Winner of the Prix Goncourt de l’Orient 2020 for her novel “Les Impatientes”, the Cameroonian Fulani author was in Beirut to be presented with the version of her novel translated into Arabic and to attend the deliberation of the Choix Goncourt of the East 2021.
Djaili Amadou Amal, born in 1975 in northern Cameroon, is currently one of the most important writers in her country where she is nicknamed “the voice of the voiceless”. In Beirut to sign al-Sabirat, the Arabic translation by Dar al-Farabi editions of her novel Les Impatientes, the winner of the Prix Choix Goncourt de l’Orient 2020 – French-speaking regional literary prize organized by the AUF in the Middle East, in partnership with the French Institute of Lebanon, sponsored by the Goncourt Academy and granted by the students – answered questions from the latter, journalists and readers with rich, generous and courageous words, during a meeting at the Café des letters from the French Institute, rue de Damas.
Her novel, first published under the title Munyal, Tears of Patience, has already received several awards, including that of the Best African author, as well as the Orange Book Prize in Africa in 2019. Taken over by the house of French edition Emmanuelle-Colas under the title Les Impatientes, the polyphonic work breaks taboos by depicting the condition of women in the Sahel. It tells the story of three Cameroonian women married by force: Ramla, Hindou, and Safira. Three women, three stories, and three destinies that will be linked. Ramla, 17, will marry a 50-year-old wealthy and high-profile man in the town of Maroua in northern Cameroon. The man is however already married to Safira, 35, who has given him six children. His sister Hindu marries his cousin Mubarak, violent and suffering from a drug addiction. Forced marriage, domestic violence, and polygamy will force them to free themselves from the pressure of their family and society, each in their own way. And if patience (this famous mounyal in the Fulani language) is this virtue with which they are knocked out to support the unjust choices of their families, it is above all synonymous with submission, and existence under control. “The word mounyal is not a simple word, the author will say, it is a watchword that imposes submission without complaint, it is what parents impose on all girls, an infernal existence! Facing an audience of students from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Abu Dhabi and Palestine – in the presence of Marie Buscail, director of the French Institute in Lebanon, Jean-Noël Baléo, regional director of the AUF (French-speaking university agency in the Middle East), Salma Kojok, French-speaking novelist and president of the Grand Jury of the Choix Goncourt de l’Orient, the representative of the publishing house Dar al-Farabi (responsible for translation of the novel) –, Djaili Amadou Amal gave his view on polygamy, forced marriage, violence against women, and details about his book and its impact in Africa, emphasizing the happiness of having been chosen by the youth of the Orient and France, since his novel published by Emmanuelle-Collas on September 4, 2020 had already won the Goncourt des lycéens in 2020.
Hope for a better world
“If there was a choice that was close to my heart, confides not without great emotion the author, it was the Goncourt Choice of the Orient. I wanted it more than Goncourt itself. ” Firstly for a sentimental reason, specifies Djaili Amadou Amal, “Being born of an Egyptian mother, I consider myself as the link between the East and Africa and it was important to me that my Egyptian family could read me and understand me because this problem is also the daily life of my cousins in Egypt and of many women in the Middle East”. The second reason was of a religious nature: “Every time violence against women was raised (Cameroon being a secular country where ethnic groups live together in peace), the question was referred to the problem of Islam. Some have accused me of going against my religion. Obtaining this prize was also a way for the author to make her voice heard and to assert above all her religious affiliation. “Violence is not a question of religion, she adds, but of education, and the pattern that women reproduce for having grown up in environments that have trivialized forced marriage, polygamy, and all that it generates as violence required a voice, mine, to carry all the others. Moreover, for her, the subject is universal: the Fulani Muslim society of Cameroon resembles in its functioning many other African societies and elsewhere in the world. Polygamy, rape, forced marriage, and violence affect many women of all religions, she believes. “And if today’s youth is concerned by this theme and by such a serious subject, it implies that in adulthood, young girls will not reproduce what their mothers instilled in them, namely holding the choice of man for divine order. It is the hope of a better world. »
However, the author indicates that blaming men is not enough, and she insists on the need for women to take their destiny into their own hands. “And enforced polygamy, rather than turning women into rivals and making them fight a fake fight, should make them refuse to bend to what society expects of them and fight for real values. Amal finds the problem lies in the fact that women do not have access to education. “Early on, I realized that girls were discriminated against at school. As we grew up, there were fewer and fewer girls in class. School dropout was due to forced marriage. “She who believed herself to be sheltered by her professor and educated father and her Egyptian mother, found herself, like all the other girls of her age, faced with a forced marriage from the age of 14. “What saved me was first reading, then writing,” she says. One day she took a diary and started to write to finally realize that she was telling her life story. “Thanks to literature, you can not only change your destiny but also change the world”, says the one whose only happiness, stuck in this forced marriage with a man who was 4 times her age, was to open a book to escape and project oneself elsewhere than in reality. And it was when she became a mother that she made the decision to run away to publish her novel and protect her daughters. “Literature has worked miracles, not only have I become stronger, but I could finally defend the rights of all women: the first step towards mastering one’s destiny is to get out of illiteracy.
If today Djaili Amadou Amal is a recognized novelist in Cameroon and around the world, if she can actively campaign for women’s rights in the Fulani regions and elsewhere, it is to books and her writing that she owes it.
Women of the Sahel
In 2012, Djaili Amadou Amal created the Women of the Sahel Association, which has two components: education and the development of women. She sponsors children in northern Cameroon to give them access to education. Between 300 and 400 children are taken care of, small libraries are made available to them, educational talks, school monitoring, and sermons with parents, traditional, and religious leaders. She educates more than 10,000 girls a year to prevent history from repeating itself. The association aims to help women to be more autonomous and thus be able to control their destiny.