Sultana, a doctor who escaped her illiterate nomadic background to study and work in France, returns to her native Algeria when she hears of the death of her former lover and fellow physician, Yacine. She is treated with hostility, but defiantly stays in Yacine’s place at the clinic. Vincent, a Frenchman who is the baffled recipient of a perfectly matched kidney from a young Algerian woman, travels to the desert to explore the culture of this unknown person whose death has brought him back to life.

Sultana and Vincent meet through their common friendship with the furtive, questioning children, Dalila and Alilou. Vincent and Salah, Yasmine’s best friend, both fall in love with Sultana, but she seems indifferent to them. The violence and suspicion of the town leaders causes her to regress into anorexia and mutism, during which she is tormented by the horrible memory of the loss of her parents. Her three male friends and the village women help her to recover a sense of self worth, but she must flee when the leaders set fire to their dwellings. A glimmer of optimism can be found in the aspirations of the children and the solidarity of the women.


This angry tale draws attention to the plight of all victims--women, men, and children--in a region oppressed by narrow-minded fanaticism. It is semi-autobiographical in that the author’s own background and her work in France as a nephrologist and generalist for immigrant women is like that of Sultana. A certain defensiveness over departure may spring from the same source.

Vincent’s grateful experience of the "identically" matched kidney from a person of different sex, race, and religion (esp. pp. 18-23, 84-90) allows for an extended metaphor on the motifs of tolerance and transplantation of people between countries, cultures, and professions. "Those who tell lies about the races would do well to take a glance at genetics," he tells Sultana (p. 91). The sympathetic nurse is a Muslim male; the competent, tireless physician, a beautiful woman, burningly desired by all the men around her, including those who despise her.

The structure alternates chapters in the voice of Sultana (the transplanted woman physician) with those in the voice of Vincent (the male transplant patient). Their doctor-patient love affair is grafted onto Vincent’s besotted affection for his alien woman savior; it may be a talking point for students.

The work is engaging because it is by and about a woman physician who has lived in two worlds. Her account of "koulchite," the multi-faceted affliction of women, is a vivid exposé of a culture-bound syndrome (p. 72, 104-8). Nevertheless the novel is thick on description and thin on understanding (or humor), and the florid prose occasionally becomes heavy handed: odd bits of slang jar in passages of solemn description, while children pronounce in ponderous parables like Biblical prophets.

Occasionally the author’s rage, rationalization, or narcissism clouds her message with a surprising Manichean simplicity: not all victims can be beautiful, strong, intelligent, and articulate. She seems to forget that even the ignorant, vile perpetrators--the petty mayors, the lecherous taxi drivers with their pus-filled eyes-- are victims too. In the introduction, the translator comments on the "plethora" of adjectives and "incongruous metaphors," but defends Mokeddem’s style for what it tells us of her pain and the suffering of all oppressed women.


Introduced and translated from the French by K. Melissa Marcus, professor of French literature at University of Nebraska. This novel won the Prix Méditerranée Jeunesse.


Univ. of Nebraska Press

Place Published

Lincoln, Nebr. and London



Page Count