Literature: Tahar ben Jelloun

By Niambi Walker, Ph.D. research student

From the Contemporary Africa Database

This article is presented with the generous permission of Niambi Walker and The Africa Centre (see below for contact information)

Tahar ben JellounIn 1944, one of the most prolific and respected Moroccan writers was born to a shop-keeper and his wife. Winner of the Prix Goncourt [in 1987 for The Sacred Night], Tahar ben Jelloun is a poet, novelist, psychologist, and human rights advocate. He joined the struggle for social justice in Moroccan society at an early age as a participant in the Union of Moroccan Student's 1965 uprising. Ironically, his leftist activities landed him in the country's military through a policy of compulsory service devised by the state to tame the spirit of the student movement. The experience gave birth to his writing career, for his first poem was written in the barracks.

In 1968, ben Jelloun re-entered civilian life, and soon after began a career that has crafted novels, poetry collections, short stories, as well and social commentaries. He has become known as one of the rising voices of the Arab-African intellectuals committed to achieving egalitarianism at both the global and local levels. While the bulk of ben Jelloun's writing is firmly rooted within the context of Morocco's Muslim communities, he feels no obligation to write in Arabic, stating that his narrative comes to him freely in French. Furthermore, the wordsmith often crafts phrases carefully so that they have one meaning in French and yet another in its Arabicised use. Lingering memories of isolation and exclusion while in the military and as an Arab immigrant in France are tangible in much of his writing. [He also draws extensively on Arabic fairy tales and Surrealism.] Some critics contend that these themes are best drawn out in his portrayal of women's struggle to be equal participants in the country's male-dominated society.

Sand ChildThe two-volume saga, L'enfant de Sable [The Sand Child] and Le Nuit Sacrée [The Sacred Night], for example, tackles the contradictions of patriarchal idealogy with the story of a young girl reared by her heirless father as a boy. Upon discovery of her gender, she refuses to discard the privileged status of male and maintains the illusion. It is only with her desire to have children that Ahmed begins to see herself as a woman. The novels follow her gradual sexual awakening, her transformation into Zahra, and final acceptance of her true identity as a woman. Similar to this character, ben Jelloun draws out the themes of exclusion, sexuality, and Morocco's socio-religious complexities with prostitutes, the insane, and the immigrant as his protagonists. The combination of unusual heroes and a surrealistic style (described by some as romantic realism) has made him an easy target for criticism from the Maghrebi public. Nevertheless, his novels continue to hold the attention of the Western academic and literary communities, garnering him numerous awards.

Sacred NightTahar ben Jelloun may be more well known as a voice for Muslim communities in France and other Western societies. His experience as a psychologist alongside a vivid poetic imagination has enabled him to ask new questions about the age-old problem of racism and exclusion. The 2000 publication, Racism, as Explained to My Daughter, details his meditation on questions asked by his ten-year old daughter following their participation in a protest against new French immigration laws. Equally as thoughtful is French Hospitality: Racism and North African Immigrants. The book contrasts his cool acceptance into French society upon immigrating with the Moroccan ideals of hospitality. In simple manner, ben Jelloun reflects: 'How can the law be made to include the right to hospitality? We already have laws restricting entry and residence; why shouldn't we have other laws based on the idea that to welcome strangers into one's country is a fundamental mark of civilization.'

His latest writing continues to highlight the struggle for dignity both in and beyond the Muslim societies.

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