Tahar Ben Jelloun has been living in Paris for 35 years. A French citizen, he has written a dozen novels in French. But if you went to Fnac Les Halles, the capital's biggest bookshop, you wouldn't find him in the literature section. Along with other authors of North African birth, he's on a small shelf near science fiction, somewhere close to the ground, under the heading "Maghreb". In England, this would be like going to Waterstone's and finding Salman Rushdie in India/Personal Development.
Ben Jelloun knows the anecdote already. "The British seem to assimilate more easily," he says. "Rushdie was born in India, but English literature is a universal concept. France considers itself a universal culture too. In reality, that means Swiss and Belgian authors and even Samuel Beckett are considered French literature. With the ex-colonies, though, it's all guilt. The wogs get put somewhere else."
It's a grim observation, but Ben Jelloun isn't vehement at all. He's successful enough not to have to shout. His books are translated into dozens of languages, and his office overlooks the expensive Boulevard St Germain, still the hub of the French literary establishment. It's no secret that to be North African born, North African descended, doesn't make for an easy life in France, that the delinquent yell from the rioting sink estates last year was a symptom of an old problem unresolved. Yet Ben Jelloun seems to be an exception. In the French Republic, where race doesn't exist in law, is he the exception that proves the rule? And what is his place?
His writing life began in 1966 in El Hajeb, a Moroccan military camp where he, along with 94 others, was detained, drilled and beaten as an enemy of King Hassan II after the student demonstrations in Rabat in 1965. Though wary of politics, he moved in far-left circles, a distinction lost on a regime that, under the guidance of General Oukrit, machine-gunned its citizens in the street.
"I spent a year and a half in the camp," he recalls. "We were allowed a book every three months, so I asked my brother to send me something big. Ulysses came back, a breeze block 700 pages long. Joyce struck me as this great free spirit. Literature seemed to be not only a sort of escape, but a possible revolt. It inspired me to write a poem."
Smuggled out of the camp, the poem found a publisher shortly after his release in 1968. Having finished studies in philosophy, he began teaching at a lycée, first in Tetouan, then in Casablanca.
In 1971, Ben Jelloun - schooled mainly in French - was on the wrong side of the General's arabisation of education. He took up an offer to study in Paris. "The pretext was to do a doctorate in psychology. I couldn't teach philosophy in Arabic anyway, but it was also a way of escaping repression - any form of expression back then, be it essay, article, fiction or a lyric, was considered suspect."
Like Joyce, his exile is ambiguous. In a career nearly four decades long, his home country has never quite left him. Harrouda, his first novel, was set in the traditionalist Fez and cosmopolitan Tangiers of his youth. Published by the legendary Maurice Nadeau, it found admirers in Roland Barthes and Samuel Beckett. The censors in Morocco considered this sexually explicit tale of a prostitute scandalous, but not subversive. The French, however, saw something else. "In France, immigrants were invisible, and when they weren't, they were horribly treated. So as an educated Moroccan, it fell to me to speak up for North Africa, for the Arab world. Which had never been my programme at all."
It's a role he embraced nevertheless. In 1974 he covered the Haj at Mecca for Le Monde, and famously attacked Paul Bowles, whose translations of the illiterate storytellers of the Tangiers medina he described as a sort of neo-colonialism. His doctorate on the sexual misery of North African immigrants, published in 1975 as The Highest Solitude, became his first bestseller. "That the immigrant subsisted, got by, fine, we can live with this - but that there were no other contours to his personality, that he could no longer make love for example, this strangely hadn't occurred to anyone."
In a country where, even today, an advert for a banana drink depicts a grinning black man in a bellhop suit, one wonders how such a breakthrough was possible. Having established a new, unwanted category of French citizen, the Arab, Ben Jelloun worked on another front. Returning to Tangiers three months of the year, he came back with fictions inspired by his native land. Peopled by outcasts, wandering madmen, blind storytellers, and tinted by the magical-realist style prevalent in the Seventies and Eighties, they culminated in two outstanding works, Sand Child (1985), and the Goncourt Prize-winning The Sacred Night (1987). Both books are about Zahra/ Ahmed, a girl brought up a boy by a father too ashamed to admit that in a family of seven daughters, his last-born is not a son.
Back in Morocco, not everyone was happy. "Relations are complex," he says. "People living there all the time consider I have no legitimacy, they say that I didn't speak out enough during the Hassan years. That I was doing exoticism." He pulls out a recent profile in the Paris tabloid, Le Parisien, where a Moroccan author, who prefers to write under a pseudonym ("as if I were terror itself," says Ben Jelloun), accuses him of not standing up for his own. "In a country where there aren't many creators, writers, who manage to express Morocco, the person who emerges then becomes the enemy."
It all seems like provincial begrudgery, but while he smiles, you feel he's rankled too. Attitudes didn't seem to change much after he published This Blinding Absence of Light in 2001. Based, gruesomely, on a true story, in which the narrator, an army officer involved in the 1971 coup against Hassan, survived 18 years in a windowless, underground prison cell five feet long by five feet high, it doesn't pull too many punches as to the calibre of a state that can bury its subjects alive. Its national and international success (it won the 2004 Impac prize) seemed to make the recriminations more bitter. "From what I heard," he says, "you could imagine I was a CIA agent, or in league with the Mossad."
But it would be vulgar to read This Blinding Absence of Light as a political work. Its subject is an excruciated body, and its significance has to do with the human mind, and the depths of its resources even in the most hellish of situations. Some of the themes in this dark hymn to life have carried over, albeit mutedly, into Ben Jelloun's latest work to be published in the UK, The Last Friend (translated by Kevin Michel Capé and Hazel Rowley; The New Press, £11.99). The story of a friendship which starts in school and ends in an inexplicable act of betrayal 30 years later, it comes across as a very personal piece, echoing incidents in Ben Jelloun's own life.
It's also a book that he has trouble talking about. "It actually makes me sad remembering it. While love and sex function with the constant possibility of rupture or betrayal, friendship is supposed to be free. Sometimes it's not." One remembers his famous rupture with long-time friend and translator Egi Voletranni over a pirated Italian edition of one of his works. "I won't hide that I was betrayed myself. Deep down, however, the idea that inspired me most was that two people can have a relationship that spans decades, but it's one that's built on a fault line. So they live two completely different stories."
The Last Friend is by no means a bitter book. Sons of the Tangiers middle class, its narrators Ali and Mamed discover women and politics during the 1960s, against a backdrop of the war of independence in Algeria. Like Ben Jelloun, they are detained in a military boot camp for student radicalism. Like Ben Jelloun, Ali later becomes a philosophy teacher. But the life of the novel is the chain-smoking Mamed, a playground smart aleck with a line in humiliating his friends. In middle age, a successful doctor in Stockholm, he discovers he has lung cancer and returns to Morocco to die, but violently breaks with Ali first, ostensibly to spare him the sight of his decline.
Whether he breaks with Ali from an excess of love - the men's friendship is so exclusive that their wives squirm with jealousy - or whether from the sheer thrill of destruction is a mystery never fully explained, tantalisingly so. At one point Mamed, on a Stockholm street, enumerates the reasons he loves Morocco: "What I missed most were the things that annoyed me like the noise the neighbours made, the shouts of pedlars, the lifts breaking down... what I missed was the dust: strange, Sweden doesn't produce dust."
But Ben Jelloun is not just a writer of longing. Back on the Boulevard St Germain, home now more to design boutiques than bookshops, I suspect it's a healthy rage that motivates him. He has closed the interview with a discussion on last year's riots, believing they will happen again. "There is no new impetus. The politicians just hope the problem goes away. But it won't." If one of France's top authors can be found in a poky recess of Fnac, because Moroccan-born, then it's no surprise why. And if Ben Jelloun doesn't speak out, who will?
The novelist, poet, playwright and essayist Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in Fez, Morocco, in 1944. In July 1966, he was arrested as a student radical and detained at a military camp for 18 months. After his release he became a teacher, but moved to Paris in1971, making his mark as a journalist for Le Monde. His first novel, Harrouda, was published in 1972. His other novels include Sand Child, The Sacred Night, which won the Prix Goncourt, and This Blinding Absence of Light, which won the 2004 IMPAC award and has now been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. His non-fiction includes Racism Explained to my Daughter (2003), which has been translated into over 40 languages. The English translation of his 2003 novel, The Last Friend, is published by The New Press this week.