Tahar Ben Jelloun is one of the established North African post-colonial authors. Despite the fact that his mother tongue is Arabic, the totality of his literary work is written in French. He is best known for his novel L’Enfant de Sable (The Sand Child, 1985).
Jelloun was born to a shopkeeper and his wife on December 1, 1944, in Fez, Morocco. He received his early education from a bilingual, Arabic-French elementary school. He attended the French high school Lycée Regnault in Tangier and later moved to Rabat to study philosophy at Mohammed V University. It was this educational institute from where he began his writing career. During his studies he joined the literary journal Soufflés (Breaths) and later he published a poetry collection. During mid 1960’s he protested against the violent behavior of Moroccan police. Consequently, he was punished by being sent to a military camp. Afterwards, he penned his first collection of poems, Hommes Sous Linceul de Silence, in 1971.
Upon completion of his degree he emigrated from Morocco to France and enrolled at the Université de Paris. He also worked for a literary magazine, “Le Monde” and subsequently, earned a Ph. D in psychiatric social work. His experience as a psychotherapist facilitated him in his creative writing which he also used as the subject of his dissertation, La Plus Haute des Solitudes. Jelloun published his first novel, Harrouda, in 1973. His second novel was based on his dysfunctional patients’ account which he fictionalized in La Reclusion Solitaire (1976). Almost ten years later he produced his fourth novel, titled L’Enfant de Sable, and upon its translation in English, Jelloun established his position as a major literary writer. Its sequel, La Nuit Sacrée (The Sacred Night), was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1987. Jelloun is considered to be the first Moroccan writer to have received the prestigious accolade.
According to critics, Jelloun’s medium of writing is one of the interesting factors. It is as if he particularly tries to cater the French readers, relinquishing his native language in favor of foreign language. His novel, Les Yeux Baisses, narrates the story of a Moroccan girl, who develops admiration for French language and aspires to be a French writer. The plot of this novel can be directly compared to Jelloun’s own situation. The author shared his views regarding the matter that he feels more comfortable writing in French, nonetheless, Arabic is also integral to his development as a writer. Therefore, it can be said that bilingualism not only serves as his medium of writing but also the subject matter of his works. Word that he uses in French to refer to something have slightly altered meaning in Arabic which adds dual meaning and complexity to his literary works.
Another feature of his writing, that has been critiqued on is the incorporation of Moroccan culture in his works primarily written for French audience. The attempt alienates the readers, rendering it difficult for them to relate to the subject matter. However, Jelloun’s reference to Moroccan society and his condemnation of its certain aspects earned him praise from numerous organizations. The Fruits of Hard Work is one example that sheds light on women’s unequal treatment in a Moroccan patriarch society. The female protagonist is shown to struggle against these norms to attain equality.
Tahar Ben Jelloun is credited for prolifically contributing in the genre of poetry, play, novel, short story and non-fiction. He currently resides in Paris with his wife and daughter.