Tahar Ben Jelloun’s ‘The Happy Marriage’ offers new look on gender
Gender inequality is common in the Middle East, especially in rural areas where women face more discrimination in trying to access paid work. Arab men usually earn significantly more than women. A recent study showed Moroccan women earn about 17% less than men and are usually hired in low-skilled, low-paid jobs.
Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun describes the actions of a fiery, opinionated woman from rural Morocco in his novel “The Happy Marriage”. The character of Amina challenges the stereotype of an uneducated housewife through the way she treats her husband.
The novel is divided into two sections. The first section, much longer than the second, describes the husband’s perspective of their marriage. The second section narrates the wife’s side of events, in response to finding and reading her husband’s secret book.
From the second chapter, the reader instantly sympathises with the husband, “Foulane” as Amina calls him. The Arabic word foulane means a person like any other and without characteristics.
Addressing himself in the third person, Foulane looks at his reflection and asks: “What would I have done in your place? Kill myself? I’m not brave enough for that. Would I have refused anyone who tried to give me a mirror? Yes, that’s it, that’s exactly what I would have done!”
Foulane, who suffered a stroke, blames Amina for causing him undue stress. She “demanded that he work harder and harder, underestimated his real capacities and made him think he could exceed his limits”.
In Foulane’s mind, he is innocent and peaceful, but does not question Amina’s motives.
Foulane says: “And what about his wife, what had she been up to ever since she’d learned the news? Would she not try to exact her revenge? No, no, he’d promised himself he wouldn’t ask those kinds of questions. He didn’t want to fight with her; he wanted peace, so that he could heal.”
At the beginning, their marriage seems ideal, with “not a cloud in the sky,” the union of “the happiest couple in the world”. Later, however, Amina’s jealousy and mood swings surface. For about 170 pages of section one, we are shown an aggressive self-determined woman treating her husband badly. Seeing only the husband’s perspective, the reader sympathises with him.
Section two changes direction, giving the perspective of Amina, who admits that she was nasty to Foulane and proceeds to explain why. Amina says: “Before giving you my version of events, I must warn you that I’m nasty. I wasn’t born that way but when people attack me, I defend myself by any and all means and I give as good as I get.”
Her rebellious character is reflected in her relationship with her father, who wanted her to be a shepherdess. While Amina first kept to her father’s wishes, she later decided to abandon her duties and follow her cousin to school. Her father thought it was pointless for women to be educated, whereas her mother wanted Amina to continue with her studies in order to counter the sadness that sometimes took hold of her.
Amina claimed Foulane only imagined his stroke, and was insincere when he claimed to love her: “He was utterly incapable of the slightest praise,” Amina says, “He never had a kind word to say in the morning, no tenderness before going to bed, nothing. He lived in his own world and I had to dwell in his shadow and cower in it.”
She explained that people from Fez, where Foulane is from, thought of themselves higher than other Moroccans. She said her husband began silencing her when the couple had guests over. He was a “cheapskate” and did not like her to drink alcohol, which to Moroccan men is a sign of a woman’s disobedience and liberation, Amina said.
Ben Jelloun’s narrative is compelling and its events are relevant to the dynamics of many marriages. However, Foulane’s description of his suffering and his encounters with other women are sometimes overdone and tedious.
Nonetheless, “The Happy Marriage” provides a refreshing look at the status of women in Morocco, stressing the idea that everyone, even the least educated, should be valued for their ambition. It also considers the effects of status and gender in a marriage and a reminder there are two sides to every story.
Ben Jelloun, 72, was born in Fez and immigrated to France in 1971. He is a bestselling novelist, essayist, critic and poet. Among his many awards and prizes are the Prix Goncourt and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.