Talking with Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun

Ben Jelloun’s works have been translated into 47 languages and he is one of the most read Arab intellectuals in the West.
Sunday 10/02/2019
Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun in Paris. (AFP)
A witness to his times. Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun in Paris. (AFP)

Tahar Ben Jelloun is a Moroccan writer, poet and thinker who lives in France and writes in French about issues pertaining to the lives of Arabs and Muslims in their countries of origin and in Europe and about their travels and migration, which are fraught with death, racism and loss.

In 1987, the creator of the novel “La Nuit Sacree” (“Sacred Night”) was awarded the Goncourt Prize. He is also the recipient of several other awards, including the 2004 International Dublin Literary Award and the 2011 Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize, which promotes peaceful coexistence between Christian and Muslim cultures.

Ben Jelloun’s works have been translated into 47 languages and he is one of the most read Arab intellectuals in the West.

Al-Jadid (AJ): In your novel “Partir” (“Leaving Tangier”), one of the protagonists wonders: “Why all of this obsession with leaving Morocco?”

Tahar Ben Jelloun (TBJ): (pointing to the sea) “Morocco was and still is the first country suffering this phenomenon on a daily basis. Therefore, all countries concerned with migration waves and displacement must assume their responsibility to stop this bleeding. A radical and final solution to the phenomenon must be found.

“Today, the reasons behind the phenomenon of migration are no longer just economic. They also have political dimensions, especially the tragedies of Syrian refugees and other displaced people from the Arab countries along the Mediterranean.

“The United States has an undeniable responsibility in creating the phenomenon since it is responsible for destroying Iraq. When it destroyed the country, its people, its civilisation and its history, it created the infernal conditions for the growth of terrorism. The birth of the Islamic State is the direct result of the United States’ criminal policy in Iraq at the beginning of the current century.”

AJ: Half a century after your arrest in 1966 following a student demonstration in Casablanca, you recently published an autobiographical novel titled “La Punition” (“The Punishment”). Why did you wait all this time to record your prison experience and how could you keep the pain and the details of that experience inside you?

TBJ: “Here we are talking about what has become known as the ‘years of lead’ in Morocco. We had demonstrated in Casablanca to protest the state of education in the country and we were subjected to bloody violence. I was arrested along with a group of students because of our membership in the National Union of Moroccan Students. I was accused of being the mastermind of these peaceful demonstrations.

“Personally, I was often accused by some of being a supporter of Hassan II’s regime, and I was even accused of being close to the royal palace.

“All this was of course a big lie. For my part, I remained above these malicious and despicable accusations. I didn’t want to prove to anyone that I was a militant opposed to the regime because I was sure of my convictions and didn’t want to prove my sacrifices for my country. Now, the time has come for me to tell that story because it is an important story from Morocco’s history.”

AJ: It seems that there are literary works by Tahar Ben Jelloun and other writers that allow us to say that the novel is just an invention by writers to induce us into thinking that they are not speaking about their own lives and human experiences or their cities or their childhood.

TBJ: “Let’s just say that the writer does not tell about the life he has lived as much as he tells about the effect of that life on him. Given that, and to answer your exhausting question (he laughs), it could be said that the world in which we live affects what we write. If I lived in China or Japan, I would certainly be affected by the situation and the things there.

“Let us recall Mahmoud Darwish. He is a great poet, not because he is a Palestinian, for that is his identity, but his poetry challenged and surpassed this identity. If he had limited himself to writing about the Nakba and the pain of the Palestinian cause, he would have remained just a local poet but he became a Universalist and one of the most important poets of the 20th century.

“His identity as a Palestinian cannot be confused with his enormous capacity as a poet but without the tragedy of Palestine, Mahmoud Darwish would not have been a world-class poet.”

AJ: How can we convince the West that a noble and beautiful Islam does exist when terrorist attacks and operations raise questions about the existence of a tolerant Islam? If Islam is not terrorism, then what is the source of this terrorism?

TBJ: “I remember how my parents’ and my grandparents’ Islam was beautiful, serene and peaceful. Nowadays, some people have turned religion into a war ideology. Perhaps this is why the West views Islam as a threat and a terrorist ideology.

“Religious scammers and mercenaries are the ones who manipulated Islam and distorted its image to the extent that it has become difficult to return to peaceful Islam today. America is fighting everything related to Islam, whether it is true or false. This is the clash of fears that I have always warned against. A new dialogue must be resumed between us and the others to ensure continuity and coexistence between future generations in the West and the Muslim world. We must overcome the state of mutual ignorance.”

AJ: You said once that Europe if it wants to vanquish terrorism should take care of the Muslims who are living within its borders. Isn’t this a difficult task?

TBJ: “I’ll go even further than that by saying that the Muslim community in Europe has yet to be accepted before we can talk about paying serious attention to their conditions. It is Europe’s responsibility first, as much as it is the responsibility of Muslims themselves.

“For example, the Jews living in France are highly organised. They have their own representative who represents them and speaks on their behalf, while the Muslims are not organised at all. To each his own version of Islam: This one has a Turkish Islam while the other has a Moroccan Islam or a Senegalese Islam. They don’t have one representative speaking on their behalf with the authorities and that is the root of the problem.

“It is unacceptable that the 5 million-6 million Muslims living in France remain unorganised, as opposed to 600,000 Jews who are organised in one single framework that ensures their interests and fulfils their demands.

“On the other hand, it is the duty of the West to shoulder its responsibility and open up to the Muslims and imbibe itself with the history of Islam and its enlightened civilisation and not to join the others in turning Islam into a religion of hatred while it is perfectly innocent of it.”

AJ: In France, where you live and write in its language, it is noted that this country deals with minorities using a logic of integration, which generates a kind of tension and violence and rejection of the other.

TBJ: “I think that the policy of integration did not work in France because the immigrant who comes from abroad does not need to integrate in the first place and he considers himself only as a transient. His children, however, are not immigrants but Europeans, even though they are not accepted as 100% European. This is how we came to a situation where the second and third generations from migrant parents were not recognised as French like the others. This state of rejection is one of the causes of social tension.”

AJ: You said recently that there is no longer an Arab world. How and where did it disappear and how do you connect that with what’s going on in Syria, Iraq and Yemen?

TBJ: “There is one clear proof of what I am saying; it’s the Palestinian cause, which has become neglected and forgotten.

“The Palestinian cause has been buried in a terrible way. Israel is now free to do whatever it wants to the Palestinian people and the Palestinian territories; it can declare Jerusalem its capital, with the support and blessing of the United States of America. The United States is unconditionally committed to supporting Israel.

“So now, the Palestinians are being annihilated without any fuss being raised by the world. No one has the power to condemn Israel and its practices. Israel has become the most powerful nation in the world.”