Exile and the Kingdom
In 1966 the Moroccan intellectual Abdellatif Laabi launched a cultural revolution in the form of a magazine. A bilingual quarterly, Souffles (Breaths) featured the work of leading figures of the North African literary and political avant-garde, such as novelist Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, poet Mostafa Nissaboury and leftist activist Abraham Serfaty. Before long, it became the principal reference for a homegrown progressive movement. In his role as editor, Laabi was the first to publish many of the region's young writers. Among these was a 24-year-old poet and philosophy professor named Tahar Ben Jelloun, who made a stirring debut in the magazine in 1968 with "L'Aube des dalles" (The Dawn of Stones). In this haunting meditation on repression, Ben Jelloun courageously evoked the need to remember victims of disappearance and torture: "And this man, this man who never returned/a body/that was dissolved in sulfuric acid/a body/that was sunk in quicklime/what will/the wind tell erosion/what will/the sword tell the torn neck/when/it will be necessary to remember this man." Because of poems like "L'Aube des dalles," which directly addressed the deteriorating political situation, the Moroccan government banned Souffles in 1971.
Since then, Ben Jelloun has published fourteen novels, two story collections, four collections of poetry, two works of nonfiction, three memoirs, three children's books and a play. The primary characters in his writings are often women, immigrants or prostitutes--the voiceless in Moroccan society. He has translated into French Mohamed Choukri's influential and periodically censored novel, Al-Khubz Al-Hafi (For Bread Alone), which provides a frank and graphic portrayal of poverty and childhood prostitution in 1940s Tangier. Ben Jelloun's own work has been translated into more than forty languages. He contributes political and social commentary to Le Monde and La Vanguardia, and is regularly called upon to appear as a guest on television talk shows in Morocco and Europe. He has won the Prix Maghreb, the Prix Goncourt and, more recently, the International IMPAC Dublin Award, one of the world's most prestigious literary prizes. In the past few years, he has been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
And yet, with the exception of academic circles that specialize in Francophone North African literature, Ben Jelloun remains virtually unknown in America. Some in the media have referred to him as "Mr. Jelloun," mistaking the particle in his last name for a middle name. Even with his international reputation and the prestige of his prizes, his work continues to appear largely thanks to the efforts of nonprofit or university presses. His latest novel, the daring and introspective The Last Friend, should bring him the wide readership that has eluded him in this country.
Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in Fez in 1944, to a shopkeeper father and a homemaker mother. When he was 11, his family moved to Tangier, where the young Ben Jelloun finished his secondary education. (The two cities would later serve as the setting of nearly all his novels.) After graduating from college, Ben Jelloun taught philosophy in Tetuán and Casablanca until 1971, when the Ministry of Education announced that the philosophy curriculum, still taught in French despite Morocco's accession to independence in 1956, would henceforth be Arabicized. This decision was not due to nationalistic fervor; rather, the government believed it was a good way to prevent the study of texts it considered "subversive." Despite his fluency in Moroccan Arabic, Ben Jelloun lacked the training necessary to teach in classical Arabic, so he left Morocco to pursue doctoral studies in social psychiatry in Paris. He continues to live there.
The Last Friend begins in the schoolyard of a French lycée in Tangier in 1960. Fifteen-year-old Ali has just arrived with his family from Fez. After school one day, a few bullies attack him, calling him "a Jew," because he is light-skinned and his family name begins with "Ben." (The particle is, in fact, common among both North African Jews and Fez Muslims.) Ali, who narrates the incident, tells us that a boy named Mohammed--Mamed, for short--rushes to his defense. The two become fast friends, although they have different sensibilities. Mamed, the son of a wealthy couple, embraces the nationalist struggle, reads Fanon, Marx and Lenin, and longs for the establishment of social justice in a newly independent Morocco. Ali is also fiercely opposed to colonialism, but he prefers to spend his time reading poetry or watching movies rather than poring over radical manifestoes. In time, Mamed leaves for France to study medicine, while Ali goes to Quebec to study film.
When they return home for the summer holidays in 1966, they are unexpectedly arrested and taken to disciplinary camps in El Hajeb and later Ahermemou, as punishment for their leftist views. Never tried or even charged with a crime, they are jailed for eighteen months and fourteen days. After their release, the two young men enroll in university in Rabat, Mamed in medicine and Ali in history. They move back north upon graduation and get married, Ali to the beautiful and somewhat fickle Soraya, Mamed to the quiet and thoughtful Ghita. Both of their wives take umbrage at the friends' closeness. Ali remembers that Soraya "didn't understand why I missed Mamed so much," making "occasional jealous scenes," and that Ghita could become "hysterical to the point of violence." But this doesn't appear to affect the two men. Even after Mamed leaves Morocco for Sweden to take up a job at the World Health Organization, he and Ali continue to correspond regularly. Mamed asks Ali to help him furnish an apartment he purchased in Tangier, trusting his best friend to make the right decisions. One day, however, Ali is shocked to receive a letter from Mamed telling him that their friendship is over, and accusing him of betrayal over finances relating to the apartment deal.
At this point the narrative thread breaks, and Mamed speaks, giving us his version of the events, going back all the way to the schoolyard encounter. Interestingly, Mamed doesn't mention the bullies or the use of "Jew" as an insult. Instead, he talks about Ali's passion for books, and how they become fellow travelers in their quest to lose their virginity. The difference in the retelling raises questions about the reliability of memory, a point made again and again in this short novel. Mamed gives substantially more details about the disciplinary camp in El Hajeb. He tells us, for instance, that the prisoners' daily task was to carry rocks from one end of the camp to the other, in order to build a wall, which other detainees would immediately destroy--a Sisyphean task that was designed to teach all of them a lesson. Mamed supplies a name to go along with the camp commander's face: Commander Tadla. We also learn that Tadla served in the French army in Indochina and that he is fiercely loyal to General Oufkir, the man who would lead a coup against King Hassan in 1971.