Tahar Ben Jelloun’s 1985 fourth novel L’Enfant de Sable (translated as The Sand Child) first brought widespread attention to the Morocco-born (1943) French writer. Its protagonist is Mohammed Ahmed. Frustrated at only producing daughters (seven of them already), her father decides to raise the eighth one as a boy. Among other things, this will keep his estate from going to his brother for lack of a son to inherit. A circumcision is faked (with blood from her father’s finger), her breasts are bound, and she even marries a mistreated epileptic girl, Fatima.
The story-teller draws on the journal filled with gender confusion written by Mohammed Ahmed, who once she can becomes Zahra (flower of flowers). For the time after the journal breaks off, a multitude of endings are imagined by those who have heard the story of the girl raised as a boy. (Her imposture never caused her to doubt her true gender. That is there was no role-self merger/role engulfmen.)
Apparently, Ben Jelloun became usatiisfied with the multiple endings, and in Nuit sacree/The Sacred Night (1987), chose a singular one. At the start of the second book, the father dies on the most auspicious of nights for death to be followed by salvation, the 27th night of Ramadan. Zahra xis snatched away from her father’s funeral by a splendidly mounted rider (“the Sheikh”) and taken to a seeming paradise otherwise inhabited entirely by children.
She is a threat to the children already there and cannot stay there. Walking through the woods away from the lost paradise, she is raped (with at least acquiescence out of curiosity). She finds her way to a bathhouse, where the ugly and surly proprietress takes her in to help care for her brother, a blind Koranic teacher.
Zahra bonds with him, reads to him, talks to him, smokes kif with him, and eventually begins bedding him (in a bordello to which his sister had previously taken him and described the available women for him to rent).
The idyll is doomed by his sister’s jealousy. She unleashes the fearsome demons (uncle and sisters) of Zahra. In prison, the five sisters still in Morocco get to her and do some horrific things. Zahra survives and becomes first a letter-writer for illiterate fellow prisoners then is regarded as a saint. Surprisingly, there is a happy ending.
Other than the visits from her sisters, prison is not too horrible an experience for Zahra:
Finding myself behind bars made me realize how much my life as a man [actually, as a boy] had been like a prison. I had been confined to a single role, and in that sense deprived of freedom. Beyond the limits of that role lay catastrophe. At the time [covered by Sand Child] I had not been aware of how much I had suffered. My destiny had been twisted, my instincts suppressed, my body transfigured, my sexuality denied, my hopes destroyed. (135)
I have to say that I like Ben Jelloun’s later realist novels more than the magic realism (or is it influence of French surrealism? Moroccan fairy tales?) in Sacred Night. I think that Sand Child is more innovative, though both books pound away at the inferiorization of women in Muslim societies. It was Sacred Night that won the most prestigious French literary away, the Prix Goncourt, however. Near the start Zahra proclaims that “there is no greatness or tragedy to my story.” This is the kind of statement that stirs a contrarian response from me, and I went on to be sure that there is tragedy aplenty (greatness in a story is not as easy to decide about).
©2019, Stephen O. Murray