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Najat El Hachmi: L’últim patriarca (The Last Patriarch)

The eponymous Last Patriarch is Mimoun Driouch and this is his story, as told by his daughter. He is not a historical character but a (more or less) contemporary one. He was the fourth child but first son of his parents, having three older sisters. As the only boy (at that time), he was spoiled by his mother and sisters, though not by his father. He had various traumatic moments in his life but the first was being hit by his father, aged six months, because he was bawling and his father could not stand it. His mother always said that this had a profound effect on the boy.

However, his spoiling ended when his younger brother was born. He was not happy with this so one day, when his mother thought he was playing outside, he took a pillow and smothered the baby. The baby died but Mimoun was not suspected. Another brother was born later (with, by tradition, the same name as the deceased older brother) but Mimoun was older by then and did not mind so much.

Mimoun was always having tantrums though his father tried to beat it out of him, realising that the child was spoiled. Things got worse when he went to school, as the teacher beat the children for any transgression and Mimoun had many. As a result, he decided to stop going to school, and played truant. When it came to the key exam to enable him to move to the next stage, he was unable to even vaguely cope so he just drew all over the paper. He failed. This led to the next major traumatic event. When his father heard of both his failure and his truancy, he beat him so hard, he fell into a prickly pear plant and was covered in thorns.

Now that he was not going to be a doctor, as his father hoped, he continued to behave badly. He demanded money from his mother, which she struggled to provide. He fell in love (at age thirteen) with his cousin Fatma, a woman of decidedly loose morals. When he realised that she was not being faithful to him, he realised that he wanted a woman who would be true only to him.

His professional career was no more of a success. His father’s friend, Moussa, gave him a job helping Moussa’s sons in the building trade, but he fought with them. When he was confronted by his father, he hit him, a completely unacceptable form of behaviour.

He did manage to get another job as an apprentice to a building worker and spent his money chasing girls. Of course, while other women were whores, his sisters must be purer than pure and when one of them attracted some attention from men, he beat her up.

However, at a wedding he saw a woman who took his fancy and she seemed purer than pure. Though he was only sixteen and had no money, he persuaded his parents to make a proposal and, to their surprise, he was accepted. He had to work hard for two years to afford a wedding but he did, but he still needed money, so off he went to Barcelona. Inevitably, things go wrong in Barcelona and, inevitably, they involve sex and his temper, resulting in deportation for five years.

Back home, he does marry the unnamed narrator’s unnamed mother and proves to be a particularly unpleasant husband. He is unfaithful, often drunk, often violent and very controlling. They have son and then a daughter who is our narrator. At this point he is back in Barcelona – with another girlfriend, of course, an older woman ( 1) they were easier to satisfy than other women, and 2) as they’d been available to all-comers for some time, they didn’t mind doing things that might disgust or even frighten a younger woman) – and contact is sporadic. However, he has given strict instructions that his wife must not leave the house on any account.

However, eventually he brings his family over to Barcelona. While we still see the very unpleasant side of Mimoun (who is now called Manel), including violence, drunkenness, lack of money and blatant infidelity, the story changes somewhat, as the narrator is alive and she tells her own story as well.

The narrator has two key issues. The first, of course, is an abusive father. However, she is his favourite and gets to go with him when he is out and about and is more spoilt than the others, at least till she reaches puberty, when she is told never to leave the house on her own and never to speak to any men other than close relatives. Not surprisingly, she does not obey. Her mother, herself a victim of perpetual spousal abuse, is eager for her daughter to become a good Muslim wife. However, to her surprise, he does allow her to stay on at school, where she is doing very well, unlike other Muslim girls who have to leave at a young age and are soon wives and mothers.

Her second issue is fitting in with the local culture. Part of the problem is understanding the local culture. She soon learns the language and reads the Catalan dictionary every day to learn more. (We see her working through the alphabet.). The other part is the cultural issues imposed on by her parents, from appropriate clothing (bras are not approved of) to tampons versus sanitary towels (her mother feels tampons will cause her hymen to break). El Hachmi spares us no details.

This book won the prestigious Ramon Llull Prize in 2008, which caused a mild furore in Catalonia. The fact that El Hachmi has spent most of her life (and all her adult) life in Catalonia and that she essentially learned to read and write in Catalan clearly makes her Catalan for all intents and purposes.

El Hachmi holds nothing back. The considerable and perpetual abuse suffered by her mother at the hand of Mimoun/Manel is horrendous though, of course, this form of abusive behaviour is certainly not unique to Moroccan men or Muslim men. Throughout the book, people say that Mimoun is different and that there is something wrong with him, with his mother offering the explantation of the smack when he is six months old and he himself offering the prickly pear episode as justification (though he had tantrums well before that). This cannot, however, fully justify his behaviour. El Hachmi also holds nothing back on the sexual activities. It is essential that a Muslim woman remains a virgin (i.e. has an intact hymen) before marriage so the alternatives used by Muslim men and women for premarital sex are described in a certain amount of detail.

It is at times a harrowing book but, at the same time, El Hachmi throws in humour and an often light-hearted approach, particularly in the second part, after the narrator’s birth. However, the abuse caused by Mimoun and, indeed, the role of women in a strict Muslim culture remain the key subjects of this book and can only makes us feel that things need to change.

First published by Planeta in 2008

First published in English by Serpent’s Tail in 2009
Translated by Peter Bush