Archive by Author

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.

Amazon Book Review Link:


The Vulnerability of Concrete

11 Apr

I find Priyanka’s post on Chamoiseau’s argument for Relation very useful, especially when describing the relation between the country, Texaco, and City.  If City represents life, then the final age of Texaco’s history – the “Age of Concrete” – is “the definite sign of a step forward in life” (356).  Even though concrete incorporates some of the life and comfort of City into Texaco and makes the hutches more stable, Texaco retains a vulnerable relationship with City.  Marie-Sophie describes the growing vulnerability of material loss that coexists with the establishment of immobile modern comforts like concrete when she observes that “with our homes built in concrete we began to feel the need for certainties and for conveniences which, strangely enough, we would sorely miss all the sudden” (365).

The relationship Marie-Sophie describes is not just a dichotomy between urban and rural or the urban and the slums, but a multidirectional flow of people, ideas, and materials.  For example, we talked about the symbiotic relationship between City and the Quarters in class, where the clean modernity of City depends on its displaced victims in the Quarters to perform City’s dirty and menial jobs.  Simultaneously, the displaced in the Quarters rely on the trash and jobs of City in order to survive.  However, the role of concrete – and the other waste products of City and its previous manifestations (i.e. the sugarcane plantations and the sugar factories) – in this City/Quarter Relation seems to counteract this multidirectionality.  The description of the Age of Concrete in the timeline at the beginning of the book indicates a linear flow of influence from City to Texaco “as the fall of economic production inaugurates the reign of the city, glorious concrete transforms shacks into villas” (6).  In this ‘historical’ summary, the city’s concrete transforms the shacks of the Quarters “into villas,” but the Quarters have no influence on the city.  Returning to the theme of vulnerability, concrete ultimately makes Texaco more vulnerable to City, especially after City begins bulldozing unrecognized Quarters around Fort-de-France.  Marie-Sophie again tells the Urban Planner, “And we began, in deathly anguish, to wait our turn – having suddenly understood that despite the concrete our Texaco remained a fragile embryo” (369).  Whereas with hutches made of mobile materials like straw, tin, and even asbestos, Texaco could rebuild after being destroyed, concrete’s destruction is definite.

The Rise of Slums and the Fall of Gardens

5 Apr

In “Planet of the Slums” Mike Davis describes the rapid growth of slums – urbanization decoupled from industrialization and development – in the developing world since the debt crises of the 1970’s and the resulting IMF structural adjustment programs.  However, Patrick Chamoiseau shows in Texaco that this process began long before the 1970’s, with roots in the slavery-based sugar and coffee plantation system.   The structural conditions that facilitated the urban poverty of modern slums began with the exploitive plantation system, where both the fertility of the land and the life of the slaves working the land were extracted in the form of sugar and coffee exported to Europe.  However, because of the rural nature of the plantations, slaves sustained themselves with the agricultural knowledge they brought with them from Africa; even after the natural disasters (e.g. hurricanes and droughts) that devastated the cash crops of Esternome’s béké, the slaves were managed to survive off the food of their “invisible gardens” and knowledge of the land:

The slaves, used to sagging bellies, brought back from invisible gardens enough to stand on their legs.  What’s more, they were able to grab the river’s crayfish, make the lapia fish drunk with a bark juice, trap the flesh of migrating prey.  And though it wasn’t enough for a feast of first communion, this averted the famine for the Béké and his servants on top of hectares of cane and coffee. (45)

After emancipation in 1848, the newly freed slaves temporarily escaped the exploitive French colonial system by fleeing to hills like Noutéka, but after the industrialization of sugar production and the rise of the Factor, “The great conquests of the hills was piteously going down the Factory’s heap of connecting rods, its greasy straps, its tanks and pipes” (140).  The gardens of the hills and the knowledge needed to cultivate them were the only means to truly attain independence from colonial exploitation in Martinique; by abandoning the gardens and their knowledge, many former slaves returned to the new slavery of the Factory.

Yet this knowledge was not completely forgotten, because even in the Quarter of the Wretched, Esternome tells Marie-Sophie through her narration to “the Christ,” “We still held on to scraps of our survival instincts” (191).  Esternome and other former slaves who had remembered how to garden grew “subsistence gardens around Fort-de-France, like in the old days around the plantation…But it wasn’t enough to feed all of City” (191).  Even though they retain some independence through food, the inhabitants of the Quarter of the Wretched still depend on the City for their livelihoods, since “City composed the Quarter with its mound of scraps, made-in-here, made-in-there” (172).  Eventually, as the rate of urbanization increases and more of the marginalized concentrate themselves on the City’s periphery, land available for the gardens declines, creating the modern slums described by Davis.

“We are the Delta”

27 Mar

Throughout Helon Habila’s Oil on Water, the degradation of the environment and the people seem to reflect each other.  When the Major talks to Rufus as they approach Irikefe Island, he warns the young reporter,

–Be prepared for what you are about to see.  Irikefe is now mostly ashes and rubble, bombed by the gun helicopter over there.  Not a hut is left standing…

[Rufus responds,] –What of the people?

–Most of them would still be there, I suppose.  But expect a lot of casualties, unavoidable, of course.  This is a war zone…” (166)

In this exchange, the “ashes and rubble” of Irikefe resemble the detritus of the “unavoidable” human “casualties” of the worshipers and villagers.  This resemblance between the status of the land and the people on the land transcends a mere mirroring, and instead argues for an intrinsic, inseparable link between humans and the environment in the Niger Delta.  The bond between people and the earth is most explicitly stated during Rufus’s interview with Henshaw, one of the “militants” locked up at the Major’s military camp: “–We are the people, we are the Delta, we represent the very earth on which we stand” (163).

Through its role as a nexus of the physical and living, the Niger Delta epitomizes Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence”: “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (2).  The slow violence that Rufus observes is a gradual process, as fish, wildlife, and crops slowly die from chronic oil spills and flaring and villages, like Chief Ibiram’s,  slowly migrate from place to place in hope of an illusive better life.  But this violence is hidden in the fog of the Delta, nameless, just like the island, which the group of journalists expected to meet the militants ransoming Isabel Floode; not until page 168, when Zaq and Rufus return to Irikefe with the Major and hear the account of the violence that happened on the island before the reporters arrived that the reader learns its name – Agbuki.  This theme of namelessness is also seen in Rufus’ neglect to ask the old man and his son – Zaq and Rurus’s guides – for their names until well into their journey.  When something is nameless, whether the environment or the people living there, they are powerless, unable to tell their story of their slow violence.

The Kinship of Colonialism and Traditionalism

1 Mar

To prime our discussion of the breakdown of the binary in Seasons of Migration, I’ll begin with B. Caminero-Santagelo’s “Legacies of Darkness: Neocolonialism, Joseph Conrad, and Tayeb Salih’s ‘Season of Migration to the North'”, which critiques of Said’s reading of Seasons of Migration as a novel predominantly concerned with colonialism:

However, because Said places Salih’s novel in the context of such a struggle with the “colonist,” he, like Makdisi, fails to see that the real object of scrutiny in Season of Migration is the Sudanese themselves, who have inculcated the colonial mindset and ignored their own particular manifestations of it (Caminero-Santangelo, 9).

Instead of just critiquing the dichotomy of neo-colonialism, Caminero-Santagelo argues Salih highlights the close kinship of colonialism and traditionalism, which both resist change and blame “foreign” influences for any problems that occur.  For instance, when the narrator returns after Hosna Bint Mahmoud’s murder and suicide, no one in the village tells him what happened, except for Bint Majzoub only after she receives outside support from the “foreign” whisky.  When the narrator asks his grandfather, Hajj Ahmed – the embodiment of the best of Sudan’s traditional society – his grandfather blames the “trouble” on Hosna’s ‘foreign’ tribe, not on the exploitation of women present in the village’s traditionalist patriarchal society (Salih, 102).  The objectification of women also characterizes European colonial society, which condones Mustafa Sa’eed’s exploitation of women in his quest to “‘liberate Africa with [his] penis’” (Salih, 100). Sa’eed’s colonial exploitation of his lovers and wife, like Wad Rayyes’ objectification of Hosna, both result in the death of women refusing to subject themselves as objects to their husbands’ socially-approved sexual desires.

            To keep this post a reasonable length, I’ll leave the discussion of other examples of this parallel between colonialism and traditionalism for class (if everyone else finds this argument as interesting as I do).  I’ll simply conclude by questioning how far Caminero-Santangelo’s parallel can extend, given the unequal power relationship between the progressive ‘colonial’ and the backwards ‘traditional’ – even though the problems of traditionalism are prevalent in Seasons of Migration, the subtle intrusion of the ‘neo-colonial’ through the simple transfer of colonial power from colonists to the elite, Western-educated Sudanese (e.g. Sa’eed).  Instead of just dealing with the resistance to unwanted change in traditionalism (e.g. the liberation of women), Sudan is also ideologically and economically dependent on its former colonizers.  Together, these two factors make finding an independent identity difficult, although not impossible. 

Bluring the Black and White

22 Feb

Frantz Fanon essentially argues that the only way to achieve complete freedom from European colonial domination is “nothing short of the liberation of the man of color from himself” (8).  He proposes a liberation through the understanding of the racial inferiority complex caused by “the juxtaposition of the white and black races” (12); but I question the importance Fanon places on this juxtaposition.  In hunter-gatherer and other “pre-state” societies (i.e. small-scale societies without a functioning state or state-like system) Jared Diamond argues in The World until Yesterday that there were only three groups of people: known members of the community, known enemies, and (rarely) strangers that were assumed to be enemies.  So isn’t the perceived superiority of European culture and reason used as a way to distinguish between ‘members of the community’ and ‘foreigners who are probably enemies?’  If Africa had been full of whiteness instead of blackness, would the outcome of slavery and colonization really have been any different?  Wouldn’t a cultural distinction still have been invoked to separate “Europeans” from “Africans”?

I’m not implying that we ignore racism, but questioning Fanon’s solution for liberating the blackness from the idea of weakness and victimhood.  Instead of focusing on identifying the dichotomy of white and black, which only adds to the loss of identity of those who are “Not yet white, no longer wholly black” (138), wouldn’t it be more constructive to adopt elements of the white into the black, and the black into the white in a process of transculturation?  The white and black have become so entwined with each other that one cannot exist without the other. Even Aimé Césaire’s embrace of negritude can only be a means of identifying the elements of the blackness that could enrich the white, not an end in of itself.  Through a mutual process of cultural enrichment, the white can be redeemed by regaining the negritude’s captivation with “the essence of things” (Césaire, 35) while the black can achieve liberation from ideological domination of the white.

The Rise of the White Creole Zombie

8 Feb

Like Joellyn, I too see England and the other European colonial powers as a zombie makers in the Caribbean, although I think the link Joellyn makes between being a zombie and being colonized goes deeper than just political, economic, and cultural domination.  Through colonialism and the migration of Europeans to the Caribbean, England and France created the  “white creole” – a people that do not fit completely in neither European nor Caribbean society.  We discussed in class the evolving term “creole”, but regardless of which definition Rhys intended, “creole” is still a term used to describe a mixture of cultures, so “white creoles” like Antoinette, her mother, and her father, are a mixture of Europe and the Caribbean with an ambiguous race, culture, and identity.  European are “[r]eal white people, they got gold money” while “old time white people [i.e. white creoles] nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger” (Rhys, 14).

Had the European colonizers not come to the Caribbean, the class of white creoles never would have been created.  But after they were created, these white creole plantation owners (e.g. Alexander Cosway) immediately became dependent on Europe as a market to sell their sugar cash crop.  But when England abolishes slavery in 1833, it transforms these white creoles, dependent on slavery for sugar cane cultivation and processing, into a type of zombie by forcing them to change the life they had known; in the process, the white creoles mentioned in Wide Sargasso Sea are transformed from “real white people” with “gold money” into “white niggers”.  The white creole’s new state of alienation from both Caribbean and English societies resonates with Sandra Drake’s argument that “the zombi’s state is symbolic of alienation on the social as well as the individual level” (199).  So in answer to Joellyn’s question – If Antoinette had refused to be called by a name that is not hers, or if she had refused to travel to England, would she have lost her culture and, in doing so, lost herself? – I think she would have lost her culture and her self because she, and the other white creoles, had already undergone a process of “zombification” through colonialism; the story of Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea is therefore a story of England’s zombification of the white creoles in the British colonies in the Caribbean.

The Distancing of Communication

1 Feb

While reading the Fabian piece, I was struck by his bold claim that there is an inherent distancing in the conceptualization of communication, which requires a sender, a message, and a receiver – “even in communication-centered approaches that seem to recognize shared Time we can expect to find devices of temporal distancing” (31).  Since the novel is a powerful method of communication, as both Said and the class defend, the novel itself must also suffer from this distancing of communication between the author and audience.  Does this distancing of communication, both temporal (i.e. the time that passes between when the message is sent and received) and spatial (i.e. the distance between the author’s experience and location and those of the reader) contribute to the distancing of the Imperial discourse?  Or does this distancing inherent in communication/literature weaken the strength of the Imperial discourse because, as Said argues, “the structure connecting novels to one another has no existence outside the novels themselves, which means that one gets the particular, concrete experience of [the distanced] ‘abroad’ only in individual novels” (76).  I think that this communicative distancing has strengthened Britain and France’s Imperial identity, since this distancing further excludes the “Other” from the discourse.  Non-Western novelists and readings of these great European novelists have thus had to overcome an even greater distance than argued by Said in order to reach the ideal contrapuntal readings of literature that developed during Imperialism – in addition to justifying an alternative colonial narrative, critics of Imperialism have had to overcome the temporal distance protecting the novels themselves as a form of communication  and their canonized status in the halls of British/French culture.  Given this hurdle, the time it has taken to reach an acknowledgement of the need for a contrapuntal analysis in comparative literature is not surprising.

The Survival of Capitalism and the “Heart of Darkness”

25 Jan

Conrad’s depiction of Africa as a place where “the earth seemed unearthly” (32), where the “stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace” (30), and where “the steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy” (32) portrays traditional African societies as unnatural – a place of constant motion and restlessness.  With motion come shadows and darkness that threaten to infect the “pure” European “civilization”, with what Chinua Achebe describes as the remembrance of its “forgotten darkness.”  In contrast, Europe’s social and economic order relies on consistence and control – an order that Conrad describes through Marlow as “‘accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster,’” whether it be the earth itself or non-European societies.  European capitalism cannot exist without clearly defined ownership rights; a land that is simultaneously still, but not at peace, and frenzied cannot sustain this European system.

Kurtz tried to retain his European “light” of industry, civilization, and culture in the “heart of darkness”, but proved unable to sustain it without a solid base to build upon.  However, even though Kurtz’s civilizing mission succumbed to the “forgotten darkness,” the capitalist system that he introduced into the center of Africa survives, even though it is in a weakened form.  Despite Kurtz’s illness, he continued sending “in as much ivory as all the others put together” (16).  The “ivory” in this case represents both the economic motive of capitalism to exploit all the resources it can from the “conquered monster,” and acts as a symbol for the extraction of all light from Africa.  Towards the end of Marlow’s tale, company officials describe how Kurtz’s unconventional practices had set the company back, but had not completely ruined it.  Capitalism, like the “primeval forests” of Africa, is able to adapt to and overcome all the challenges it encounters because of its conflicting properties of creative destruction, where “innovation” can only occur with the destruction “inefficiencies.”