30 January 2012

Tahar Ben Jelloun: La Nuit sacrée |The Sacred Night (1987)

Ben Jelloun's La Nuit sacrée won the prix Goncourt in its year of publication, and is the sequel to L'Enfant du sable (The Sand Child) (1985). Both books take place in Morocco, and in the earlier novel the businessman father of the family seeks a family heir, which in this patriarchal society means that it must be a son. However, his wife gives birth to an eighth daughter. Deprived of a maculine descendant and facing humiliation and the future disinheritance of his immediate family in favor of that of his obnoxious elder brother, the father decides effectively to deprive his daughter Zahra of her female identity by concealing her gender from everyone and bringing her up as a son – Ahmed.

La Nuit sacrée continues the story on the father's deathbed, when he reveals Zahra's true sexual identity to her, the night before her twentieth birthday.* As one life ends, so one begins, and her father's death is not one of mourning for Zahra but 'A Very Beautiful Day', as she goes into the world to discover her identity as a woman.

Throughout the novel it is not always entirely clear what is real and what not, as some narrative sequences mix with dream elements, stories, and magic, although the feminist message is always clear.

When she begins her journey she taken by a cavalier to a perfumed garden peopled by children, and later continues through a wood where she undergoes a slightly ambiguous rape, and from there she goes to a hammam (Moorish or Turkish baths) whose attendant L'Assise (or The Seated One) has her stay at her home for some months, where she looks after her blind brother, the Consul.

Eventually Zahra begins a sexual relationship with the Consul, which is a revelation to her, and she comes to love the blind man. She realizes this can't last, and soon L'Assise (jealous and bitter) seeks out Zahar's uncle, who is furious at her deceit and accuses her of stealing his family's inheritance. Zahra thinks nothing of shooting him dead, but she is imprisoned. While in prison, her resentful sisters find her and subject her to clitoridectomy and infibulation.

Among other things, La Nuit sacrée is a dreamlike, poetic coming-of-age novel that is also a love story, a horror story, and feminist tract. And like L'Enfant du sable, it's been translated into English.

*This takes place on the 27th night of the month of Ramadan, or Lailatul Qadr', 'The Night of Destiny' ('La Nuit du destin') as the chapter is entitled, in fact it's the sacred night of the book's title.

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