Together with Naguib Mahfouz Tahar Ben Jelloun is probably the most translated Arab writer, the most read and studied in the world.To the numerous studies and university theses, critical essays, meditative coverage, has just been added the inclusion of his novel L’Enfant de sable [The Sand Child] in the school curriculum in France, along with the creation on the Internet of a site on his life and works. Tahar Ben Jelloun replies too to questions from children on the site “Forum of the children’s press agency”. This renown is the fruit of both a desire and a rigorous discipline.

Like many writers, Tahar Ben Jelloun is an early riser. He leaves his home early to get to his office in St Germain des Prés, the publishing and cultural quarter of Paris. This mistress of time, necessary discipline, Tahar Ben Jelloun has forged in the experience of loneliness and exile; it is a paradigm that will never cease to accompany his progress or his writing. Born in Fez in 1944 into a traditional family, Tahar Ben Jelloun and his family left Fez in 1955 for Tangiers, at the time a town that was open and steeped in cosmopolitanism.

Later, he studied in Casablanca. At that time – it was the sixties – French was the language of the elite and hence of success. Casablanca, crucible of the burgeoning modernity, offered a springboard for the dream of success. Post-colonial fever dominated, with the debate of ideas principally concerning liberation, nation-building, democracy, revolution, etc. Along with other students, Tahar Ben Jelloun took part in political activities, which is also one of the “royal” paths to creativity. His companions at the time were Abraham Serfaty, Abdellatif Laâbi, Mostafa Nissabouri, founders and creators of the magazine Souffles, spearhead of the Moroccan Marxist-Leninist movement and a true cultural forum. However, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s participation was transitory. He left Morocco for France, after writing some articles and poems for Moroccan newspapers.
In Paris, he carried on the same work of writer-journalist, while undertaking research into the question of immigration, which he felt should be recognised as one of the principal factors in Franco-Arab culture.nto the question of immigration, which he felt should be recognised as one of the principal factors in Franco-Arab culture.

The publication of Harrouda in 1973 was saluted in France and Morocco as a major literary event. The novel radiated like a meteor within the Francophone literature of Morocco through the boldness of the theme addressed, prostitution, as much as through the poetic writing which sustained it. The book’s dust-jacket carried as well the mention of novel-poem. “But who dares? Who dares talk to this woman?” Harrouda only appeared in the day. At night she disappeared somewhere into a cave. Far from the fown, far from our snares. She restored her pact with the ogre and gave herself to him. “Everything is his”, one reads in Harrouda. We are at the heart of an unreason and a decadence shown by the mad women and prostitutes in order to denounce despotism and the baseness of men’s power. Moha le fou, Moha le sage, will carry on the theme of madness from another angle. Free, the hero flashes through the town, transported by the magic of his words. A prophet, he puts his finger on the bounds of officials of institutions: the banker (symbol of money), the psychiatrist (symbol of sanity). Tahar Ben Jelloun structures his text in the form of a story into which are fitted voices and times, people and places. The texts which follow, La Prière de l‘absent, L’Ecrivain public or L’Enfant de sable, transform popular stories into material for novels.
The writing of Tahar Ben Jelloun tends to be the expression of an orality more and more threatened by the image. It is the women who ensure its protection, indeed its durability. Woman is also central to the work of Tahar Ben Jelloun: mother, slave, prostitute, old hag, she refuses in turn the horror and the tenderness. Even in the novels whose action takes place in Italy, for example, like L’Auberge des pauvres or Labyrinthe des sentiments, woman is omnipresent. Tahar Ben Jelloun, polyphonic writer and multiple man (novelist, poet, journalist, essayist), succeeds in the language of the Other in mobilising his pen in defence of the dispossessed, notably the Palestinians, immigrants, and so on.

This singular talent has been remarked upon by Jean Genet who wrote: “. . . the language that Tahar Ben Jelloun uses is so beautiful, so rich; it is one of the most beautiful French languages which exist. That merits attention.”

Written by Maati Kabbal for the feature on Tahar Ben Jelloun and his work in Banipal No 8, Summer 2000 and translated from the French by Margaret Obank

Tahar Ben Jelloun's Leaving Tangier was published in English in April 2009, and Banipal 35 features an interview with him by Georgia de Chamberet, who also interpreted for him at the launch of Leaving Tangier at the Institut Français in London where Tahar Ben Jelloun was in conversation with Boyd Tonkin, Literary Editor of The Independent.  To listen to the talk at the Institut Français, click here


Contributor's Issues

Banipal 35 - Writing in Dutch (2009)

Banipal 33 - Autumn/Winter 2008