Jelloun, Tahar Ben
Tahar Ben Jelloun 1944-
Moroccan-born French novelist, poet, short story writer, playwright, travel writer, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Ben Jelloun's career through 2003.
Born in Morocco, Ben Jelloun was the first writer from one of France's former North African colonies to receive the country's prestigious Prix Goncourt award for his novel La Nuit sacrée (1987; The Sacred Night). His works combine elements of both the French and Moroccan literary traditions, bringing a unique multicultural perspective to the body of post-colonial literature. Written primarily in French, Ben Jelloun's novels, poetry, and nonfiction works exhibit a diverse range of influences from lyrical Koranic imagery to Freudian psychoanalytical theory. Scholars regard Ben Jelloun as one of the most prolific modern authors of the Maghreb region—an area comprised of Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Tunisia—and commend his continuing focus on gender, political, and social relations within the Arab world.
Ben Jelloun was born on December 21, 1944, in Fez, Morocco. When he was eighteen, Ben Jelloun's family moved to Tangier, where he attended the local French secondary school. In 1963 he enrolled at the University of Morocco in Rabat to study philosophy and participated in the publication of the radical political review Soufflés. Under the tutelage of Soufflés' founder, poet Abdellatif Laabi, Ben Jelloun began composing poetry, later publishing his first collection, Hommes sous linceul de silence, in 1970. In 1966 he was arrested by the government for participating in Leftist political activity and was forced to perform national service in the Moroccan army. Ben Jelloun eventually returned to his studies, teaching courses in philosophy in Tetouan and Casablanca while pursuing his degree. After graduating in 1971, he immigrated to France, where he enrolled in the Universite de Paris VII. He received his Ph.D. in psychiatric social work in 1975, having worked as a psychotherapist from 1972 to 1975. In 1973 Ben Jelloun released his first novel, Harrouda, and began to focus on his writing career, contributing frequently to such publications as Le Monde and La Repubblica. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Ben Jelloun published a number of novels, poems, and nonfiction works before attracting widespread international acclaim for La Nuit sacrée. He has been awarded several awards and accolades for his body of work, including the Prix de l'Amitie Franco-Arabe for Les amandiers sort morts de leurs blessures (1976), the Prix Goncourt in 1987, and the Prix Maghreb in 1994.
Critical response to Ben Jelloun's work has focused primarily on his novels, with scholars noting his skillful construction of narratives that examine psychologically complex characters who struggle to survive in the challenging socio-political climate of the post-colonial Arab world. His early novels also explore elements from Ben Jelloun's own life, evincing an interest in individuals who are torn between two cultures. Harrouda explores the unique urban environments in two Maghrebian cities—Fez and Tangier—while La Réclusion solitaire (1976; Solitaire) draws on Ben Jelloun's experiences as a psychotherapist with the story of an isolated North African immigrant who is plagued with sexual dysfunction. Moha le fou, Moha le sage (1978) follows the discontinuous ramblings of a confused vagrant named Moha, who speaks eloquently on behalf of the disenfranchised and the downtrodden. La Prière de l'absent (1981) recounts an odd quest to the south of Morocco by a strange group of travellers: two mentally troubled men, Body and Sindibad, an old woman, and an infant who has come under their care. Despite the overall positive critical reception of Ben Jelloun's early novels, it was the English translation of L'Enfant de sable (1985; The Sand Child) that first brought Ben Jelloun international literary acclaim and revealed several of the recurring themes of his work: an examination of gender roles in a male-dominated society, the masking of one's own identity, storytelling, and surrealism. L'Enfant de sable opens with the birth of the eighth child of Hajji Ahmed. His first seven children are daughters, and under Islamic law, daughters may only inherit one-third of their father's property. Hajji becomes obsessed with producing a male heir and, when his eighth child is born a daughter, Hajji decides to raise the girl—named Ahmed Mohammed—as a boy. La Nuit sacrée continues Ahmed's story into her adulthood after her father allows her to stop pretending to be a man. Ahmed attempts to accept her feminine sexuality and takes the name Zahra. She runs away from her family and becomes involved in a series of adventures and further imprisonments. Zahra eventually falls in love with a blind man, allowing her to escape from gender limitations and find true happiness.
Told between alternating first-person monologues and third-person stream of consciousness, Jour de silence à Tanger (1990; Silent Day in Tangier) follows the last days of an ailing merchant who has amassed a fortune selling long, loose-fitting garments called djellabas. Though the merchant's family is physically present, they remain distant after a lifetime of suffering from his cruelty and impatience. The merchant is left psychologically isolated to ruminate over his life, missed opportunities, past hatreds, and his impending death. Les Yeux baissés (1991; With Downcast Eyes) centers around a young woman who feels trapped between her dual Moroccan and French identities. As a young adult, she moves with her family from a small Moroccan village to France where she excels in her studies, eventually becoming a writer. After living in France for twenty years, she returns to her village in Morocco and finds herself marked as an outsider. The epidemic of government corruption and bribery in Morocco and other Third World countries is the primary focus of L'Homme rompu (1994; Corruption), a novel written as a tribute to the censored Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer and based on Toer's novel Corruption. Ben Jelloun's main character is Mourad, an employee at the Ministry of Equipment, who has resisted bribes throughout his career to the dismay of his colleagues, subordinates, and family. Mourad finally succumbs to temptation, only to watch his small indiscretion begin to unravel his life, both personally and professionally. In the novel La Nuit de l'erreur (1997), a Moroccan girl named Zina is born on an unlucky day—the day of her grandfather's death—and subsequently, her life is filled with a disturbing series of humiliations and hardships. Labyrinthe des sentiments (1999) tells the story of a Moroccan writer named Gharib who lives in Naples, Italy. Gharib falls in love with Wahida, a Moroccan prostitute, but resists the temptation of consummating their relationship out of respect for a past love whom he lost thirty years before. Based on a true incident, Cette aveuglante absence de lumière (2001; This Blinding Absence of Light) follows a group of soldiers who unsuccessfully tried to usurp Morocco's King Hassan II in 1971. The soldiers are brought to a prison in Tazmamart in the Moroccan desert where they are subjected to horrific conditions, lack of food, and daily beatings. Narrated by a soldier named Salim, the novel recounts how the soldiers struggled to survive after twenty years of imprisonment in cramped underground cells.
Though he is best known for his novels, Ben Jelloun has also published a wide selection of poetry, short stories, plays, and nonfiction works. His Poésie complète: 1966-1995 (1995) provides a comprehensive survey of his poetry, collecting such earlier volumes as Hommes sous linceul de silence, Les amandiers sort morts de leurs blessures, and La Remontée des cendres; suivi de Non identifiés (1991). The collection is arranged chronologically, tracing Ben Jelloun's poetic examinations of the political upheaval in Morocco during the 1960s, questions of Eastern and Western identity, and the Persian Gulf War. The short stories in L'Ange aveugle (1992; State of Absence) are preoccupied with human tragedies, particularly within the community of the Italian mafia, while the stories in Amours sorcières (2003) are centered around a unifying theme of personal and political treason. In Hospitalité française: Racisme et immigration maghrébine (1984; French Hospitality: Racism and North African Immigrants), Ben Jelloun presents a scathing critique of the nationalistic prejudice in France towards North African immigrants. He continued his examination of racism and cultural stereotypes in Le Racisme expliqué à ma fille (1997; Racism Explained to My Daughter), a work steered towards explaining prejudice to a young audience, and L'Islam expliqué aux enfants (2002; Islam Explained), an attempt to place the Islamic religion within a historical context after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Ben Jelloun has also authored the plays Chronique d'une solitude (1976), Entretien avec Monsieur Said Hammadi ouvrier Algerien (1982), and La fiancé de l'eau (1984).
Much of the criticism surrounding Ben Jelloun's work has centered around his position as a Moroccan author writing in French. Certain Arab reviewers have accused Ben Jelloun of pandering to a Western audience through his choice of language. These critics have asserted that Ben Jelloun specifically tailors his prose to appease French literary scholars, theorizing that La Nuit sacrée was written as a direct response to Western criticism of his previous novel, L'Enfant de sable. However, many reviewers have disagreed with such sentiments, arguing that Ben Jelloun is a skilled and thought-provoking post-colonial author who is a credit to both the French and North African literary traditions. Though he frequently experiments with literary forms, commentators have praised Ben Jelloun's consistent emphasis on rhythmic prose and narrative structure. Aamer Hussein has stated that, “[t]he distinctive feature of [Ben Jelloun's] work is a consuming obsession with language: dense with allusion, metaphor and echoes of his native Arabic, his texts are deeply inscribed with his migrant sensibility and the experience of his double heritage.” Reviewers have also noted that Ben Jelloun's penetrating knowledge of psychoanalytic theory gives him an unique ability to construct complex and fully realized characterizations. The surrealistic and fantastical elements of Ben Jelloun's poetry and prose have also attracted critical notice, earning him favorable comparisons to such magic realist authors as Gabriel García Márquez and Juan Carlos Onetti. Critics have frequently lauded the lyrical lines of Ben Jelloun's poetry while additionally complimenting the influence of his poetic sensibility on his fiction. Mustapha Marrouchi has commented that, “[w]hat is clear and simple, but magical, is Ben Jelloun's language. His choice of words is meticulous, and his sentences are written in fragments, but he obviously refuses to elaborate on his writing for the sake of writing. … Gratuitous literary games are the antithesis of his work as a writer.”
Hommes sous linceul de silence (poetry) 1970
Harrouda (novel) 1973
Le Discours du chameau (poetry) 1974
Les amandiers sort morts de leurs blessures (poetry) 1976
Chronique d'une solitude (play) 1976
La Réclusion solitaire [Solitaire] (novel) 1976
La Plus Haute des solitudes: Misère sexuelle d'émigrés nord-africains (nonfiction) 1977
Moha le fou, Moha le sage (novel) 1978
A l'insu du souvenir (poetry) 1980
La Prière de l'absent (novel) 1981
Entretien avec Monsieur Said Hammadi ouvrier Algerien (play) 1982
Haut Atlas: L'exil de pierres [photographs by Philippe Lafond] (travel writing) 1982
L'Écrivain public: Récit (novel) 1983
Hospitalité française: Racisme et immigration maghrébine [French Hospitality: Racism and North African Immigrants] (nonfiction) 1984
La fiancé de l'eau (play) 1984
L'Enfant de sable [The Sand Child] (novel) 1985
La Nuit sacrée [The Sacred Night] (novel) 1987
Sahara [photographs by Bernard Descamps] (poetry) 1987
Jour de silence à Tanger: Récit...
(The entire section is 274 words.)
SOURCE: Thatcher, Jean-Louise. Review of The Sand Child, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Middle East Journal 42, no. 3 (summer 1988): 481-85.
[In the following excerpt, Thatcher applauds Ben Jelloun's use of metaphor and imagery in The Sand Child, calling the novel “sensitive and perceptive.”]
All of these novels are thematically rich. Tahar Ben Jelloun's The Sand Child, for example, is based firmly on culture/tradition, but the plot is influenced by and developed with the aid of literary legacy, legend, and the vivid imagination of the author.
France's most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt was awarded in November 1987 to Moroccan writer Ben Jelloun for his novel, The Sacred Night, sequel to The Sand Child. Only six non-French novelists have achieved this distinction since the prize was first awarded in 1903, and Ben Jelloun is the first to be chosen from one of France's former North African colonies. The Sand Child, which has been translated into 15 other languages, is the author's first book to appear in English.
It tells the story of Hajji Ahmed, a wealthy merchant who is the father of seven daughters. Under the laws of Islam, daughters may only inherit one-third of their father's wealth. Hajji Ahmed, determined that his brothers shall not receive the bulk of his property, decides that his eighth child will be...
(The entire section is 475 words.)
SOURCE: Buss, Robin. “Ambiguous from Birth.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4478 (27 January-2 February 1989): 88.
[In the following review, Buss argues that The Sand Child and La Nuit sacrée resist literal interpretations, emphasizing the importance of the “journey” in both works.]
It might be misleading to describe La Nuit sacrée, which won the 1987 Prix Goncourt, as a sequel to The Sand Child, because there is no strict narrative progression from one to the other. But they share a central character whose ambiguous upbringing is the starting-point for both stories. This is the eighth child of a father determined, after seven daughters, to produce a son. “You will be a mother, a true mother”, he told his wife, “you will be a princess, for you will have brought to birth a boy. … It will be named Ahmed—even if it is a girl!”
This child, painfully liberated from the imprisonment of a false identity, emerges to become, by the end The Sand Child, the first-person narrator of her own story, and subsequently of La Nuit sacrée. Neither book is intended to be merely a literal account of an improbable deception. Despite their contemporary Marrakesh setting, they belong to the domain of the traditional story-teller whose tales have the status of myth. The listener can choose to receive them as pure entertainment, as poetry or as...
(The entire section is 602 words.)
SOURCE: Zameenzad, Adam. “An Escape to Captivity and Back.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (19 November 1989): 11.
[In the following review, Zameenzad praises Ben Jelloun's poetic language in The Sacred Night but questions if Western readers can appreciate the novel's Eastern mysticism.]
“The truth is closer to the shadow than to the tree that casts the shadow,” says the blind Consul to the heroine of The Sacred Night, Zahra, who has spent the first 20 years of her life as a man “married” to the wretched Fatima, daughter of her vicious and avaricious uncle.
Her father, a tyrannical patriarch, has reared her as a son to boost his ego and foster his pride, as well as to have a “male” heir and thus prevent his property from falling into the hands of his brother and his wife, both of whom he loathes as much as he does his wife and seven other daughters.
On his deathbed, however, the father releases Zahra from the bondage of her false gender. Hoping to escape from her uncle and aunt, the envy of her sisters and the madness of her mother and her “wife,” Zahra runs away from home after burying all relics of her fake and hollow past in her father's grave.
Zahra's journey takes her through dreams and visions, illusions and hallucinations, time and timelessness; it is a journey which ends in an arrival that is also, in a sense,...
(The entire section is 863 words.)
SOURCE: Marrouchi, Mustapha. “Breaking Up/Down/Out of the Boundaries: Tahar Ben Jelloun.” Research in African Literatures 21, no. 4 (winter 1990): 71-83.
[In the following essay, Marrouchi traces the development of the character Zahra in La Nuit sacrée and examines how the novel deconstructs traditional notions of gender and colonization.]
We're finished with it, with the struggle against exile. Our tasks are now those of insertion. No longer the stupendous generality of the scream, but the thankless inventory of the country's particulars.
(Edouard Glissant, Le Discours antillais 285)
For many readers, La Nuit sacrée revolves around the blurring of boundaries between orality-writing, prose-poetry, reality-fantasy, realism-allegory, Bâtin-Zahir,1 and presence-absence. Adapting a narrative to such symbiotic relationships reflects the fact that the author himself is at the crossroads of several cultures, and the novel's heroine is a good expression of this dialectics of belonging and rejection. Both mediator and androgyne, living on the margins of the village female collective, Zahra is a complex character whose place in the narrative proves to be ambivalent; in addition, Ben Jelloun offers several well-drawn portraits of other characters. In this essay, I will first examine the evolution of...
(The entire section is 6353 words.)
SOURCE: Buss, Robin. “Between the Two.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4550 (15 June 1990): 654.
[In the following review, Buss lauds the lyrical examination of Muslim gender relations in The Sacred Night.]
La Nuit sacrée, which was reviewed in the TLS of January 27, 1989, shares its narrator Zohra (also known as Ahmed) with Tahar Ben Jelloun's previous novel, The Sand Child. The eighth daughter of a father who decides to bring her up as the son whom fate has denied him, the Sand Child is both imprisoned and liberated by the rejection of reality. It enables her to move with equal status between the otherwise closed worlds of women and men. Though this suggests a number of allegorical interpretations, the surface of the narrative proceeds with enough sheer pleasure and lack of pretension to deeper meanings to ensure that these are rarely overt. “There is no greatness or tragedy in my story”, Zohra writes. “It is simply strange.”
Simply strange is what The Sacred Night is likely to seem to most non-Muslim, non-Maghrebi readers. The best approach is to accept Zohra's world as it is. Ben Jelloun has been well served by Alan Sheridan, whose fluent translation succeeds in conveying a good deal of the original. “Poetic” and “dream-like” are the adjectives most usually found to describe his prose; it is precise about details, and less so in...
(The entire section is 363 words.)
SOURCE: Mortimer, Mildred. Review of Jour de silence à Tanger, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. World Literature Today 65, no. 1 (winter 1991): 173-74.
[In the following review, Mortimer discusses how Ben Jelloun utilizes the character of the ailing patriarch in Jour de silence à Tanger to create a “sober and poetic text of introspection and retrospection.”]
The patriarch looms large in Francophone Maghrebian fiction. Evoking the anger and resentment of Driss Chraïbi (Le passé simple) and Rachid Boudjedra (La répudiation), he is portrayed with compassion and comprehension by Tahar Ben Jelloun in the Moroccan novelist's most recent work, Jour de silence à Tanger, a novel he dedicates to his own father.
Unlike Chraïbi and Boudjedra, Ben Jelloun focuses neither upon the abuse of power within patriarchal society nor upon a son's challenge to patriarchal order. His protagonist, an aged patriarch, wages a war against time, a battle that he knows he is destined to lose. The old man comments ironically, “Je suis trop jeune dans un corps trop vieux.” “Le dernier témoin d'une époque,” the ailing man is living his final days as a prisoner of both time and space. He is confined by illness to closed-off chambers, to an enclosure which, like the protagonist, is in a state of decay, disintegration, and discomfort. Moreover, this room offers no escape except...
(The entire section is 558 words.)
SOURCE: Cazenave, Odile. “Gender, Age, and Narrative Transformations in L'Enfant de sable by Tahar Ben Jelloun.” French Review 64, no. 3 (February 1991): 437-50.
[In the following essay, Cazenave traces the central themes of age and gender in L'Enfant de sable and explores how the novel acts as a metaphor for the problems faced by Maghrebin authors writing in French.]
Traditionally, in African literature, and even more so in North-African Literature, factors of age and gender appear to be key elements in determining the role and status in society for a given character. Geographically and socially, such factors establish a distribution of space (the outside and the inside) and of fixed functions. In L'Enfant de sable (1985) the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, who was awarded the Prix Goncourt for La Nuit sacrée in 1987, uses the two parameters of age and gender as the very focus of the novel. The plot revolves around the question of the gender of the hero as he (or rather she) grows: a girl from a Moroccan family is raised as a boy and then as a man. It then centers on the development of the character, the problems caused by this false identity, and the reactions elicited from the hero, the other protagonist, and the story-teller (acknowledged as the official narrator).
With a twisted and subversive character like Ahmed, Ben Jelloun naturally...
(The entire section is 7446 words.)
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Death Comes to Rest a Weary Mind.” Los Angeles Times (11 April 1991): E10.
[In the following review, Eder compliments Ben Jelloun's “telling, subtle and occasionally puzzling portrait” of the protagonist in Silent Day in Tangier.]
To be dead is to be cut off from the pleasures, pains, objects, emotions, people, projects and despairs offered by life. Tahar Ben Jelloun, a Moroccan poet and novelist, depicts the fraying of these things—before the final severance—in the mind of a dying 80-year-old [in Silent Day in Tangier].
In dying, the conspicuous features, nose and chin, become sharper and more prominent. Pride, malice and a pitiless wit are the conspicuous energies of Ben Jelloun's retired merchant-tailor in his cold bedroom in Tangier at the end of winter.
His ruminations and memories, voiced now in the first person and now in the third, are a prose poem of isolation and decay. Yet sparks of tenderness flicker through. They are ghosts; not quite gone, he is more nearly a dead man haunted by life than a live man haunted by the dead.
The events of his life are meager. Sons of a merchant in the graceful but stagnant city of Fez, he and his brother moved to Tangier, hoping to prosper from the city's status as an international enclave and free port. But business—making the long, loose garments called...
(The entire section is 860 words.)
SOURCE: Ben Jelloun, Tahar, and Thomas Spear. “Politics and Literature: An Interview with Tahar Ben Jelloun.” Yale French Studies, no. 83 (June 1993): 30-43.
[In the following interview, Ben Jelloun discusses his relationship with France and Morocco, his friendship with French author Jean Genet, and his overall body of work.]
On May 25, 1991, Tahar Ben Jelloun addressed the public at the opening session of a three-day conference, the “Journées Internationales Jean Genet,” at the Odéon Theater in Paris. Ben Jelloun told how Jean Genet had phoned him after reading his first novel, Harrouda, in 1973. Because of several issues of mutual concern—racism in France, the status of immigrant workers, and the Palestinian people—Genet decided that the two writers should collaborate (see Le Monde diplomatique, July 1974), which they did on several occasions until Genet's death in 1986.
Several days later, Ben Jelloun granted me an interview to continue the discussion about Genet and to answer questions regarding his experiences as a prominent critic and writer. Among the projects preoccupying Ben Jelloun in late May was the translation of La Remontée des cendres, a poem inspired, or rather “provoked,” by the Gulf War, and scheduled to appear in a bilingual (French-Arabic) edition. The artist Edmond Baudouin was also completing illustrations to accompany a new...
(The entire section is 5254 words.)
SOURCE: Hussein, Aamer. “The Seller of Jellabas.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4603 (21 June 1991): 21.
[In the following review, Hussein asserts that Ben Jelloun uses a compressed prose style and structure to focus on an individual mind in Silent Day in Tangier.]
Tahar Ben Jelloun is a novelist, poet and critic; an expatriate Moroccan who has spent most of his adult life in Paris, he writes in French, but the landscape of his imagination is North African. He has also written a doctoral thesis on mental disorders among North African migrants in France. His work in all genres reflects these multiple perspectives: his terrain is that of the dispossessed, his characters exiled from family, gender, tribe or nation.
His reputation outside the francophone world is largely based on two interlocking narratives of the fantastic, The Sand Child and the Goncourt prize-winning The Sacred Night, which have earned him the inevitable comparisons with Márquez, Borges and Rushdie. The distinctive feature of his work is a consuming obsession with language: dense with allusion, metaphor and echoes of his native Arabic, his texts are deeply inscribed with his migrant sensibility and the experience of his double heritage.
His latest novel, Silent Day in Tangier, may come as something of a surprise to his admirers: the carnivalesque backdrop of his most...
(The entire section is 630 words.)
SOURCE: Sellin, Eric. Review of Les Yeux baissés, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. World Literature Today 66, no. 4 (autumn 1992): 759-60.
[In the following review, Sellin offers a positive assessment of Les Yeux baissés, arguing that the novel succeeds on both a narrative and allegorical level.]
Sometimes authors fade after winning a big prize. Such is not the case with Tahar Ben Jelloun. A series of brilliant novels, including two of his finest, La Prière de l'absent (1982) and L'Écrivain public (1983), culminated in a very successful diptych—L'Enfant de sable (1985) and La Nuit sacrée (Prix Goncourt 1987)—that brought Ben Jelloun international fame. He did not rest on his laurels, publishing in short order a brief, haunting tale of an old man's recollections of his youth, Jour de silence à Tanger (1990), and the excellent novel under review, Les Yeux baissés.
We find in this novel many of the preoccupations found in other books by Ben Jelloun. The protagonist is, as in L'Enfant de sable and La Nuit sacrée, a woman whose itinerary is a quest for identity. In Les Yeux baissés a young country girl journeys with her family from her small Moroccan village to France, where she excels in school and becomes interested in writing. After twenty years she returns to her village, but she has changed and her land of...
(The entire section is 464 words.)
SOURCE: Cooper, Danielle Chavy. Review of L'Ange aveugle, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. World Literature Today 67, no. 2 (spring 1993): 430-31.
[In the following review, Cooper discusses the pervasive power of the mafia in L'Ange aveugle and notes the recurring theme of “victimized childhood” throughout the collection.]
After the 1990 publication of his Jour de silence à Tanger, Tahar Ben Jelloun was invited by the editor of the Neapolitan daily Il Mattino to tour southern Italy, not as a tourist or reporter but as an unbiased outsider and interested observer. The result of that two-month tour in Sicily, Calabria, and the region of Naples is L'Ange aveugle, a collection of fourteen short stories (the first one giving its title to the whole volume). It is a moving and powerful literary creation. For the 1987 Goncourt Prize winner (for La Nuit sacrée), the primordial task of literature is “burglarizing” reality. The Mezzogiorno tour provided Ben Jelloun with les matériaux de la réalité, harsh and raw, out of which to create fiction with both authenticity and originality.
The fourteen stories, each of them poignant and gripping, often with an unexpected twist, and ranging from two to thirty pages in length, cover a large span of human tragedies, with different characters and different specific locales. They epitomize un quotidien...
(The entire section is 671 words.)
SOURCE: Erickson, John D. “Veiled Woman and Veiled Narrative in Tahar Ben Jelloun's The Sand Child.” Boundary 2 20, no. 1 (spring 1993): 47-64.
[In the following essay, Erickson analyzes the difficulties surrounding Ahmed/Zahra's ambivalent sexuality in The Sand Child and asserts that Ahmed/Zahra's struggle to find acceptance in the Islamic world mirrors Ben Jelloun's own complex position as a Maghrebian author.]
There is a truth that cannot be said, not even suggested, but [only] lived in absolute solitude. …
—Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Sand Child
I am … the look that seeks itself and the mirror.
—Tahar Ben Jelloun, The Sand Child
A great deal has been written about the privileges accruing to males and the exploitation of women in the societies of the Islamic East. This situation comprises part of a much broader system of exploitation, coming not solely from forces within these societies but from their interaction with forces outside—most specifically, from the so-called First World of the West.1
Since the appearance of Kateb Yacine's Nedjma in 1956, and in the more recent work of writers such as Assia Djebar, the sexual exploitation of women has provided a...
(The entire section is 7972 words.)
SOURCE: Fayad, Marie. “Borges in Tahar Ben Jelloun's L'Enfant de sable: Beyond Intertextuality.” French Review 67, no. 2 (December 1993): 291-99.
[In the following essay, Fayad traces the influence of Argentinian author Jorge-Luis Borges in Ben Jelloun's L'Enfant de sable and argues that the novel's “blind troubadour” character is modelled after Borges.]
Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun's L'Enfant de sable is, if not a fantastic tale, at least a highly enigmatic novel.1 In it we are confronted with the confused and confusing identities of the hero/heroine, those of the storytellers, and the subsequent variety and ambiguity in endings given by those multiple storytellers. In certain parts of the novel one no longer knows whether the storyteller is reading from a diary or pretending that he is; sometimes we wonder whether the storyteller and the hero/heroine are one and the same (in the case of Fatouma particularly). Still, in spite of the intricacies of the novel, the storytellers share a common trait: they all seem to fit into the general Moroccan context of the story, they are part of the multi-faceted, multicolored but predictable crowd that gathers on the square in Marrakech. The only exception is the “Blind Troubadour” whom we encounter in chapters 17 and 18, towards the end of the novel. He seems different. He is different. The narrator refers to...
(The entire section is 4190 words.)
SOURCE: Cooper, Danielle Chavy. Review of L'Homme rompu, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. World Literature Today 68, no. 4 (autumn 1994): 865-66.
[In the following review, Cooper calls L'Homme rompu a “remarkable novel” and praises the work's suspense, imagery, and narrative structure.]
In his prefatory note the Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun states that L'Homme rompu is meant to be a writer-to-writer homage to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, an Indonesian author now living in Jakarta under house arrest and unable to publish. Pramoedya was the author of Corruption, a 1954 novel known in France through Denys Lombard's translation, published by Editions Philippe Picquier. Ben Jelloun in L'Homme rompu, set in his native country, “burglarizes” reality as he did in his 1992 collection of short stories, L'Ange aveugle, set in Italy. L'Homme rompu denounces bribery as a calamitous way of life affecting many countries, North and South alike. It is indeed a universal plague, since “L'âme humaine, quand elle est rongée par la même misère, cède parfois aux mêmes démons.”
Bribery is presented here as “parallel economics” and “a disguised form of taxation.” It is “a subtle form of compensation” without which, apparently, there is no survival, a new law of the jungle. Sooner or later, at all levels of society, all are involved, including...
(The entire section is 754 words.)
SOURCE: Mehta, Brinda. “Alienation, Dispossession, and the Immigrant Experience in Tahar Ben Jelloun's Les Yeux baissés.” French Review 68, no. 1 (October 1994): 79-91.
[In the following essay, Mehta explores how Ben Jelloun relates the immigrant experience through the eyes of his female protagonist in Les Yeux baissés.]
Immigration and its psycho social ramifications constitute a recurrent theme in contemporary Maghrebian fiction written in French. The literary esthetics of Boudjedra (Topographie idéale pour une agression caractérisée), Charïbi (Les Boucs), Feraoun (La Terre et le sang), and Ben Jelloun (La Réclusion solitaire), among others, have focused on the annihilating effects of immigration on the individual's search for selfhood in an alien country. Systematically marginalized, dispossessed, and devitalized by the constraining politics of the host country with respect to its immigrant populations, the immigrant is soon found to be a prisoner of alterity, trapped in the specular logic of the Other. The unilateral nature of specular representation is based on the principles of negativity, exclusion, and closure within a repressive and restrictive system. To reflect this specularity, in an attempt to deflect its specificity, the Maghrebian novel on immigration situates itself within the parameters of a tragic poetic-realism which provides different...
(The entire section is 6233 words.)
SOURCE: Campbell, James. “Bringing the Bizarre.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4785 (16 December 1994): 22.
[In the following review, Campbell criticizes State of Absence for its series of “flimsy anecdotes” and complains that the book suffers from a poor translation.]
Tahar Ben Jelloun is a Moroccan Arab who writes in French, and discussion of his work is often couched in exotic terms: he is a “traditional storyteller”, the author of “tales” rather than novels, the creator of events which “shift magically like the sands”, the writer, even, of “the most lyrical prose being produced in Europe”. In fact, Ben Jelloun—winner of the Prix Goncourt in 1987—is capable of producing a concrete, feet-on-the-ground prose, as in Jour de silence à Tanger (1989, published in translation in 1991), in which an aged djellaba-seller looks back over his life from a self-constructed prison of impatience, misogyny and suspicion. Its lengthy monologues and unsparing reflections recall no one more “different” than Camus, the last French-writing North African to appeal to an international readership.
State of Absence (original title: L'Ange aveugle) has its origins in journalism. As Ben Jelloun explains in a preface, shortly after finishing Jour de silence, he was invited by the editor of an Italian newspaper to make a tour of the...
(The entire section is 795 words.)
SOURCE: Elia, Nada. Review of Le Premier amour est toujours le dernier, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. World Literature Today 69, no. 4 (autumn 1995): 757-58.
[In the following review, Elia questions Ben Jelloun's ambivalent portrayal of sexism in his short story collection Le Premier amour est toujours le dernier.]
Winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, the Moroccan poet, novelist, and short-story writer Tahar Ben Jelloun differs from his francophone Maghrebian contemporaries in that his work does not highlight colonial oppression but focuses instead on the struggle within his own society, with special emphasis on love and tormented male-female relationships. His latest collection of short stories, Le Premier amour est toujours le dernier, expounds on this dual theme.
The collection features twenty-one short stories, some published as early as 1973 and 1976. I can only applaud Ben Jelloun's persistence in exposing women's oppression and am relieved that he does not suggest Arabs are the only culprits: Spaniards and Italians are equally guilty, as illustrated in the stories “Le mirage” and “Monsieur Vito s'aime.” Still, it is somewhat facile to accuse Southern Europeans of machismo. Although many of the stories are located in France, no Frenchman is depicted negatively. I am also disturbed by the subtext of these stories: all the beautiful women are tall, slender,...
(The entire section is 634 words.)
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “A Moroccan Morality Tale—Without a Real Moral to It.” Los Angeles Times (19 October 1995): E4.
[In the following review, Eder describes how Ben Jelloun uses his sense of “social and moral acuteness” to corrupt the protagonist, as well as the readers, of his novel Corruption.]
To show his solidarity with the banned Indonesian writer Pramoedya Toer, Moroccan Tahar Ben Jelloun has taken both his title and theme from Toer's 1954 novel, Corruption. Such a thing might seem odd in the United States, where plagiarism gets whispered at the drop of a publishing lawyer's retainer. Yet what a dazzlingly free and logical tribute it is.
Already, in a prefatory note disclosing this gesture, Ben Jelloun has managed a novelist's task to let us recognize ourselves, transformed, in a distant world. The remarkable thing about Ben Jelloun's Corruption is how quickly and unexpectedly it does transform us.
Initially we sympathize with Mourad, a hard-pressed Casablanca planning official, as he struggles to maintain his strict honesty despite a tiny salary, a demanding wife, two needy children and the broad hints of colleagues and superiors that he is a fool not to accept presents from the builders who come before him. Yet almost at once we find ourselves in a state of aching suspense over the possibility that Mourad will fail to bend, and make...
(The entire section is 790 words.)
SOURCE: Hibbard, Allen. Review of Corruption, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, no. 1 (spring 1996): 156-57.
[In the following review, Hibbard lauds the moral “shaping impulses” of Corruption, asserting that Ben Jelloun's text reveals the “endemic” social corruption in certain Arab countries.]
Readers of Tahar Ben Jelloun's earlier novels, especially The Sand Child (L'Enfant de sable) and With Downcast Eyes (Les Yeux baissés), will already be acquainted with the magical, lyric style of this Moroccan writer. No Arab male writer presents issues pertaining to gender, exile, and traditional Arab society with so much grace, precision, and wit. His talents have been widely recognized. In 1987 he won the Prix de Goncourt for The Sacred Night (La Nuit sacrée); in 1994 he won the Prix Maghreb.
Corruption (L'Homme rompu in the original French) is more solidly grounded in realism than previous work. Ben Jelloun tackles head-on one of the Arab Third World's greatest plagues—that endemic corruption so firmly lodged in the social and political order that it has become accepted practice. Through his main character Mourad, a French-educated engineer working as Deputy Director of Planning, Prospects and Progress, Tahar Ben Jelloun constructs a thorough etiology of corruption, showing a complex set of...
(The entire section is 531 words.)
SOURCE: Salti, Ramzi M. Review of Poésie complète: 1966-1995, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (spring 1996): 456.
[In the following review, Salti argues that the publication of Poésie complète: 1966-1995 is “long-overdue” and speculates that, for Ben Jelloun, “poetry has always represented a medium of expression that no other literary genre can provide.”]
When Tahar Ben Jelloun became the first North African writer to win the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1987 for his novel La Nuit sacrée, he was instantly hailed by the francophone world for overcoming boundaries that had thus far barred certain non-French writers from one of France's most prestigious literary prizes. Although that unprecedented literary honor did much to secure a place for Ben Jelloun among France's leading novelists, it seemed somehow to overshadow the vast body of poetic works that the Moroccan-born and -raised writer has regularly produced since the mid-sixties.
The long-overdue publication of the author's Poésie complète serves not only to reemphasize Ben Jelloun's prolific literary talent but also to highlight the literary genre which is dearest to the writer's heart. “A la poésie il nous faut toujours revenir,” he remarks in the introduction to the volume, a statement that sets the pace for his literary journey across three decades of constant...
(The entire section is 568 words.)
SOURCE: Fleurant, Kenneth. Review of Le Premier amour est toujours le dernier, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. French Review 69, no. 6 (May 1996): 1054-55.
[In the following review, Fleurant praises Ben Jelloun's focus on complex gender relations in Le Premier amour est toujours le dernier, noting that Ben Jelloun is “a master of short fiction.”]
Although best known for his novels and poetry, Ben Jelloun is a master of short fiction. At first glance, Le Premier amour est toujours le dernier looks like an anthology. It is comprised of twenty-one short stories, twelve of which have been previously published since 1973. However, the obvious care the author and his editors have taken in organizing the stories around a unifying theme gives this text a feeling of wholeness and continuity. These are stories about love, and, taken together, they reveal the complexity of affective relations which frequently end in solitude and incomprehension.
Ben Jelloun has frequently taken a critical view of the relationships between men and women in the Arab world, and in these stories he continues to lament the disharmony between the sexes. Women, like “Les filles de Tétouan” are dispossessed of their beings: “Leur être féminin se perd dans l'image que l'homme a bien voulu fabriquer pour elles” (95). Men either turn violent or withdraw into themselves, and both men and women resort...
(The entire section is 616 words.)
SOURCE: Sellin, Eric. Review of La Nuit de l'erreur, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. World Literature Today 72, no. 4 (autumn 1998): 884.
[In the following review, Sellin compliments Ben Jelloun's lyrical prose but argues that La Nuit de l'erreur is too derivative and dependent on the formulaic narrative structure established in the author's earlier works.]
Upon completing my reading of La Nuit de l'erreur, I was reminded of a comment Jean Cocteau once made concerning the work of art, to the effect that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish a building being erected from one being demolished, if one passes quickly and does not look carefully. The reader unfamiliar with Tahar Ben Jelloun's earlier works may be stunned by the virtuosity and poetic style displayed in La Nuit de l'erreur and be swept along by the sheer narrative energy of the text; and even someone familiar with such Ben Jelloun masterpieces as La Prière de l'absent (1981), L'Écrivain public (1983), L'Enfant de sable (1985), and La Nuit sacrée (1987) might well, like Cocteau's casual passerby, mistake as vintage Ben Jelloun a text which—even as it does demonstrate the sometimes glib stylistic genius for which the Moroccan novelist is famous—actually fails to constitute a novel (or “house”), settling rather for a construction of short narratives (beams, girders, armatures in an...
(The entire section is 554 words.)
SOURCE: Ben Jelloun, Tahar, and Shusha Guppy. “Tahar Ben Jelloun: The Art of Fiction CLIX.” Paris Review 41, no. 152 (fall 1999): 40-62.
[In the following interview, Ben Jelloun discusses how writing in French has affected his work, how his career began and progressed, and the role of Morocco in his prose.]
Tahar Ben Jelloun is one of France's most celebrated writers: his most recent book, Racism Explained to My Daughter (Le Racisme expliqué à ma fille) was a best-seller; and in 1987 he was awarded the Prix Goncourt for his novel The Sacred Night (La Nuit sacrée), which was the first book by an Arab writer to be so honored. For the past two years he has been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Ben Jelloun was born in Fez, Morocco. The family—there were four children, three boys and a girl—lived in a small apartment in the medina, the old medieval section of Morocco's most beautiful city. His father, a modest shopkeeper, sold spices from a tiny shop in the souk (bazaar) and later worked as a tailor, making djellabas (the long, loose robes worn by Arab men).
At the age of five, Ben Jelloun was enrolled in a Koranic school, where he learned to memorize and recite verses from the Koran. Two years later, he entered a Franco-Arab school, studying French in the morning (it was his first contact with the language) and...
(The entire section is 5798 words.)
SOURCE: Sellin, Eric. Review of Labyrinthe des sentiments, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. World Literature Today 74, no. 3 (summer 2000): 571.
[In the following review, Sellin describes Labyrinthe des sentiments as a “haunting and unusual book,” asserting that the novel's focus on one main narrative distinguishes it from Ben Jelloun's previous works.]
What is at first perusal a modest text consisting of an amalgam of Tahar Ben Jelloun's usual textual tricks (a highly charged lyrical style; interface between fiction and journalism; dreams, poems, letters, and bits of colloquial Arabic framed by the larger narrative; autobiographical winks at the reader in search of authorial intervention), Labyrinthe des sentiments turns out to be a haunting and unusual book. It is unusual because, unlike most of Ben Jelloun's other works, it has one main narrative with the semblance of a beginning, a middle, and an end—this in contrast to his customary modus operandi of stringing his various subnarratives in a fictional rosary possessing no particular apparent coherent form.
The plot that constitutes the fil conducteur of Labyrinthe des sentiments is simple enough. A Moroccan writer named Gharib (fictitious but sharing various points of reference with Ben Jelloun, such as authorship of a long poem about the Gulf War) who is living in Naples meets a beautiful Moroccan...
(The entire section is 626 words.)
SOURCE: Brett, Michael. Review of French Hospitality: Racism and North African Immigrants, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5079 (4 August 2000): 30.
[In the following review, Brett discusses Ben Jelloun's indictment of French prejudice against North African immigrants in French Hospitality: Racism and North African Immigrants.]
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Europeans settled in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. But over the past hundred years, the flow has reversed: North African immigrants have settled in France, to the point at which, by 1990, they numbered over one and a half million, roughly the size of the European population of French North Africa before its massive exodus in the wake of the struggle for Independence in 1955-62. As their children, born in the country, become French on attaining their majority, North Africans would appear to have evened the score; except that where Europeans in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were largely privileged (though not perhaps in the slums of Algiers, where Albert Camus was brought up), North Africans in France are marginalized and victimized. The National Front has built its appeal on anti-immigration, with North Africans particularly in mind. Hence the title of Tahar Ben Jelloun's indictment of their treatment, French Hospitality.
Ben Jelloun, one of a minority of such immigrants who have...
(The entire section is 406 words.)
SOURCE: Mahjoub, Jamal. “Lightening the Darkness.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5133 (17 August 2001): 20.
[In the following review, Mahjoub examines the controversy surrounding the publication of Cette aveuglante absence de lumière.]
In July 1971, a group of army officers attacked the palace at Skhirat on the Atlantic coast of Morocco in an attempt to usurp King Hassan II. After the failed coup d'état, the leaders, all high-ranking personnel, were executed and the soldiers and junior officers imprisoned. Fifty-eight of them were blindfolded and taken secretly to Tazmamart in the Moroccan desert. More than half of them died there. Conditions in the prison were unbelievably brutal. The inmates were locked in tiny cells, three metres by one and a half and so low that it was impossible to stand upright. There was a hole in the floor and air vents in the cement walls and that was it—they lived, as the title of Tahar Ben Jelloun's novel Cette aveuglante absence de lumière (This Blinding Lack of Light) suggests, in almost complete darkness.
The fact that the novel is based on a true story undoubtedly adds to its poignancy and impact; it is harrowing to read, but it is also moving and gripping while remaining detached. Writing in a spare, unhurried style, Ben Jelloun has abandoned many of the lyrical attributes of early novels such as L'Enfant de sable...
(The entire section is 1193 words.)
SOURCE: Review of This Blinding Absence of Light, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 9 (4 March 2002): 65-6.
[In the following review, the critic argues that Jelloun offers an overly simplistic rendition of Islamic history in This Blinding Absence of Light.]
Based on an incident involving starvation and torture in Morocco, Prix Goncourt-winner Jelloun's latest novel [This Blinding Absence of Light] is a disturbing, grisly account of how a prisoner survived a 20-year internment in which he was locked away in a desert tomb. The narrator, Salim, was captured during an unsuccessful 1971 attempt to overthrow Prince Hassan II, who then secretly sent his enemies off to an isolated, makeshift prison. The conditions approached the horror of a concentration camp; the prisoners were confined in dark, cramped chambers, fed a subsistence-level diet and given no medical attention. They were allowed to communicate, however, which helped them cope with such ghastly tortures as having scorpions thrown into their cells. In one particularly hellish incident, a prisoner who breaks his arm is devoured by gangrene and cockroaches. Jelloun writes eloquently and poignantly about the prisoners' various coping tactics, from Salim's recitation of half-remembered stories from The Arabian Nights and scripts from American films to a memorable section in which a dove lands in one of the cells and is...
(The entire section is 255 words.)
SOURCE: Sardar, Ziauddin. “The Agony of a 21st-Century Muslim.” New Statesman 132, no. 4625 (17 February 2003): 50-2.
[In the following review, Sardar compares Islam Explained to Barnaby Rogerson's The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography and Asma Barlas's “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Koran, discussing how each work portrays modern Islamic culture.]
It is not easy to be a Muslim. Believers like me live on the edge, constantly having to justify our very existence. As the French Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun discovered, the situation became infinitely worse after the events of 11 September 2001. Having watched the spectacle unfold on television, his daughter declared that she did not want to be a Muslim: “Muslims are bad; they killed a lot of people.” The loving father explained that the attacks on America were the work of “fanatics” and “crazy people”. They did not represent Islam.
But what is Islam, the children ask. So Ben Jelloun here sets out to explain Islam to his children [in Islam Explained]. “Once upon a time, very, very long ago,” he begins, “a little boy was born in Mecca.” He traces the life of the Prophet Muhammad, describing the tenets of Islam in a simple, graceful style. Adults often assume that children are incapable of grasping the complexity of life, an assumption that...
(The entire section is 2304 words.)
Lowe, Lisa. “Literary Nomadics in Francophone Allegories of Postcolonialism: Pham Van Ky and Tahar Ben Jelloun.” Yale French Studies, no. 82 (May 1993): 43-61.
Lowe examines how the shifting identities of the protagonists in L'Enfant de sable and Pham Van Ky's Des Femmes Assise ca et La represent a form of “literary nomadism.”
Rhodes, Fred. Review of Islam Explained, by Tahar Ben Jelloun. Middle East (April 2003): 65.
Rhodes offers a brief positive assessment of Islam Explained, arguing that the work is “at once an essential primer on one of the world's great religions, and a cry for tolerance and understanding in deeply troubled times.”
Walters, Colin. “Eighteen Years Underground in Morocco.” Washington Times (5 May 2002): B6.
Walters praises Ben Jelloun's vivid prose in This Blinding Absence of Light and notes that Ben Jelloun's “fiction tugs at the soul as the best writing will.”
Additional coverage of Ben Jelloun's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 135, 162; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 100; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Reference...
(The entire section is 193 words.)