More than a quarter of a century after independence, the Maghrib’s Francophone literary output is flourishing. If one adds to this the Beur literature produced by second and third generation immigrants of North African heritage, Maghribi literature in French appears to be the single most important literary and aesthetic phenomenon permeating French culture today. One of the most important exponents of this literature is Tahar Ben Jelloun, the Moroccan recipient of the prestigious Goncourt Prize in 1987. The warm critical reception of his two novels, The Sand Child and The Sacred Night (translated by Alan Sheridan, published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1987 and 1989), epitomizes the increasing popularity and success of Maghribi literature in French.
The first generation of Maghribis writing in French found themselves caught in the intractable dialectics of colonizer/colonized, tackling such emblematic questions as identity and cultural alienation. The post-colonial challenge was to surmount these historical difficulties and contradictions and reach out for the widest audience possible. From an imposed medium of colonial domination, French has now become an instrument of communication, a window onto the outside world. A problem has become a creative problematic. In this global village, cross-culturalism is no longer synonymous with alienation or illegitimacy. In this post-postmodern era, nationalistic cultural politics are out, difference and pluralism are in. Whoever said that universality is incompatible with rootedness?
No one has more consciously and artfully capitalized on cultural syncretism and cosmopolitan idealism than Ben Jelloun. A man of eloquence and sophistication, Ben Jelloun writes with equal ease in French and Arabic about such diverse subjects as the sex life of North African migrant workers in France, Islamic mysticism and Freudian psychoanalysis. Essentially a poet, Ben Jelloun has also penned essays as well as novels. He has emerged as a spokesman on such sundry matters as the plight of women in Arab and Islamic society, the Salman Rushdie affair and the Euro-Arab dialogue. His middle-of-the-road, non-confrontational approach has paid off significantly in terms of popularity and book sales.
He is not the only one to have jumped on the cross-cultural bandwagon. Today, the proclaimed agenda of the younger generation of writers is tantamount to a literary crusade: how to reconquer the literary and aesthetic initiative that was lost to the West (circa the collapse of Muslim Spain). Intellectuals and writers alike argue that because of its strategic geopolitical position, the Maghrib has emerged as a new horizon of dynamic cultural, racial and religious interplay. Ben Jelloun and such fellow writers and poets as Abdelkebir Khatibi from Morocco, Abdelwahab Meddeb from Tunisia, and Tahar Djaout from Algeria are on the cutting edge of the postmodern/post-structural movement. Another sign of the times: This literature is no longer perceived by critics as a monolithic, homogeneous aesthetic entity. In place of panoramic overviews, there is a growing trend to see specific national, regional and ethnic differentiation in this literature, and critical studies now focus on individual writers and works.
Despite the limelight, readers of this literature remain a rare breed, if one discounts the specialists. I asked Mohammad Choukri (author of the remarkable autobiography For Bread Alone translated from the Arabic into French by Ben Jelloun) why Mohammad M’Rabet and other fellow illiterate or semi-illiterate authors (whose works have been transcribed and translated from the Moroccan dialect by the American novelist Paul Bowles) were not receiving the critical attention they deserve. He claims that what they write about is all too familiar to the Moroccan reading public, and therefore of no particular interest. Abdelkebir Khatibi, Morocco’s premier intellectual and writer in French, dismisses Tahar Ben Jelloun’s oeuvre, and more especially The Sand Child and The Sacred Night, as paraliterature — a literature of folklore, false glitter and empty bombast.
Choukri and Khatibi are suggesting that some authors write to measure, for a target Western, in particular French, readership. Many Maghribi readers find Ben Jelloun’s portrayal of Moroccan society, especially women, a little too superficial; they object that the characters and their problems are more grounded in psychoanalysis and semiotics than in social and political reality.
Since all of Ben Jelloun’s fiction is available in Arabic, the Arab reader may also find irritating the very narrative technique that is so pleasing to a Western audience. From a formal point of view, The Sand Child and The Sacred Night appear too flowery, artsy, decorative and baroque. Ironically, these qualities long associated with Arabic writing have become anathema in contemporary Arabic literature precisely due to their excessive use in the past. But Ben Jelloun argues that his aim is to dis-Orient his Western reader, as his books are but palimpsests: Under the French text, there are two earlier, erased texts, namely Maghribi and Arabic. Still, the connivance that he seeks to establish with his Arab/Maghribi reader often gets lost in the sands of verbosity.
The Sand Child and The Sacred Night constitute a two-part saga that relates the emancipation of the Maghribi female in the form of an Oriental parable. It echoes in many ways The 1,001 Nights, blending a real world (present-day Morocco and, by extension, Arab-Islamic societies at large) into a phantasmagoria of esoteric signs and erotic symbols. Hajji Ahmad, the patriarch of a Moroccan clan, was dealt a mean hand by fate: With seven daughters and no male heir in sight, he decides to take matters into his own hands. He summons his pregnant wife and unveils his Faust-like design: The eighth child will be a boy, regardless of its sex, and Ahmad will be his name. His submissive wife acquiesces, but not without malicious pleasure, for this is the first time that she shares a secret with her husband. This girl/boy grows up in the shadow of the patriarchal will.
The books detail a series of tragic incidents that befall the protagonist and her/his family, shape his/her character and reveal her/his innermost thoughts and feelings. This sand child rebels against the patriarch’s will and assumes her real gender/personality — though only after the father’s death. Whereas The Sand Child (a mirage, an illusion, the child of collective imagination) is the book of Ahmad, of gender imprisonment, The Sacred Night is the book of revelation (the title refers to the revelation of the Qur’anic message to Muhammad on the twenty-seventh night of Ramadan, known also as the Night of Destiny), the book of Zahra (flower of flowers), of wandering and liberation. Shedding the accoutrements of her masculine identity, she sets out to discover her true sexuality. In her picaresque wanderings, fraught with danger and strewn with bizarre occurrences, she finds love (an admixture of eroticism and mysticism) in the person of the Consul, a blind mystic.
The Emergence of Feminism
Ben Jelloun’s fictional world is structured along the two axes of tradition and modernity, in which female characters appear as agents of disruption and liberation. He weaves their stories into the social, moral and pyschological fabric of Morocco — that is, the Morocco of his fiction. But how and why does he — this seems to be the trend among male Maghribi writers — write about the feminine?
In a country such as Morocco, the feminine is not only a catharsis but the catalyst of social, cultural and economic emancipation. Ben Jelloun pretends that he is a mere scribe, a tordjman (interpreter) whose mission is to communicate precisely and faithfully what he hears and sees. Ben Jelloun’s essays and novels vehemently advocate the emancipation of women as the only way out of the morass. Not only have the status and role of female characters evolved from metaphors of mothers as saints to real and believable figures, but we see a trend toward an androgynous blender-gender such as Ahmad/Zahra in The Sand Child. This disguise provides Ahmad/Zahra with a natural protection without which he/she could never enter the intimacy of both female and male worlds. The gender-swapping metaphor is also a means of transgressing social, moral, religious and linguistic taboos.
The Sand Child and The Sacred Night ferociously attack patriarchy and its many avatars, especially Islamic orthodoxy and formalism. Ben Jelloun is an iconoclast living out a Freudian oedipal conflict — the trademark of Maghribi literature in French — to the fullest. Iconoclasm is a sacrilegious discourse, doubly so when expressed in the Other’s language. Some view this approach, quite typical of Maghribi men who champion women’s liberation, as subtle but nonetheless pernicious neo-patriarchy. The father, a Jungian archetype of power and tyranny, embodies colonialism, the stifling weight of traditions, social injustice and the lack of basic freedoms.
The Return of the Ancestral Text
Ben Jelloun has capitalized on the rediscovery of the pleasure of narration in the West by tapping oral literature and classical texts, such as pre-Islamic and Sufi poetry, for new sources of narrative material. The 1,001 Nights, the archetypal ancestral text, is being emulated, reinvented and reappropriated wholesale. Its narrative structure is discernible in The Sand Child and The Sacred Night: a framework story enclosing a series of enframed ones. Scheherazade, symbol of the female emancipator-esthete (Ahmad/Zahra) battles and subdues Shahrayar, the patriarchal/genocidal figure (Hajji Ahmad). At the same time, Ben Jelloun makes wide use of The Nights’ magical realism and dream visions. As with most Maghribi writing, the marvelous seems to function in Ben Jelloun’s fiction as a shield against the many encroachments of Western society and thus makes possible a meeting between present and past, reality and fantasy.
Most French critics and commentators have thoroughly enjoyed The Sacred Night and The Sand Child (reprinted in one volume in 1987); they present new and refreshing material from a different collective memory and another world, offering the interplay of ideas both sacred and profane, ancient and modern. They fascinate because they contain elements lacking or long lost in Western society, such as the mystical bond between humans and the universe, eroticism, the marvelous and the fantastic. But the novels’ appeal also lies in their new narrative technique, akin to the lyric novel, where dream states are cultivated and the narrative point of view is constantly shifting.
Ben Jelloun’s narrative style is more sensuous and visual than symbolic and contemplative. A master storyteller, he appears to wreak havoc on established literary genres and styles. The reader is swayed by the melange (sometimes in a single passage) of three modes: the narrative, the discursive and the lyric. Evidently, the author is out to charm and seduce the Westerner, the Other, who indulges freely in what his ethnocentric imagination hankers for.
This too is a strategy, and an effective one: The Maghribi, no longer the Other’s object of observation, is at last his own subject. Serving his own aims, he undertakes his own (self-) promotion and thus controls his own representation/image. Many critics wrote that Ben Jelloun brings his Western reader closer to understanding the Arab Muslim world than any other Maghribi writer. His excavation of the Moroccan ethos is a boon to students and interested readers, as he brings to light — in breadth and depth — taboos and contradictions of all sorts. The Oriental mood that characterizes these novels may be a stylistic device to correct the Orientalist consensus.
Love in Two Languages, the provocative title of a novel by Abdelkebir Khatibi, removes to the backburner a once-hot debate: Can a national literature be expressed in a foreign medium? Ben Jelloun, like Khatibi, Meddeb and others, sees French as one of the paradigms of Maghribi reality. Moreover, bilingualism and cross-culturalism are a two-way street. Ben Jelloun, like many of his colleagues, is actively making a creative contribution to French culture and literature. Like their sub-Saharan counterparts, Maghribi writers are revitalizing and energizing the French novel, which has fallen prey to self-complacency and linguistic narcissism. Ben Jelloun, for one, brings to French a lively and graceful fancy, depth and tenderness of feeling and a rich store of lore and ideas. By molding the French language (form) so as to adjust to an Arabic text (substance) and vice versa, Ben Jelloun practices in his writing what he advocates in his public pronouncements: a bridging of tradition and modernity.
Arabic literature also gains in this crosscultural exchange: Through translation, the French Maghribi text returns to the fold. In collaboration with Le Seuil and other publishers of Maghribi Francophone literature, CERES Productions in Tunis has brought out a dozen titles in Arabic. But only when the exchange is equalized can there be hope for bridging the gap between North African and French cultures.