Tahar Ben Jelloun Criticism - Essay

Jean-Louise Thatcher (review date summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robin Buss (review date 27 January-2 February 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Adam Zameenzad (review date 19 November 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mustapha Marrouchi (essay date winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)


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Robin Buss (review date 15 June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 arriving at the totals to which they add up.

In any case, the sum total is the one that matters, and it is impressive. Gender, sexuality, the cultures they impose, and the restrictions imposed on them by cultures, are a form of imprisonment; yet so, too, is the attempt to evade them: “My body had stopped developing. … It was neither a woman's body full and eager, nor a man's serene and strong. I was now somewhere between the two; in other words, in hell.” The legacy of the father is both intolerable and inescapable. In the end, it is only through the touch of a blind man, who can know and recognize and love without seeing, that she achieves happiness and salvation. It is a moving resolution to a story that is ultimately neither that simple, nor that strange.

Mildred Mortimer (review date winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Odile Cazenave (essay date February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Eder (review date 11 April 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Tahar Ben Jelloun and Thomas Spear (interview date 25 May 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Aamer Hussein (review date 21 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Eric Sellin (review date autumn 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Danielle Chavy Cooper (review date spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John D. Erickson (essay date spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Marie Fayad (essay date December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Danielle Chavy Cooper (review date autumn 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brinda Mehta (essay date October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Campbell (review date 16 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nada Elia (review date autumn 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Eder (review date 19 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Allen Hibbard (review date spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ramzi M. Salti (review date spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kenneth Fleurant (review date May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Eric Sellin (review date autumn 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tahar Ben Jelloun and Shusha Guppy (interview date fall 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Eric Sellin (review date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Brett (review date 4 August 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jamal Mahjoub (review date 17 August 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 4 March 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ziauddin Sardar (review date 17 February 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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