Books: Tales from the land where the sun sets

As French disquiet over the levels of violence in Algeria grows and protestors take to the streets across the country, Olivier Burckhardt examines the work of three voices from the Maghreb, writing in French
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The Independent Culture
THE MAGHREB, from the Arabic al-Maghrib (where the sun sets), designates that part of north-west Africa which is bounded by the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, the Sahara and the Libyan desert.

The French influence on the core counties of al-Maghrib (Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco) has left an indelible mark on the area. Although Arabic is the official language of all three countries (where various Berber dialects are also spoken), French still exercises a polemical role, acting at times, with both a unifying and a frightening divisive force.

To write in French is, in itself, a socio-political stance, a stance where the polarisation of an Islamic and a secular state is brought to the fore.

Tahar Ben Jelloun has been living in France for the past 25 years; his work, however, is firmly anchored in his native Morocco. Ben Jelloun's novels have been translated into many languages: those in English are The Sand Child 1988, Silent day in Tangiers 1991, State of Absence 1994 (all published by Quartet Books) and most recently Corruption (The New Press, New York 1996). His latest book Le Racisme Explique a ma Fille (Racism Explained to my Daughter) departs from the narrative genre to fill a lacunae.

While demonstrating against the proposed Debre laws on the entry and residence of foreigners in France in February 1997, Ben Jelloun was accompanied by his 10-year-old daughter who began asking questions about the demonstration. Inevitably the subject turned to racism. The need to address his daughter's questions on the matter led Ben Jelloun to write this slim volume which he re-drafted over and over again after discussing it with his daughter and her friends.

It has had tremendous media coverage in France, perhaps to the detriment of this simple yet powerful title. The text is straightforward, responding as directly as possible to question after question. Each answer raises other matters and terms which must be dealt with. Racism, difference, foreigner, prejudice, discrimination, race, and a host of other concepts are patiently explained. The brief conclusion addresses what must be a central concern for all writers. "The fight against racism must be a daily reflex," writes Tahar Ben Jelloun. "Our vigilance must never be lowered. One must begin by setting an example and being careful about the words we use. Words are dangerous ..."

In Oran, Langue Morte (Oran, a Dead Tongue) Assia Djebar chronicles the appalling intolerance that has led to the assassination of women in Algeria. In this collection of short stories and novellas, Djebar's highly polished language contrasts sharply with the theme, suffusing the constant presence of violence and death-threats with an eerie surrealism.

The tension between French and Arabic plays a central role here: often the victims are language teachers. "La Femme en Morceaux" (The Woman in Pieces) draws on a central motif common to much of North African and Arabian literature - the tales of Sheherazade (A Thousand and One Nights). In Maghreb literature, the tradition of oral storytelling plays an equivalent role to the magic realism which is the hallmark of South American literature. Above all, Sheherazade represents the hypnotic power of a well-told tale, for it is by telling her nightly tale and incorporating a new element linking it to the following night's tale that she saves her life.

In "La Femme en Morceaux", based on the closing tales of the cycle, Atyka teaches French in a high school. Relying on the fact that her students are bilingual, she decides to explore a French translation of A Thousand and One Nights over five successive days. Just as in Sheherazade's tale of the woman in pieces, Djebar's story revolves around the assassination of an innocent victim. As Atyka reaches the end of the story, four soldiers and a deformed madman burst into the classroom, execute Atyka and sever her head.

Atyka becomes "the woman in pieces", her head, placed upright upon her desk, continues to tell the tale, the Thousandth and First Night, the night on which Sheherazade ends her chain of tales and is delivered from the Sultan's sentence.

Assia Djebar has been widely translated into English. She is published by Quartet Books and, most recently, by Heinemann who re-issued her Far from Medina and brought out Vast Is the Prison in 1997.

Ever since the publication of his first novel Messaouda (1983, English translation published by Carcanet 1986), the Moroccan writer Abdelhak Serhane has written about the plight of Moroccan children cast into the streets, forgotten, abused, forsaken to a reign of terror.

Himself the child of a despotic father who denigrated his children and wife while pampering a pet monkey, Serhane relentlessly explores the social, political and religious corruption, and the hypocrisy of a nation that allows its children to be abandoned and brutalised.

Le Deuil des Chiens (The Mourning of Dogs), Serhane's fourth novel, recounts the tale of four daughters banished from home by a tyrannical father. So that they don't all share the same destiny, the eldest child decides that they should separate at the first cross-road they encounter. Each swears that 10 years to the day they will return to tell their father of their fate. On the appointed day three of the sisters return to find that their father has just died. The novel opens as they recount their tales to the decomposing corpse.

Borrowing from the oral tradition of storytelling, Serhane uses the repetition of phrases to spin his story. A device which might at first jar on a Western ear, in the end fulfils its rhythmic role, as the reappearance of each set phrase shows that a full cycle has taken place.

Le Deuil des Chiens gives a graphic account of the hypocrisy and corruption of Moroccan politics and society and a revealing glimpse of the condition of women in a supposedly democratic Muslim state. The novel also powerfully portrays three distinct voices through the psychological tension generated by their characters and experiences, and the haunting presence of the missing voice.

! 'Le Racisme Explique a ma Fille' by Tahar Ben Jelloun, Editions du Seuil, FFr 39

! 'Oran, Langue Morte' by Assia Djebar, Acte Sud, FFr 148

! 'Le Deuil des Chiens' by Abdelhak Serhane, Editions du Seuil 1998, FFr 120