Divorce Islamic Style by Amara Lakhous – Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

Divorce Islamic Style is a cross between Our Man in Havana and an Italian romantic comedy circa 1068, a sort of Muslim sex farce.  I can’t help but wonder if Amara Lakhous got into any trouble over it.

Set in modern day Rome’s immigrant Muslim neighborhoods the story follows two main characters. The first is Christian, a well educated Muslim Italian, who agrees to go under cover in order to help the Italian secret service foil a terrorist plot.  Christian takes the name Issa as his cover name, since he obviously can’t go looking for Muslim extremists with the name “Christian.”  That his cover name is Issa, which is the Arabic name for Jesus, tells you  what kind of humor Mr. Lakhous is after.  Divorce Islamic Style is a very funny, very irreverent look at one slice of contemporary Rome.

Issa/Christian takes a job as a dishwasher in a pizzeria where he finds all of the employees are Muslims, except the waiters. The waiters are all Italian.  This way the customers, tourists and “natives,” have no contact with the immigrant staff as they eat  their authentic Italian meal.  When Issa/Christian is not trying to find the beautiful veiled girl he once ran into at the market, he spends most of his time helping his many flat mates, all of them illegal, instead of finding the terrorist cell.  He helps one of his nearly 20 flatmates get residency papers, helps another with financial problems, etc.  His boss at the secret service, known as Captain Judas, notices just how little spy work Issa/Christian is doing:

“We’ve become two fine social workers. Instead of uncovering terrorists we’re saving immigrant workers from depression. In short, we’re just as good as Caritas volunteers!”

The second narrative follows Sofia, a young Egyptian mother, who married the man she thought would take her to Rome where she could find work as a hairdresser.  Unfortunately, while the young man she married did take her to Rome, he also turned out to be a very devout, very conservative Muslim who has forced her to wear a veil and to abide by even the most obscure requirements of Islam.  Sofia has taken much of this to heart, even become a defender of the veil. Here she compares wearing the veil to plastic surgery while debating the other women who live in her building:

“My theory is simple: veils are not always pieces of fabric, there are tricks, comparable to our veil, that hide other parts of the body  And so? So what. In other words, the reshaped breast hides the original breast, the reshaped nose hides the original nose, the reshaped lips hid the original lips and so on.”

But what Sofia desires most is to leave her husband, find the handsome man she keeps seeing around the neighborhood, who happens to be Issa, and open up a hair salon.  She has even begun styling her neighbors’ hair in secret to save up the needed money.  If she could only escape her husband.

Which brings the book’s plot around to the subject of divorce.  Sofia’s husband, strict Muslim that he is, will not deliberately leave his wife.  However, when he becomes very upset with her he is prone to shouting “I divorce you!”  which is all that is needed under strict interpretations of Islam for a man to divorce his wife.  He can also remarry her immediately afterwards up to three times.  After the third time things get complicated.  Sofia explains:

“Couples are allowed two divorces; after the third no reconciliation is possible.  If a couple wants to go back to being husband and wife, she has to marry another man, strictly Muslim, consummate the marriage, and then divorce him. Is it clear now?”

All of this sets things up for a wonderful triple twist ending that I found very funny and very satisfying.  I wish I could tell you about it, but the general “no spoilers” rule that book bloggers follows forbids me.

However, if you ask me three times…..