AMSTERDAM – Three women on an urban beauty salon floor and plot against the manipulative owner to get his due in a crazy mix of social, romantic and material ambition.
It all, of course, goes terribly wrong but terribly funny in Dutch novelist Najoua Martin’s darkly comic debut, which taps into black beauty and barbershop humor.
“Lala Rosa Girls,” set in the gritty Moroccan community of Rotterdam, portrays the struggles of newcomers but touches on universal themes of cultural division and integration borrowed from African-American literature and cinema.
Martin, a first-generation immigrant lawyer and professor living in Amsterdam, draws on his own lived experiences to chart the lives of rivals F’dila, Layla and Souad, recreating in the structured trio the conversations and stories he gathered as a beauty salon client in Rotterdam’s lively Moroccan immigrant barrio called ‘Cool’ where she grew up.
“I didn’t want to write the classic book about migrant conflicts and politics,” Martin said in conversation over dinner in the heart of central Amsterdam, just steps away from a moonlit canal. “We really don’t have in Europe the same extensive tradition that you find in African American literature of writing about the people themselves. If you read about people of African or Arab descent, it usually focuses on the struggles of fighting oppression.”
Preparing to leave for a book launch at New York’s Salmagundi Literary Club, Martin said he tried to bring his characters to life through a comedic approach. “You can bring people together with comedy. Bring people together in a space where they can laugh at you and with each other.
F’dila, dreaming of romance and money and finding her place in a larger world, arrives in Rotterdam from her North African village after a voodoo-assisted failure to steal a husband. A presentation to Hatim, owner of the Lala Rosa salon, rekindles hopes of success.
Hatim, a lustful schemer playing his own games, takes the attractive immigrant into the fold of Lala Rosa, where her rudimentary salon skills produce disastrous results and draw suspicion from Layla and Saoud, her more experienced scissors-wielding colleagues .
Layla, a law student, and Saoud, a nightclub-goer, have their own structured relationships with Hatim, who plays all three against each other, each woman holding on to dangling hopes of one day owning the salon – where, by the way, men except Hatim are not allowed, and just like the barber shops and beauty salons of African American life and literature, history often goes unrecorded.
At Lala Rosa’s shop, potions, poisons and conspiracies mix to produce a surprising epilogue: a sort of baptism of fire.
Moving beyond the typical European literary frame of immigrants presented as an exploited class, Martin says she was moved by the stories she heard in Rotterdam’s beauty salons and returned to over and over again to capture the conversations among the predominantly Muslim clientele who would have been considered irreverent outside their walls.
“This story contributes to the empowerment of Arab women through comedy,” said Martin. “Everyone reminded me of the comparison to the movie ‘The Barbershop’ and the barbershop scenes from Eddie Murphy’s ‘Coming to America.’ It’s not surprising why I liked these comedies.
But Martin puts his own spin on the genre in “Lala,” using his unique “Berber Shop” story to convey broader social lessons.
“Any stigma you have about repressed women disappears when you hear their voices and understand their struggle in a male-dominated world. This story is set in Rotterdam but is about women from all over the world who want to show the world what we are capable of,” she said.
Martin, née Bijjir, is married to an American citizen, Josh Martin, a Harvard graduate and business executive. Like many Dutch citizens, she speaks impeccable English and consumes American culture extensively. They often travel from their home in Amsterdam with their three children to visit her husband’s family in New England.
“If you’ve traveled a lot and met people from different backgrounds, you’ll understand that, essentially, people don’t differ from one another,” she told Banner. “I always compare culture and tradition with the spices you mix in a dish. They give flavor”.
At home, the Martin family speaks three languages, cooks Philly cheese steaks with Moroccan kebabs, and watches American football, European soccer, and the NBA.
Martin recalls that having grown up in Rotterdam, in the same neighborhood where Moroccan soccer fans recently staged wild celebrations following the team’s first World Cup victories, her father liked to tell stories and fairy tales “about Arab superheroes who were often women”. he said. “They always contained a moral message.”
The message of “Lala Rosa Girls” also resonated on stage, during a series of sold-out shows. It is now being adapted into a series. “This is not just a comedy,” Martin said. “It wants to be a revolution for equal rights. It’s time for an Afro-European comedy genre, because we’re here too.”