Amazon Book Review: An Ambiguous Quest for Identity in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s ‘The Sand Child’

15 Apr

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sand Child is the story – or more accurately the legend – of Hajj Ahmed Suleyman’s eighth daughter, whom he raises as a man during Morocco’s French Protectorate period to circumvent Islam’s inheritance laws. Throughout the novel Hajj Ahmed’s daughter struggles with the issue of gender identity, oscillating between being the male Ahmed and female Zahra. This ambiguous and fluctuating identity coincides with a confusing and often difficult to follow narrative structure that resembles the oral narrative of the traditional Moroccan storyteller reciting the legend of the life of “our character” Ahmed/Zahra to a crowd of listeners in the square of Marrakech. But halfway through the novel, the storyteller suddenly dies, leaving the story of Ahmed/Zahra unfinished. In an attempt to finish the story, three of the storyteller’s most dedicated listeners `take turns completing’ Ahmed/Zahra’s legend. Each telling results in a different ending, undermining the possibility of one true ending, just as Ahmed/Zahra never attains one stable identity. Instead, our character, in all of the tellings of his/her life, confesses at the end of the novel, “`After all, I don’t even know who I am!'” (146). While the convoluted narrative structure and rapid cycling of narrators make The Sand Child overly complicated at times, these narrative strategies are indispensable in conveying Ahmed/Zahra’s tortuous journey for identity.

Ahmed/Zahra’s ambiguous status between male and female reflects Moroccan society on two levels. First, Ahmed/Zahra’s ability to function as a male in Morocco despite being born a woman critiques the patriarchal society of Ben Jelloun’s home country. Simultaneously, this confusion of gender reflects Morocco’ struggle to establish a fixed identity in relation to the European influences of the French Protectorate and post-independence period after 1956. One apparent shortcoming of The Sand Child is its lack of character depth, yet the difficulty, if not impossibility, of obtaining a solidified identity is precisely the point of Ahmed/Zahra’s legend.
Ben Jelloun further reflects Morocco’s identity crisis by brilliantly challenging the bildungsroman’s conventional coming of age story through Ahmed/Zahra’s unresolved quest for identity. The narrative invokes Morocco’s rich and often romanticized nomadic tradition, and ultimately mirrors the challenge many Moroccans face in rooting their identities in the midst of modernization. In one rendition of our character’s story, Ahmed/Zahra joins a circus troupe, which Abbas, the circus’s master of ceremonies, likens to a nomadic tribe: “`We are nomads… Everything is false, and that’s what we’re about. We don’t hide it'” (91). Like the circus, our character lacks a rooted identity, constantly wandering as a stranger, “Sometimes a man, sometimes a woman” (96). However, Ahmed/Zahra’s unresolved gender identity reveals the paradox of searching for identity – our character journeys to other places to “return to [him]self,” but by constantly wandering through other lands and other stories, Ahmed/Zahra never finds a place for identity to take root. Instead of a rooted identity, Ahmed/Zahra only finds more questions: “`Am I a human being or an image? A stone in a faded garden or a stout tree? Tell me, what am I?” (34).

Written in 1985, The Sand Child’s theme of uncertain identity remains as relevant as ever in post-Arab Spring Morocco. The revolutions of 2011 across the Middle East echo the continued struggle to find an identity in Morocco and across the Arab world, especially for those who do not fit in with modernity, like the storyteller of Ahmed/Zahra’s tale who was cleared away from the square in Marrakech for “a useless fountain” (104). Ben Jelloun’s novel is ultimately the story of wasted lives – those who have lost both their voice and a narrative to make sense their lives, either in Morocco’s patriarchal society or path to modernity.

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