An Exoticized World Literature: Ben Jelloun at the Two Shores of the Mediterranean

By Younssi, Anouar El | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2014 | Go to article overview

An Exoticized World Literature: Ben Jelloun at the Two Shores of the Mediterranean


Younssi, Anouar El, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics


A recipient of Western literary awards, such as the Prix Goncourt, Tahar Ben Jelloun has become a prominent Maghrebi author. His fiction has circulated widely; his novels L'enfant de sable (1985) and La nuit sacree (1987), for instance, have been translated into several languages, granting him entry into the sphere of World Literature. The author argues that the success of Ben Jelloun's work--tremendously boosted by his use of French--is attributed mostly to his talent in offering an exoticized account of Moroccan society, a trajectory that courts Western readers and the global market, thus problematizing the place his works occupy in World Literature.

Ben Jelloun and the Debate Over World Literature

Needless to say, Ben Jelloun is unquestionably one of the most significant and successful Maghrebi authors writing in French today. His winning of the Prix Goncourt in 1987 for his novel La nuit sacree (The Sacred Night) brought a lot of visibility to the Ben Jellounian oeuvre as well as to Maghrebi literature of French expression as a whole. Born in Fez, Morocco in 1944, Ben Jelloun studied philosophy at the university in Rabat, and in 1971 left Morocco for Paris to pursue his graduate studies in psychology. In 1975, he earned his doctorate from Universite de Paris, with a dissertation titled "Problemes affectifs et sexuels de travailleurs nord-africains en France" (Affective and Sexual Problems of North African Workers in France). In fact, some of Ben Jelloun's works--for example his non-fiction Hospitalite francaise (1984) and his novels Les yeux baisses (1991), Partir (2006) and Au pays (2009)--address the challenges and hardships facing North African immigrants and their offspring in Europe, particularly in France. Ben Jelloun has gained recognition for speaking out on various French media outlets against the injustices and misfortunes the North African subject suffers in Europe. This is an important dimension of his work, one that surfaces in his novel Partir, which was translated into English as Leaving Tangier, and which we will discuss in some detail in this article alongside L'enfant de sable (1985)--translated into English as The Sand Child.

I chose to treat L 'enfant de sable in this article because it signaled a turning point in Ben Jelloun's literary career, being the first of his work to be translated into English. It was indeed widely celebrated, especially after its English translation, and its success arguably granted the Moroccan author entry into World Literature: "Between 1976-1987 Ben Jelloun was regularly published and received awards, but it was not until his novel L'Enfant de Sable, (later translated as The Sand Child) that he became well-known and recognized, all of his novels after The Sand Child were translated into English" (Owen n. pag.). The choice of Partir, however, was due to the fact that it represents Ben Jelloun's later work--as part of his twenty-first-century writing--and that its English translation became an international bestseller, consolidating Ben Jelloun's status as a world literary figure. These two novels have been in wide circulation around the world, and were translated into several languages.

Following David Damrosch, this would entitle the two texts to enter the World Literature corpus. In his What is World Literature?, Damrosch contends: "I take world literature to encompass all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language" (4). He points out that a literary "work enters world literature by a double process: first, by being read as literature-, second, by circulating out into a broader world beyond its linguistic and cultural point of origin" (6; emphasis in the original). Translation (especially into English) and circulation (worldwide) are then two criteria that works of literature have to meet in order to gain entry into the sphere of World Literature. A question that might arise is: What are the stakes of this "world-literatureness," if I may use the term? …

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