Friday, January 15, 2010

Review of the English Translation of L'Excisée

A Review of The Excised
Reviewed by Deborah Joyce
A novel in French by Evelyne Accad
English translation by Cynthia Hahn

I was already a fan of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Infidel (Simon & Shuster, 2007), the stunning memoir of the Somali woman who is now an international political figure as a freedom fighter for the rights of Muslim women. The story of Hirsi Ali’s flight and transformation, from the dutiful daughter who was a devout follower of her faith, escaping from her homeland and a forced marriage, to a new life in the Netherlands, is a real life accounting of one woman’s confrontation with her faith and her personal choices of freedom. Perhaps that book only makes me appreciate Evelyne Accad’s novel even more. Ms. Accad published her novel in 1982, ten years before Hirsi Ali even sought political asylum in the Netherlands, long before the events that pushed the Somali woman into the international spotlight as a prominent feminist critic of Islam. And, while I was captivated with Infidel, I am all the more in awe of The Excised, its literary forerunner, a story born of the same feminist plight, yet told with all of the poetry and art that a work of fiction can bring to the same message.

Ms. Accad’s novel is nearly thirty years old and yet her message is as pertinent as if written today. Set in Lebanon, the conflicts between the traditional and the modern are the same as those that are the source of our daily international headlines.

“I don’t believe in religions. They only serve to distance people from one another.” (The Excised, page 64). So proclaims the love interest of the female protagonist. “The Muslim religion is a kind of necessary nationalist consciousness.” E., the nameless woman of the novel, who is all women, Eve, is a Christian, drawn to a Muslim man, physically at first, but primarily on the basis of his idealism. “Together we will rebuild the world... we will cross the trenches dug by our two cultures and we will find a compromise...” he tells her. She risks everything for this cross cultural hope. But the forces of tradition are too much for her. She suffers the punishment of isolation, first by her own family, and later by the Muslim family into which she marries.

The novel suggests perhaps that women, and especially the solidarity of women, bears the seed of the answer to these seemingly unsolvable cultural conflicts which, from a feminist viewpoint, are the product of male dominant thinking. Ms. Accad’s novel is a cry for “Femi-humanism” in a world of cultural divisions.

When Evelyne Accad learned about female excision, while doing her doctoral thesis, she was told not to write about it. “Ça n’a rien à voir avec la littérature,” she was told. (“That has nothing to do with literature.”) But her powerful novel has proven that advice to be wrong. Ms. Accad has given a poetic voice to her feminism. She uses a traditional Arabic form called “zajal” which intersperses verse into the prose, poetic interludes like a musical sound track to the narrative. The poetic verses break with the progress of the scene, like dream sequences in a film, to emphasize and highlight the driving emotion of the moment, to let us see into the hearts of the characters or the narrator, and to bind us all, audience and players, in chorus and into the drama.

Ms. Accad tries to make sense of why females submit to, and perform on each other, the horrifying mutilation of excision. She says in her preface that she was astounded when Muslim women sided with their men in protest of her criticism. “They told me the reason they sided with the men... was because they had to be loyal to them. In front of the West, loyalty was more important than truth.”

And so it is loyalty to tradition, a fear of cultural annihilation, that can inspire its members to self-inflicted suffering, from women performing genital mutilation on the young girls in their own families, perhaps even to suicide bombing. In The Excised, it is finally one woman observing the pain of another, the solidarity of a “sisterhood”, which opens her eyes to a different way of being. But, just as in Infidel, the weight of cultural tradition is too great and escape to another shore seems to be the only way out. Evelyne Accad’s novel uses images of water to symbolize freedom and liberation.

Dr. Cynthia Hahn gives a faithful and elegant translation of Dr. Accad’s work. It is the most courageous translation, in that the English and original French are juxtaposed page by page, thereby lending itself to word-for-word scrutiny. The temptation for the translator is to create his/her own work of art from the original material, with tones of his/her own voice coming across. In this case, Cynthia Hahn shows great loyalty to Evelyne Accad’s inspiration. Her translation makes this wonderful, important work accessible to a whole new audience of English readers with this new edition. Compelling and beautiful, this novel will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

To order a copy of The Excised, contact Dr. Cynthia Hahn at Lake Forest College ( or the publisher: L’Harmattan, Edition-Diffusion; 5-7 rue de l’Ecole Polytechnique, 75005 Paris;

Deborah Joyce is a freelance French<>English translator-interpreter in the Chicago area.

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