While he was interned in Morocco under the iron fist of King Hassan II, Tahar Ben Jelloun found an escape in James Joyce. Books were not allowed but he asked his brother for the thickest paperback he could find, and the smuggled gift was a French translation of Ulysses. In captivity, he was fascinated “by this writer’s liberty”.
The young Moroccan composed his first poems, in French, during those 18 months in army camp, after his arrest in 1966 for taking part in student demonstrations in Casablanca. The experience was pivotal.
“At 21, I discovered repression and injustice – that the army would shoot students with real bullets,” he says. He sought exile in Paris in 1971, and, now aged 61, is one of France’s most fêted writers, and its most prominent author from the Maghreb. As well as poetry, fiction, plays and essays, he writes for France’s Le Monde, Italy’s La Repubblica and Spain’s El País.
Much of his fiction is set in Morocco, though his main inspiration, Tangier – “where it’s possible to see the Atlantic and the Mediterranean at the same time” – is “more a memory than a city”.
more from Guardian Unlimited Books here.