Thursday, 17 October 2013

TAHAR BEN JELLOUN Au pays [A Palace in the Old Village] (2009)

Folio France, 2009

La retraite!  Non, pas pour lui et surtout pas maintenant! C'était quoi cette histoire?  Qui l'avait inventée?  C'était comme si on lui signifiait qu'il était malade et qu'il ne pouvait plus être rentable pour la société.  Une maladie incurable, un disponsibilité pour un immense ennui.  C'était cela, une malédiction, même s'il savait que d'autres ouvriers l'attendaient avec impatience.  Lui, il ne l'avait jamais attendue et encore moins espérée.  Il n'y pensait pas.  Il voyait ses copains s'en aller et il apprenait ensuite que la mort les avait emportés.  La retraite c'était le début de la mort, le bout du tunnel où la mort se cachait.

Retirement!  No, not for him and especially not now!  It's what, this story?  Who invented it?  It was as if they had shown him he was sick and could no longer be a profitable contributor to society.  An incurable sickness, a leave of absence that led only to an immense boredom.  It was a curse, even if he knew of other workers who awaited it with impatience.  He'd never waited for it and had hoped for it even less.  He didn't think of it.  He saw his mates run headlong towards it and then learned that death had claimed them.  Retirement was the beginning of death, the end of the tunnel where death hid itself.

Excerpts translated by BR

The Novel:  Mohamed (spelled with only a single 'M' in this case) is a factory worker, a Moroccan immigrant who fled his native land in 1960 and came to France in the hope of creating a better life for himself and his family.  A devout Muslim, Mohamed is also a man of simple but steadfast habits.  He prays five times a day, works hard at his dull and physically demanding job and uncomplainingly endures the scorn of his French neighbours who view him –– indeed, all North African (or 'Maghrebi') immigrants –– as fundamentalist interlopers, unfit to occupy their meager portion of sacred French soil.  Mohamed's life is hard but he's sustained by his (non-fundamentalist) religion, his family (he's particularly fond of Nabile, the mentally retarded son of his sister whom he adopted and brought to France so the boy could receive an education), his annual holiday visits to Morocco and his dream of one day returning to 'le bled' –– the arid interior region of his homeland where he was born and raised –– as a prosperous 'immigré' whose decision to take his chances in the West was entirely justified by the success and prosperity he found there. 

Everything remains tolerable for Mohamed until he's forced to accept that he's getting older and must confront the unpalatable prospect of retirement.  What will become of him if he can no longer do his job, rise at dawn and go off to work at the factory each day?  Good friends of his like Brahim have retired or, rather, been forced to retire, and their lives have fallen apart.  With nothing useful to do, no productive means of utilizing their sudden abundance of free time, they've turned to alcohol and prostitutes to fill the void, bankrupting themselves and destroying their families in the process.  'Lentraite,' as Mohamed calls it, is not a blessing, a longed-for release from a life of unremitting toil, but a curse, a disease, an inescapable catastrophe.  His job is more than his identity.  It is his only reason for remaining in a country which once welcomed foreign-born workers like him (when it needed them to help rebuild its struggling post-war economy) but now, thanks to the fear-mongering of right wing politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen, has demonized him even as it has transformed his children into Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who mock him for not even knowing how to read or speak their adopted language properly.

Even Mohamed's own familiar Parisian suburb of Yvelines becomes a sinister place to him, his neighbours' casual cruelties and anti-Islamic prejudices unfathomable, its billboards plastered with photographs of half-naked women put there by Satan, it seems, solely to tempt him and lead him from the path of righteousness.  The turning point comes when his eldest daughter, Jamila, refuses to break off her engagement to an Italian, telling him that this is not Morocco, that she's French, not une Maghrebienne [a North African woman] and has the right to make her own decisions and marry whom she pleases.  When Mohamed expressly forbids her to marry a Christian, Jamila openly defies him, declaring her intention not to speak to him again until he comes to his senses.  For her father, who's not ordinarily a stubborn man, this is too much.  He tells his wife that he's returning to Morocco to build them 'une grande maison' in the desert where the family can come and live once more in harmony as true Muslims, unaffected by their disillusioning immigrant experiences.

Mohamed carries out his plan, travelling to Morocco by train because his car has been destroyed by Muslim youths protesting the government's harsh new anti-immigration laws –– a loss for which he has not been compensated by his insurance company because riots are deemed to be 'acts of God' and are therefore not covered by his policy.  He finds the country of his birth very much changed since his last visit, with healthy young people begging on street corners and corruption thriving everywhere.  Undaunted, he travels on to 'le bled' and builds his dream house –– a huge ramshackle monstrosity, badly designed and poorly constructed by an Egyptian builder who is obsessed only with pleasing his dissatisfied wife.  The builder's financial gain is Mohamed's financial and spiritual loss.  His own wife arrives but, seeking to avoid the arguments that any criticism of his plan might spark, says nothing about the almost uninhabitable state of the house.  In the meantime, Mohamed continues to cling to his private dream of the house as a place his children will be proud to visit, a 'palace' his unborn grandchildren will one day be happy to consider their home away from home.

So powerful does this illusion become that Mohamed soon finds himself losing touch with reality, imagining himself falling victim to 'une chose noire' [a black thing] which seeks not only to crush his dream but to physically and emotionally destroy him in the process.  He resists it, installing himself in a chair facing the house which, from that point on, he steadfastly refuses to leave, taking neither exercise nor nourishment as he and it both sink gradually and ever more deeply into the burning desert sand.  His wife becomes so alarmed by his behavior that she returns to France to beg their children to visit him.  Mohamed's children, however, refuse to come to Morocco, dismissing their father's desire to have them function as a respectable family again as a symptom of what, in their thoroughly Westernized eyes, is his obviously rampant but so far untreated madness.  Mohamed remains in his chair, literally buried in sand up to his chest, a martyr to a dream he could never bring to fruition because, for him, it represented only waste, loss and death.  By returning 'au pays' [to his country] he learns, as does the reader, that he no longer has a country.  He is, in a sense, a double exile –– from the land of his birth and from the country that's been glad to exploit his labour and have him pay it taxes even as it's done everything possible to reject, exclude and vilify him.

Penguin  Books UK, 2009
The power of Au pays lies in the stripped down beauty of its prose and the universality of its subject matter.  The fact that Mohamed is a Muslim from North Africa, a devout follower of Islam, ultimately has no bearing on who or what he is as a human being – decent, honest, charitable, hardworking, concerned about his childrens' futures and how being raised in France has gradually eroded the values he's fought so hard to instill in them.  Ben Jelloun tells his story in simple, straightforward language that's as easy to read as it is subtle, compassionate and moving.  Mohamed's tragedy is the all-too-common one of people being unwillingly transformed into anachronisms by the twin evils of economic expediency and 'altered market conditions', a worker who can no longer work, a pious and humble man in an age where piety and humility are viewed as signs of weakness if not of incipient insanity.  He finds himself as so many people who are forced into retirement do –– with no further reason to exist after being stripped of his status as a tax-paying wage earner, so he modestly and courageously sets out to build himself a reason, literally, in the form of his own ramshackle 'palace' in the desert.  In doing this building his house, trying to make it a place his family can love and use to renew itself –– he could be from any country in the world, a Muslim, a Christian, a Hindu or a Jew seeking to regain his self-respect, indeed his actual sense of self, via the only means available to somebody in his sadly all too common position.

Au pays is also remarkable for the way it depicts the plight of what some social theorists now refer to as 'economic refugees.'  Mohamed loves his country and has no wish to leave it, yet fully realizes that his chances of survival, of raising his family and giving it all the economic and social advantages he lacked as a boy and so dearly wants it to have, will be greatly improved if he emigrates to France.  The racism he encounters there is a direct result of his poverty and his need to overcome it, combined with the xenophobia that makes every Muslim a potential terrorist in the eyes of unthinking Westerners who need easily identifiable scapegoats at whose feet they can lay the blame for their nation's various social, racial and political ills.  I wish a few Australian politicians would read this novel.  If they did, they might begin to understand that very few (if any) refugees –– economic or otherwise –– become refugees by choice.  Perhaps it would inspire them to find a more humane solution to Australia's refugee problems than forcibly detaining potential asylum seekers on small Pacific islands for years on end in what can only be described as extremely inhumane if not barbaric conditions that lead to depression, self-harm and, in far too many cases, suicide.

The WriterTahar Ben Jelloun was born in the Moroccan city of Fes on 1 December 1944.  His family lived in the medina – its traditional medieval quarter – where his father worked as a spice merchant and later as a tailor in the souk [marketplace].  At the age of six Ben Jelloun was sent to a bilingual school where classes were taught in Arabic in the morning and French in the afternoon.  His later decision to write in his non-native language was not, he says, a deliberately made one.  'Arabic was something I would never lose,' he once explained, 'and therefore it was not necessary to make an effort over it.  I thought, unconsciously, that I had to invest my energies in a foreign language.  It was almost a challenge, a stimulant.' 

In 1955 his family relocated to Tanger, where he completed the rest of his schooling and obtained his baccalauréat (the French equivalent of a high school diploma) from its lycée français.  This enabled him to attend Mohammed V University in Rabat, where he studied philosophy –– studies curtailed in 1965 after he took part in student demonstrations against Morocco's reigning monarch, King Hassan II, and his allegedly 'democratic' but actually ruthlessly repressive, CIA sponsored government.   For his participation in these protests Ben Jelloun and ninety-four other like-minded students were detained in a disciplinary camp run by the army, where they were forbidden to read, write or do anything but drill all day beneath the scorching Moroccan sun.  

Ben Jelloun was not released from the camp until January 1968, the same year his first piece of writing –– a poem written in secret during his time as an officially unrecognized political prisoner – was published in the radical Moroccan literary magazine Souffles [Breaths]His first collection of poems, titled Hommes sous linceul de silence [Men Under a Shroud of Silence], was published in 1970, by which time he had earned his degree and was teaching philosophy at a lycée in Casablanca.  When his department was Arabized (that is, forced to teach its courses in Arabic rather than French) in 1971, he left Morocco for Paris where he enrolled at the Sorbonne.

By 1973, Ben Jelloun was writing regularly for the French newspaper Le Monde, contributing book reviews and articles including three groundbreaking pieces he wrote in 1975 which describe the pilgrimmage to Mecca –– about Islamic culture designed to be read by a specifically non-Muslim readership.  His first novel, Harrouda, appeared in the same year, earning him praise from Roland Barthes and Samuel Beckett and the admiration and friendship of playwright and fellow novelist Jean Genet.  During this time, Ben Jelloun also received his PhD in social psychiatry and began to practice as a psychotherapist, concentrating on the problems –– sexual and emotional – experienced by France's largely male immigré population.  His work in this field formed the basis of his 1976 autobiography La plus haute des solitudes [The Highest of Solitudes] and would go on to influence many of his finest novels from La Réclusion solitaire [Solitary Confinement, 1975] right up to Au pays [A Palace in the Old Village, 2009].

TAHAR BEN JELLOUN and his parents, 1988
His 1978 novel Moha le fou, Moha le sage [Moha the Fool, Moha the Wise] was banned in Morocco for its unflinching depiction of the brutality routinely meted out to opponents of Hassan II's corrupt and savage regime.  Ben Jelloun fought the ban, personally appealing to the Minister of the Interior to have it overturned, and the book was eventually published in Morocco, going on to become one of the most widely read books in the nation's history.  He courted similar controversy in 1984 when he published the essay Hospitalité française [French Hospitality] in which he unflinchingly exposed French racism.  It was boycotted by some French bookstores and its first two pages were deleted, although a revised and corrected version eventually appeared in 1997 without provoking further incident.  

The publication of his 2000 novel Cette aveuglante absence de lumière [This Blinding Absence of Light], which tells the story of one of Hassan II's former soldiers who was arrested and imprisoned in 1971 for taking part in an unsuccessful coup against his government, once again made Ben Jelloun a controversial figure.  When the novel was published, the former prisoner (cited in the book as its co-author) published an article in a Moroccan newspaper, denying that he'd ever approached the novelist or asked him to tell his story.  Despite the negative publicity this unproved allegation earned him –– some journalists even went so far as to accuse him of 'stealing' his co-author's memories, just as some had earlier accused him of being no more than an 'exoticist' who wrote exclusively for a Western audience – it didn't prevent the book from winning the 2004 IMPAC Prize (awarded to the best foreign book translated into English), just as earlier controversies failed to prevent him winning the 1987 Prix Goncourt, France's highest literary award, for his novel La nuit sacrée [The Sacred Night]. 

The terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center in September 2001 prompted Ben Jelloun to undertake the daunting task of attempting to explain Islam to the West and vice versa.  Along with his work – novels, poetry, essays and plays –– he began lecturing regularly on Islam and Islamic-related subjects in schools and universities and published articles in many leading European newspapers calling for increased tolerance, cooperation and understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communitiesHe returned to Morocco in 2006, living with his wife and four children in Tanger while serving as mentor to Edem, a young writer from Togo.  He returned to Paris in 2009, where he continued to serve on the committee of the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch.  Today he's considered to be one of France's most important authors, a writer who's done more than anybody to help break down the invisible but previously impenetrable barriers which have always existed between its native-born and its immigré artists.  His most recent novel, Le Bonheur Conjugal [The Happy Marriage], was published by Gallimard in August 2012. 

Click HERE to read an interview (in English) with TAHAR BEN JELLOUN which originally appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of The Paris Review.  Those who read French may also like to visit, the author's official website.  

An English edition of Au pays, translated by LINDA COVERDALE and titled A Palace in the Old Village, was published by Penguin Books in January 2011.  Many of his other novels, included The Sacred Night and This Blinding Absence of Light, have also been published in English translation.  Click HERE to view a list of what's currently available.

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