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.
Parallels between the novel and Ben Jelloun’s life abound. Like his characters, Ben Jelloun studied at a French high school in Tangier. Like them, he was arrested in 1966 on suspicion that he had taken part in student demonstrations (a charge that was true in his case). Like them, he was sent to El Hajeb and Ahermemou. But although he has written fiction about everything from gender identity (The Sand Child, The Sacred Night) to bribery (Corruption), he has never written directly about this episode in his life until now. The reasons for this change may lie in the controversy surrounding the publication of his previous novel, This Blinding Absence of Light, which is loosely based on the experiences of Aziz Binebine, a junior officer who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1971 Lieut. Col. Mohamed Ababou led an entire corps of cadets from the Military Academy of Ahermemou to the beach city of Skhirat, where, he told them, they would take part in military exercises. Little did they know that they were being called upon by General Oufkir to seize the royal palace, where King Hassan was celebrating his 42nd birthday in a lavish garden party. The coup failed, and the king threw fifty-eight of the student officers into the infamous jail at Tazmamart, where cells were so cramped that prisoners, held in solitary confinement, could not stand up. They remained there, in complete darkness, for eighteen years.
Many survivors, among them Ahmed Marzouki, whose own memoir, Tazmamart: Cellule 10, became a bestseller in Morocco in 2001, complained that Ben Jelloun should have written a book or spoken up on their behalf when they were still in prison, rather than after their release. Marzouki was quoted in Le Monde as saying Ben Jelloun “has always been silent. Why does he speak up today? Tazmamart is an ocean of misery and darkness. Not everyone can talk about it and profit from it.” Even Aziz Binebine claimed that Ben Jelloun had “harassed” him to get permission to use his life story. Adding insult to injury, Ben Jelloun had used the first person in the narrative. The accusation was clear: Ben Jelloun had only spoken about political repression once it became safe to do so, and had exploited the memories of the victims by writing a novel.
Ben Jelloun appears to have been blindsided by the criticism. He denied harassing anyone and claimed that it was Aziz Binebine’s own brother, the writer and painter Mahi Binebine, who approached him to write a book about Tazmamart survivors. He defended himself vigorously against the charges of inaction, pointing out that few on the Moroccan left had known or spoken about the secret prison, whose existence was only revealed in 1990 by the French journalist Gilles Perrault in his biography Notre ami le roi (Our Friend the King), a searing account of the close relationship between the French government and the Moroccan monarchy. Ben Jelloun noted that he had given half his royalties from This Blinding Absence of Light to Aziz Binebine and promised to make donations to human rights organizations as well.
Still, the complaints continued. Why, asked Ben Jelloun’s critics, had he been so outspoken against anti-Arab racism in France, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and Russian repression of the Chechen uprising, and yet so timid about his own country’s “soft” dictatorship? Finally, in an interview with Libération, Ben Jelloun admitted, “I was like all other Moroccans–afraid. I did not want to take the king head on. I wanted to be able to go back home.” Living in Paris did not necessarily afford him any protection. After all, Moroccan secret police were said to routinely spy on students and intellectuals abroad, and they could be creative in their methods of repression. In an interview with Maroc-Hebdo International, Ben Jelloun offered his final defense: Aziz Binebine had written him a fan letter after the publication of This Blinding Absence of Light, commending him for the work he had done with the story and calling the novel “impeccable.”
Given this history and the striking parallels between the novel and the author’s life, it is tempting to read The Last Friend as Ben Jelloun’s meditation on a career of writing and activism, and to think of the two main characters as mirrors he holds up to himself and to an imagined detractor on the left. Although Ali’s last name is never revealed, the fact that it contains the particle “Ben” is enough to provide some clues. Like Ben Jelloun, Ali writes poetry, goes to university in Rabat and then teaches high school in the north. And like Ben Jelloun, Ali is reproached for his silence. Here is Mamed accusing Ali of inaction and duplicity: “When it came to political commitment…. You were never very brave. You always arranged things to appear to be someone you’re not.” Later in their argument, Mamed delivers the ultimate judgment: “You should never have gone to prison for your ideals, since they are totally insincere, a lot of hot air, a lot of talk.” Even Ali’s wife appears to resent his silence: “You’re riddled with vanity. Ah, the respected teacher, the distinguished pedagogue, the old leftie who has fallen into line with the corrupt majority!”
But despite his rhetorical militancy, Mamed isn’t particularly brave either. Reflecting on the failed coup, he says, “We knew only too well what those military officers who attacked the king’s garden party were capable of. Morocco narrowly escaped a Fascist regime.” The alternative to that regime was, however, a pro-West monarch who brutally repressed his critics. Yet like Ben Jelloun’s detractors on the left, Mamed remains quiet–as quiet as Ali. After finishing medical school and leaving Tangier for Sweden, he seems to find a certain happiness with the “silence” and “order” of that country. Eventually, though, he starts to miss the old country, especially when he notices that his children “don’t speak a word of Arabic” and “think of Morocco as a vacation place.” This is why he decides to buy the apartment in Tangier, and why he asks Ali to help him furnish it and take care of the paperwork. Mamed’s explanation for the breakup of the thirty-year relationship is heartbreaking, leaving the reader to reflect on the preciousness of friendship.
At this point, Ben Jelloun’s narrative thread breaks again, and the Spaniard Ramon, who grew up in Tangier with Ali and Mamed, gives us his take on the events in the third and final part of the novel. “I understood that it was not simply a question of differing points of view,” he begins. And indeed, what we discover in Ramon’s account demonstrates that the bonds of friendship can be as strong as, and no less complicated than, those of love. Betrayal and desertion are not the cruel acts we imagine them to be. In Ben Jelloun’s novel, they can also become carefully wrought expressions of love that lead, one day, to forgiveness.
Ben Jelloun’s prose in The Last Friend is blunt, a stark contrast to the poetic, even hallucinatory style that characterized his early work, like Harrouda, or the lyrical passages of This Blinding Absence of Light. At times, the narrative voice slips into exposition or summary. When Ali talks about Mamed, he says simply, “I suddenly saw in him an unhappy young man, profoundly ill at ease, who disliked himself and everyone else, too. He needed psychiatric help. He wanted to try some kind of therapy, but he didn’t want people to think he was crazy. He…generally kept to himself. I was the only person he would see. He trusted me, and made every effort to temper his mean streak. He retained his sense of irony, but used it more wisely.”
This style of writing prevents the reader from fully engaging in the psychological life of the two narrators, which is odd, since The Last Friend is told in the first person–surely one of the best ways of letting us into the inner lives of fictional characters. Instead, they remain intractably distant from the reader. Of course, one of the central themes of the novel is the idiosyncratic nature of memory, so the narrators’ evasiveness makes some sense. But by depriving the reader of a chance to witness events directly, Ben Jelloun is also depriving us of a chance to make up our own minds about the events as they happened. You will never know, he seems to say, because you weren’t there. All you have is our individual recollections.
The Last Friend is more than the story of a friendship; it is the story of a generation of activists, writers and intellectuals who were caught between their desire to improve the lot of their country and their fear of a ruthlessly brutal regime, whose atrocities have just begun to be exorcised. As their work in Souffles makes abundantly clear, they loved their homeland; but they also hated their government, a stance that was not to be tolerated. Those who survived those years were intimidated and, in the end, silenced. Until now.