Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Showcase Demoiselles of Numidia a Novel by Mohamed Leftah

Today I'm happy to bring you the latest novel by acclaimed Moroccan author Mohamed Leftah to be translated into English posthumously and released just today by my favorite indie publishers Other Press.

ISBN-13: 978-1-63542-066-1
Publisher: Other Press
Release Date: 06-06-2023
Length: 208pp

Buy It: Publisher/ Amazon/ B&N/ IndieBound



The acclaimed Moroccan author’s debut novel, this stunning portrait of the world of sex work describes its sordid reality with beautiful, poetic prose.

Available now for the first time in English, Demoiselles of Numidia offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of young women working in a Casablanca brothel—their relationships with each other and with their pimps, their dramas, and the rare moments of happiness that bloom in this violent underbelly.

Originally published in French in 1992, the novel quickly established Mohamed Leftah as one of Morocco’s great writers. It showcases the extraordinary combination of elegant language and graphic physicality, as well as the nuanced questioning of traditional gender roles, which would come to characterize his works.

Read an excerpt:

In this ancient land of Numidia, Nouar, the plural of “flower,” is how we refer to syphilis, a disease that has long inhabited men’s bodies and haunted their minds.
Could this strange and poetic designation be explained by the fact that in the Numidian tongue, many female names are also the names of flowers? Femme-flowers who, after the fleeting bloom of love, leave their paramours with petals embedded in their flesh, both badge of honor and mark of shame: Nouar, flowers of syphilis?
Note how that last word whistles from start to finish, like a rattlesnake darting out (to then abruptly coil up). Whereas the word Nouar evokes a bed of flowers, an orchard whose most verdant tree, its sexual organ, is attacked by a canker, or rather chancre; the syphilitic chancre.
Imagining that these femme-flowers are indeed to blame for these syphilitic flowers, some, seemingly in response, see blossom on their own bodies—the cheeks generally, sometimes the forehead, rarely the breasts or vagina, though those vital parts, when afflicted, only become even more splendid and tragic—another strange flower, no less simultaneously glorious and shameful: a cicatrice.
(A kind of revenge, if you will; a twin to the masculine syphilis, when this elegantly named scar appears between a woman’s legs.)
Given the options—wound, scar, cut, mark, cicatrice—I barely hesitated, and you’ll see why, before settling on the last one, though I should have considered the weighty word “stigmata” first, I think. The miraculous stigmata that appeared on the hands of saints, but also those branded in red iron on the bodies of galley slaves, the stigmas of hysteria, or those that designate the orifices of certain insects and of pistils.
That resonant, polysemic word, transporting (in its veins) pus, pollen, sap and blood, decay and miracle, might have been the most appropriate way to designate the scars that emblazon the bodies of the yet to bloom girl-flowers who are the pretext for this narrative and its heroines.
If I resigned myself to keeping the word “cicatrice,” it’s because this term, while retaining its meaning as a scar left in the flesh by a wound, has also come to qualify, in Numidia, a condition, a state, an order.
And so, if you happen to hear someone say one of the girl-flower names—Massc Allil, Yasmine, Warda, Zahra—followed by the word “cicatrice,” like a suffix or appellative (Warda Cicatrice, for example), then you’ll know that Warda (Rose) is a fille de joie. A whore. A whore who works for a pimp.
The cicatrice that ornaments Rose’s body, as well as her name, is the mark (because we also say that these girls are “marked”), both visible and audible, of her condition.
Before continuing this semantic digression, having only just begun, I realize that some of these words, whether I chose them or they forced their way in, starting with the one that prompted this detour—Nouar (flowers)—the manner in which they arranged themselves, summoning others like the first birds to perch call the rest of the migrating flight, the clandestine links they’ve already begun to establish between themselves, the troubling emotions that some create, or resuscitate, in my heart (and body), all that is giving me a vague but powerful and joyful premonition. That is to say the womb and the skeleton of the story I plan to tell are already formed, almost unbeknownst to me. All that’s required of me is to journey through a few words, all the way to the end, like reaching the end of a tunnel, or a night.
For you must have guessed that it was their pimps, those magnificent, young brutes, who marked these girl-flowers, these cicatrixes, as I call them.
But from this violence, from this night, from a few mysterious, elemental words—flowers, girls, chancre, pollen, stigma—and a few enchanted names, Yasmine, Zoumourrod, will I be able to pull forth a song? Create order? Poetry.
The only acceptable order.

Warda. Do I need to clarify for the reader what this name spontaneously evokes—Rose—when referring to a woman?
In this case (that of a young girl), a rose in all the splendor of its first bloom.
The “rosy-fingered Dawn!,” as sang so many poets, starting with that sublime Greek aoidos.
So shall I simply say that Rose is of the dawn? A woman who sleeps all day and only begins her work, performs her rites—she’s a prostitute in a bar—at the fateful hour of midnight? It’s at this hour, which divides day from night, millennia, reality and dream, that Rose truly begins her reign. Like a midnight sun.
If Rose is an auroral flower, then the rays emitted by the deep décolleté of her bodice, when she leans over a customer, are those of the aurora borealis.
A white Finnish plain, a herd of invisible reindeer running for cover once she makes her entrance into the miserable, semi-clandestine troquet (rhymes with “cabaret”) where she is forced to work by her man. Her pimp.
I use the word “troquet,” popular in France, instead of the more common “bar” or even “joint,” deliberately. For me, it’s a magical word because I encountered it at the same time as the true love of my life. Have I tossed it into these beautiful and cruel stories of the night out of masochism? Or rather to show my tenderness for these cicatrixes, who, though very real, still strike me as more my own invention, born of my indignation and my love?
Rose’s friend Massc Allil (Night Jasmine) works in this same troquet. But though she is named for the fragrant, musky night, her rites are performed during the day. A diurnal predator and prey (predator-prey).
A year younger than her friend Rose, she already has a child; she also works for a man. The previous one, to whom she had been married, is dead. When she happens to mention him, infrequently, she simply says al marhum, the deceased.
Rose and Night Jasmine kiss each other on the cheek; their men exchange a silent, virile handshake.
Night Jasmine’s man will drive her home, and on the way relieve her of most of her spoils—her spoils of war: nectar gathered by an increasingly drunk, increasingly frenzied bee in the course of a day.
Rose’s man, her esteemed pimp, who has the night watch, settles into the red moleskin booth. He lights a cigar. His gold lighter and his gold ring, its signet engraved with a single initial (“S”), gleam at the same time. The cicatrixes, a cloud of panicked butterflies seemingly driven by a sudden, strange phototropism, swarm to the pimp (but will they burn?).
This sequence of events—a chaste kiss between two friends, tender words of complicity whispered in each other’s ears; a virile handshake, without a word, between their men, the switching of roles concluded: sleep for Night Jasmine, and for Rose, the continuation of the rites her friend had been performing; as for the two pimps: one would return the first lamb to her pen, while the other kept watch over the second as she was released among the wild beasts—barely lasted the blink of an eye, as if taking place in some timeless, unreal dimension. It went unnoticed in the same way the earth revolving around the sun goes unnoticed.
A rigorous, immutable order, of the kind that governs the movement of the planets, must continue to govern the functioning of the troquet, of this white city of Numidia, of this vast universe. If Night Jasmine were to cease her diurnal duties, or if Rose began to sleep at night—no longer an aurora borealis—it would be akin to tearing apart the boundaries that separate raptors from their prey, diurnal from nocturnal, an upending of the order of birds, flowers, and planets.
Two school-aged prostitutes and their pimps, equally young, carry on their shoulders, in their genitals, in their bosoms, on their knives, in their bags—Night Jasmine’s is made of crocodile skin and when she mentions it, she of course proudly announces, “It’s croc!”—the very order of the world.


“Written in elegiac prose that tends toward the poetic register of the ghazal, Mohamed Leftah’s novel brings a specific place and time to an aching kind of life, even as it tells, with great empathy, the story of a people who are often relegated to the shadows. The relationship between Zapata and “the Dane,” Nadia and Sophia, and the stories of Rose and Nectarine will stay with readers a long time. Fans of Anosh Irani’s The Parcel and Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red are especially in for a treat.” —Shastri Akella, author of The Sea Elephants

Praise for Captain Ni’mat’s Last Battle:

“Alluring…graphic and sensuous without being prurient, and a piquant exploration of masculinity, gender, societal taboos, and the nature of love.” —Publishers Weekly

“Thought provoking and engaging, with well-realized characters and a satisfying conclusion.” —Booklist

“Leftah is highly regarded in the francophone literary world (‘An observer of the abyss. A champion of delight’)…[Captain Ni’mat’s Last Battle is] a stylish and intelligent read…a landmark statement in Egypt’s exciting national conversation.” —The Spectator

“I read this gorgeous book in one sitting. The writing is poetic and breathtaking, rich with history. A must-read…Captain Ni’mat’s Last Battle is so riveting!” —Hasan Namir, Lambda Literary Award–winning author of God in Pink

About the author:
Mohamed Leftah was a writer and journalist born in Settat, Morocco, in 1946. He attended engineering school in Paris and then returned in 1972 to Morocco, where he became a literary critic for Le Matin du Sahara and Le Temps du Maroc. His career as a novelist began with the publication of the critically acclaimed Demoiselles de Numidie in 1992, followed by ten more novels over the next nineteen years. Captain Ni’mat’s Last Battle (Other Press, 2022) was his first novel to be published in English. He died of cancer in 2008.


  1. Sounds great! Too bad the author didn't get the chance to see his work translated into English.

  2. That sounds like it would be great.

    1. I sometimes have trouble with translated fiction but I'm going to give it a try

  3. I like seeing inside the lives of people very different from me. I'm intrigued by this one.