Academic journal article The Romanic Review

In the Nation's Closets: Sexual Marginality and the Itinerary of National Identity in Tahar Ben Jelloun's la Priere De L'absent

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

In the Nation's Closets: Sexual Marginality and the Itinerary of National Identity in Tahar Ben Jelloun's la Priere De L'absent

Article excerpt

"In the modern world," wrote Benedict Anderson in 1983, "everyone can, should, will, `have' a nationality, as he or she `has' a gender ..." (5). In contrast, it has become fashionable of late to downplay the national in cultural and postcolonial studies in favor of the trans- or multinational. While transnational capital and multinational corporations are often said to be a defining characteristic of late capitalism, the Nation has far from disappeared and remains one of the sites where identity is often rooted. In addition, the Nation continues to serve as the geo-political locus of state power, and the legislation of national identity is one way ruling elites may consolidate power by eliminating or marginalizing those who question their political legitimacy. It is thus no surprise that post-independence novels in French from the Maghreb (for the purposes of this essay, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) often deal with the problematics of national identity as a major concern. To challenge both official prescriptions of what constitutes national identity and the ruling classes that attempt to police it, many Maghrebian novels also rewrite the Nation; they oppose the homogeneous definition of the Nation proffered by dominant discourses in favor of a heterogeneous model of national identity, and often, this heterogeneity is also sexual.

In "Defendre la diversite culturelle au Maghreb" (1991), the Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun describes how Maghrebian novels in French challenge the dominant social order:

   En general, c'est dans le roman d'expression francaise qu'on trouve le plus
   d'audace dans la contestation de l'ordre social et dans la transgression
   des tabous, surtout d'ordre sexuel.... Mais la principale originalite de
   cette litterature se trouve dans son rapport a la langue francaise. Elle la
   transforme et l'enrichit tout en l'introduisant dans l'intimite de
   l'imaginaire maghrebin, parfois le plus secret. Cette tentative de
   devoilement, cette porte ouverte sur un secret, sur un bien cache, est
   critiquee de maniere severe et souvent brutale par les intellectuels
   maghrebins arabophones. Cette ouverture sur l'Occident, cette main tendue
   vers l'echange, cette utilisation de la langue de l'Autre sont considerees
   par certains comme une trahison (272).

   [In general, it is in the novel of French expression that one finds the
   most audacity in contesting the social order and in the transgression of
   taboos, especially sexual ones.... What is most original about this
   literature, however, is its rapport with the French language. This
   literature transforms the French language and yet introduces it into the
   intimacy of the Maghrebian imaginary, sometimes of the most secretive
   nature. This attempt to unveil, this door opening onto a secret, onto a
   hidden wealth, is severely and often brutally criticized by Arab-speaking
   intellectuals from the Maghreb. This openness towards the West, this hand
   extended in the spirit of exchange, this use of the Other's language are
   often considered by some as treason.](1)

Ben Jelloun associates such challenges with representations of sexual transgressions; these novels unveil secrets that should remain hidden. By revealing sexual secrets, Maghrebian authors are guilty of committing acts of political treason; they disobey a certain variety of nationalist discourse, which argues against washing the Nation's dirty laundry before the whole world, against dragging skeletons out of the Nation's closet, in other words, against revealing a nation's internal divisions, its political secrets, to "outsiders." Narrated in a language the "outsiders" can understand, unveiling sexual secrets in French constitutes a double betrayal.

In Ben Jelloun's La priere de l'absent (1981), this association between challenging the social order and unveiling sexual transgressions and secrets plays a particularly important role. …

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