Margaret Obank reviews

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s

The Sand Child, The Sacred Night & The Wrong Night

’Enfant de sable (The Sand Child) is the first novel of what is now a renowned trilogy. When published in 1985, Tahar Ben Jelloun never expected to be following it up in 1987 with its sequel, La Nuit SacrÈe (The Sacred Night), which the same year won him the prestigious French literary prize, the Goncourt, the first time awarded to an Arab author. In 1997 the final volume La Nuit de l’erreur (The Wrong Night) was published (due out soon in an English edition). All three centre on the treatment of women in Moroccan society.In France, L’Enfant de sable, the story of Ahmed/Zahra, the girl brought up as a boy, was an immediate best-seller (150,000 copies), and is to become part of France’s school curriculum. At the end of the novel, several storytellers each tell a different tale to explain Ahmed/ Zahra’s disappearance, and Tahar Ben Jelloun was innundated with letters from readers asking what really happened to her. The sequel came about, he said in an interview last year, not because the readers suggested it but because “if there hadn’t been a story to continue, the readers would not have suggested it”.

Tahar Ben Jelloun has always been concerned about the condition of women in North Africa, and the themes in his novels generally concern Maghrebi society – “the relationship between men and women in a Muslim society”, the state and the law, the individual and the collective”. In particular, in writing The Sand Child, he was fulfilling a need to look at the condition of women in a completely different way to the 1980s feminist literature that he felt was “rhetorical, strident and unimaginative”. By making the main character a child whose life was forcibly turned against its natural course as a female, he was able to open up in the novel many of the seemingly intractable problems facing women in that society, as well as the clearly apparent one of inheritance.

For Tahar Ben Jelloun being a storyteller is both a profession and a passion that allows him to say more than just facts and events. Storytelling, he has noted, is the most basic literary principle of all time, of the Thousand and One Nights – Tell me a Story or I will kill you! A society without storytellers, without novelists, he says, is a society that has died. A writer is a witness of his time, Ben Jelloun believes, and he is concerned to “deliver some little messages that are neither political nor ideological but which will . . . allow a little more complex vision of what we are now”.

In both The Sand Child and The Sacred Night, Ben Jelloun combines the rich Arab storytelling tradition with the most modern issues of our times, the question of justice and treating people with humanity and equality. By depicting his female characters in black depths of oppression and sordid ugliness and throwing them abruptly into a framework of storytellers’ myths and legends he moves his readers to many emotions, to dreams and to reflections on stark, thought-provoking truths.

Ahmed/Zahra is born to a father who already has seven daughters and has decided that the eighth-born shall be a boy, come what may. The father regards his daughters as a curse, it is as if they do not exist, and of course for matters of inheritance they do not. When the eighth girl is born, the father announces to both wife and midwife that “it’s a boy! . . . After fifteeen years of marriage you have at last given me a child, a boy. My first child. Look how handsome he is, touch his little testicles, his penis; he’s a man!” Of course it is all lies, but the girl is forced to grow up as Ahmed. There is no way to fight her tyrant father, so she submits to the ugly, disgusting reality of her mother’s worries about her breasts “which she bandaged with white linen, pulling the bands of cloth so tight, I could hardly breathe. It was absolutely vital that no breasts should appear.”

Different storytellers offer their views on Ahmed’s life, one saying that being an intelligent child, Ahmed will understand “that this society of ours prefers men to women”. Another considers Ahmed will in due course actually become a man, while a third says he will go mad. The last insists on turning the pages of what he says is Ahmed’s notebook or diary to tell a truth “that cannot be told . . .“.

Submission is not the solution, and so Ahmed confounds his father by marrying a epileptic, crippled cousin and becoming a petty tyrant like him. But what always preys on Ahmed is his relationship with his father. The “decisive ordeal” that is the turning point in his life is his father’s death. It makes him a semi-crazed recluse who continues to reign over his obedient sisters and sick mother, while seeing his sexual state of being as a challenge that must be resolved.

The novel works on several intertwining levels and cannot be read as a straight narrative. The storytellers have their own ways of storytelling, and include some gorgeously surrealist descriptions of what happens to words on the pages of Ahmed’s diary. Says one: “I see a moth escape from the handwritten words. It carries off with it a few useless images.” The storytellers control the narrative, and Zahra’s story appears to come to an abrupt end when the chief storyteller disappears and apparently dies, taking with him the all-important diary/notebook. But as her story belongs to the troupe of storytellers, this allows Ben Jelloun to invite other troubadours, even from South America, to tell their versions of what happens next. He is keen to bring into his written stories the atmosphere of those oral Arab storytelling gatherings, to borrow some of their techniques of narration, and also, as Borges does, slip one tale into another. Indeed, Borges makes an appearance in The Sand Child as the blind troubadour, with the final paragraph from his The Circular Ruins appearing in the penultimate chapter.

Ahmed decides he has to “return to himself”, but to re-educate his emotions his body has to “face adventure, on the roads, in other towns, in other places”. Zahra encounters more horrors, and joins a circus as a sex-changing freak, becoming the main attraction, then disappearing. Here the storytellers take over as they refuse to accept that Zahra can just vanish. One has a particularly gruesome tale of the vicious rape and sodomy of Zahra at the hands of the circus boss which results in both their bloody deaths, while another, rejecting that as perverted, states that he found Ahmed’s diary and recounts how Zahra returned to the family house, and died there a recluse. The third, a woman, invites the others to her room and tells how she has taken on the soul of Zahra.

But none of these is satisfactory, and when they meet again, they are joined by an old blind troubadour who begins a new and intricate tale of Ahmed/Zahra. For some readers and critics who expect a more linear narrative, these divergent endings to The Sand Child can seem to be endless digressions. They will be further confounded by the appearance of the final storyteller, “entirely enveloped in his worn, dirty burnous”, who tells a story within a story, and who may in fact be the first storyteller returned.

The Sacred Night continues Zahra’s story, urging readers to cast away the stories recounted previously and listen to the facts. And who was watching the last storyteller from a distance but Zahra herself, who now recounts her own story. Her tormented life, her father asking for her forgiveness on his deathbed and telling her to be a woman, are woven into a mythical framework, which begins with Zahra riding off on the sacred night, the 27th night of Ramadan, the Night of Destiny, to her adventures as a woman. She continually relives the ordeals of her early life, remembering that her mother, who never ever spoke, one day asked, with a desperate and ominous strength:
“That I be granted just a month or two of life after your father’s death! How I would love to be able to breathe for a few days or weeks in his absence. That is my sole desire, my only wish. Were I to die before him, I would go doubly battered, horribly laid waste, humiliated . . . But may I be granted some time, however short, to utter just one scream from the depths of my soul, a scream that has lurked deep in my breast for so long, since before you were born. That scream is waiting, eating at me, ravaging me, and I want to live so that I do not die with it still inside me.”

Sexual encounters, physical ugliness, with occasional sweet friendship and gentle touches from the blind Consul, are what Zahra has to deal with on her pilgrimage through imprisonment and madness as she tries to regain her femaleness. The words of the blind Consul who visits her in hospital, are appropriate here:

“Your story is terrifying . . . Your story is a series of doors opening onto white spaces and spinning labyrinths. Sometimes you come upon a meadow, sometimes a ruined old house closed in on its occupants, all long dead . . . Yet I see you, now a man, now a woman, superb creature of childhood, eluding love and friendship. You are out of reach, a being of darkness, shadow of the night of my sufferings.”

In the final volume of the trilogy, La Nuit de l’erreur (The Wrong Night), the readers will hear the scream that has to come out after all that humiliation. Ben Jelloun explores the violence of revenge that is there deep inside, waiting to explode from within a woman who has been oppressed too much. He goes to another level, to say that woman too can be unjust towards man, and then arrive at a mutual relation, neither harmonious nor tender, but which could be summed up as an intercourse of power. But again, the woman in The Wrong Night is unreal, existing within the essential framework of legend, seemingly the best climate for airing brutal and uncomfortable truths.

I await with keen anticipation the English edition of this last part of the trilogy. Hopefully it will have been translated by Alan Sheridan, the brilliant translator of the first two volumes (and translator of many other French authors such as AndrÈ Gide, Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan).

From Banipal 8 - Summer 2000

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