Tahar Ben Jelloun Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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).

Critical Reception

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.”