Number of pages
An English version would be welcome.
—World Literature Today, March 2009
A Mediterranean Faulkner.
A monumental novel.
Benmalek picks up where Camus left off.
Al-Andulus was the name given to the part of Spain that Muslims dominated physically and culturally for 500 years, starting in the early 700s. “Every Arab writer,” the author writes, “wants at some point to write a novel about Andalusia.” This is Benmalek’s Andalusian novel: a novel of cruelty, beauty, and intolerance, but most of all, a novel about a woman.
The Christians who defeated Muslim Andalusia soon introduced an expanded Inquisition. The Spanish Law of Purity decreed that everyone had to be free of Jewish or Muslim blood for four previous generations to be considered pure. Those who were Jewish were killed; those who were Muslim were deported to North Africa. The story of the prosecution of the Jews is often told, but Benmalek selected the lesser known, although no less harrowing, tale of the Spanish Muslims under the Inquisition.
The author based his novel on records he found in the archives of the Inquisition. During his research, he was impressed with Maria’s acts of heroic proportion: Her love was so great that she tore out her tongue so that even under torture she would not betray her family.
Maria, a headstrong and seductive young woman of rare beauty, was brought up to believe that she was a Christian by blood. At the time of her first menses, however, she was told the truth: Her family was Morisco—they were Muslims converted to Christianity. While she was still trying to take in her background and come to terms with her faith, her entire village was captured by Christian slave-traders. Maria became a slave to a cruel man obsessed with her and her virginity. But before he could take possession of her, she gave herself to her true love. That same day, Maria is raped by her owner. Marriage to a much older, converted Muslim, a carpenter who is dazzled by her beauty, allows Maria to escape both the owner and a future of sure slavery. The man is willing to accept her pregnancy and adopts and raises as his own the son she bears. Her son’s parentage, and thus his bloodline, is uncertain, however, and Maria will go to any length to spare him the fate of a Morisco. As she tries to protect him, it is she who is caught in the grasp of the Inquisition.
Anouar Benmalek : Mathematician, novelist, and journalist Anouar Benmalek was born in Casablanca in 1956; he has lived in France since 1992. After the 1988 riots, he cofounded the Algerian Committee against Torture. He is the author of four previous novels, including Les Amants Désunis (Éditions Calmann Lévy, 1998; The Lovers of Algeria , Graywolf, 1997), which was a best seller in France and the winner of the Rachid Mimouni Prize. His works have been translated into 10 languages. He was invited to the first Pen World Voices Festival, and he travels to the United States often to testify on torture. Recently he was in New York at the behest of the American Constitution Society and PEN American Center for the panel Writers Against Torture, which included Jane Mayer and Dahlia Lithwick. Ô Maria has been published in Spanish and in Portuguese.