2. The Discourse of Feminine Raï

Out of an extensive body of exclusively feminine work of over 1500 verses, I have distilled the recurring themes of songs as they relate to the characteristics of female emotional life as seen by the sheikhat: complaints, answers, and counter-proposals. It is a makeshift structure around the norm, between values of the past, importation of a present coming from elsewhere, and the invention of a new self caught between pain and pleasure, threnody and libertinism, masochist morbidity and conquering vitality.

The complaint, the lament

The nucleus of the female song is the complaint, or the exhalation of pain. In these terms, this most common theme in this type of poetry is the heir of all Maghrebi verse, which is a poetics of love, absence, and upheaval. However, tradition finds itself pushed aside by the nakedness of expression and all that is said about the physical sensation of pain.

Suffering is expressed mostly through the mode of physical burning and crumbling:

"Me, my heart is consumed and burned and it cooks on the embers." (Rimitti)

"O, my limbs come undone!" (Fedéla/ Saharaoui)

"Love is a worm, it lives in bones." (Fedéla/ Saharaoui)

"I have turned black, I am withering and despair has taken hold of me." (Zahwaniya)

The specificity of the Raï lament also comes from the relationship - through contiguity - between the pain of love, social injustice and the domination of women illustrated in the texts:

"They have suffocated me [this is said of a girl who is not allowed to go out], they have wronged me, they have hurt me, they have accused me." (Habiba el Kebira)

"They told me: Swim! and I didn't know how to swim" (Rimitti)

"Oh the mother of an only son; she dies of thirst on the roads
[It is not a sufficient support]
Oh she has only one thing to sustain her, I must help her!" (Rimitti)

The man is usually represented as a selfish creature, a manipulator:

"Me, my burning is unique, he, he will grow feathers." (Zahwania)

"So sincere I am with him, yet he cheats on me!" (Zahwaniya)

Social injustice often takes the shape of malicious gossip. Passages that center around "what have they not gossiped about?" are countless.

A remedy is sometimes suggested: indifference. One must resist and respond through contempt:

"All those who gossip do not wound me, it is like
the wind on the mountain." (Rimitti)

However, there is a great helplessness in front of bad fate and ill luck. Marine images emerge to illustrate negative fatality:

"God of the two worlds, where is my luck?
My luck is lost, a fish ate it in the sea." (Rimitti)

Confronted with hardships and injustice, one's initial attitude is to go back to ideological norms:

"A woman who is without a man, it is sure that she would be
held in contempt." (Zahwaniya)

 Another concomitant attitude manifests itself in the desire to reactivate traditional solidarity:

"I wanted to build ties [outside the family] and
I realized they were enemies"; following is a cry:
" Poor me, bring me my father!" (Djiniya el Kebira)

The same singer cries elsewhere:

"They saw my shoulder going down, they crushed me";

She adds in the same song:

"My shoulders are cold, I have no support, I am
alone and unhappy";

Finally, the same cry comes:

"I want to see my father!" (Djiniya el Kebira)

Another response, reserved to traitors in love, is to resort to old and popular religious practices (magic, the culture of saints):

"I am going to visit Sidi Khaled and he will give me justice." (Djiniya el Kebira)

"I will take my love to the Wali (saint) for him to be judged." (Zahwaniya)

In parallel with these appeals to the past and to ancestral norms, there is an exploration of the limits of moral transgression, following the model of the adulteress who is generally made to feel guilty. However, the expression of guilt is not the most important element: the space of the song gives access to a fantastical pleasure through the expression of transgression. The stronger the enunciation of the transgression is, the greater this kind of pleasure is for the listener who projects himself into the transgression pronounced:

"My love has children, it is sinning for me to take him." (Zahwaniya)

"Oh, he who is married, why have I become a regular (physically involved) to him?" (Rimitti)

"Oh Habit! My love has made us accustomed to the black market (illicit love)." (Zahwaniya)

The tainting of women by men is expressed in song through the metaphor of "habits," a euphemistic word designating what may be sexual habits, drinking, or various social perversions.

"He has bad habits and he is debasing mine." (Rimitti)

Women may be the more or less consenting victims of corruption by a lover:

"My love, the road is long, where are you taking me?" (Zahwaniya)

"My love whips me and my enemies watch; all that he has done to me God will make him pay for!" (Zahwaniya)

Sometimes the situation is even worse, when feelings are not a factor and only male force enters into play. Here, as well, one must not neglect the fantastic dimension directed to a male audience. The restraints imposed on women can be expressed in an erotic image:

"They have closed all the doors to me and made me drink four ricards." (Zahwaniya)

It is possible for the victim to effect a justification-vengeance by rejecting the responsibility placing it on the man:

"By God who watches me, my love, my sins will follow you!" (Zahwaniya)

In other instances, free choice and the emergence of a willful individuality accompanied by an unhappy conscience are clearly manifest in the expression of responsibility:

"Everything that has happened to me I asked for, I wanted suffering and I suffer." (Zahwaniya)

The singer might even profess the conviction that her deviant behavior is symptomatic of an epoch and a troubled life.

"I change, I renounce, I betray, I blend." (Hab Lahmeur)

Much of this misfortune and moral discomfort finds solace in alcohol, which allows it to be forgotten:

"Let me drink so that I relieve myself of my lucidity.
What is better for taking away traces than ‘that which erases' [wine]?" [Rimitti]

However, drinking may also bring on other sufferings. The praise of wine is one of the classic themes of Arab poetry, yet what makes Raï songs on this theme original is a key-notion of its over-semanticized ideology: elmehna. If one looks it up in the dictionary (Beuassier 1958: 921), the verbal-radical means: "to cause to die by drinking, to make drunk, to cause to die, to fill up". The first meaning of the substantive elmehna relates to this idea; it refers to a "drinking session", or a "drinking spree". However, two other meanings by extension are mentioned: on the one hand, it signifies "ordeals", "torments"; on the other hand, it is one of the words that may designate the beloved, the object of desire and love torment.

A Raï text brings together and associates a multitude of sorrowful evocations of despairing complacency on the state of those on "drinking sprees" and the mehna.

"Oh you who get drunk and live in the torment of
drinking sprees, death is best for you!" (Rimitti)

"These are people of the mehna
They have destroyed their lives." (Rimitti)

"Oh path of torments! The path of torments takes me away
and the other [path] brings me back! O path of torments!" (Rimitti)

"Leave me in this drinking spree, I have seen the world down here
and beyond!" (Fadéla)

In Raï, there are many interjections of sacrificial compassion such as "too bad for me, but not for my lover". A more elaborate version is:

"Oh Raï, I am burning your heart with one fire, but my own with two." (Fadéla)

However, a rebellious roughness sometimes emerges:

"Oh those who do not sympathize with my mehna, I wish them my
fire!" (Rimitti)

During the unfoldment of the long complaint on injustices inflicted by society - the ravages of love, the tortures that they are subjected to by men, suffering and guilt, and the torments of the mehna - an entirely different discourse is developed. This is a discourse of a certain hedonism and a vital expression of individuality, in accordance with the already mentioned principle of composition: paratactical contiguity.

Forward | Main page