The Sand Child – Tahar Ben Jelloun: What If You Wouldn’t Know Who You Are?

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I must confess that I have a great passion for literature that addresses the status of women in different cultures and throughout history. Thus, from the first sentence of the final cover of the book, I knew that I would buy this book and that it would be the first on the reading list, without doing any prior research on the author or content. That’s how I met the “The Sand Child”.

 

 About the author

Tahar Ben Jelloun is a writer born in Morocco in 1944. He studied philosophy at the University of Rabat, at that time also writing his first verses. He taught philosophy in Morocco, publishing in various literary magazines. Following the advocacy against violence committed by the Moroccan Police, he was forced to move to Paris in 1971, where he completed his studies in psychology and began collaborating with Le Monde. In 1975 he obtained a doctorate in social psychiatry, and in 1985 he published “The Sand Child”, a novel that will make him known all around the literary world. In 1987, he receive the prize Goncourt with “The Sacred Night”, the first of its kind awarded to a Maghreb writer. In 2005, he received the Ulysse Prize for his entire work, and in 2008 he was elected a member of the Goncourt Academy and was decorated by Nicolas Sarkozy with the Cross of Grand Officer of the Légion d’honneur.

 About the book

In a crowded market in 1950s Morocco, a storyteller sitting on a mat begins a story that draws people around him (the story is inspired by a real case). In Sherazade’s culture, the gift of telling stories can be equivalent to life, right? I could already feel dizzy in the middle of the square, having all five senses invaded in a way that only the Orient knows how to do it: feeling the touch of fine silks, seeing the sparkling eyes of the women, beyond the burka, listening to the mournful music of the qānūn, smelling amber and musk of intriguing perfumes or eagerly eating a cake with honey, ginger and cloves. I soon woke up from a dream and realized that the world I will explore is exclusively the inner world of the main character, Ahmed.

The potter Hagi Ahmed Suleiman had seven daughters and, understanding that, despite the supernatural rituals to which he submits his wife, he will not succeed to break the curse of not being able to conceive a son, he decides that the eighth born should be declared a boy, even if she were a girl. This is how Ahmed appears, born as a girl, but raised as a boy, to wash away the family’s shame and benefit from her wealth (in the Islamic religion, girls inherit only a third of the father’s wealth and the remaining two thirds are divided between their father’s brothers).

The psychoanalyst Jelloun makes us witnesses of the drama that Ahmed will live, as he will face the dissonance instinct-reason which becomes unbearable as time passes. The awareness of the fact that the privileges obtained cannot compensate for the loss of one’s own identity, places the character’s suffering at abysmal depths. But where will the resulting anger go? Toward himself or to the surrounding world?

Will Ahmed be able to love if he cannot love himself? Will he repressed his sexuality or will he probe it through self-experience? Or maybe more than that? Is it still possible for him to find the road to return to himself, once diverted to such an extent? Could death be the saving solution?

Jelloun’s storytellers will follow one after another, but will they be able to answer these questions? Or will Ahmed become an untouchable Morgana girl every time you think you’ve caught the thread of the story?

The ambiguity is heightened by bizarre characters, philosophical monologues and strange metaphors. I often felt the need to reread passages, looking for the hidden meaning. But either Jelloun hid it with the skills of a literary Houdini, or he exaggerated playing with magical realism.

It is to be noticed the openness with which Jelloun speaks about gender identity in Islamic and North African culture and the echoes it leaves in the reader’s mind.

 

Looking back, I realize that I felt the “The Sand Child” slipping through my fingers, as he warned us in the title. But I also felt that the author offers the perspective of steep areas of human consciousness that I want to explore; after all, this is considered his debut book. And if I entered the Jelloun universe, I will stay here for a while, along with his more famous “The Pleasure Marriage”.

عزيزي الطاهر ، سأحفر المزيد من كونك!

(Dear Tahar, I will dig a little more into your Universe! – Arab language, Google translate)

 

Read more book reviews in Romanian by the author here.

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