The Prix Goncourt, always the biggest literary event of the year in France, became even more so in 1987, when the venerable Goncourt Academy named Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun as its eightieth laureate. In French literary circles, reaction to the selection of Ben Jelloun’s novel, La Nuit saerde, contained an unmistakable current of relief, as if to say that the situation of the Arab community in France really could not be so bad if a North African received the Prix Goncourt. Within that Arab community, the optimism was somewhat more guarded (about the book as well as the prize), but certainly no one regretted the increased visibility that the award brought to French-language North African literature. Even Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s rear-guard National Front, told the press that “I’m not at all bothered by the awarding of the Goncourt to a French-language writer, even if he is a foreigner.”
As foreigners go in France, Tahar Ben Jelloun is actually a great deal less foreign than most. Born in Fez in 1944, he studied philosophy at the University of Rabat, taught high school in Tetouan and Casablanca, and then, in 1971, came to Paris and completed a doctorate in social psychiatry with a dissertation on the problems of immigrant workers in France. Since that time, he has consistently used his access to French media — he has long been a journalist for Le Monde — to speak out for the immigrant communities in France. One of his most notable works of non-fiction is the meticulously documented essay on racial violence against North African immigrants that he titled “French Hospitality” (Hospitality francaise, 1984).
With regard to conditions in Morocco, his voice has become noticeably more muted since the days when he was involved with the militant political and cultural review Souffles/Anfas and when his first collection of poetry, Hommes sous linceul de silence (1971) was prefaced by the review’s co-founder, Abraham Serfaty, now serving a life prison sentence for his opposition to the government of Hassan II. For his part, Ben Jelloun now spends several months a year living and writing in Tangiers and seems to have been welcomed back as a kind of writer laureate who appears at official functions and serves on juries for royal prizes. As he put it in a 1987 interview with Jeune Afrique magazine, “In the 1970s…I was very sensitive to the climate of repression that reigned in Morocco. I couldn’t write, that atmosphere choked me. But then Morocco entered a period of democratization; things calmed down. And I was able to write there again.”
To date, Ben Jelloun has published seven novels, two collections of poetry, and various essays, stories and theater pieces, as well as an anthology of Moroccan poetry and a translation of Mohammed Choukri’s Arabic novel For Bread Alone. I spoke with him in Paris in late September 1989.
Around the time you received the Prix Goncourt, you wrote an article called “Confusion of Time,” talking about your own experience as an Arab writer expressing himself in French. I was struck by one particular remark: “When you change languages, there’s always the risk of stumbling.” That seemed to be half truth and half irony.
Well, many people, especially in the Arab world, are surprised that I don’t write in Arabic. And I tell them every time that you have to have respect for languages; just because Arabic is the language that’s linked to my childhood, my family, that doesn’t mean that I can create a work of literature with it. It’s not possible. So it’s out of respect for Arabic that I choose to write in the language that I’ve mastered the best. But the switch from one language to the other takes a long time; you don’t just start speaking overnight. And the proof of this is that I still haven’t mastered the sequence of tenses in French. I’m always confusing the past and the present — in the past, that is, because there are several past tenses. Maybe it’s a kind of nostalgia for Arabic, because in Arabic the tense is less precise, even though it’s very exact….
I took it in a metaphysical sense also.
Yes, maybe you can also stumble over the vocabulary, you can also stumble over the memory of the language. I don’t have the memory of French. The other day, for example, I was asked about the supposed battle over the reform of French spelling, and I said, “Listen, it took me so long to get used to the irregularities of French spelling that I’m not about to forget it all to write such-and-such a word.”
So you see, I really have the attitude of the foreigner who speaks and writes this language. Fm in it, but at the same time, I keep a distance — I don’t look at it from the inside but from the outside, even though I’m totally inside.
But behind this phenomenon, as I think you said at some point, is also a question of power. If I speak French, it’s different, because I’m coming from English, and the relations of power are different.
What kind of power?
Well, I speak French because I chose to study it in school. That’s different.
Yes, but I was at school too and…well, I didn’t have the choice between French and other languages, because it was Arabic and French. So in that sense, French was a language that came to me.
That’s what I’m trying to say, and I think that the whole question of the French-speaking “community” is a question of power.
Yes, you want to say a question of historical circumstances tied to a colonial presence in a country.
And so it becomes something that much more delicate — on both sides.
Yes, but we’re trying to make the most of this situation, not to keep complaining about it, to keep making it into a big issue, and every time say, “Oh la la, we write in French because we’ve been colonized.” It’s true, but you have to go beyond that, try to be a little more calm about it, and say OK, we write in French because it happened that way but let’s try to get the most out of it for everyone.
People were saying 25 years ago that, with independence, there wouldn’t be any more Arab writers expressing themselves in French. Recently there seems to be a whole revival, with this Supreme Council of the French-Speaking Nations started in 1984, for example, and the Francophone summit and Francophone conferences and magazines and satellite TV networks. Is this French-language literature of North Africa going to continue?
I think that it will. The path it’s taken so far continues to refute all the predictions being made 20 or 30 years ago. I can remember myself that when I started to write in 1965 or 1966, there was a little group of us in Morocco, and we used to say, “We’re the last ones to write in this language, and fortunately, those who come after us are going to be able to write in the language of their mothers, and there won’t be this problem.” That prediction turned out to be wrong, very wrong, first of all because the French language has diversified itself. For example, the generation before us — Mohammed Dib, Kateb Yacine, Mouloud Feraoun, Mouloud Mammeri in Algeria, or Driss Chraibi in Morocco — this whole generation had a very violent relationship with French, as a result of the historical situation — the Algerian War, the colonization of Morocco. And at the time, the literature they wrote seemed to be very circumstantial, something that was going to disappear with independence, even if it yielded works that have become classics, like Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma, works that in my opinion belong to the cultural heritage of the Maghrib.
But the rest of us coming in the wake of that generation, we didn’t want to say, “We’re going to perpetuate that violence against colonization.” We said, “We’re going to express ourselves about the problems that concern our country, Morocco, but we’re going to use French because that’s the language we know the best.” There were other novelists, other poets, who came on the scene well after independence, and in the end, they too prefer to express themselves in French. That’s not to say that French is going to gain ground, but I think that it’s going to be integrated into the culture of the Maghrib, and the novels that we’re writing today in French — whether it’s Rachid Mimouni, the Algerian, or Abdelwahhab Meddeb, the Tunisian, or Fawzi Mellah, also Tunisian, or myself — are ultimately texts that are North African more than anything else. You can’t classify them with French texts.
In addition, when these books are translated, that’s where the borrowing of the language becomes very secondary. For the public in Denmark or Sweden, for example, because I just spent some time there, for them, I’m Moroccan, I’m not French. What’s important is the text; once it’s read in Danish or Swedish or other languages, it takes on its own identity which no longer has to do with the political problematic of the “French-language-Moroccan-writer-colonized-by-France-now-independent.” You get rid of all that and you’re left with a text that’s above all Moroccan and translated. True, it’s translated from French, but no one’s trying to know if the author is settling a score with French or not. The question becomes: Is this text interesting or not?
When we’ve gotten to that stage — which is to say, the text exists by itself and has its own identity — I think that at that point the battle is won. That’s the most important aspect, and in my opinion it’s the real benefit of the expansion of this literature outside of France. In my own case (which is somewhat special because of the Goncourt and everything), the fact of having been translated into 22 languages, with all of them ultimately based on the French, opens the doors for an entire literature that until now has been completely unknown in many countries.
Fortunately there was the Nobel Prize for Naguib Mahfouz in Egypt, and fortunately I received the Goncourt, and it’s with these two breakthroughs that we’re starting to be recognized abroad. It’s not just to feed our own egotism, but also for the other North African writers.
But there’s more to it than just using a language — you also transform it, like the “confusion of tenses” that you spoke about.
That’s obvious, because what’s at work is the imagination. I have an imagination that’s fed by the history of my country, by a childhood in my country, by everything I’ve known in my country, and by the permanent contact that I have with this country, by all the visits that I make there all the time. I feed myself on this country, so it’s inevitable that the French that’s going to render this imagination is going to be different from that of someone like Michel Tournier or Alain Robbe-Grillet. It’s inevitable that we don’t have the same frame of reference, we don’t have the same obsessions, we don’t have the same perception of time, the same construction of memory. The spirits of some writers in France are very open, for example, to western Europe or northern Europe, but they’re incapable of feeling or understanding a gesture or a situation or a fact or an event that takes place in the Middle East or North Africa. You understand? So the writers who come from these Mediterranean countries or these Arab or African countries participate in the elaboration of French literature with elements or materials that are different. It’s exactly like cooking — each person brings their own spices, their own color.
That’s also the contribution of Salman Rushdie to English literature, isn’t it?
Absolutely. Before the big drama, I’d only read Shame, which I thought was fantastic. I found it extremely powerful, with a fantastic imagination: someone who lives in England, who comes from India, or India/Pakistan, who writes in English in this special way, and who speaks of his country differently from the English ethnologists or sociologists or novelists.
Right now I’m reading The Satanic Verses in French. I think it’s an extraordinary book, dazzling in every sense. But I don’t know if it’s completely polished — I don’t have that impression. And at the same time, I find that it’s true, now, when I read it, that he took liberties with certain things that are sacred, some rather great and rather daring liberties, but in the context of the book, that’s negligible, because the whole book is crazy. He’s not giving a vision of Islam, or anything else for that matter (because I have the impression that he could have just as easily done this book on another religion). The fact is that — like the movie actor who’s kind of the hero of the book — he’s staged certain myths. People who think they see the Prophet are just bad Muslims, because the Prophet of Islam has nothing to do with that caricature; there’s no resemblance. And I’m sure that Rushdie’s intention in writing this book was not at all to harm the Muslims. Throughout history, there’s always been a caricature of prophecy, and there’s always been a kind of observation of this prophecy, but to go from there to the kind of accusations that were made against him, that’s scandalous.
It seems that there have been several articles in the English press, especially after the Goncourt, where they tried to compare the two of us. I think that I also take a critical look, not at Islam — I’m not crazy enough to criticize a religion, no matter which one it is, by the way, because I respect people’s convictions — but I do take a critical look at the manipulators of religions, whether they’re Jews or Muslims or Christians. I don’t like people who manipulate the convictions of others for political ends, for temporal ends, if you like. I think that religion is an affair of personal conscience, morality, ethics, and no one has the right to generalize it into a political ideology.
The first books of yours that I read were your translation of the Arabic novel of Mohammed Choukri [Le Pain nu] and then, Hospitality francaise. Probably because of these two books, I’ve always had the impression that your place among North African writers is somewhat particular, that you, more than the others, are a kind of intermediary between these two cultures.
I’m not between two cultures, I’m in the two cultures. But at the same time — this sounds pretentious, but I try, with writing, with books, to establish a link, a very, very superficial one, that’s not physical or anything, but a link between the two cultures, and I try to move from one to the other. To play the role of intermediary between two cultures, between two imaginations, and at the same time, to try to soften the conflicts and the shocks. Politicians don’t bother with scruples, they go directly for their goals: They sell arms when it suits them, they intervene in countries when it suits them, they don’t think of all the wounds and all the provocations they cause. Writers have a much more responsible attitude because their means of intervening — literature, or sometimes journalism — isn’t very effective. They can only intervene to observe and denounce. That’s my role.
When you write, who do you address yourself to? I’ve often posed that question to people who are “in” different cultures, as you say, and they always insist it’s irrelevant, but I don’t think so. In your case, I have the impression you address yourself mainly to the Other — in that sense of being an intermediary.
Hmm…. But this Other is undefined. It’s true though, I’m very preoccupied with the person who’s different from myself; I want to communicate a certain number of things to him, speak to him, that’s true. But I don’t imagine that person, I don’t represent him, if you wish. Sometimes, Moroccans tell me, “We have the impression that you address yourself to foreigners, not to Moroccans.” And sometimes they say, “But the foreigners aren’t going to understand anything you do because you only address yourself to us.” Myself, I don’t make all these calculations; I write, and I have the impression that it goes in several directions. In my opinion, the most important thing is that the text should be strong enough, solid enough to get beyond this kind of limitation of knowing whether you write for this or that.
I just finished a book that’s going to be published in January, and I had it translated in several countries so that it’ll appear at the same time as in France. It’s typically, very precisely Moroccan — it takes place in Tangiers, in a little street, a little house, with a Moroccan man, and I sent the manuscript, just like that, to all my translators and all my foreign publishers, and most of them reacted very quickly, very favorably. When I manage to do that, personally, I think that the question of the public doesn’t exist for me any more. If the text is strong enough, polished enough, if it’s very specific, then at that moment you can talk about a literature that speaks to the whole world. We’ll see when the book is published, but I have the impression that the people Fm speaking to aren’t limited to one public, one language, one conception of things.
But you could still say that they’re “others” rather than Moroccans.
No, because it’s a text that I gave to some Moroccans to read, and they were completely into it. No, no, you’ll see, it’s a text that reaches everyone. You know, the human condition is full of universal questions, and whether it’s in Japan or Africa or Asia or America or the Arab world, you can find the same obsessions. Of course the answers won’t be the same, but that’s where the difference lies.