costs of publishing her first book. There is a story that is frequently told about Moustadraf having been nurtured and supported in her work by her neighbor, the canonical Moroccan writer Mohamed Zafzaf, who is said to have been something of a literary godfather figure to her (the implication being, by extension, that he taught her how to write). In an interview with Abdelali Barakat in 2003, however, Moustadraf recalled how when she approached Zafzaf in 1996 for advice on how to get her novel published as an unknown writer, he refused to read or discuss her manuscript, and in what sounds like a scene from one of her stories, hid it under his bed. After two years of trying to persuade him to engage with her work or recommend publishers she might approach, she eventually gave up and covered the costs of self-publishing the book the only way she could, by cutting back on her meds.11 When asked in 2004 if she regretted having done this, since it had led to her becoming reliant on crutches to walk, she said, “Yes, I bitterly regret it! If I’d known that that craziness would end up with me on crutches, I never would have done it.”
Her health had also been impacted by the aftereffects of a suicide attempt: “Once, feeling defeated, I resolved to kill myself: I swallowed a quantity of pills, but death spat me back out—back to life, to live in a body even more burnt out and exhausted than ever. As you can see, life is insistent with me.”
In the latter years of her life, Moustadraf was severely ill, with very restricted mobility and extremely debilitating symptoms. She was essentially housebound, only leaving her home for hospital trips. But this final period of her life coincided with the early days of the internet, a development which provided her a lifeline with the outside world, allowing her to meet and converse at length with new people and old friends. She was especially keen on debating with other writers. She was an early adopter of MSN Messenger, one of the first online chat platforms, using it for long, late-night conversations with her friends in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere—and as noted earlier, exploring this new technology in her final works of fiction.
Engaged in a protracted and ultimately futile struggle to obtain life-saving treatment either at home or abroad, she lived in close proximity to death for the last several years of her life. A kidney transplant from her sister Karima back in 1990 had been unsuccessful, as Moustadraf mentions in the poignant dedication to the story “Blood Feast.” She was campaigning to be able to make another transplant attempt with a new donor, and meanwhile becoming more and more ill as time passed. Other patients died during dialysis sessions in the ward she regularly attended, and friends of hers died awaiting treatment. Two years before Moustadraf herself died, she suggested that the struggle to obtain the treatment she needed was already more than she could bear: “Death no longer scares me. I consider it a transitional phase from one world to another, perhaps even to a better one. If over there on the other shore there is no hospital, nor any horrible people denying you of your right to treatment, well, that would be enough.” In her memoir, Aida Nasrallah describes the profound emotional distress Moustadraf suffered in private at receiving hate mail calling her a beggar. Publicly Moustadraf raged at the system: “Begging for treatment in my own country?! It’s shameful for treatment to become a luxury not everyone is allowed to access!”12
In September 2006, at the age of thirty-seven, Moustadraf eventually died of complications related to chronic kidney disease, due to lack of access to the surgery she needed. It’s a complex and very dark tale involving Fortress Europe (she was denied a Schengen visa at a crucial point, for travel to Germany for surgery there), her persecution by some sections of the Moroccan intellectual elite who declined to lobby for her being treated, and the nature of the corrupt and crumbling semiprivatized health-care system in her homeland, among other factors. Without going any further into all of those distressing details, she could and should have lived much longer.
However, she did also have some very passionate supporters during the last desperate phase of her life, among them Moroccan literary superstar Ahmed Bouzfour, who refused the Moroccan state literary prize he was awarded in 2004 in protest over (among other issues) Moustadraf not being granted treatment, stating, “I would feel ashamed to take this prize from my sister Malika Moustadraf, who is dying before our very eyes while we remain silent.”13 There was also a fundraiser organized on her behalf by the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Riyadh that raised $50,000 for her medical costs—funds that were sadly never able to be used as planned.14 At points in her struggle, Médecins Sans Frontières was involved, and she even had a correspondence with the UK’s Prince Charles. But needless to say, it all was in vain.
Blocked from accessing the treatment she needed and facing the increasingly likely prospect of her death, Moustadraf repeated to Ouafik, “Death doesn’t scare me anymore. I’ve been sentenced to death by the doctors twice already. Whenever I start a dialysis session, I never know if I’ll be going home on my feet or on my back. But what does truly scare me is my figurative death: being marginalized, under siege, excluded. That’s real death!”
The central tragedy is that Moustadraf’s life could have been saved, and was not. There’s no way to make up for that. But it is my hope that her work coming back into print in Arabic and appearing for the first time in English is just the beginning of a long-overdue literary resurrection of Malika Moustadraf, and thereby goes at least some way toward addressing the fear of erasure she expressed so poignantly.
Now that I’ve told you something of who the author of these stories was, what about the worlds she created in them? In any translation (in any text, perhaps), there are inevitably a host of references that will be lost on many readers. Unfamiliar words or proper names can, of course, be researched by those readers inclined to take that approach, and the translated collection also contains a glossary for those who enjoy that particular mode. Some of the most interesting extratextual material alive in Moustadraf’s work, however, doesn’t hinge on a single key word, and so I feel it is worth flagging a few of the myriad examples of the depths beneath the surface of her work. For the explanations that follow, I want to express my deepest gratitude to my friends in Morocco, whose generosity and hospitality (linguistic, translational, intellectual, and practical, whether in person or remote) seem to know no bounds. All errors and misunderstandings, however, are mine alone, as the saying goes.
Idiomatic Moroccan expressions are frequent in Moustadraf’s writing, many of which will be easily understandable, in context, to the anglophone reader of my translation. Others are more oblique, or only reveal part of their meaning to the unfamiliar reader. In “Just Different,” for example, one might wonder why the protagonist’s father objects so strongly to their standing in a certain position, and summons up a popular expression to illustrate his point: “‘Hands behind him, carrying the devil on his back’—that was what he used to say to me if he caught me with my hands behind my back).” There are two main issues here, both revolving around emasculation: One is that women traditionally carry children on their backs, but men do not, so to have one’s hands behind one’s back implies bearing a child, supposedly a uniquely feminine posture. The other aspect is that the back itself is associated with sex in Moroccan popular culture and, combined with the devil, the suggestion is of a risk of anal penetration—another emasculating act, in the mind of this character’s father.
In “Raving,” the protagonist uses a popular folk saying when she wonders about her lover: “Is it true he has an extra rib?” This is a reference to Saharwi men (from Western Sahara) being seen in a certain popular imagination as such big macho men that they actually possess an extra rib. In “Housefly,” the protagonist awaits her favorite online date, and chats to another male user in the meantime. When he pays her trite compliments based on childhood candies, she weirds it up by recounting a dark childhood memory of giving herself threadworms from gorging on some dirty street candy. The phrase “having worms” in Moroccan slang, however, means feeling horny, so the translation loss here is huge.
In “A Woman in Love, a Woman Defeated,” the new bride hears a popular expression from the groom about the need for a husband to assert his authority from the get go: “The first thing he did was slap me and say, ‘The cat dies on day one,’ and I knew that, in this context, I was the cat.” Earlier in the story, when trying to convince her mother that she’s made the right choice of prospective husband, she quotes an expression her mother frequently uses back at her: “But Mom, aren’t you always saying, ‘A covered head is better than a bare head.’” The idea here is that getting married is akin to getting dressed, to being decent—it’s more halal for a woman to be married than not.
There are a range of direct and indirect references to Islamic concepts such as this in Moustadraf’s work that might elude the reader not usually exposed to much Muslim culture, or might seem more formal and overtly religious than they do in their original context. When the same lovelorn protagonist longs for her mother to soothe her to sleep with the words “Allah, Allah . . . Mohammed is Allah’s messenger,” the connotation is of Sufi chants, used to soothe and comfort, a form of spiritual poetry with rhythm used in Gnawa, and also familiar to children as a lullaby. During the erotic online conversation in “Housefly,” the woman protagonist makes a single-phrase allusion to Surah Yusuf (also known in English as Joseph, depending on the translation), a Surah dealing with physical beauty, carnal desire, seduction, and self-restraint. When she says, “I’ll gift the sea my body, and I’ll tell it, ‘Come to me!’”, she is quoting ayah 23: “The woman in whose house he dwelt sought to seduce him and shut firm the doors upon them. She said: ‘Come to me!’ He said: ‘God forbid!’”15 Her internet lover immediately picks up on the reference and tells her to gift her body to him instead of the sea, reassuring her he “won’t be like Yusuf, and shun you.” Another instance of lovers quoting Islamic text while chatting online occurs in “Head Lice.” The imprisoned woman protagonist recalls paraphrasing a well-known hadith to lend strength to her argument: “He who can’t afford to marry, let him fast from the carnal feast.” This hadith is narrated in Sahih al-Bukhari as: “O young people! Whoever among you is able to marry, should marry, and whoever is not able to marry, is recommended to fast, as fasting diminishes his sexual urge.”16
In “Just Different,” the protagonist’s father hears the word pilot as containing the word Lot, the name of the Quranic and Biblical figure. “He frowned, clearly thinking about something weighty, and kept repeating, “Lot . . . pee-Lot.” Although there is a rich array of interpretations of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and its status as a holy proscription of same-sex desire is strongly contested, the popular interpretation of Lot’s role has led to his name forming a common pejorative term for homosexual in Arabic, “Loti.” Using Lot as a standalone proper name, the father is accusing his child of what he sees as sinful sexual deviance, hence the outburst that follows this rumination.
Other folk cultural references in the collection include the sampling in “Head Lice” of parts of the well-known folk tale Hayna and the Ghoul, loosely akin to Rapunzel in that it centers the power of physical beauty and hair. In “A Woman in Love, a Woman Defeated,” the protagonist reminisces on a popular children’s chant: “Ashtatata, pour, pour, pour, pour your rain down.” This familiar ditty, often sung at the start of the rainy season by children in contemporary Moroccan urban life, is originally related to an ancient Amazigh ritual for times of drought. Performed in rural areas, the ritual involves building an effigy of the rain’s betrothed. There is then a procession to every local water source by the young girls of the community while the older men sing long songs to entice the rain.
There are multiple folk cultural references in the story “Briwat.” Reading it in a context such as Britain, where I’m from—a place where about a quarter of all households nationally include a feline pet—the reader might not pick up on the intensity of the domestic transgression Hell Hawker represents. Like “The Ruse,” this story is set in a karian: an impoverished neighborhood of unregulated improvised residential structures, lacking in infrastructure, and often inhabited by recent migrants to the city from rural areas. Obviously in these conditions most people can’t spare food for pets, so taboos around them flourish. Hell Hawker is being accused of bestiality, a universal taboo, but there’s more going on here: cats are associated with devils and djinns in Moroccan popular culture, thought to live in haunted places. This adds another layer to Miftaha’s marginalized status as his child—living with cats is almost satanic, so she’s suffering under that label. The reality of the situation Moustadraf alludes to is that this widower is selling moonshine to make ends meet, enough to make him a pariah, someone other parents want to keep their children away from—so the bestiality myths spring from there, to make excluding him from the community easier. The mock wedding party staged to taunt Hell Hawker (and to provide some entertainment in a neighborhood in which leisure activity options are extremely limited) is one of only very few instances in which I inserted a “stealth gloss” into the translated text: the phrase “staged a grotesque wedding party” does not appear in the original. To a reader familiar with Moroccan wedding culture, there would be no need to spell it out, since it would be absolutely clear from the horse-drawn cart, the symbolic wedding objects such as the phallic sugar kawalibs, the ululating, and the celebratory chants that this was a parody of a wedding between Hell Hawker and his cats. There are also clues within this scene to certain specifics of karian culture: the wedding cart on which the groom would traditionally bring the bridal gifts and money to the bride’s house is “pulled by a scrawny, mangy horse”—it seems these new arrivals to the urban karian from the countryside still have some animals with them, not in use now in the city, too old to really work anymore.
There is a rich thread of material around the world of djinn and magic running through Moustadraf’s work, intertwined with references to Gnawa ritual practices.17 Some of these references are in the foreground of the action, as in “A Woman in Love, a Woman Defeated,” in which the protagonist seeks the help of a soothsayer to sort out her love life, and the idea of possession by a djinn is spelled out. Other references are more oblique, such as when the soothsayer “demands submission” during one of the protagonist’s consultations with her: she’s using a formulaic phrase for when someone is believed to have djinns possessing them—the idea being that until they are exorcised, the demons must be obeyed rather than resisted or harmed, so that they don’t harm their host. In other stories, the supernatural is in the background, as in “Thirty-Six,” when the girl is disturbed by a picture of “a big monkey wrapping toilet paper around his huge, hairy body, his jaw hanging open idiotically to reveal rusty teeth the size of fava beans.” She’s not just cringing at a late twentieth-century viral image familiar to many anglophone readers, she’s seeing an animal so associated with djinns in popular culture that it is essentially a monster to her, displayed on the wall of her home. In “The Ruse,” the bride’s mother and aunt are concerned with the concrete physical reality at the center of the story—the bride’s hymen—but we learn from their conversational asides that witchcraft is part of these women’s daily lives. A specific impotence curse, thiqaaf, is mentioned in passing, and the idea that the “evil eye of envy” has real power to derail a wedding is taken for granted. The two women are particularly concerned about Aicha the Slaughtered because of her unibrow, a facial feature commonly used in early depictions of evil in Moroccan culture. But none of this is magical realism, and these are ordinary, contemporary, urban lives. It’s worth noting that Moustadraf is by no means implying that everyone in her society believes in these things or worries about them, as plenty of her characters clearly do not. But the supernatural is a key cultural element she interweaves into several of her narratives with varying degrees of intensity.
Given all that she lived through, it’s not surprising that Malika Moustadraf doubted the power (or even the point) of writing. Sounding jaded in her 2004 interview with Ouafik, she said, “There was a time when I actually thought, in my delusion, that writing was capable of changing something.” Her outspoken feminist literary activism clearly did not seem to have the effect she had once dreamed of. And, as she was already suspecting by then that it would, her writing contributed to her death, via the furious backlash it provoked in some quarters, and how that affected her access to life-saving treatment. There’s no way to make that reality ever feel just, and no way to make up for the loss of her. But what about the mysterious afterlife of a dead writer’s work? Her words are back in print in Arabic now, being read by new readers. Her work is also arriving in another language, and perhaps traveling on from here to yet more languages, to be read in places far from Casablanca. What might her words spark in her new readers? Like Moustadraf, I am also prone to doubting the power of writing. But knowing that reading can change lives (and has changed mine), here I am. Above all, Blood Feast is my own act of friendship and of hospitality, to Malika, the dear friend I never had the chance to meet. I hope you will make her welcome too, and enjoy her company on the page as much as I have.
— Alice Guthrie
From Blood Feast: The Complete Stories of Malika Moustadraf, translated by Alice Guthrie. Used with the permission of the Feminist Press. Copyright © 2022 by Alice Guthrie.
- Based at the Casablanca University Hassan II, the Moroccan Short Story Research Group has been an important publisher of original literary works, translations, and the literary journal QS. They also hold regular workshops.
- The term refragmented memory was coined by the artist Noureddine Ezarraf, whose thinking around Moustadraf’s work has been invaluable to my understanding and rendering of her writing.
- Moustadraf apparently repeatedly used this phrase, a take on the more familiar “magical realist,” in conversation and private correspondence as quoted by Aida Nasrallah and others.
- Malika Moustadraf, interview by Mouna Ouafik, published on Mohamed Aslim’s cultural website on July 24, 2004, http://aslimnet.free.fr/div/malika2.htm. All quotes from this and other interviews are my own translations. Ouafik and another young writer friend who were passionate about “literature from the margins” had the presence of mind to arrange and conduct this remarkable interview with Moustadraf before she died, which is one of the main extant sources of the writer discussing her life and work. On its publication in summer 2004, the interview was very widely shared and read around the arabophone world.
- Aida Nasrallah quotes several short extracts from the material they were developing together in her poetic and political travelogue and memoir of her relationship with Moustadraf and others. See Aida Nasrallah, Ayyami ma‘Malika [My days with Malika] (Tangiers, Morocco: Edition Slaiki, 2019).
- See, for example, Marilyn Booth, “‘The Muslim Woman’ as Celebrity Author and the Politics of Translating Arabic: Girls of Riyadh Go on the Road,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 6, no. 3 (Fall 2010): 149–82.
- AlRabie Publications’ edition of Trente-Six is an expanded version of the original collection, as (like Blood Feast) it includes the four extra stories originally published in QS magazine. It’s essentially a complete short stories volume but published under the same name as the older, shorter collection. The texts have been edited in a slightly slapdash way by the new publisher, so Moustadraf purists or scholars would be advised to consult the originals, but the stories are largely unchanged and back in circulation, which is a positive step.
- Aida Nasrallah argues that Moustadraf always had a bigger readership online than in print, due to the early efforts made by the Moroccan literary site Douroub (no longer in existence) to feature her work, and later to the ubiquity of pirating in Arabic literature and the issues with book distribution across the region. It’s outside the scope of this piece to try to assess this, but there is anecdotal evidence that Moustadraf was read in Arabic outside Morocco, and it seems likely this would have occurred mostly online.
- Leïla Slimani and Zainab Fasiki are two obvious examples of Moroccan feminist artists who have obtained widespread and mainstream visibility in recent years. Aside from these famous names, there is a diverse wealth of Moroccan feminist activists and artists (or artivists), including queer and trans feminists, active today.
- Since premodern Arabic literature is a vast treasure trove of gender and sexual diversity, I’m not making any claims about that period, just the last hundred years or so. I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has a modern Arabic literary reference for a nuanced and sympathetic portrait of an intersex or gender nonconforming person predating Moustadraf’s work.
- Wounds of the Soul and the Body was published in 1999 by Editions Accent, a publisher that has since folded.
- Moustadraf, interview by Ouafik, 2004. Moustadraf also wrote a searing indictment of the Moroccan health-care system’s failures, and the lack of a serious activist response to the situation, in a nonfiction piece entitled “Those flaky, fakey, eighth of March women.” The article was published on March 8, 2006 by the website Douroub, no longer in existence, which had been an early champion of her work. It’s interesting to note the intensity of the specific scorn provoked in Moustadraf by a token show of solidarity with kidney patients, undertaken by a group of women in the name of International Women’s Day. Hell hath no fury like a feminist failed by bourgeoise women. Unlike in her fiction, Moustadraf details the exact costs of a dialysis session here, and directly calls out the state for abandoning kidney patients and not keeping its promises. She refers to those who visit the hospital wards to offer support to the patients, without taking further action, as “morally bankrupt.” The full text is archived online, apparently since 2018. Malika Moustadraf, “Those flaky, fakey, eighth of March women,” Alantologia (blog), accessed October 26, 2021, https://alantologia.com/blogs/13306/.
- The full text of Bouzfour’s speech appears in this article: Yassin Adnan, “Bouzfour’s refusal of the Moroccan Writers’ Prize provokes cultural debate and reaction,” a al-Hayat, February 12, 2004, archived at https://www.sauress.com/alhayat/31195543.
- The 2004 interview with Mouna Ouafik I frequently quote in this piece was apparently the reason Moustadraf’s case came to the attention of the Saudi media, after it was widely shared. Upon her death, the newspaper published in full her overwhelmed letter of thanks to the editors, in an article with no byline: “Al-Riyadh stood by her in her treatment: death comes for Moroccan novelist Malika Moustadraf,” al-Riyadh, issue 13958, September 11, 2006, http://www.alriyadh.com/185800.
- The Quran, a new translation by Tarif Khalidi, Penguin Classics, London, 2008.
- Sahih al-Bukhari 5065: Book 67, Hadith 3, translation my own, based on https://sunnah.com/bukhari/67.
- Gnawa musicians are healers, griots, medicine men, trance workers, and exorcists.