A Country for Dying

  • By Abdellah Taïa; translated by Emma Ramadan
  • Seven Stories Press
  • 144 pp.

This loosely constructed, vivid immigrant tale will both challenge and reward persevering readers.

On the eve of her gender-affirmation surgery, an Algerian woman named Aziz welcomes her friend Zahira into her apartment. The women are colleagues — immigrant sex workers who live in Paris — and Zahira has come to assist her friend in selecting a new name in advance of the following day’s procedure.

“You have to pick me out a first name like yours,” Aziz insists. “With a Z. And an h. And an a.” They consider Zahra, ZouZou, Zhira, Zohra, and Zineb. But Zahira, the older of the two, rejects each in favor of Zannouba — a decision she announces with such confidence that its selection seems fated.

The women spend the remainder of the evening communing. They watch a Bollywood movie, and because Zannouba is obsessed with it, Zahira relays, again, the story of an aunt who disappeared mysteriously decades earlier. Then she tells a tale intended to bring them both comfort — a message of hope, a dream made manifest.  

Her friend Naïma, once a prostitute herself, was rescued by a wealthy suitor, Zahira explains. She was destitute, working as a barmaid and offering herself to anyone who would have her, but now she’s married and owns two homes. “I know that miracles happen.”

As she departs, Zahira kisses her friend on each cheek and uses her new name. It sounds “obvious” in Zahira’s mouth, Zannouba thinks. “A smile that comes from far away. Me in a past life. Once more in the reality of the world.”

This scene appears in Abdellah Taïa’s newly translated A Country for Dying, a fable of contemporary immigrant life set mostly in Paris and peopled by men and women who send money home to countries they may never see again and consider it their fate “to pay with our bodies for the futures of others.”

France offers them no succor, so they sustain themselves on a diet of fantasy, soul-deep hatred, force of will, and spells of love and longing cast by sorcerers-for-hire. And in place of native soil, they root themselves to one another. “I live through [him],” Zahira says once of a man she takes into her home. “His life, which he creates with me, in front of me. For me.”

The novel adopts the perspectives of several characters, but Zahira is its heart. Born in Morocco, she fled to Paris to escape poverty after her father’s suicide. She has a great capacity for duplicity and cynicism, but as she shows on the evening before Zannouba’s surgery, she defaults to tenderness and grace. These are fine qualities — pure and sometimes selfless — but when she inhabits them in Taïa’s book, they often read as defiance or delusion because she has so little reason to expect the world will reciprocate.  

Zahira has been a sex worker for her entire adult life, but she’s 40 now and will soon age out of the trade. “I’m tired,” she thinks, “of feeling numb between the legs at the end of the day.” It’s an existential concern. She has no other skills, no pension. She hopes to marry into comfort and retire, but the man she dreams of wedding has recently discovered her profession and rejected her. “I knew that all Moroccan girls were whores,” he says. “But I didn’t know that you were one of them.”

Each of the book’s other characters has some connection to Zahira — blood in some cases, chance or circumstance in others — and the book is propelled by author Taïa’s account of their stories and their inner lives. 

Zannouba was raised in Algeria, where she was raped repeatedly, and when she reached Paris, she suffered further abasement. At first, she solicited clients while “dressed as a moderately savage Arab boy.” “The clients liked that,” she explains, “liked for me to smell like my home country.” She struggles with her identity before and after her surgery, and unlike Zahira, she would like to enact revenge on the world for the abuse it has visited upon her.

In order to persevere, she says, “I will pamper it, my hatred. I will make a small mausoleum for it in my apartment.”

Mojtaba, a character who drifts into the novel around its midpoint, participated in the 2009 Green Movement uprising in Iran and covered it as an anonymous correspondent for the Guardian. When the regime discovered his identity, he fled to protect himself, his mother, and his lover, Samih, and made his way to Paris, where Zahira discovers him outside the Couronnes metro stop. He is weak and disoriented, and she spends the month of Ramadan nursing him back to health.

Then he disappears.

Wandering,” he writes to his mother from Paris. “That will be my life from now on. But don’t worry, Mama. I will survive. I will carry you in me and I will survive.”

Zahira’s aunt Zineb — the woman whose long-ago disappearance fascinates Zannouba — commandeers the book’s narrative near its conclusion, transporting it into the past and an era when France still imagined it had some right to force its will on North Africa and Southeast Asia. Her fate had been a mystery, potentially a reason for hope, but eventually it is revealed that her circumstances were more desperate than any other character’s, her exploitation more pronounced.

Despite that fact, she is every bit the dreamer her niece will become. Rather than planning to escape her circumstances, Zineb indulges fantasies about the Bollywood actress Nargis and becoming a star in her own right. “I too can do what she does in front of the camera,” she says. “Inhabit the film.”

Impressionistic and digressive, A Country for Dying has no plot nor consistent perspective. The narrative moves through time and space in a manner that can be disorienting, one character’s story blending into the next — their fantasies, fixations, and traumas merging. There are points where these transitions feel jarring or overly tenuous, and in that way, this book is challenging.

But the patient reader will be well rewarded — the book has no omniscient narrator to act as a guide, but neither does it contain any contrivance or false emotion. Its prose is forceful and direct — this, no doubt, is thanks to Emma Ramadan’s fluid, responsive, and economical translation — and it becomes clear, by the book’s conclusion, that the author’s vision is cohesive and elegant.

Taïa’s story reckons with violence and loss on an historic scale. The sins he perseverates over — colonialism, war, economic dislocation — are immense and epochal, but they exact their toll on individuals, wreaking havoc on bodies and the sense of place, belonging, self. And so, it feels true and correct that his narrative is fragmented and littered with jagged edges, and that his characters are at once violent and rageful, remorseful and dreamy.

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]

Colin Asher is the author of Never a Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren. His writing has appeared in the Believer, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, and many other publications.

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