The Prison

blinding-absence-of-lightThis article about Arab prison writing was published at the National.

From ‘Prisoner Cell Block H’ to ‘Orange is the New Black’, prison dramas fill the Anglo-Saxon screen. In the Arab world, you’re more likely to see them on the news. In recent months, for example, detainees of the Syrian regime have staged an uprising in Hama prison and been assaulted in Suwayda prison.

No surprise then that contemporary Arab writing features prisons so prominently, sometimes as setting, more often as powerful metaphor.

“About My Mother”, the latest novel by esteemed Moroccan writer Taher Ben Jelloun (who writes in French), is an affectionate but unromantic portrait of his parent trapped by incoherence. The old lady suffers dementia, mistaking times, places and people, but there is a freedom in her long monologues, the flow of memory and shifting scenes, torrents of speech which eventually infect the narration.

The novel is family memoir and social history as well as an experiment with form. Jelloun’s mother was married thrice, and widowed first at sixteen. At the first wedding, the attendants presenting the bride chorus: “See the hostage. See the hostage.”

Fettered by tradition and domestic labour, now by illness and age, she responds with superstition, fatalism and resignation. Her own confinement is echoed by memories of national oppression, first by the French, then by homegrown authorities. She learns to mistrust the police even before her son Taher’s student years are interrupted by eighteen months in army disciplinary camp, punishment for his low-level political activism. “That’s what a police state is,” the adult writes, “arbitrary punishment, cruelty and barbarity.”

Yet the ultimate prison here is death, frailly resisted by language and dreams.

Jelloun has also written about prison as a lived experience. His 2001 ‘non-fiction novel’ “This Blinding Absence of Light” is loosely based on the actual testimony of Aziz Binebine, refigured here as ‘Salim’. Salim “became ageless on the night of July 10th 1971”. In this historical respect his story is somewhat representative of the many who disappeared from sight as the Arab security states consolidated themselves in the early 70s.

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The Happy Marriage

A very slightly different version of this review was published at the Guardian.jelloun

Tahar Ben Jelloun is a Moroccan who has contributed a series of important works to French literature, perhaps foremost amongst them the brilliant ‘non-fiction novel’ of incarceration “This Blinding Absence of Light”. His latest novel, “The Happy Marriage”, bears echoes of Tolstoy’s grim relationship-degeneration tale “Happy Ever After”, but Jelloun’s tale is thrown into question by a counter-narrative.

Our protagonist is semi-paralysed, recovering from a stroke, his face twisted like a Francis Bacon painting. He is a successful artist, a demanding perfectionist who now struggles to move his fingers while watching TV athletics and thinking about tightrope walking. His contextual musings on deterioration and dependency – “When your life is in someone else’s hands, is it still a life?” – form a suitable backdrop to his memories of a two-decade marriage, in Paris and Casablanca, in sickness and health.

Part One (called, with a nod to Truffaut, The Man who Loved Women Too Much) is the artist’s own carefully-crafted account, in third person. The accomplishment of the writing here recalls Philip Roth’s more sober moods, or Saul Bellow’s studies of older men suffering the humiliations of body and soul. The psychological depth, high-cultural detail, sometimes even the dense but fluid prose (ably translated by André Naffis-Sahely) are reminiscent of that American master.

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Dusklands

maghrebLast summer I travelled in Morocco (where I used to live) in order to write an essay for the Maghreb issue of the Critical Muslim, which I also edited. This essay is available in full online (for free). To read the other essays, stories and poems (and there are some truly brilliant ones) you’ll have to buy the issue (available on Amazon) or subscribe. Please support the journal/ magazine by encouraging your local library/ college to subscribe.

Morocco’s Arabic name, ‘al-Maghreb’, emerges from the root gh-r-b, which denotes concepts including the west, distance, and alienation. ‘Ghareeb’ means strange. ‘Ightirab’ means living outside the Arab world, whether in the west or the east. ‘Maghreb’ also means sunset, dusk, the evening prayer, the time at which the daily fast is broken. Al-Maghreb al-Arabi refers to the entire Arab west – Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, the Western Sahara – but Morocco has no other name. It is al-Maghreb al-Aqsa, the furthest west, the strangest.

The ancient Egyptians believed they spent the afterlife wandering ‘the Western Lands’. William Burroughs, who lived in Tangier, wrote a novel inspired by the notion. When I lived in Morocco, teaching English at the turn of the century, a Syrian woman of my acquaintance used to play on the word like this: la tustughreb, anta fil-maghreb or, Don’t be shocked, you’re in Morocco! On this return visit I heard the same phrase from the mouth of a Moroccan man in a train.

But shocked I was, a little bit, twelve years ago.

I’d been living in the mashreq, the Arab east, before I arrived, and (foolishly) I expected the maghreb to be similar. I found a much more liberal place, one much less subject to taboo. For instance, depending on class and region, a Moroccan girl with a boyfriend is not quite the social catastrophe it would be further east. Moroccan sleaze is not hidden away (which is perhaps, overall, a good thing). I once almost pushed my son in his pushchair past men engaged in a sexual act, not in a dark basement but among the trees at the side of a main road. Several times I walked past the same exhibitionist in central Rabat. There were police nearby but they ignored him. And I frequently saw ragged street children sniffing glue-soaked rags, more of a South American scene than an Arab one. (I didn’t see that on this recent trip). In addition to public taboos, Moroccans lack the softness and eloquence, the courtliness, of the eastern Arabs. But they also lack the airs and graces, the intense class resentments, the hypocrisies. You don’t feel everyone is judging everyone else as you can do in the east, at least not in the same way, not to the same extent.

Then there were the contradictions, or perhaps the diversity, better put, of language, ethnicity, culture and, most of all, class. Parts of the big cities were comparable to Europe in their lifestyles and aspirations. Some of my students went to French-language schools, spent their holidays in Europe, and spoke French at home. Meanwhile much of the countryside was consigned to illiteracy and grinding poverty. There was almost no modern infrastructure out there. The people didn’t speak French. Some didn’t speak Arabic either.

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