Amid the political anxieties of our time, Monia Mazigh’s latest novel, Hope Has Two Daughters, presents a historical milieu where some of the worst-case scenarios already exist. In 2010 Tunisia, press freedom is non-existent, with all major newspapers toeing the government line; human rights activists and journalists are often jailed; and Muslims are persecuted for openly practising their faith.
It all seems hopeless, and yet, in Mazigh’s novel, life must go on. The book, published by House of Anansi Press, follows Muslim mother and daughter Nadia and Lila, whose stories unfold in alternating plotlines. Lila’s tale is set during the rule of the notorious Tunisian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali – who ran the country as a police state between 1987 and 2011. Lila travels from Ottawa to Tunis to learn Arabic and becomes involved in the Jasmine Revolution of 2010. Her mother’s story takes place in 1984, during the Tunisian bread riots – a mass protest resulting from a lack of confidence in the government and skyrocketing wheat prices that followed a fall in the price of oil, stagnant economic growth, and restrictive conditions imposed as an element of paying back an International Monetary Fund loan.
The theme of self development through political action is present in Mazigh’s earlier works – her 2014 novel, Mirrors and Mirages (Anansi), also involves female Muslim protagonists, and was also translated from French by Fred Reed, and her memoir, Hope and Despair: My Struggle to Free My Husband, Maher Arar (McClelland & Stewart). “People speak about human rights fatigue,” Mazigh says. “They say they are tired of these issues and the victimization of minorities, and I wanted to speak to my community and the broader community, and the best way to do that is to write.”
Mazigh shot to prominence following her public and vocal campaign for her spouse’s release. In 2002, while on the way home from a family vacation in Tunis, Arar was detained on suspected connections to al Qaeda and deported to Syria, where he was held for a year and tortured before ultimately being cleared of all charges. Mazigh fought for Arar’s emancipation, and against misleading allegations that he had trained in Afghanistan during and after his release. Despite being a reluctant public figure, Mazigh spoke with dignity and clarity during her campaign. As a private person, speaking out was as embarrassing as “standing naked in the town square,” she says. Her decision to write a book about these experiences was her way of setting the record straight. It also was a gift for her children, now aged 14 and 19 – a document to let them know what happened to their father, and to describe how their mother managed to stay focused and upbeat during such an ordeal.
Arar’s arrest did not mark the first time Mazigh was targeted as a result of her faith. When Ben Ali came to power, he began cracking down on political dissidents. Anyone who openly displayed their Islamic faith by wearing a hijab was seen as an extremist. In her final year of university, Mazigh was told to remove her headscarf or she would be kicked out. “The repression was getting worse,” she says, “so I decided to move to Canada.”
Mazigh, who has a PhD in finance from McGill University, expected things would be easier once she arrived in Ottawa. But she found the finance industry in which she worked to be an old boys’ club. There were a minimal number of women working beside her, and few of those were wearing a hijab. Again, Mazigh found herself a minority in a culture that pressured her to conform, but she persisted in her manner of dress, a practice she says gives her strength and protects her “inner soul.”
Given her history of fighting for religious and political freedoms, Mazigh’s recent choice to focus on fiction may seem strange. She sees her choice as the latest in a series of resistances. Fiction is the genre of artistic freedom, she says: as the author is free to pursue the limits of her imagination, to create and hone characters, play with plots and tone, insert the “humorous into the tragic.” Writing fiction is itself a political act – in a political and literary environment where Muslims are stereotyped as extremists, sexists, and terrorists, the creation of subtle, complex characters humanizes the other.
“Given the current political climate and that the stereotypes are so entrenched, I feel the need to have a voice as a Muslim woman,” Mazigh says. “I am not saying that Muslim women should be this way or the other, but instead, I’m introducing another vision and nuanced characters that are not black or white, but representative of what I see around me.”