‘The Pleasure Marriage’ or ‘The Happy Marriage’ By Tahar Ben Jelloun: A struggle against racism, a struggle for love

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I met Tahar Ben Jelloun through ‘The Sand Child’. Once I entered the Moroccan universe, and because the first novel did not quench my lust for the Orient, I decided to continue exploring Jelloun’s world by reading ‘The Pleasure Marriage’.

About the author  

Tahar Ben Jelloun (born in 1944, in Fes – Morocco) is a novelist, poet and essayist whose work revolves around Moroccan culture. The most common themes in his writings are emigration, human rights, sexual identity, rasism.

After graduating from philosophy at the University of Rabat, he became a teacher. As a result of joining the students’ rebellion against the violent acts committed by the Moroccan Police, in 1966, he was forced into military camp as punishment. In 1971 he emigrated to France, settling in Paris, where he obtained a doctorate in social psychiatry. He became known with the novel ‘The Sand Child’ (1985) and he was the first Maghrebian to win the Goncourt Prize (1987). He has been on the shortlist of Nobel candidates for literature several times. Although his native language is Arabic, he chose to write in French, attracting the disagreement of the Arab intellectuals. Tahar Ben Jelloun states that his art is meant to express the struggle for human rights. If we consider that his work has been translated into over 40 languages, we can say that the artist has won at least one battle of this struggle.

About the book

‘The Pleasure Marriage’ begins its story in 1950s Morocco and ends it six decades later, in 2010. The historical period is tumultuous and with many political and social changes. Unfortunately, the story reveals us that the changes did not improve people’s mentality. Starting 1912, Morocco was passed under French protectorate, through the Treaty of Fes. Dismissed by the French in 1953, King Mahommed V ibn Yusuf was restored to the throne in 1955, under the pressure of the converging domestic political groups, despite their fundamentally different doctrines (nationalist vs. religious groups). In 1956, Morocco gained its independence and, despite repeated coups, Morocco is still today a hereditary constitutional monarchy, based on the Constitution adopted in 1972. The book makes brief references to historical events, but repeatedly emphasizes the revolt of Moroccans against the French protectorate.

The concept of ‘pleasure marriage’ is a temporary marriage concluded by the Muslim men forced to spend more time away from their wives. In our case, Amir, a merchant of spices in Fes and head of a family with four children, travels annually, in the interest of business, to Senegal. And, following the example of his father and grandfather, during his time in Senegal, he concluded a ‘marriage of pleasure’ with a beautiful Senegalese woman with black skin, named Nabu. Being a good Muslim and for the relief of his conscience, Amir asked and received the consent of the great professor of theology at the University. The professor argued his exposition by quoting eloquent verses from the Qur’an and emphasizing the man’s duty to guarantee financial support and respect for his ‘temporary’ wife. Nabu’s intelligence (the young woman had a diploma issued by the French College, through which she “acquired the science of foreigners”), her sensuality, the passion that the two share in the endless Senegalese nights, in antithesis with the ‘conventional marriage’ from back home, determines Amir, the equilibrated man in his 50s, to fall in love for the first time in his life. Although respecting the traditions and social customs was his existential pillar, Amir risked disrupting the family’s sacredness and ‘ancestral order’ taking Nabu back with him to Morocco, crossing Sahara, hoping that his wife would be able to accept this decision. (I will not give you any clue regarding the repercussions).

This story may itself be a novel, but Jelloun uses it only as a starting point for a thrilling family saga, having RASISM as its central theme. We will meet characters who will conquer us through their gentleness, the unconditional love offered and their sensitivity (I can’t help but remember here Karim, the seemingly retarded child who ends up being considered brilliant), we will feel the pain of the exile and the fight for equality, in one’s own country, despite the black skin. But isn’t this a lost battle, since the general belief is that ‘all Moroccans are Africans, but not all Africans are Moroccans’ (remember Orwell’s theory ‘some are more equal than others’)? What price will Amir have to pay, in order to fully understand rasism and the dramas it provokes? He, who considers himself ‘almost African’, will he be able to be aware of his own dose of rasism?

We will cross the Sahara once again, reconstituting the road from Dakar to Tangier, along with a daring dreamer deported to Senegal for the simple reason of his skin color; and the writer will make sure that karmic references do not escape the reader’s keen eye and mind. This route is a kind of road to Golgotha, being traveled by all those who dreamed of emigrating outside the continent. And so we come to an moving personal theme of Jelloun’s – the exile: the dream of escaping from a corrupt, poor and racist society. Sometimes, however, this dream turns into a nightmare.


طاهر أنا معجب بعملك من منظور اجتماعي وإنساني وفني!

(Tahar, I admire your work from a social, human and artistic perspective! – Google translation from Arabian language)

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