Tahar Ben Jelloun Interview: A Writer Should Be A Witness

Tahar Ben Jelloun is considered one of the most important voices in the Arab world. Watch him talk frankly about ever-present matters such as religious conflicts and racism: “Mentalities don’t progress, and people keep reacting as they did five or six hundred years ago. As if nothing had been done in the progress of humankind.”

“A writer isn’t someone who’s locked in a room. He’s someone who should look around him and see the world where he lives while writing wonderful or less wonderful stories.” Jelloun’s writing career began in 1966, at a Moroccan army camp where he, along with 93 other students, was detained, beaten and exposed to psychological torture. At this time, he began writing poems, which he hid in his pockets (which the detainees were forced to sew shut, thus making them unable to warm their hands in them during the cold winter). Upon his release these “survival poems” were published in a magazine, paving the way for more writing: “So literature and writing came about, as Jean Genet used to say, after a drama, after a difficult trial.”

Jelloun writes a lot about racism, which he feels has always existed: “Man has always been afraid of his neighbour, of the unknown, of what he doesn’t know.” Though today, huge progress has been made in science and medicine, Jelloun argues that there is still “widespread fear of everything that’s different or comes from outside” just as “there’s always a minority of a people that’s pointed out as the unwanted people.” Moreover, he speaks harshly of the lack of humanity in a capitalist world where people prefer to throw away things rather than give them away: “Humanity isn’t something that interests power people and money people. The one who best represents this brutal, selfish, dangerous and criminal humanity is Donald Trump. And Trump isn’t alone. Trump is the symbol of an America, and even a world, that exists and thinks that poor people can die…” Finally, Jelloun also reflects on religion, which he believes should be about respecting each other’s beliefs and not a political tool or “ladder to gain power.”

Tahar Ben Jelloun (b. 1944) is a Moroccan-French novelist, poet and essayist. Although his first language is Arabic, he writes all his books in French. Jelloun was accorded widespread praise and recognition for his 1985-novel ‘The Sand Child’ (L’Enfant de Sable), and its sequel ‘The Sacred Night’ (La Nuit Sacrée) (1987) won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt – a first for an African-born writer – and inspired a film adaption. Other notable works include ‘Harrouda’ (1973), ‘The Fruits of Hard Work’ (Les raisins de la galère) (1996), ‘This Blinding Absence of Light’ (Cette aveuglante absence de lumière) (2000) and ‘The Marriage of Pleasure’ (Le marriage du plaisir) (2016). Jelloun is the recipient of prominent awards including the Golden Doves for Peace (1993), International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2004) and Prix Ulysse (2005) (for his entire body of work). In 2008 he was awarded the Cross of Grand Officer of the Légion d’honneur. He has resided in Paris since the early 1970s.

Tahar Ben Jelloun was interviewed by Tore Leifer at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark in connection with the Louisiana Literature festival in August 2018.

Camera: Klaus Elmer
Edited by: Roxanne Bagheshirin Lærkesen
Produced by: Christian Lund
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2019

Supported by Nordea-fonden

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