“The novel of French expression is where one finds the most audacity in contesting the social order,” Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun once said, referring to the curious practice of writing Arabic literature in the colonial tongue. “This use of the Other’s language is considered by some as treason.” As more translations trickle in, Anglophone readers are getting a much-needed glimpse into the unorthodox recesses of the Arab mind — as expressed in the countercultural writings of the post-independence Maghreb. This underappreciated North African region has recently produced far more ambitious and modern work than such former giants of Arabic literature as Egypt and Iraq.
Ben Jelloun’s latest novel, The Last Friend, recounts the 40-year friendship of two Moroccans, Mamed — a slight, chain-smoking joker — and Ali, whose pale complexion, intellectual aloofness and birthplace of Fez liken him to the author. Their evolution mirrors that of a country, caught between Islamic traditions and the sensual inhibitions of Tangier, growing ever more culturally and politically complicated. After a careless adolescence, Mamed and Ali dabble in socialist groups only to become ensnared in a military detention camp, where their bond deepens. Set free after 18 months by a royal pardon, Ali remains in Morocco while Mamed goes to Sweden. In the end, a grave illness challenges their friendship. Just when all seems lost, one receives a letter from the other, an epistolary bang expressing characteristically effusive Moroccan grief. Born of an insular and fraternal society, this emotion — an honor for men to display — is beautiful for its nakedness and spiritual scope, but also regrettable in the way it excludes others, notably women and children. Male friendship in the Maghreb, with its “platonic” kisses and hand-holding, is seen in the West as an exotic near-homosexuality. Ben Jelloun shows that these happy, innocent images conceal a dangerous underside that can swallow men and their families whole.
The Last Friend | By Tahar Ben Jelloun | New Press | 176 pages | $22 hardcover