The ambassador of the Arabic Spring

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Reviewed on 09/9/2011 | No Reviews


Tahar Ben Jellouns recent books about the revolt

He is one of the most widely translated of all French authors, but, strangely, he’s not French. Moroccan born writer Tahar Ben Jelloun writes in French though –

Photo: © AFP Martina Bureau

and this should be reason enough to see him as one of the most important ambassadors of the Arabic culture in Europe. Come and meet him in his Parisian home.

Tahar Ben Jelloun, a charming man in his mid-sixties, lives  in the 5th arrondissement, the neighbourhood of the Sorbonne University, of numerous bookshops, or to put it briefly, the territory of writers and intellectuals. He doesn’t reside in a sumptuous apartment like so many other colleagues of his. There are books, of course, paintings, drawings, but he obviously doesn’t care about the rest. It could be anywhere. Tangier or Berlin. But it’s Paris.

The sticker on his mailbox says: TBJ. May be he wishes that his initials will one day  be a trademark like those of DSK, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or Bernard-Henri Lévy who’s just called BHL in France. Maybe it’s modesty, maybe megalomania.

Translated into more than 40 languages

Ben Jelloun started writing and publishing books as soon as he arrived in France in 1971. Since then, he has published more than 40 books, novels, essays and countless articles. But his breakthrough came with “The Sand Girl”, published in 1985. A few years later followed “The Sacred Night”, a novel awarded with the Prix Goncourt, the most important of all French literary prices. Meanwhile, he is himself a member of the jury of the legendary price. Both novels have been translated into more than 40 languages.

But that’s not all: a couple of years ago President Sarkozy awarded him with the Cross of Grand Officer of the Legion d’Honneur. In other words: Tahar Ben Jelloun has today the life he probably never dared to dream of. He’s a French intellectual with an Arabic background writing bestsellers, published throughout the world.

The point of no return

When we met this week, Ben Jelloun mainly talked about the Arabic Spring. He has just had published an essay called “L’étincelle” (The Spark) and “Par le feu”, a short story about Mohamed Biouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, an act that became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution. “I didn’t know that man. But as a writer”, he explained, “I wanted to understand how despair can bring a man to the point of no return.”

Ben Jelloun is proud of the Arabic Spring, not because he was an author of this revolution, but because he no longer believed  in a changing of Arabic society. “You know”, says Ben Jelloun, “when Arabic intellectuals came together, we talked with a sardonic gallows humour. We poked fun at ourselves, because we were publishing books, but nothing changed. It was just very sad.”

The beginning of modernity

But than came the wind of change and it blew all over the Arab countries. “Muslim societies can become democracies.” And this is new perspective, he says. For him, the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya marked the true beginning of modernity in this part of the world.

Ben Jelloun criticizes Syria harshly, behind Libya one of the worst terror regimes of the region. A lot of people accuse him to be too indulgent with Morocco, but Ben Jelloun rejects the criticism and says: “I’m not indulgent, I’m just looking and comparing”.

“The oppressive years under dictator Hassan II. have been terrible and that’s why I left Morocco in 1971. But his son, Mohamed VI, put an end to it. He has compensated the victims of his father’s regime. 29 000 cases have been heard. No other Arabic country has gone so far.“

A sworn enemy

And the corruption? Ben Jelloun can talk for hours and hours about it. He is its sworn enemy. “But still”, he says, “the Moroccans shouldn’t blame their king for everything, they are themselves to blame”.

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