Home Culture Tahar Ben Jelloun: A Writer Who ‘Witnesses his Time’

Tahar Ben Jelloun: A Writer Who ‘Witnesses his Time’

Tahar Ben Jelloun: A Writer Who ‘Witnesses his Time’

Rabat – As a whole, the work of Tahar Ben Jelloun sparks intense debates, as it pours into the tale, the legend, the Maghreb rites, and ancestral myths.

However, its originality lies in its art of grasping all aspects of the North African traditions and cultures in a very singular symbiosis.

Ben Jelloun is the most famous Moroccan writer both in the Maghreb and worldwide. He is very well known since the 1987 Goncourt Award.  His audacious writings have sparked debates. His works are taught in universities throughout the world and remain in many respects a reference of Francophone literature.

As a whole, the work of Tahar Ben Jelloun pours into the tale, the legend, the Maghreb rites, ancestral myths … However, its originality lies in its art of grasping all aspects of the North African traditions and cultures in a very singular symbiosis.

It is a great honor for me personally and for the international festival of Amazigh culture to give him a vibrant tribute at its 14th edition. In fact, the whole city of Fez has paid him a tribute. I thank him very much for giving me the opportunity to speak with him and for answering these questions:

You are one of the greatest writers in the world. What is the secret of your success? What is the role that immigration plays in your writings?

You exaggerate! I am a writer who witnesses his time; I am concerned with the problems of my society. I subscribe entirely to the novelist Balzac’s definition in “Small miseries of conjugal life”: “One must search all social life to become a true novelist, since the novel is the private history of nations.” There is no other secret except that of work, rigor and obligation. Writing is a difficult task. It is not enough to want to write to be successful. You have to read a lot of great books, classics to learn how to write.

Immigration was a discovery for me when I arrived in France in 1971. I had not know anything about it. My father, who sold jellabas and serouals in a small shop in Tangier, was eagerly awaiting the return of the immigrants who were used to stop by at Tangiers to buy traditional clothes before continuing on their way to Agadir or Tafraout. He told me they were Moroccans who had been forced to go to work in France. But this theme will be a significant part of my literary and sociological work.

 Could you have succeeded had you stayed in Morocco? What is the impact of your success on Morocco and Moroccans?

I do not know what I would have become if I had stayed in Morocco. Circumstances had made me leave in order to finish my thesis in France. It was the beginning of the years of lead, the military coup of July 1971, the repression of intellectuals … In my latest book, “The Punishment”, I tell how the great history of my country affected my personal story. It was the same officers who mistreated us in the camp of El Hajeb and the school of Ahermemou who made the coup against King Hassan II. France was a chance for me to escape this arbitrariness and repression.

I stayed in touch with my country all the time. Even in the dark hours when I risked having problems with the political police, I always came home to spend some time with my parents. I made concessions not to become a political exile, because I could not bear not to see my parents.

-You have a very exceptional career; now in retrospect what are the main stations that have marked your intellectual biography?

The main stations in my itinerary are simple: discovery of the loneliness and emotional misery of North African immigrants in France; meeting with Jean Genet, who was fighting for the Palestinian cause; meeting with Pierre Viansson Ponté, editor-in-chief of the French newspaper Le Monde; meeting with Edmonde Charles-Roux, who introduced me to François Mitterrand and who did his best to get me the Goncourt prize; meeting with Mahmoud Darwish and the poetry of the Arab world; commitment in the fight against racism, etc.

You live between Morocco and France and you know the problems of long marginalized cultures, what place would you reserve for Amazigh culture in the multicultural and multi-linguistic panorama of Morocco today? At what point in your life would you have become aware of the Amazigh as part of the Moroccan identity, you who were born in Fez and come from a rather urban and Arabic background?

I have always been sensitive to the Amazigh world. I embraced it better by falling in love with my future wife, born in Mzouda in the heart of Amazigh territory. My children are half Arab and half Amazigh. By writing “Eyes down”, which tells the story of a little shepherdess who joined her immigrant parents in France, I paid tribute to this essential component of Moroccan identity. I have never felt an antagonism between the two languages, the two cultures and the two worlds, yet they are so different. I quickly surpassed prejudices and totally invested in the struggle for the recognition of Amazigh and its cultural and civilizational wealth.

You have written an impressive number of novels, among these works what would be the novel that most reflects your ideological leanings regarding democracy in North Africa?

I wrote two novels totally inspired by the Moroccan reality: “Moha the fool, Moha the wise” on torture and the harsh inequalities in our society; then “The Broken Man”, which deals with the plague of corruption, which unfortunately still exists. Both books are an illustration of the need for democracy in our country. The whole of my poetry also deals with this need. For me, democracy begins at home, with education, learning of and respect for fundamental values. Then it goes on at school and finally on the street. Democracy is not a technique, voting is not enough to be democratic. It is also necessary to assimilate the culture of values, which leads to a system of freedom and responsibility.

To be a novelist is to be an artist of ideas, what is the place of art in your life and your writings?

Art is the essential superfluous element. We can say that art is useless, but we cannot conceive of a society without artistic production. It is in France that I discovered the importance of art; when I saw people in a line of several hundred meters, waiting to enter a museum for hours even in the rain, I understood the importance of art. I learned to look at a painting, to listen to a concert of classical music; I learned to appreciate theater … Then, I made a long trip to see an exhibition of Giacometti or Matisse. It is a pleasure to be in front of magnificent works.

Morocco, especially Fez, is a major substratum of the imagination that feeds so well your novels, your essays, your art and your poetry. What about this substratum in the current times of social tensions in France and elsewhere, especially towards Muslims. Writing, and especially art, is often said to escape the ideological radars, what could, in your opinion, writing “do” to appease a mad world that is drifting?

Literature has its limits. The great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard said: “No writer has ever changed society. All writers have failed. There have only been writers who have failed. We have never seen a book change the decisions of politicians. On the other hand, several books, several works of art help to improve the consciousness of some people.

There are people who consider cultural diversity in Morocco a source of ethnic rivalry between regions and between citizens. What do you think? What is the best way to protect and develop this diversity?

Cultural diversity in Morocco is a chance, a wealth, and a strength. The mixture is a beautiful adventure. Beware of “purity”! The Nazis were very keen on making the purity of the race. We know how that ended up later. So, long live diversity, differences, encounters, ideas that collide!

Some researchers see Moroccan festivals as a distortion of cultural diversity and describe them as a “cultural aberration” and a waste of funds. To what extent is the idea correct or false?

The festivals are useful; we will not condemn them until Morocco has a real cultural policy in the long term and on the merits. The budget of the Ministry of Culture is so thin that it makes us feel ashamed. So we will not condemn festivals that allow hundreds of thousands of young Moroccans to consume culture.

What is the future of democracy in North Africa, according to you?

The future of democracy in the Maghreb? Let’s start by being modest and say that democracy is a slow and complex process that is just beginning to emerge. Democracy is education, the possibility of having a fair and efficient health system. At the limit, we could do without both Chambers of Parliament if we were seriously concerned about the education of our children whether in town or in the countryside. But the parliament is there to welcome one day democracy that is on the way, but it may take a long time before actually settling. As long as we do not respect each other in everyday life, as long as some resort to corruption to get what the law gives them in principle, as long as we do not believe in the emergence of the individual, we are not in a democracy. At the moment I only see Tunisia making progress: their constitution is the best of all the Maghreb; it is progressive because it recognizes freedom of conscience.

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