13 - 19 May 1999
Issue No. 429
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Two Moroccan writers set out from Fez and arrived in Paris. But they took two different paths, and speak two different languages
Le Maroc explained
L'Auberge des pauvres, (The Inn of the Poor), Tahar Ben Jelloun, Auberge des pauvres, 1999. pp294
A summer to be reckoned with
Mithl Seif lan Yatakarar: Mahkiyyat (Like a Summer Never to be Repeated: Narratives), Mohamed Berrada, Casablanca: Dar Al-Fenac, 1999. pp235
Better than more
Al-Tanwir Al-Za'if (False Enlightenment), Galal Amin, Cairo: Iqraa' series, Dar Al-Maaref, February 1999. pp151
The canary sings to himself
Dhalik Al-Janib Al-Akhar (That Other Side), Hassan Soliman, Cairo: General Organisation for Culture Palaces, Aswat Adabiya Series, May 1999. pp195
How very high society
The Egyptian Upper Class Between Revolutions: 1919-1952, Magda Baraka, St Antony's Middle East Monographs Series, Ithaca Press, 1998. pp328
A movable feast
The Cambridge History of Egypt (2 Vols.), Vol.1 , edited by Carl F. Petry, Cambridge University Press, 1998. pp645
Terms of conversion
Islam in Britain: 1558-1685, Nabil Matar, Cambridge University Press. 1998. pp297
The movement of the waters
As he approaches his eighth decade, José Sarney can look back on a varied and distinguished career. He is best known outside his native Brazil as the first president to lead the country following the overthrow of the military junta in 1985. A lawyer by training, his true vocation however is literature. Unlike those politicians who turn to writing late in life as a distraction or a recreation, Sarney has been making stories since his earliest years. With his novel, O Dono do Mar (The Master of the Sea), his fame as an artist seems set to spread beyond Latin America. A best-seller in the original Portuguese, the work has now been translated into Arabic. Injy El-Kashef spoke to the author while he was in Cairo to launch the book, which she reviews here
God is here, and the devil with him
Sayed Al-Bihar (O Dono do Mar, The Master of the Sea), José Sarney, Beirut: Dar Al-Farabi, 1999, pp323
At a glance:
Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996
Le Maroc explainedReviewed by David Tresilian
L'Auberge des pauvres (The Inn of the Poor), the Franco-Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun's ninth novel, met with immediate critical and popular success when it was published in France some weeks ago. Critical interest in his work has been growing for some years now, as his writings of the past twenty years or so have swelled to form an oeuvre that can be mined for PhD dissertations and serious academic investigation (his first novel, the controversial Harrouda, was published in 1973). This process was given a tremendous boost when he won the Prix Goncourt, the French literary world's most prestigious prize, for his novel La Nuit sacrée (Holy Night) in 1987. But beyond this acclaim from the intellectual establishment, his writings have also won substantial popular success, regularly selling in numbers otherwise reserved for authors of less obviously literary pretentions. The success of his pedagogical dialogue, Le Racisme expliqué à ma fille (Racism Explained to my Daughter), highlighted this; since its publication last year the book has spawned a host of imitations (La Republique expliquée à ma fille, Dieu expliqué à ma fille, and so on), has been translated into some 16 languages, and, if it has not yet quite made it onto the approved syllabus of that sleeping behemoth, the ducation Nationale, has at least been unofficially mobilised as a text for explication and discussion in classrooms across France. Explanation is always handy, of course, even if it is constrained within the limits of the 'Dis-moi Papa...' genre. What most distinguishes Ben Jelloun's text, characteristically, is its clarity and directness.
Tahar Ben Jelloun *
Ben Jelloun can now lay claim not only to being among the front rank of "Arab writers in the French language", but also to being, as a recent newspaper article had it, "the most famous Moroccan in France". He is thus classed in the same category, "l'écriture arabe d'expression française", as a number of authors of Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian extraction, as well as a scattering of individuals from former French colonial possessions in the Near East. Among them are writers of great distinction, such as Kateb Yacine or Assia Djebar. Ben Jelloun's civic activities have added to his fame. He is well-known to readers of Le Monde as the author of commentaries of a limpid clarity on a number of difficult issues, and is often called on as a "talking head" by radio and television. In all his many incarnations, though, what strikes one most is his readiness to debate and to listen, his lack of dogmatism and his many-sidedness.
These are all qualities to be found in abundance in L'Auberge des pauvres, a novel that basks in its author's generous and mildly ironic regard, but nevertheless sharply asserts some uncomfortable home-truths even as it sketches out an unusual literary geography. Imagine a literary space that takes in Tangiers, southern Italy and the Mediterranean coast of France, while extending also to Senegal and the new immigrant communities of New York or Canada. Plotting the histories of Ben Jelloun's characters within and across it has something of the fascination of those airline route-maps that show a world carved up, not by national boundaries, but by daily flights. Somewhere beneath and below these are the memories of other, older spatial possibilities. Today's Mediterranean, scarred by an 'iron curtain' quite as forbidding as that which used to separate Eastern from Western Europe, now obliges the traveller to move from southern poverty to northern affluence with the help of the usual apparatus of official invitations, permits, visas, the granting of funds, cramped spaces in the hold of boats, false compartments in goods lorries, and even makeshift rafts which regularly set out for Spain with something of the desperation registered in Géricault's great painting The Raft of the Medusa, which now hangs in the Louvre.
It is against this frozen state of affairs that Ben Jelloun's protagonist -- a university teacher of comparative literature, an unhappy husband and minor writer, named Bidoun ('without', of course) -- dreams of writing 'a minor Moroccan Ulysses' in homage to James Joyce and in memory -- or anticipation -- of a Mediterranean world organised within quite different horizons.
Joyce, in Ulysses, superimposed the banal details of Dublin life on the Homeric narrative of The Odyssey. In so doing, he raised his protagonist Leopold Bloom, small-time advertising salesman, cuckold, and devotee of arcane pornographic texts, to heroic status, while also setting Ireland against perspectives unimagined by the various narrow fundamentalisms (national, religious) then fighting over the country's future. For his part, Larbi Benya ('Bidoun') in Ben Jelloun's novel dreams of writing a similar act of imaginative reconstruction in defiance of the closed horizons of his life in Morocco, the country's obsession with ordered perspectives, and the fixed geopolitical boundaries that cut it off from a broader Mediterranean inheritance and set false limits to conceptions of self and national identity.
In his various works of autobiography, such as L'Ecrivain public (The Public Writer, 1983), or the charming and very characteristic Eloge de l'amitié (In Praise of Friendship, 1996), Ben Jelloun has described the circumstances under which he first read Joyce, Benya's "homologue irlandais" (Irish counterpart), and in doing so has shed much light on his own aims as a writer. It was, he says, during his incarceration following the student protests across Morocco in 1965, in which he and his friends were involved. This "cadeau de nos vingt ans" (twentieth birthday present) caused him to reflect on his vocation: "I tried to bear witness to what I saw, heard, and felt during those March days when we in Rabat followed the feverish state that reigned in Casablanca. Perhaps if I had never lived through those days of terror and anguish that revealed to me the banal, brutal face of order and injustice, perhaps I would never have become a writer. For everything swiftly returned to normal. The dead were buried in regular anonymity and silence. What was left was the words. Words which scrape at the page, words which have the power to tear away the mask that conceals a landscape, to be the scratches on a mirror that is pocked with holes, empty spaces, blemishes. I have always had present before me this image of a defective, useless mirror, through which these words emerge."
Sometimes it is necessary to "distort" reality in order to represent its true character. Sometimes attention needs to be paid to the silent, the hidden or the marginal, in order to show what more orderly approaches neglect or suppress. Sometimes entire geopolitical perspectives need to be changed, until they become unrecognisable.
Most of all, though, in this latest work, one is struck by the wry intelligence with which Ben Jelloun, in demonstrating his particular style of writing, obliquely defends it from attack. Unlike Penelope, or Molly Bloom, both of whom await their errant husbands, Larbi Benya's wife Fattouma is not at home when he returns. Instead, Benya is subjected to a "pretty hateful personal commentary" aimed at "those Westernised intellectuals who don't even know their mother tongue and take refuge in an infidel Europe".
In the final pages of the novel, Benya gives us an inventory of his room in Marrakech which echoes the account made by Bloom of his Dublin room in Ulysses. On an old table there is "most of the novel you've just read"; somewhere in a pile on the floor is "Ulysses, the novel by James Joyce, complete text in the Livre de Poche series, no. 1435-1436-1437, seven-hundred-and-three well-thumbed pages." Setting the two works together in this way, though it offends against certain narrowly conceived ideas of self and other, is entirely consistent with the exploratory forays which this subtle novel encourages.
* Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in Fez in 1944, and, after a period spent teaching in Moroccan lycées, came to France in 1971 where he wrote a thesis on 'The Sexual Misery of North-African Workers in France'. In Morocco, he had been involved both in the student-protest movement, for which he was incarcerated for a time, and in the production of the review Souffles, edited by Abdellatif Laarbi, which then represented the literary avant-garde.
In France during the 1970s, he began to write for Le Monde, to publish fictions, and developed a distinctive literary voice, which, in its frank description of female sexuality, masculine domination and suffocating bourgeois morality, swiftly courted controversy. He became involved with the Palestinian movement and the struggle against racism, and developed a friendship with Jean Genet.
More recently he has been involved in the struggle of illegal immigrants in France (the so-called 'sans papiers'), the continuing problem of racism and that of European-Arab relations. His recent visit to Israel provoked some controversy among fellow Arab intellectuals, though, as he told the magazine Jeune Afrique, "I discussed the issue with Mahmoud Darwish, who lives in Ramallah, and he told me that I should go and see what was happening there.... I've seen what's happening in Israel, and now I would really like to return to see what's happening on the other side in the territories under Palestinian control". He is now standing for the European Parliament on an Italian list.