Saturday, April 21, 2007

Ben Jelloun Draws Such Strange Words in the Sand

Dear Tahar Ben Jelloun,

Sand Child, your book of storytellers and gender shifts in Morocco was a bit difficult for me to understand. No, it was very difficult for me to understand. It is a puzzle. It reminded me of the first time I tried to solve a cryptogram in a newspaper. I looked at those coded letters believing solution to be impossible. No one could do this, I was sure, and then I began the process of finding the answer. My early attempts at cryptograms were halting and frustrating, as have been my first brushes with your book.

Immediately, I believed the book was a critique of gender in the world of Islamic Morocco. I tried to understand the movement of the book in that context and though it seems there is some comment on that issue within the text, I think I would be mistaken to believe that the presentation of gender is more than the model or symbolic metaphor you have chosen as a vehicle for a very different message.

Fortunately, my friends from the book club have been feeding me ideas. One said that she thought the imagery carried the weight of colonialism and the response of Morocco to the intrusion of Western will upon the culture. Is that it? I know very little of the history of this land, so fitting that jigsaw together would be daunting. Then I found some things on Laila Lalami’s blog (affectionately remembered as that suggested an even more intellectually complicated ending. Then I followed the track of Borjes, gathering more evidences of how, perhaps, you expect this book to be interpreted.

Then I read your biography on your official Web site He are interesting snippets:

July 1966: my philosophy studies are interrupted; I am sent to a disciplinary camp run by the army.

In June 1971, a statement of the Interior Ministry announced that philosophy teaching is to be arabized as of the new school year. Not being trained for it, I requested an exemption from the Ministry and decided to leave for Paris and prepare a PhD in psychology.

June 1975: I defended my doctoral thesis in social psychiatry on “affective and sexual problems of northern-African workers in France”.

1984 : “Hospitalité française”, essay on racism in France

1985: “L’enfant de sable”, novel, Le Seuil.

Most of my work is translated into Arabic. Unfortunately, the Moroccan edition of which I revise the translation is systematically pirated by pseudo-editors in Syria and Egypt. To make matters worse, they redo the translation and take out fragments susceptible of annoying the local censorship. I have so often protested against these practices that I have come to believe this to be a lost cause. The piracy that afflicts the Arab world is symptomatic of the condition of its culture.

I chose these tidbits because I think they shed light on the book and my understanding. As I understand more, perhaps I will come to understand whether they inform my thinking. Here are some more factoids from less authorized Web sites.

Quoting Ben Jelloun and from a critic "Arabic is my wife and French is my mistress; and I have been unfaithful to both," it is obvious though that bilingualism is an integral part of his life as well as a theme in his works.

And also from that source, “Ben Jelloun draws upon his experience as a psychotherapist for his creative writing.”

And here: The novel is written in highly poetic language and does not have a linear narrative. The prose seems to recreate the dissociation experienced by the child.

Well, all that is interesting. And, I like cryptograms.


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