MOHAMED KACIMI is a prolific Algerian playwright and novelist. His writings include 1962 and the autobiographic L’Orient après l’Amour. ‘The Day Nina Simone stopped Singing’ is the result of a meeting in a Paris theatre of Kacimi and “a shy young girl” Darina Al-Joundi who handed him an open letter to her father “who had dreamed of the greatest of freedoms for his daughter while she, precisely because of this freedom, would come to know the worst servility…She told (him) the story of her childhood, her wars, her drug habit, and her love affairs without any self-censorship.”This book is that story. This is the second book this year which I have read treating the war in Lebanon (Sorj Chalandon’s Quatrième Mur).
The story is a search for freedom against the background of the terrible war in Lebanon which gave rise to the radical religious groups and a disappearance of the space for personal liberties as well as the particular violence against women institutionalised and practiced by all of the religious groups in The Lebanon.
The story begins with the defining moment of the book, with Darina in agreement with her father’s wishes refusing to let religion become part of his funeral rite by turning off the cassette playing the Koran. “Suddenly I heard a strange voice that ripped through me. An intolerable cry that split my skull, pierced my skin: someone was wailing verses from the Koran. I flung open the door to the next room. It was filled with women in black weeping around a cassette player broadcasting prayers. I stepped over and on them, snatched the cassette player, and shut it off. The women shouted out in horror. My mother and my sisters tried to grab hold of me, shouting, “Stop that! You’re mad! Come back, this is not the time …” I ran to hide in my father’s room and double-locked the heavy oak door. I heard the men hollering, “You crazy woman, give back the Koran or we’ll kill you. Open up, you bitch, open up! One doesn’t cut off the voice of God. Open up, you bitch, if you so much as touch God’s Book you’re dead.”
How did we get to this situation, the book takes us from Darina’s fifth birthday and the powder keg that was Lebanon, “Beirut was a free city, the oasis of every Arab intellectual who in his own country was forced into silence. It was also the capital of the PLO, the Palestinians made the laws, and Beirut was their republic…….in Lebanon, we all know where we come from, to what community we belong, of which there are seventeen in our country; so are you Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Maronite? Even cats know to what religion their families belong, even a dog can smell whether his leash is held by a Greek Catholic or a Greek Orthodox.” Into this keg came Darina whose secular father brought her up with an ideal of personal freedom that would need fighting for and was maybe possible before the war.
Kacimi and Al-Joundi then lead us through the war years where because of the continual danger over so many years a complete disregard for personal danger and risk becomes the norm. We are introduced to the concept of a “house of surrender.” In Islam, when a husband lodges a complaint against his wife for desertion, the police forcibly bring her back and the husband can “tame her” by locking her up at home or in a stairwell. as well as the Christian version the priest informed me that the Church did not allow divorce, no exceptions made, but for ten thousand he might be able to make things easier for me…. a novice in a cassock who was to count the bills. As he waited for the result, the priest read the Gospel of St. Mark and when he heard the words “it’s fine,” he gave me a certificate of annulment without so much as a word.
The story then reaches the defining moment from the beginning of the book and the violence against women outside of wartime is illustrated, when after her father’s death she is physically beaten on the street and forcefully psychiatrically interned at her families request until she agrees to promise not to dance anymore, not to drink or smoke anymore, not to go out with men anymore, not to talk the way (you) did before. She finally leaves The Lebanon.
This book is published in English by The Feminist Press and should be compulsory reading in schools.
First published in French as ‘Le Jour Où Nina Simone a Cessé de Chanter’ by Actes Sud in 2008.
Translated into English by Marjolijn De Jager and published by The Feminist Press as ‘The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing’ in 2011