I am reading Desert, by J.M.G. Le Clézio, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008. It is a strange, hypnotic work, depicting the lives of the nomadic desert people whose way of life was disrupted by colonial invaders.
Lalla is an orphaned child whose aunt Aamma decides that it is time she began to earn some money:
When she enters the room used as a workshop, Lalla hears the sound of weaving looms. There are twenty of them, maybe more, lined up one behind the other in the milky half-light of the large room where three neon tubes are flickering. In front of the looms, little girls are squatting or sitting on stools. They work rapidly, pushing the shuttle between the warp threads, taking the small steel scissors, cutting the pile, packing the wool down on the weft. The oldest must be about fourteen; the youngest is probably not eight. They aren’t talking, they don’t even look at Lalla when she comes into the workshop with Aamma and the merchant woman. The merchant’s name is Zora; she is a tall woman dressed in black who always holds a flexible switch in her hands to whip the little girls on the legs and shoulders when they don’t work fast enough or when they talk to their workmates.
‘Has she ever worked?’ she asks, without even glancing at Lalla.
Aama says she’s shown her how people used to weave in the old days. Zora nods her head. She seems very pale, maybe because of the black dress, or else because she never leaves the shop. She walks slowly over to a free loom, upon which there is a large dark red carpet with white spots.
‘She can finish this one,’ she says.
Lalla sits down and starts to work. She works in the large dim room for several hours, making mechanical gestures with her hands. At first she has to stop, because her hands get tired, but she can feel the eyes of the tall pale lady on her and starts working again right away. She knows the pale woman won’t whip her because she is older than the other girls working there. When their eyes meet, Lalla feels something like a shock deep inside, and a glint of anger flares in her eyes. But the fat woman dressed in black takes it out on the smaller girls, the skinny ones who cower like she-dogs, daughters of beggars, abandoned girls who live at Zora’s house year-round and who have no money. The minute their work slows down, or if they exchange a few words in a whisper, the fat pale woman descends on them with surprising agility and lashes their backs with her switch. But the little girls never cry. All you can hear is the whistling of the whip and the dull whack on their backs. Lalla clenches her teeth; she looks down at the ground because she too would like to shout and lash out at Zora. But she doesn’t say anything because of the money she’s supposed to bring back to the house for Aamma. To get even, she just ties a few knots the wrong way round in the red carpet.
Still, the following day Lalla just can’t stand it anymore. When the fat pale woman resumes whipping Minna – a puny, thin little girl of barely ten – with the switch because she broke a shuttle, Lalla stands up and says coldly, ‘Stop beating her!’
J.M.G. Le Clézio, Desert, Atlantic Books, 2009, p. 149-150.