Demoiselles of Numidia

  • By Mohamed Leftah; translated by Lara Vergnaud
  • Other Press
  • 208 pp.

Prostitutes and pimps navigate their world in 1990s Morocco.

Demoiselles of Numidia

The title of Moroccan author Mohamed Leftah’s latest translated work of fiction, originally published in French in 1992, sounds like that of a romantic novel about a bygone era. “Demoiselles,” of course, translates to “ladies,” and Numidia refers to an ancient kingdom in northwest Africa.

Not so fast. Demoiselles of Numidia is set in 1990s Morocco, and most of its female characters are prostitutes.

The book features an expansive cast. Night Jasmine, a school-aged widow and mother of a baby, works nights for her pimp and lover, Zapata. Rose is a year older than Night Jasmine, and her pimp is named Spartacus. As a way out of prostitution, Rose is grooming Louisa, an even younger girl from the countryside, to take her place. Add to this assemblage Nectarine, seen as “rotten” by the others because she sells sodomy, and Sophia, a lesbian prostitute who works for herself. And finally, there are three characters on the periphery playing small but crucial roles: a customs agent, a Danish tourist, and a prince from one of the gulf states.

All the women bear scars from their pimps. Literal ones, visible where they have been cut by a knife to mark them, essentially, as property; and metaphorical ones from the emotional abuse and degradation they suffer at their pimps’ hands. As a result, the women themselves are called “cicatrices,” or scars.

Leftah gives us access to his many characters’ thoughts and motivations, and offers just enough of their backstories to elucidate how they ended up where they are. The cicatrices aren’t just used by their pimps and johns; they’re used by society, by gender roles that make it acceptable if not expected for men to take advantage of women. In a different way, the men, too, are victims of their patriarchic society. While the author makes evident his appreciation for other aspects of his country’s culture, he shows little restraint in criticizing, through the plights of his characters, the gender norms associated with its traditions.

But there is another character who, despite his constant presence, remains in the shadows: the unnamed, first-person narrator. He seems to be a poet, an intellectual, or both, given his extensive use of simile and metaphor; his quoting of Camus, Flaubert, Homer, and Tolstoy; and the pains he takes to explain the etymology of Numidian words. Early on, for example, he says:

“Speaking of girls’ names, apart from those designating flowers, some come from the names of fruit: Nectarine, for example, whom I’ve just mentioned…Other girls are named after aromatic substances: ‘Anbar (Amber), Krounfoul (Clove); gemstones: Yacout (Pearl), Zoumourrod (Emerald). If I add that the most flattering homage you can pay one of these girls is to call her gazelle, or rose, or diamond (we say diamanda), you’ll note that the most beautiful names refer to kingdoms and orders that predate man. These girls are gemstones, flowers, spices from fragrant islands, or forest does.”

The juxtaposition of the narrator’s intellectualism, philosophizing, and logophilia against his descriptions of the barbaric acts taking place has a startling effect. And while his digressions about the etymology of words at times detracts from the plot, his asides make him all the more intriguing, especially when he goes out of his way to show respect for the cicatrices or when he drops rare tidbits about himself — like that he once spent time in prison — without further explanation.

While I’m fully aware that a novel’s narrator is not the same as its author, the mystery around the narrator did make me want to know more about Leftah himself. There is disappointingly little information other than that he was born in Morocco and spent his life in that country, in France, and finally in Egypt, where he died of cancer, at age 62, in 2008. And yet, in this age of social media and consumerism, when authors are expected to bare their personal lives to help sell their work, when many deceased writers have their lives dissected, it’s oddly refreshing to come across one who kept his own story private and instead let his work speak for him.

Demoiselles of Numidia is not for the fainthearted. Any novel about a group of subjugated prostitutes and the men who exploit them can be expected to be a hard read. And yes, since the book doesn’t provide one, let me add a trigger warning here. One can well imagine that translator Lara Vergnaud — who does an impressive job preserving the author’s playfulness with language — had as hard a time with this novel as she did with one of his others. Still, Demoiselles of Numidia is an important part of Leftah’s literary legacy. Thirty years after the publication of the French version, this tragic work remains timely and relevant, encouraging the reader to reflect on universal themes of gender norms, the self-perpetuating cycle of violence, and the inextricable ties that forever bind victims and their victimizers.

[Editor’s note: This review originally ran in 2023.]

Susi Wyss is author of The Civilized World, a novel in stories set across Africa that was largely inspired by her 20-year career in international health. In addition to receiving the Maria Thomas Fiction Award, The Civilized World was named a “Book to Pick Up Now” by O, the Oprah Magazine.

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