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Tahar ben Jelloun is one of France’s most celebrated writers: his most recent book, Racism Explained to My Daughter was a best-seller; and in 1987 he was awarded the Prix Goncourt for his novel The Sacred Night, which was the first book by an Arab writer to be so honored. For the past two years he has been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Ben Jelloun was born in Fez, Morocco. The family—there were four children, three boys and a girl—lived in a small apartment in the medina, the old medieval section of Morocco’s most beautiful city. His father, a modest shopkeeper, sold spices from a tiny shop in the souk and later worked as a tailor, making djellabas (the long, loose robes worn by Arab men).

At the age of five, ben Jelloun was enrolled in a Koranic school, where he learned to memorize and recite verses from the Koran. Two years later, he entered a Franco-Arab school, studying French in the morning (it was his first contact with the language) and Arabic in the afternoon. He was a studious, serious pupil: “Very early I felt the responsibility of standing on my own feet.” Later, he studied philosophy at the University of Rabat.

In 1971, at the age of twenty-six, ben Jelloun immigrated to France to complete his studies at the Sorbonne. He then worked for a time in Paris as a psychotherapist. His first novel, Harrouda, was published in 1973. Since then, he has written nine novels, as well as several collections of short stories, poetry, and essays. He is perhaps best known for his trilogy about the life of Ahmed/Zahra, a girl whose father, desperate for a male heir, raises her as a boy: The Sand Child, which was a best-seller in France; The Sacred Night; and the recently published The Wrong Night.

The interview took place at ben Jelloun’s office in St.-Germain-des-Près, a few hundred yards from his publishers, Editions du Seuil, and the Café de Flore, where he can often be seen meeting friends. A small studio on the top floor of a tall, narrow, modern building squeezed into the old blocks of the boulevard, the office is sparsely furnished with a sofa, a couple of comfortable chairs and a large desk strewn with papers, a telephone and a word processor. The height of the building insulates the room from traffic sounds on the street below, while the windows—which overlook a canopy of treetops—provide ample light and air.

Apart from the esteem in which he is held, ben Jelloun is much loved for his charm, warmth, and natural courtesy. He speaks French eloquently, with just a hint of a North African intonation.

 

INTERVIEWER

You are Moroccan, born and bred. Your mother tongue is Arabic, yet you have chosen to write in French. May I ask you why?

TAHAR BEN JELLOUN

In fact I am bilingual. My first language was Arabic, but I went to a Franco-Moroccan bilingual school. When I started writing as a young man, without any literary ambition, I felt happier doing it in French. There was no conscious choice at the time. 

INTERVIEWER

Is it because you had read French authors more than Arab ones?

BEN JELLOUN

Perhaps. Also because I took Arabic for granted—it was something I would never lose, and therefore it was not necessary to make an effort over it. I thought, unconsciously, that I had to invest my energies in a foreign language. It was almost a challenge, a stimulant. When at the age of twenty I started writing in earnest, I had no doubt in my mind that I had to do it in French. Yet I never made a deliberate choice between Arabic and French; it came naturally. Other intellectuals in the Arab world criticized me, sometimes very aggressively, for not writing in Arabic. This was a painful experience for me, as I felt that their motivation was often suspect.

INTERVIEWER

Doubtless after you won the Goncourt, with the resulting recognition and success, envy entered into the equation?

BEN JELLOUN

Perhaps. But my answer is that I write in the language I can best master. I can write an article or a lecture in Arabic, but not a novel. So out of respect for Arabic I will not massacre it.

INTERVIEWER

Arabic is a very rich and malleable language; with the root of a word that consists of two or three consonants one can build a whole vocabulary of nuances and ornaments. It has produced great poetry and prose. Above all it is a sacred language like Hebrew—God has spoken it. So, as you say, one hesitates to trifle with it. Did you study it at school?

BEN JELLOUN

At the lycée we studied the Arab classics; I became aware of the richness and subtlety of Arabic when I began to do translations. To me it was another good reason not to tinker with it. Also, as it is a sacred language, given by God in the shape of the Koran, it is intimidating—one feels very small in front of this language. The other day Adonis, a great Lebanese poet, told me that the Arabic language has not yet had a writer stronger than itself, capable of subduing it. One speaks of English as the language of Shakespeare, of Italian as that of Dante, but we don’t say Arabic is the language of al-Ghazali—it is always the language of the Koran. It is inhibitive; one would feel almost guilty manipulating it.

INTERVIEWER

Still, one also has to say that it is useful writing in French, or English, because it gives access to a much larger readership.

BEN JELLOUN

That is a reflection of the political situation and the Arab world’s bad image, which influences the development of Arab culture. It is unfair—there are many great Arab poets and writers who are unknown. It seems that the culture of a country depends on its politico-economic situation. Today Arabic is considered the language of two hundred million people, and Persian, which has produced such great poetry, that of the mullahs in Tehran. Both have become minority languages. At present the gaze of the West has turned towards the Far East, and suddenly people are discovering the cultures of Japan and China. There is nothing one can do about this state of affairs—as long as the image of Arab countries is politically murky, Arab culture will suffer the consequences.

INTERVIEWER

John Updike once told me that when he went to Egypt he met wonderful writers who were totally unknown in the West—this was before Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize—while as soon as he and other Anglo-Saxon authors sneeze, it is immediately translated, analyzed, commented upon in a dozen languages throughout the world.

BEN JELLOUN

We are more interested in Western culture than vice versa. I can give a lecture on Faulkner in America, as can other intellectuals in the Arab world, and no one is surprised, while the knowledge of our writers in the West is limited to a small number of specialists called Orientalists. I hope one day this situation will change, and that soon the rich treasure of Arabic and Persian literatures will be discovered everywhere for the benefit of humanity.

INTERVIEWER

So do I. But we may be too optimistic. Do you think that if you had written in Arabic, your books would have been different?

BEN JELLOUN

Naturally. Because a language is not only a tool, but a set of mental mechanisms, as well as all the cultural baggage one carries around with oneself. Francophone culture is more developed than Arab-speaking culture. Also, as I said, Arabic is a sacred language, and Arab authors are in awe of it; they can’t use violence against it.