Tahar Ben Jelloun

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Tahar Ben Jelloun
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Article

"I write to tell the difference"

Tahar Ben Jelloun, whose work has been translated into numerous languages, is considered the most important writer of Francophone literature from the Maghreb.  He was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1987 for his novel, "The Sacred Night.” Ben Jelloun moved to Paris in 1971, where he is currently living with his wife and four children.
Though his roots are in the Maghreb, Tahar Ben Jelloun writes in French, not Arabic. Creating his works within the historical context of decolonization — at a time when many shunned French as the language of the colonizers — Jalloun maintained French was the language of literature. Admittedly, French was the vehicle of colonial violence, yet he was able to reach a wider audience through that language. He is wary of the strictly regulated tradition of classical standard Arabic. The son of an illiterate mother and cloth merchant in the Medina of Fez, his roots are in spoken colloquial Arabic, which is not a written language.

He brings an oral tradition into his French texts. His relationship to the Arabic written language is reserved yet respectful, according to him, since it is the language of the Koran, it is considered an expression of the divine; this makes it is too steeped in ritual. In his novels, he criticizes the archaic rituals of Islamic institutions. French makes it easier for him to grapple with taboo subjects, such as sexuality and physicality.

Right at the beginning of his first novel “Harrouda” (1973), which he started writing in Morocco and completed in France, Ben Jelloun commited a taboo by presenting the female genitals as an object of obsession for children. "Harrouda" is an experimental “Bildungsroman”, a mythic autobiography without a linear plot. The text corresponds to the transgressive norm of the Souffles group that Ben Jelloun was a member of, and the work represents their preferred theories: Marxism, psychoanalysis, symbolism, surrealism and the semiotics of Roland Barthes.

The protagonists are an unspecified "we" and the children in the story (represented by a collective “I”) are depicted with their sexual fantasies and desires in the labyrinthine alleys of Fez in the years before Moroccan independence. In the Koran school, at the Moorish baths and through circumcision, they experience the trauma of a repressive social order. The symbolized rebellion of children and their sexuality is crushed with much bloodshed by those in power. The last part of the novel describes the coming of age of an unspecified “I” character, whose entry into the world is associated with corruption, betrayal, sexuality and drugs. It focuses on two women, Harrouda and the mother, who stand in contrast to patriarchal power.  While the mother subordinates, Harrouda searches for conflict. As in the author’s later works, there is no final end. In the chapter, “Veiled Syllables," everything dissolves into the smoke of "Kif", everything remains ambivalent. In the epilogue, however, Ben Jelloun tells us that the words of the mother were not fictitious and he explains the true purpose of the book.

"Harrouda" is an old prostitute, who begs in order to survive. Like many of Jelloun’s characters, she is an eternal character living on the margins of society. In “Moha le fou, Moha le sage” (1978) a madman tells stories in the public square and in "Corruption" (1994) a Moroccan official tries, but fails, to fight corruption and suffers the consequences for it.

In "A Prayer for the absent" (1981), all of the main characters represent marginal social groups, creating a critical picture of Moroccan society. The multilayered novel is based on a realistic journey through Morocco and combines picaresque narrative motifs with mystical initiation literature. The magical ending offers no fulfillment, instead it points to the fundamental incompleteness of human identity. One night two vagabonds, who live in a cemetery in Fez, discover a child living there. An older prostitute tells them to bring the child to the tomb of Sheikh Ma ´al-´Aynayn. On the way, through real locations Moroccan towns, the prostitute Yamna tells the story of sheikh. When one of the two vagabonds reveals the mission, he goes mad and dies when a charlatan tries to heal him. The runaway maid Argane goes on the road with them and is captured by her former employer. At the end of their journey, they wind up in a military zone. While a woman who is accompanied by two men takes the child away, first Yamna and then the vagabond magically disappear.

Here – as in other texts – Ben Jelloun shows us that in Morocco’s patriarchal system self-determination for women is impossible. At that time, a woman could only earn a living through prostitution, or working as a maid in a relationship of feudal dependence. A fulfilling identity in Morocco, he maintains, can only be found by way of the mystics, as expressed in "Prayer for the absent," which is a tribute to the Sufi mystic Al-Halllag. His mysticism, however, is not be confused with escapism, rather it includes political commitment and a critical attitude towards those in power. Ben Jelloun implements the Sufi expression "die, before you die!" into the structure of the novel by starting it in a cemetery and ending it with the prayer for an absent dead person.

As in his novels, Ben Jelloun’s poetry is motivated by social criticism. The title of his first poem "L´aube the dalles" (Twilight of the cobblestones), which he published in the journal "Souffles" (1965), recalls, like his other two poems (1971) "Hommes sous linceul de silence" (People under a shroud of silence ) his traumatic experience of the repressive actions the Moroccan monarchy took during the student and popular movements in the sixties. Although Ben Jelloun was not imprisoned like other writers involved in the rebellion, he was forcibly recruited in July 1966 into a military camp. He also expresses his political views in the collection of poems and prose pieces entitled, "Cicatrices du soleil" ("Scars of the Sun"). In the epilogue, Ben Jelloun formulates a poetic manifesto: "I write to tell the difference …That which unites me with my readers is, above all, that which separates me from them," in this sentence he expresses his shame for the failure of literature in the face of reality.

After his emigration to Paris, Ben Jelloun continued his involvement with the topic of French exile. He spent three years with North African immigrants from the Mahgreb, an experience he worked into a number of texts: "La reclusion solitaire" (solitary confinement, 1973), "Les yeux baisse” (With Downcast Eyes, 1991) and "Les raisins de la galère" (The fruits of the galley, 1996), which made him a spokesman for the North African immigrants in France. “With Downcast Eyes" focuses on the rootlessness connected with exile and the difficulties of bicultural love. Here, too, Jelloun is working with diverse perspectives. He ends the chronological narrative abruptly, only to explain the narrator’s perspective in the epilogue. The spectrum of his writing ranges from conventional realism to surrealism to a meta-literature that plays with itself and other texts. True resolution does not happen. Ultimately, he is saying, "this story ends with another, which begins ..."

This narrative ambiguity can be found even in, "The Sand Child" (1985) and continued in the novel "The Sacred Night" (1987), for which Ben Jelloun was awarded the Prix Goncourt. "The Sand Child" tells the story of Zahra, who as eighth daughter must assume the role of a son called Ahmed. Her escape, fails however, because – as the French title "L´enfant de sable" implies - the identity of women in Morocco melts away like sand. Only after the death of the father in "Sacred Night" (La nuit Sacred Way) can Zahra / Ahmed begin life as a woman. In search of her true self, she begins a relationship with a blind man. Only after she has passed cruel tests, is there a mystical reunion with the blind man who is revered in the south of the country as a saint.

If "Sacred Night" is read as an historical parable, the text recounts the history of Morocco: the colonial oppression followed by an extremely difficult process of liberation. In the novel, Ben Jelloun´s favorite subjects come to the fore: the constraints of gender roles, androgyny, identity, childhood trauma and coming to terms with it, female empowerment, discovery of sexuality, power of dreams, and as always, the problem of narration, writing and language. In place of the monologue, he chooses a polyphonic narrative that is structured along the lines of coming into the circle of a storyteller’s listeners in Marrakech’s market square.

Tahar Ben Jelloun won a broad, non-literary audience with his successful and popular essay "Le racisme explique a ma fille" (Racism explained to my daughter). In France and in Germany, it made it to the top of the bestseller lists. The text emerged from conversations with his daughter, who asked him about racism during a demonstration against xenophobia. Ben Jelloun took his time, spoke often with her and her friends, and reworked the original manuscript more than ten times, until it had the clarity that children could understand.
Author: Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Bio

Tahar Ben Jelloun (b. 21.12.1944 in the Medina of Fez/Morocco) was raised in modest circumstances by an illiterate mother and a cloth merchant. At the age of eleven his family moved to Tangier. Ben Jelloun lived there until 1962, and attended the French high school Regnault. He traveled to France for the first time in 1961. His political and historical views were inspired by the Algerian revolution; he turned to Marxism, studied philosophy in Rabat and taught in Tetouan and Casablanca from 1968 to 1971.

In the mid-sixties, he joined the artistic and intellectual circles around the journal "Souffles" (breath / inspiration). His first poem, "L´aube the dalles" (Twilight of the Cobblestones) was published in the journal’s 12th edition in 1965. Following the publication of his first book of poems, "Hommes de linceul sous silence" in 1971, he emigrated to Paris, where he studied social psychiatry. His thesis focused on the situation of North African immigrants from the Maghreb. In 1972, he published “Cicatrices du soleil" (Scars of the Sun), which was a collection of poems and short stories, a year later, he published the novels "Harrouda" (Harrouda) and "La reclusion solitaire" (Solitary confinement). In 1987, he was awarded the Prix Goncourt which brought him and his work international fame.  With his essay, "Le racisme explique a ma fille" (Racism explained to my daughter) he immediately shot to the top of the bestseller lists, and turned Ben Jelloun into the moral conscience of the French nation.

Ben Jelloun is the bestselling author in the French-speaking Maghreb and a public personality. As a staff writer for Le Monde, he writes regularly about the Arab world and the Maghreb. Since 1983, he has hosted a weekly radio show on the Moroccan "Médi I." As a representative of the Arab world in the "Haut Conseil de la Francophonie," he takes an active and official part in matters focusing on French language and cultural policy.

Works

L´étincelle

Published Written,
2011
On the Arab Spring. Gallimard

Au pays

Published Written,
2009
Gallimard

Sur ma mère

Published Written,
2008
Gallimard

Partir

Published Written,
2006
Novel. Gallimard: Paris 2006

This Blinding Absence of Light

Published Written,
2002
Novel. New Press: New Press 2002

Islam Explained

Published Written,
2002
Children’s book. New Press: New York 2002

Racism Explained to my Daughter

Published Written,
1999
Children’s book. New Press: New York 1999

Medinas : Morocco´s Hidden Cities

Published Written,
1998
Poems. St. Martin´s Press: New York 1998

Le racisme expliqué a ma fille

Published Written,
1998

La nuit de l’erreur

Published Written,
1997

Les raisins de la galère

Published Written,
1996

Corruption

Published Written,
1995
Novel. New Press: New York 1995

Poésie complète

Published Written,
1995

Le premier amour est toujours le dernier

Published Written,
1995

State of Absence

Published Written,
1994
Novel. Quartet: London 1994

L’homme rompu

Published Written,
1994

With Downcast Eyes

Published Written,
1993
Novel. Little, Brown and Company: Boston 1993

L’ange aveugle

Published Written,
1992

Silent Day in Tangier

Published Written,
1991
Novel. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: San Diego 1991

Les yeux baissés

Published Written,
1991

Jour de silence a Tanger

Published Written,
1990

The Sacred Night

Published Written,
1989
Novel. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: San Diego 1989

La nuit sacrée

Published Written,
1987
English Title: "The Sacred Night". N. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: San Diego 1989

L’enfant de sable

Published Written,
1985

L’écrivain publique

Published Written,
1983

La prière de l’absent

Published Written,
1981

La plus haute des solitudes

Published Written,
1977

Les amandiers sont morts de leur blessures

Published Written,
1976

Grains de peau. Asilah ... mémoire d’enfance

Published Written,
1974

Harrouda

Published Written,
1973

La réclusion solitaire

Published Written,
1973

Cicatrices du soleil

Published Written,
1972

Hommes sous linceul de silence

Published Written,
1971

Www

Official website of the author