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Arabian Nights Illuminated by a 'Frustrated European'
The Irish Times
June 19, 2004
Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, tells Eileen Battersby about his literary origins
Stories can and do sustain us. Minutes after it has been announced that This Blinding Absence of Light has won this year's International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, its author, the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun, recalls how he had listened to a survivor's account.
"I listened and then it became a book, a novel. It is telling a true story, yes, but there is also a lot of invention. It is life and it is story, a fiction. A true story, yet" - he smiles and gestures - "not all of it is true. The prison was not destroyed, it is still there."
Sitting on one of the blue chairs arranged in rows across the floor of City Hall, Ben Jelloun, an engaging, affable individual with a quick laugh and abundant irony, does not so much hold court at enter into what develops into an entertaining four-way conversation. Catherine Chevillot McSherry, a French translator based in Ireland, and Gregory Zebouni, of IMPAC, a Lebanese-born son of a French mother, join us. Neither of them have read the book, but between the four of us, speaking in French, English and a smattering of Arabic, a palpable sense of the mixed Arabic/European world that shaped Ben Jelloun emerges. He agrees he is between cultures, between worlds, but not really between languages.
"I decided, from the start, to write in French," he says. "I knew Arabic, but French I didn't. It was the challenge."
Having settled in Paris in 1971, not 1961 as it says on the book-jacket, he is an established literary figure in France and his novels include a dazzling short novel, Silent Day in Tangier - "it is about my father" - as well as The Sand Child and its Prix Goncourt-winning sequel, The Sacred Night.
"I wrote for Le Monde for 30 years, also La Repubblica and others," he says. "I have written criticism, commentaries, as well as novels and stories and poetry."
Early in the conversation, he praises Linda Coverdale's wonderful translation. The novel, which is so strongly based in the physical hell of a filthy prison steeped in darkness and foul air, is also surprisingly metaphysical in approach as Ben Jelloun's narrator, a young soldier involved in an abortive coup d'etat, explores his own state of mind.
The young man, the son of an uncaring father who is well-placed at court and disowns him, turns to his memories of the books he has read and movies he has seen. The story is drawn, yes, from the real-life account of Aziz, who approached Ben Jelloun and asked him to write it, but what makes this shocking book so beautiful is the artistry of the telling.
A background noise of chairs being lifted and stacked continues as we explore a text in which terror, fear and death abound. Ben Jelloun is conscious of the human rights abuse content of the book, "but I also see it as a celebration of the human spirit, and man's ability to survive horror. It shows the best of man, and also the worst in the way we treat each other. Man is good and bad".
For all the beauty of the prose, it is difficult to grasp that these horrific events took place between 1971 and 1991 in the Morocco of King Hassan 11, who stayed on the throne until his death in 1999. I knew nothing about those events prior to reading the book, and admit this to Ben Jelloun. "But I knew nothing about them either," he says, "and I am Moroccan. It was a terrible thing that no one knew anything about. It only came out through the work of Amnesty International. Hassan was a monster: he loved horses and had very many of them from all over the world, but had no regard for people."
Compact and smartly dressed in a black linen suit, Ben Jelloun has a friendly face and an easy manner and looks like a sophisticated, Westernized Arab.
"I am a frustrated European," he says.
There is that element of his being pulled by Europe and north Africa. It soon becomes easy to understand the relevance of Camus's classic, The Outsider, to This Blinding Absence of Light. Of Camus, Ben Jelloun says: "He was a French man in North Africa." But what of the world Ben Jelloun came from? We know he was born in Fez in 1944, but what else?
"My mother, she had three men," he announces, raising the expected laugh from his three listeners. Then he explains that his mother married three times.
"The first husband, he died young - they had one girl. Then her second husband was an old man - they had one boy. Then he, the old man, died. My mother's third man was married to someone else, a wife with no children. He told my mother if she got pregnant 'I'll divorce and marry you'. She had two children with him. I was the last."
He describes his background as "educated but not wealthy". His father was a merchant, dealing in cloth. Silk?
"No, cloth. This was not the Orient. At an earlier time," he laughs, "it would have been spices."
It sounds as if Ben Jelloun's childhood is not all that far removed from the world described in Amin Maalouf's Balthasar's Odyssey, which was also shortlisted for this year's prize. He laughs outright at this. "Yes, I've read that novel. He is my good friend."
The Fez of Ben Jelloun's childhood was what it remains, the oldest, most traditional Arab city in Morocco. "When I was 10 we moved to Tangier," he says. "It is completely different from Fez, and still is, only 300 kilometers but so different. It is an international, very Westernized city."
As a young boy he developed two life-long interests, "books and cinema". As a teenager he lived in a world created by French classic literature, classical Arabic poetry and the US cinema of the 1940s, "Orson Welles and so on". He assures us, with more of his mock-irony, that he and his brother were "quiet and very well-behaved". But something must have happened. While an undergraduate philosophy student at the University of Rabat in 1965, Ben Jelloun was arrested and spent 18 months in prison. This comes as a revelation, and it also explains how in This Blinding Absence of Light, he so brilliantly enters the mind of a prisoner.
"I was a student radical, it was the time of student revolt," he says. "We were taken and placed in this detention. They lied to my parents and told them I was doing military service. We didn't know what would happen to us. It was frightening. We lived in fear."
It is also ironic considering that although his novel, published in France in 2001 as Cette aveuglante absence de lumiere, was a bestseller and was well-reviewed, he was attacked for writing about an experience that was not his.
"The reaction was firstly 'shut up' and secondly 'you have no right to write about this'," he says. Yet he had been a prisoner, although he did not suffer the horrors experienced by his narrator.
"When we were in imprisoned we were allowed one visitor," Ben Jelloun recalls. "My brother, he was studying geology and is still a geologist, he came to see me. I asked him to bring me the thickest paperback he could find. I didn't know how long I would be in for. He brought me Ulysses. I read it in French."
Referring to the fact that not every Irish person has yet read Joyce's classic, he says "I am probably the only Moroccan to have read it cover to cover". He says Joyce was a literary mentor.
"I was 22, I read this book by a writer who was audacious," he says. "I thought: 'I want to be audacious.' "
Poetry came first. But how important was the oral culture of his Arab childhood? "Well," he begins, and this part of his story possesses layers and some complications. "I was writing stories, as an adult, strange things. I didn't know where they were coming from. I thought 'I am a genius', then I finally read One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and realized, 'ah, the same stories'. I realized that these were the stories my grandmother had told me when I was child."
The mother is a powerful figure in Arab cultures. Ben Jelloun speaks with love of his mother: "She could neither read nor write, yet she was a deeply cultured woman." In This Blinding Absence of Light, the narrator has a close relationship with his mother and in one of the many moving passages in the book, imagines writings a letter to her.
"I made that up" Ben Jelloun says. "I am now writing about my mother - as she told me very little, I will have to invent much of that as well. "
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