It’s a Man’s World: A Review of Blood Feast
Blood Feast: The Complete Short Stories of Malika Moustadraf. Malika Moustadraf, translated by Alice Guthrie. Feminist Press, February 2022.
There is an urgency in Blood Feast: The Complete Short Stories of Malika Moustadraf. Each of these fourteen stories, translated from the Arabic by Alice Guthrie, are insistent on the act of witnessing, weighed down by the demand to be seen. Moustadraf’s writing is sharp and biting, and, as Guthrie notes in her short introduction, the last four stories are particularly confident, playing with linguistic hybridity and memory. Guthrie produces the lilt and the edge necessary for these paragraphs to shine. This collection is full of angry demands and challenges to the state of affairs.
The collection features many women—their difficult monotonous lives, their bodies, their desires, their weaknesses, their demands, and their survival. And yet, the women are not the principal players on the streets and homes of Morocco: they are desired, exploited, trapped, poked, prodded by the men in their lives. They are portrayed as central despite their very peripheral nature. They appear between the taut lines, acting from the margins.
The opening story, “Ruse”, depicts two elderly women arranging for a sex worker to be married to a wealthy man. The mother, having arranged the marriage, discovers that her daughter is a diligent working-class woman—except she works at the brothel and not the factory. Plans for a virginity test, a marriage requirement that is common in Morocco, are upended. The neighbour arranges to have the young girl’s hymen restored through unofficial, backdoor surgery. Thus, the marriage goes on as planned. There are two “ruses” in the story: the first, where the young woman obscures sex work as the basis for economic security, and the second, where a contrived “sexual purity” is upheld through secret channels as an act of solidarity among women.
In Blood Feast, many other stories similarly depict women as straddling criminality and domesticity to survive, caught between these two complementary poles. Moustadraf’s scenes are suffused with imperatives with the weight of law behind them; either the state or the state-sanctioned patriarchal family refuses to loosen its hold upon the many women in the collection. The only recourse, often, is illegal, or at least ambiguously extra-legal.
“Just Different” lingers over the limited spaces occupied by another curbside sex worker, a trans woman who navigates between the violent demands and desires of people around her. In “Woman: A Djellaba and a Packet of Milk”, a woman demands a divorce from her abusive husband and care for her infant. The story continues in circles, the title becoming the refrain as she tries to procure the necessary resources for her child and herself. None provide it—not her husband, her maternal family, her community, nor the law. One of my favourite stories in the collection, “Head Lice”, is explicit about the impossible nature of the law. In the story, women who have likely been jailed for adultery recall their experiences of desire and romance in a fragmented, hazy, non-linear fashion while killing the lice on each other’s matted heads.
Moustadraf is more critical of the all-pervasive nature of patriarchal control and the hegemonic state than she is of the particular patriarchs who feature in her stories. Her title story, “Blood Feast”, is a melancholy narrative about the state of government-funded healthcare and the expectation that care is somehow women’s work. The state and law intrude upon the domestic, particularly in “Death”, where a family carefully ignores the announcement about Israel attacking Palestine in order to have a relaxed dinner. The forced cheer and order linger over the table in a lopsided performance.
Moving between scenes of madness, sexual violence, sexual desire, homelessness, bourgeoise ignorance, and conspiracy, these stories never portray their characters as immobile. Moustadraf’s characters navigate and negotiate terms within this barren landscape, where options to exercise agency are limited, determined by patriarchal control and a policed heterosexuality. More often than not, desire is invoked in the negotiation.
Her attention unwavering from her queer and feminist sensibilities, Moustadraf manages to depict the myriad forms of male desire—sometimes hunger for another is simply hunger for a hot pastry (“Briwat”), sometimes it is an allegory for prosperity or change, and most of all, when men desire women, disgust and repulsion for the same women accompany these insatiable desires. For the women in these stories, desire, more often than not, is both the escape route from daily oppression and the foil to that very escape. Women attempt to find their way to better circumstances through desire, for example, through marriage (as in “Delusion”) or through extramarital affairs (as in “Raving”). Through it all, male desire, sanctioned as it is, is the treacherous path women must affirm to survive.
Moustadraf’s stories attest that it is, after all, a man’s world; women simply must navigate the few options within it. How they do so—alongside each other, through attention and fear— is the carefully traced subject of these brilliant stories.
Shinjini Dey is a freelance editor, writer and reviewer. Her work can be found in The Ancillary Review of Books, Bloodknife Magazine, The Swaddle, Decolonial Hacker and others. Find her @shinjini_dey.
This article was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander; the author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB work. ARB arranged a review copy from Feminist Press.