Masculinity as Virility in Tahar Ben Jelloun's Work

Lahoucine Ouzgane
Department of English, University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Theme Masculinity - To be a man


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Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture
Volume 4 (Spring 1997): 1-13

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To be a woman is a natural infirmity and every woman gets used to it. To be a man is an illusion, an act of violence that requires no justification. Ben Jelloun, The Sand Child (70)

In the last ten to fifteen years, scholarly attention to gender issues in the Middle East and North Africa has been focused almost exclusively, sometimes obsessively, on a quest to understand femininity: what it is and how it is made and regulated--with Muslim women's oppression, the ever-lasting question of the hijab, and the practice of female genital mutilation receiving most of the scrutiny. But while this attention--by female and male scholars alike--to Muslim women is indeed a salutary one, masculinity in Islamic cultures has so far remained an unrecognized and an unacknowledged category that secures its power by refusing to identify itself. There are as yet no significant studies that make Muslim men visible as gendered subjects and that show that masculinities (like femininity) have a history and clear defining characteristics that are incomprehensible apart from the totality of gender relations in Muslim cultures.

In this paper, I wish to consider the different masculinities depicted in some of Tahar Ben Jelloun's major fiction. With more than twenty novels, two plays, and three poetry collections produced in the last thirty years, Ben Jelloun is undoubtedly the most prolific and best known contemporary francophone North African writer. Though he had earned several important literary awards before, his rise to literary and public prominence happened when he became the first African Arab writer to be awarded Le Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize, for his novel La nuit sacrée published in 1987. Ever since, some of his works have been translated into more than forty languages and The Sacred Night has recently been made into a film.

I will argue that in a world where social considerations have taken precedence over the religious, in a world where transcendence has given way to what René Girard describes as "mimetic rivalries," Ben Jelloun's characters, unable to know love as an "experience of transcendence," inevitably reduce (hegemonic) masculinity to virility, a fragile attribute sustained only through repeated acts of violence. It is indeed possible to read masculinities in such a setting as a set of distinctive practices which emerge from men's positioning within a variety of social structures. In short, masculinities in Ben Jelloun's fiction are perhaps best understood as relational constructs shaped only by men's social power.

The virile and the sterile man

In story after story, Ben Jelloun dramatizes the ways in which virility emerges as the essence of Arab masculinity, collapsing the sex/gender distinctions so prevalent in Western discourses. In the story "Un fait divers et d'amour" from Le premier amour est toujours le dernier (1995), a happily-married man with three children, Slimane, a taxi-driver, is accused of fathering the child of one of his passengers, but "The doctors were categorical: Slimane could not be the father of that child. He was sterile. He had always been sterile" (58; my translation). His illusion of masculinity shattered, Slimane turns to alcohol and to spending the night in his taxi. But though nobody in the story would believe her, I think there is some truth to the wife's thinking that she had never cheated on her husband and that her actions had been motivated by "love" for him, by her determination to make him happy in the eyes of his friends. In fact, at the beginning of the story, Slimane himself was full of praise for his "good" and "wonderful" wife, who had given him three beautiful children--a girl and two boys--and a great deal of happiness (56-57; my paraphrase). The wife's collusion, her willingness to let her husband maintain the social pretense, suggests the only kind of (negative) agency available in such a rigid male structure.

Ben Jelloun's short story "La vipère bleue" casts virility as a highly sought-after commodity, an ultimate object of desire among the men, but also as a magical power that cannot be contained. Unable to bear her husband's unfaithfulness any longer, Fatima seeks advice from a well-known fortune-teller, only to be told: "Your husband ... cheats on you and will always cheat on you. He cannot help it.... He is endowed with great power. He gives women what other men cannot. It's as if he was born to satisfy all those women whom chance had offered to impotent men. His role is to repair the damages" (51; my translation). The fortune-teller's words point to a fetishization, a fixation on virility that precludes a consideration of such feelings as vulnerability, connection, or empathy between men. Ali himself, the hypervirile husband, "who liked to drink, drive fast cars and steal other men's wives" (50), eventually falls victim to his over-identification with his penis.

The Sacred Night, a sequel to The Sand Child, continues the simple but strange tale of a Muslim father in the city of Marrakesh who, feeling publicly humiliated, especially in his brothers' eyes, for having produced only seven daughters, decides to raise his next child (who turns out to be yet another girl) as a boy, then as a man. Ben Jelloun's story opens with Hajji Ahmed Suleyman fully convinced that some heavy curse weighs on his life because, in a house "occupied" by ten women, he lives "as if he had no progeny," thinking of himself "as a sterile husband or a bachelor" (9). The Hajji has thoroughly internalized his culture's rigid ways in which men distinguish themselves and are distinguished from other men: those who have not fathered sons are invariably deemed less than "real" men; they are seen as having failed to control their wives. Contrary to what Malek Chebel claims--"That the reputation of a Muslim man depends on the number of his children" (648)--Hajji Suleyman knows only too well that a "son was the only thing that could give [him] joy and life" (20; my emphasis). His "crazy hope" becomes such an "obsession" (20) that he is determined to "challeng[e] divine will" (20). And when he happens to go to the mosque, instead of attending to the ritual Friday prayers, "[he] would work out complicated plans to get out of this miserable situation" (19). As he himself admits to Zahra just before his death, "It was exciting to have evil thoughts in a holy place, a place of virtue and peace" (19). The Hajji's dark desires and his perversion of the religious rituals speak his failure to sustain the public image of a powerful, virile man that his family and neighbors have come to expect of him.

The relations between the Hajji and his brothers have in fact never been good--jealousy and rivalry nourishing a petty, silent war, kept alive by their respective wives whenever they meet in the hammam. Before Zahra/Ahmed's birth, the Hajji could no longer bear the "polite words," the "hypocrisy," and the mockery of his two brothers, who arrive at the house at each birth "with a caftan and earrings, smiling contemptuously" (9). As if to underscore the fact that his brothers' feelings find their legitimacy in the culture at large, the Hajji tells Zahra: "I have to admit that in the mosque, I began to have the same ideas, and in their [his brothers'] place I would probably have had the same thoughts, the same desires and jealousies" (19-20). Even if the characters' social and family positions change, the structures sustaining the rivalries remain firmly in place because the men are unable or unwilling to relinquish their competitive desires.

Indeed, the brother as a sexual rival is a powerful motif in Arabic and Islamic literature. While most readers of the tenth-century stories of The Arabian Nights will remember Shahrazad's world of magic woven into the fabric of everyday life, few will recall the originary scene, so to speak, the scene that goes to prove that sexual rivalry between the two kings constitutes the foundation of this collection of stories that have enthralled western and eastern imaginations alike. When King Shahzaman, the younger brother, happens upon the unfaithfulness of his brother's wife, we are shocked by his reaction: "His face regained color and became ruddy, and his body gained weight, as his blood circulated and he regained his energy; he was himself again, or even better" (6; emphasis added). However, a few days before the incident, the younger brother himself had lost all will to live because his own wife had been unfaithful to him too, and "In his depression, he ate less and less, grew pale, and his health deteriorated. He neglected everything, wasted away, and looked ill" (4). To take a more recent example: it is possible to argue that in God Dies by the Nile (1974), considered by Nawal El Saadawi herself as her "most significant work," the rivalry between the Mayor of Kafr El Teen and his brother, the government minister, drives the novel's main plot. The first time we meet the Mayor, he is surrounded by his stooges: the Chief of the Village Guard, the Sheikh of the mosque, and the village barber--each trying to outdo the other in winning the Mayor's favour. But their efforts are in vain because he seems lost in his thoughts:

All day he had kept wondering why the moment he had seen his brother's picture in the newspaper a feeling of inadequacy and depression had come over him. He knew this feeling well. It was always accompanied by a bitterness of the mouth, a dryness of the throat which turned into a burning sensation as it moved down to his chest, followed by an obscure and yet sharp pain which radiated outwards from his stomach. (11)

While the physical symptoms between the King and the Mayor are remarkably similar (they are both sick and depressed), to re-assert their potency, they and King Shahrayar will embark on exactly the same course of action--female sacrifice: the two kings will start their legendary rapes of virgins until Shahrazad puts an end to them, and the Mayor will seduce twelve-year old girls until Zakeya, one of the village mothers, fells him with a hoe--a phallic symbol for tilling the ground fertile.

In Ben Jelloun's The Sacred Night, the father's decision to alter the course of Zahra's life, to bring her up as a male, can be read as another sacrifice--a symbolic burial of the female that harks back to the Al-Jahilia, the pre-Islamic period when female infants were actually buried alive to spare their families (particularly their fathers) the risk of shame and humiliation. The Hajji's action constitutes a sin the significance of which can be understood only in a social milieu that defines masculinity as a series of performances for the (invisible) men who loom large in one's imagination like strict judges of manhood. Thus, when the midwife cries out, "It's a man, a man, a man...," the Hajji arrives like a prince" and on his face and shoulders can be seen "all the virility of the world! At fifty, he felt as lighthearted as a young man" (17).

But the Hajji is not the only person involved in this defiance of divine will and in a perversion of family bonds. For the other characters too, religion, having been stripped of its communal significance, has nothing to offer, or, at best, is only a means for some immediate gain. Prayers become revenge tools or bargaining chips with God. Zahra's mother, who has submitted to her husband's iron will all her life, breaks her silence only once in the entire novel, imploring Zahra to pray with her and to ask that God grant her a chance for revenge against her husband. Later in The Sacred Night, when Zahra, still disguised as Ahmed, is called upon to lead the Friday prayer at her father's funeral, she explains why she enjoys taking her own revenge on a group of men whose sense of spiritual salvation lies elsewhere:

As I bent down low I couldn't help thinking of the animal desire my body, especially in that position, would have aroused in those men if they had only known that they were praying behind a woman..... (32)

The different religious rituals, having lost their power to structure the community's desires and hopes, are reconstituted into a convenient cover for the characters' real motives. In some cases, even God is invoked as a partner in crime. One night, on her way out of the village, Zahra is followed by a stranger: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate," he begins to chant, "Praise be to God, who has decreed that man's greatest pleasure lies in woman's warm insides" (56). He then proceeds with raping her. Thus, acts of absolute violence are rendered legitimate through Faith, and to prove their virility, some men--even in real life--will stop at nothing. In March 1993, in Casablanca, a Moroccan senior police officer was sentenced to death for the rapes, in the space of thirteen years, of close to five hundred women, including twenty minors. Serial rapist Hajji Hamid Tabet had even installed a hidden camera in his apartment to record his exploits: before the rapes, he would often pray and give thanks to Allah. So as to sustain his image of his own potency, the Hajji--a family man with two wives and five children--would often watch his previous performances before he went out on his street prowls--one more time. For some women, real life is far more brutal than fiction.

Homosexuality As Other

When the spiritual has been subjugated to social considerations, men, in Ben Jelloun's work, find their gratification in humiliating each other, or humiliating the foreigner, whose masculinity must be erased, making him the object of their sexual gossip. In short, the foreigner is constructed first and foremost as the homosexual to be despised--as we can see in the following scene from The Sand Child:

from time to time [the people] mentioned the spread of male prostitution in the city; they pointed their fingers at a European tourist flanked by two handsome boys. People here love sexual gossip. They spread it all the time. (112)

Sexual gossip regulates the different categories of men, and through it, the foreign male (like the native woman) emerges as a sexual battlefield. Projecting homosexuality onto the Other is meant to strengthen one's virile status in the eyes of one's friends, but as Daniel Vignal has remarked, "For the majority of Africans, homophilia is exclusively a deviation introduced by the colonialists or their descendants; by outsiders of all kinds.... It is difficult for them to conceive that homophilia might be the act of a black African" (74-75). Malek Chebel, for his part, has observed that "Passive homosexuality being despised, it's rare to find an Arab who will claim that identity" (315; my translation). In Naguib Mahfouz's Midaq Alley, Sheikh Darwish, a former teacher of English who acts as the novel's slightly deranged chorus, explains that "[Homosexuality] is an old evil. In English they call it 'homosexuality' and it is spelled h-o-m-o-se-x-u-a-l-i-t-y. But it is not love. True love is only for the descendants of Muhammad" (104).

But perhaps nowhere in North African literature is the association of homosexuality with the colonial experience better captured than in this central scene from Ben Jelloun's With Downcast Eyes (1991), the story of a young Moroccan girl's confrontation in Paris with the twin challenges of exile and immigration. Born under the weight of the prophecy that the salvation of her Berber community depends on her alone, Fathma decides to return to Morocco to fulfill her destiny. But as we find out by the end of the novel, real salvation cannot be expected from a woman. In this scene, Ahmed and Mohamed, two old men are comparing stories of their most cherished memories, memories (they hope) they will be given a chance to relive once they enter Heaven. Ahmed describes a "wonderful" moment in his youth when Mme Gloria, the wife of his French supervisor, could not resist his North African "hot blood." But Mohamed has a more compelling story, one in which the rhetorics of nationalist discourse and heterosexual masculinity are inextricably intertwined, but in which virility finally achieves its transcendent status:

My sublime reminiscence is a simple tale of water and dignity.... In this country you can own acres and acres, but if you don't have water to irrigate them, your land is worthless!... In those days, it was the caïd who doled out the water. But Abbas--that was our caïd, a wily, unfeeling little man--worked for the French colonials.... We had a good and fertile soil..... [and] enjoyed the blessings of God and nature. Until the night that Abbas, to please and serve his foreign masters, sent a band of henchmen to divert the stream... toward the land of the colonialists. (143-44)

When he is confronted, Abbas dismisses the villagers--including the oldest man in the village, Mohamed's father--as a "bunch of idiots." But Mohamed, barely sixteen and calm and clear-thinking in the midst of all the political turmoil, will not be intimidated--as he explains to his friend:

I am a religious man and I have nothing against prayers, but as you know, it wasn't with prayers that we drove out the colonials.... Abbas didn't like women. I knew that he received boys at night. He would leave his terrace door open. I knocked. He said, "Is that Nordine or Kamal? Get your ass in here, you son of a whore, you're late, hurry!" I moved toward his bed in the darkness. He was naked, on his belly. I climbed on the bed and pounced on him full force, planting my knife deep in his nape. (145-46)

When the village is rid of the tyrant, the water returns to its natural course, and for half a century, no one knows who has killed Abbas: "You are the first person to know my secret.... Now I am going to give you a present: here is the famous little knife of liberation" (146). Mohamed has managed to restore to the village not only its water but its symbolic virility as well. However, the part of his story that interests him most, the moment that he would like to experience in Paradise, takes place later:

The only part I want to relive is the day when the spring was liberated and the stream returned to our land. The children splashed water on themselves, the women, in sparkling dresses, danced along the edge of the stream, the men slaughtered an ox and sang with the women. It was an unforgettable day of festivities. I wept for joy... In the evening I went down into the valley and, for the first time, I found myself between the legs of a beautiful prostitute. She taught me what to do and didn't ask for money. (146)

The story raises questions about what it means to assume the armor of heroic masculinity: in addition to the prodigies of courage and endurance that seem natural to this kind of hero, Mohamed is not hindered by fears, scruples, doubt, or ambivalence; his "actions" represent the pattern of a virtuous and desirable masculinity, an ideal self, of the kind other men struggle for. And Abbas becomes the recipient of all that is negative; he becomes pure Other: the tyrannical oppressor of his people, a threat to the heterosexual order of the land, a usurper, treating his own people, his own race, as if they were an inferior race--all qualities that necessitate and legitimate his murder.

In the specific context of the two men swapping stories, the exercise is clearly one of sexual rivalry: Ahmed offers a conventional story of sexual conquest, but Mohamed--armed with the (phallic) power of a "very sharp knife," the kind used "for cutting up a sheep" (145)--manages to lose two virginities in one day, as if to suggest that violence qualifies one for sex. In this manner, virility emerges as the act of penetrating other spaces, other bodies.

Self as Fortress

Few episodes in Ben Jelloun's work capture the way in which his male characters understand their relationship to their own bodies better than the dramatic story of Antar (in The Sand Child), another tale of a woman disguised as a man, as a ruthless warrior chieftain and an exemplary man of legendary courage:

Sometime he would turn up veiled; his troops thought that he wanted to surprise them, but in fact he was offering his nights to a young man of rough beauty, a sort of wandering bandit... One night they fought, because, as they made love, she gained the upper position after forcing him to lie on his belly, and simulated sodomy. Though the man yelled with rage, she pinned him down with all her strength, immobilizing him, pressing his face into the ground.... He began to weep. She spat in his face, kicked him in the balls, left.... and never came back; the wounded bandit went mad... (61)

Ben Jelloun offers us the spectacle of that most masculine of men, the soldier, elaborately arrayed, in transgression of gender fixities. But what is most striking about the incident is the way in which it dramatizes the precarious nature of the dominant masculinity, and the way in which the ultimate fear of the Arab male is physical penetration by another. The fact that Antar is actually a woman only redoubles the injury and the humiliation in a social setting contemptuous of the "passive" (the penetrated) homosexual. One's sense of self, one's masculinity, is grasped through the territoriality of the body, through the perception of the body as a fortress that cannot be invaded by the Other. An invasion of this sacred space would amount to a dissolution of the boundaries of Self.


On the dust jacket of his latest collection of short stories, Le premier amour est toujours le dernier (1995), Ben Jelloun writes: "In my country, there is a rupture in the relationships between men and women. Within a couple, there is no harmony. Love is the reflection of a major violence" (my translation). My argument is that this rupture, this violence, exists between the men themselves and stems from the prevailing North African reduction of masculinity to virility. In turn, this reduction leads necessarily to an impoverishment of scope because such community bonds as affection, friendship, sympathy, solidarity, and fraternal love are systematically left out of the interactions between men. So, contrary to what Ben Jelloun thinks, the struggle is not really between men and women: woman is not man's true rival. But women--like a Zahra who is brought up as an Ahmed--are in fact victimized, sacrificed because they are invariably seen more as liabilities than assets in the men's sex wars. As Slimane's wife in "Un fait divers et d'amour" aptly notes, "Dans ce pays, un homme n'est jamais stérile" (58). When masculinity is perceived and lived out only in terms of virile power, when love--experienced as "infinite care," or as "a reverence for what is vulnerable in time"--is removed from men's understanding of sexuality, and when the religious and ethical structures of the society are ineffective, men in Ben Jelloun's fiction find themselves confronting the desolate world of what Girard has termed "internal mediation"--where even the most intimate dimensions of one's life cannot escape from the consequences of rivalry and violence.

A major international colloquium on love in Islam held in Paris in 1992 and attended by hundreds of writers and scholars from or of the Middle East and North Africa concluded that the region is currently going through a stage of dis-love: "un état de désamour" (35). Tahar Ben Jelloun's texts remain indeed inseparable from their context.

Works Cited

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Ben Jelloun, Tahar. 1983. L'Écrivain public. Paris: Seuil.

---. 1987. The Sand Child. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: HBJ.

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---. 1991. With Downcast Eyes. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

---. 1994. La Soudure fraternelle. Paris: Arléa.

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---. 1997. La Nuit de l'erreur. Paris: Seuil.

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1 An earlier version of this article appeared in Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, Volume 4 (Spring 1997): 1-13. My thanks to the editor for his kind permission to reprint this revised and slightly expanded version.