Partir, the title of the book by 62-year-old Tahar Ben Jelloun illustrates sorrow, hope and the sense of an elsewhere that is inevitably better. As does our conversation.
When Ben Jelloun’s novel was published this January, I met him in the very snobby 'Café de Flore', at the hour that literary icons savour their first coffee of the day with weary gestures and sleepy eyes. Sprinkled with red leather seats and surrounded by Art Deco mirrors, the room has a bronze glow and rustles with the chitter-chatter of Franco-German high society.
Mesmerised by the snail-like form made by the dregs of my 4,40 euro coffee, I turn towards the entrance. Tahar Ben Jelloun has just walked in. He is immense and wearing a green felt hat. Without hesitating, he comes towards my table and takes a seat. He has a firm handshake and a kind smile, half hidden under his bushy beard. “We are in the showcase with those who want to be on display,” whispers my accomplice. “When I first arrived in Paris I used to come here regularly. I hardly ever come these days. It has become the cooking pot for showbiz promotion.” Ben Jolloun splits his time between Paris and Tangiers.
Ben Jelloun was born in Fes in 1944. Educated in French studies, he became a philosophy professor at Tétouan and then left Morocco in 1971 to live in the French capital to do a thesis in psychology. “I had not been educated in the ‘arabisation’ of philosophy and the teaching of Islamic thought instead of, and in place of, universal thought. That is why I left. For this reason I do not feel as though I am a writer in exile. Even though there have been difficult periods, I have never felt that I could not return; that the doors of my native country had been closed for me.”
At ease in post-1968 Paris, he began to write regularly for Livres du quotidien column of Le Monde and published his first novel 'Harrouda' in 1973. “I am not an Arab author as I write in French. It is wonderful for me to be able to express myself in a foreign language that I master, even if my imagination continues to feed on oriental civilisation.”
It is difficult to catch the eye of my interviewee, his commentary is tinged with modesty. Accused of participating in the 1965 Casablanca riots, Ben Jelloun, a student at the time, was sent for a two-year stint at the disciplinary camp of the Morrocan army. Since this time, the author of La Nuit Sacrée, winner of the 1987 Goncourt prize, has had an ambivalent relationship with his native country. “Let’s say that I feel a ‘watchful’ love towards my country. I am clear-sighted and critical, which is quintessential to any writer. It is undeniable that the country is much better than it was 10 years ago. Journalists have been harsh and say that the progress made has not been sufficient. Mohammed VI has taken on the remarkable task of breaking away from the undertakings of his father Hassan II. This is a task that no Arab Head of State has got to grips with: to leave a nation witness years of repression and injustice and then make a complete break with the past. This is a positive evolution but does not conceal the strong desire of young Moroccan’s to escape to a better life.
“For the last fifteen years, more and more young people find themselves in situations where they fail, despite having studied. They look towards Europe to the point of obsession - what they are unable to do in Morocco, they will do abroad.”
‘Yes’ to Turkey and to Morocco
IIlegal immigration is at the heart of a new book by Ben Jelloun and is the pretext for the ‘slow descent to hell’ of its hero Azel, a Moroccan exile in Barcelona. Whereas the deaths of illegal African immigrants on the barbed wire of the Spanish enclaves, widely covered by the media last September, reminded Brussels of the urgent need to find an effective solution to the immigration problem, Bell Jelloun laments that “a true community policy was not defined in any other way than in terms of exclusion and repression.” In his view, certain European states manage immigration issues better than others. “Sweden, for example, has a good attitude, notably because it does not have historical links with the countries of Africa.”
For Ben Jelloun, who regularly collaborates with La Republicca or La Vanguardia, Europe is an ‘incredible opportunity’. “But its citizens do not realise how lucky they are to be able to live in countries where there is peace, security and wealth. They are spoilt children who should thank their ancestors, those who suffered in order to offer them this entity based on freedom and democracy and respect of the individual.”
He does not fail to recognise that there are obstacles or that on a certain level, obstacles are desirable. “Life without hurdles, is death,” he states. From the point of view of enlargement, Ben Jelloun says: “If Eastern countries are considered a part of Europe, Turkey and Morocco must also be accepted as such. Morocco has a truly valid reason to be counted as a European country. And it has having affinities and a common language with the continent.” He goes further: “If Algeria had not become independent, it would be European today. And the two Spanish enclaves on Morrocan territory, Ceuta and Melilla, are geographically European, so why not Morocco too?”
Although Ben Jelloun does not go as far as to advocate an integration that is identical to the founder members of the EU, he imagines that an opening towards the Mediterranean would work towards finding a solution for the problem of illegal immigration and “cutting the ground from under the feet of Islamic fanaticism”.
Partir by Tahar Ben Jelloun, will be published in September 2006 in Italy, (Bompiani Milan) Spain (Groupe 62), Germany (Berlin Verlag) and Sweden (Alphabeta).