Postcolonial Text / Author

Deconstructing Home and Exile: The Subversive Politics of Tahar Ben Jelloun's With Downcast Eyes

Salah Moukhlis
California State University San Marcos

Little known at the time of its inception in the fifties, francophone literature of the Maghreb today represents a unique literary and cultural phenomenon. Maghrebian francophone fiction comprises a diverse body of writing both thematically and stylistically. Not having a novelistic tradition to draw from and having inherited a language that is not their own, Maghrebian francophone writers have often been in a position which resists classification and belonging. Their literary production described sometimes as a form of bastardy, some of them turn this illegitimacy into a subversive strategy to transcend monolithic thought and champion plurality and diversity. As Danielle Marx-Scouras observes, these writers have "succeeded in exploiting the alterity, bastardy, and treachery implied by writing in the adversary's language, recognizing that these apparently negative attributes are precisely what characterize the avant-garde specificity of Maghrebine Francophone literature" (4). Maghrebian authors who have opted for the ex-colonizer's language as their primary medium of expression continue to operate within the borderline of two conflicting cultures, languages, and identities. They are continuously in search for new pathways into a plural identity that lies beyond the demands of any national or regional allegiance. As Marx-Scouras further argues, "The very nature of Maghrebine Francophone writing dissociates literature from the concept of nationality. The Francophone writer is necessarily trans-national, transcending the artifice of national language, literature, and identity" (8).

One of the salient yet controversial literary figures of this literature is Tahar Ben Jelloun. His literary corpus which extends over thirty years has constantly been under attack by critics accusing him of exoticizing his culture, writing primarily to cater to the needs of a Western audience, and feeding male fantasies about women by orientalizing his own people. Referring specifically to his Sandchild and Sacred Night which won him the coveted Goncourt Prize, Anouar Majid, for instance, locates him amongst a cohort of westernized writers whose work contributes to reinforcing the epistemological attack on Islam. He maintains, "The West's crusade against Islam has been joined by westernized Muslim writers such as Tahar ben Jelloun, Driss Chraibi, and the Indian-born Salman Rushdie, who have all attempted to depict Islam as a reactionary force that has set back or destroyed the freedoms of women and writers and eclipsed the traditions of non-Arab peoples" (325). Evelyne Accad takes him to task in Sexuality and War: Literary Masks of the Middle East, describing him as a chauvinist "who superficially seems to advocate women's liberation, while deeply perpetuating all the stereotypes that feed the male fantasy of women" (153). Kaye and Zoubir accuse him of being a self-orientalizing author who ‘prostitutes' his work to his French audience. For, as they argue, "Only western readership whose taste has been debased by its participation in the hegemonic inferiorization of other cultures could provide an audience for this kind of decadence and give it a prize" (43).

Ben Jelloun may not be free from exoticizing and orientalizing, yet his work foregrounds many problems in the Maghreb that official discourse, for ideological and political reasons, chooses to keep in the background. Yes, his work includes sexual scenes, rape, and what may be interpreted as self-orientalizing. However, unlike cultural purists who play the ostrich, Ben Jelloun shocks his reader into acknowledging such aspects of Maghrebian and Arab society that many prefer to obfuscate. If Ben Jelloun includes such scenes in his work, it is simply because they exist in his society and are part of its reality. As Mustapha Marrouchi explains, the depiction of women and sexuality in Ben Jelloun's work is not simply a matter of entertaining his audience or meeting the demands of a male chauvinist readership:

but is always bound up with issues of power, violence, and pain, whether explicitly through sadomasochism and rape or implicitly through a generalized oppression. Women in Ben Jelloun are both sexually exploited and sexually voracious, an antonymy that generates a cascade of complex discourses, crystallized in the figure of the outlaw heroine like Zina or Zahra, flaunting her independence, defying her oppressors, and bolting in desperation, abject and humiliated. (284-5)

Despite the widely divided opinion about Ben Jelloun and his work, he remains an essential figure of Maghrebian francophone fiction and an author who, over the years, has remapped its topography. His work sometimes misunderstood, sometimes championed is inspired from the heart of the Moroccan and Arab cultural landscape and from the historical diversity of the Maghreb. His stories reflect a deep understanding of and commitment to his native land. He masterfully imbricates his native oral tradition in Western literary paradigms to create a world of fiction unique to him. His narratives, far from being sheer exotic representations of Morocco, are invariably concerned with pertinent problems that plague his motherland. Diversified in its subject matter and subversive in its technique, his work focuses on such issues as the situation of women under patriarchy, gender relations, identity construction, and the life of the North African immigrant community in France.

The purpose of this essay is to use With Downcast Eyes to argue that Ben Jelloun's aim is to subvert hierarchies and upset monolithic renditions of identity especially in the postcolonial Maghreb. The text whose setting shifts between a Moroccan village at the bottom of the Haut Atlas and France sets up many binary oppositions only to deconstruct them. This essay will analyze these oppositions and will engage some of the deconstructive strategies deployed by Ben Jelloun to argue for a plural cultural identity. The text clearly shows that received notions of identity as a historically and geographically determined entity are unsustainable in a postcolonial and global context. Ben Jelloun's characters often lie beyond the restrictions of one-dimensionality. They defy national, gender, class, and racial categorization. The narrative invites us to a polarized description of home and exile; Fatma, the first-person narrator, valorizes everything that is Western and denigrates everything that is local. Her discourse at the beginning humanizes the west and villainizes her village. The text then sets out to deconstruct a number of binary oppositions including home/exile; orality/written western narrative, traditionalism/modernity, masculinity/femininity, nationalism/individualism, history/fiction, monolithicism/pluralism.

With Downcast Eyes details the story of its protagonist Fatma as she leaves her village in the Haut Atlas to live with her father, an immigrant, in Paris after her brother dies. The narrative focuses on the growing self-awareness of the first-person narrator as she moves from one socio-cultural space to another and from one identity to another. As a split subjectivity, Fatma provides a clear example of the postcolonial subject in her search for a stable identity and for a space where her cultural and historical plurality can be expressed. Fatma's story becomes all the more interesting since she, as a woman, has also to struggle against patriarchal structures of gender relations. Through her character, Ben Jelloun puts women at the heart of village life and of family ethics. He codifies them as the guardians of culture, the bearers of its secrets, and, at the same time, the ones who hold the key to its salvation. Fatma is placed in a position where she is inexorably linked to her historical and cultural identity. Yet this position is put in perspective once she leaves for Paris with her parents. The rest of the narrative chronicles Fatma's ebbs and flows between these two loci which represent two starkly different epistemologies and civilizations. The text is constructed along carefully juxtaposed dichotomies within which logic Fatma looks for her identity and tries, albeit unsuccessfully, to recover a wholeness that she has already lost to the pulling forces of sameness and difference.

The early chapters of the novel focus on Fatma's dialectical relationship to her village and its historical and socio-economic life. The daughter of an émigré in France, she lives with her abusive aunt in a remote Moroccan village. Her early memories of her motherland register a painful absence of her father and are metaphorically linked to the character of the aunt, a signifier of dehumanization, cruelty and even murder. Fatma recollects, "She struck me. She had certainly recognized me, but she kept hitting me as if I were a sack of hay, I counted the blows" (9). The aunt and the original space are combined in Fatma's consciousness as reminders of a damaging childhood and an early life full of pain, suffering and rejection. This has created a double association with the village; on the one hand it is the place that marks the absence of the father and his protection, an absence that is supplanted with the unrelenting cruelty of the aunt. On the other hand, the village is the birthplace where, according to a prophecy made by her ancestors, Fatma's destiny is supposed to be fulfilled. Like many postcolonial and displaced subjectivities, Fatma then suffers the pangs of alienation and ambivalence which translate into her ambiguous feelings toward her native socio-cultural space; "I loved this village, its hills, its trees, its mud and its people. This was my village. I carried inside me, even though it didn't resemble the real village" (9).

Outside her immediate family, Fatma further remembers her rejection by the fqih and the educational system. The school as a religious institution allows no place for women, as the religious teacher cynically points out when Fatma dresses like a boy in order to be admitted to school, "‘Blind, of course, but not stupid ... Females, I can spot them, they smell bad.... Let's get on with it.' From that day forward, school became my only dream. Not the school that didn't like girls, but the other school, the one that trains engineers, teachers, pilots ..." (18). The village that she is historically and ontologically linked to and which she is supposed to rescue "had to be a mistake" (17).

Rejected and ostracized, Fatma develops her own mechanisms of coping with her reality. Her ambiguous love toward her village has led her to create an alternative imaginary space where she can dream about unification with her father whom she sees only occasionally during Summer breaks. To compensate for the absence of the father figure and to escape the aunt, Fatma retreats to "an ideal hiding place in the mountain - a kind of breach in the rock, resembling a small grotto. I thought of it as my home away from home, my refuge, my tomb" (20). In this imaginary locus she is allowed to voice her frustrations and act out her desires of vengeance from the abusive aunt. This crack in the rock provides a sense of accomplishment where Fatma escapes her social alienation and reconciles herself with a world that she can create only through her imaginary characters. This space is used by the narrator to free herself from the hegemonies that suppress her and negate her existence. In it, she recreates an alternative reality in which her desires are fulfilled and her anger is abated. The pebbles become members of her family and this "secret garden, [her] Koran school, [her] illuminated house" (21).

To further forge a space for her subjectivity, Fatma, in a highly subversive gesture, steals a Koran board "on which I wrote letters that were neither Berber, Arabic, nor foreign. They were signs that belonged to me; I was the only person who knew what they stood for, who knew their meaning and destiny" (22). The Koran board, reserved only for boys who will eventually write on it laws of patriarchy, becomes also Fatma's tool for inscribing her own identity and destabilizing a male-dominant ideology. The Koran board becomes a palimpsest on which Fatma symbolically chooses to write a plural and multi-dimensional subjectivity. Even at an early age, she is aware of the fact that she is neither exclusively Berber, nor Arab nor Foreign [the three major components of Moroccan identity]. Identity as she writes it is located beyond the absolutes of nativist/authentic and foreign/modern discourses. Hers, like postcolonial Moroccan subjects, belongs to none of them, yet paradoxically is defined by all of them. Fatma's challenge then is to create an idiosyncratic, liberated, and individualized woman identity amongst all three discourses. The identity that she constructs, even though it is unique to her, can only be imagined in a crack in the village, in a space away from public coercion, a space highly suggestive and symbolic of a return to the womb to forge a new identity. Inside this space, the protagonist finds her voice, realizes her dreams, and becomes a speaking-subject that escapes the tyranny of the aunt and the exclusion of patriarchy.

Fatma is not the only girl who creates her imaginary space. Halifa, her neighbor and playmate, also has her own secret place inside a tree trunk (23). As a traditionally patriarchal space, the village is highly sexualized and gendered; the public reserved for men while women can only create their own secret one. Fatma's early subversive gestures work toward dismantling this traditional division of space between public/male and private/female. As Brinda Mehta writes, the protagonist tries "to affirm her status as a subject of representation by breaking stereotypes, undermining the restrictions imposed by confined, sequestered space through a transgression of the public and the private, and by questioning the viability of man-made traditions aimed at the privation and marginalization of women" (80-81). The grotto and the tree trunk are turned into privileged loci where women can voice their dreams, escape the oppression of public space and create new identities. For both girls such retreat means also the liberation of the body from physical suffering and the initiation into sexuality.

Fatma remembers when her aunt physically abused her, "her body didn't feel a thing [...] she could make holes in my body, and I would watch without reacting" (9). However, this callousness is reversed when she, at the age of ten, discovers that her body can feel pleasure as well. Following her encounter with Halifa and the exchange of touching each other's nipples, she says, "I scurried away, distraught by that contact, which had aroused a strange sensation in me, something good and entirely new [...] I was discovering that my body could feel something else besides cold and hunger, heat and fatigue" (24). Liberation of the body therefore seems to be correlative with the creation of an imaginary alternative space, yet once that space is confronted with reality, taboos and social norms reestablish themselves and the protagonist feels ashamed of herself and her sexuality. As a contrast to the scenes in which Fatma is beaten by her aunt and by the Fqih, her encounter with Halifa seems to suggest that women's identity in the village can only be realized in an exclusively female context created outside patriarchal logic and beyond the reach of oppressive and dehumanizing practices.

The early chapters thus invite us into the traditional Moroccan space where identity is based on the dialectic between the subject and her cultural, economic, and social context. Identity oscillates between reality and dream and can only be pronounced in the interstices of the two. The crack in a rock or the trunk of a tree becomes a refuge for the two little girls where they can imagine themselves as subjects with full agency over their being, their bodies, their pleasures, and their dreams. The traditional space is experienced by Fatma as oppressive and dehumanizing. Her traumatized childhood has altered her love and changed her attitude toward her own Moroccan identity. Fatma, like many Moroccan subjects living in the countryside, is faced with an ontological vacuum, a lack of purpose, and the absence of any future economic opportunity. Such dire circumstances have led many to espouse immigration as the only solution to a pseudo-existence in the margins of civilization and modernity.

Fatma's paradox then lies in her ambivalent relationship to her village and to her native identity. She is inextricably linked to her home and to its history and myth, for according to the prophecy, the village relies on her for its future prosperity. Yet, paradoxically, she is also forced into exile in her own environment and led to understand that this space is hostile to her and to her identity. The realization of the self, therefore, Fatma sees as possible only outside the borders of her village and away from it. The available alternative is France where the unification with the father has become a forceful dream. It is significant to note that the role of the mother is minimized and even obscured. A shadowy presence whose voice we hear only occasionally, the mother is clearly relegated to a background role by the laws of patriarchy. She is not allowed to make any decisions or have a say in her daughter's life. Fatma's disparity, as Mehta argues, is "intensified by the absence of a strong maternal influence, a feminine alter-ego of positive identification, due to a dislocation of the mother's authority by the father, thereby creating an aphasic void in the specificity of female (self)-representation" (80). This feminine role for Fatma seems to be played not by the biological mother but by the land itself so much so that when she leaves for France she is symbolically exchanging mothers.

Fatma's life in France introduces us to the antithetical side to home, exile. The chapters that detail the family's arrival to the metropolis carefully create opposites to everything the family left behind in the village. The trip toward the host country becomes "an escape [...] as far away as possible from the village" (54). Immediately the binary opposition between the two loci is established. France becomes a signifier of modernity, material comfort and civilization. In the mind of the immigrant community the hierarchical and power relation between the metropolis and the village, between West and East, and between the ex-colonizer and the ex-colonized is sustained. The father, while packing up, tells his wife who wants to take her traditional kanoun and the charcoal with her, "‘In France, you'll have a gas range, you'll have a refrigerator, electricity, water from faucets, you'll even have a better television set than the grocer. In France, even if it's cold, even if the work is hard, it's civilization!'" (42). The father confirms and reinforces the popular belief amongst Moroccans that the key to a better life is immigration and the only way to achieve a decent life is away from a homeland that has nothing but empty promises. In fact, such beliefs have standardized and normalized in the popular imaginary civilization as that which belongs to Europe and all cultures outside it remain outside the contemporary modern world. The divide between the village and France is conceived of as a divide between civilization and the lack of it, between humane behavior and the violence associated with the village, and between reason and superstition. The establishment of such binary opposition is further reinforced by the rewriting of the violent scenes that have happened in the village into scenes that boast of human care and understanding.

If the village is associated with the cruelty of the aunt, France is associated with the humanism of Madame Simone, "the fairy godmother," the "angel sent by God" (54-55). In France, there is no more "blind fqih with his sharpened stick" (59). There are schools where "boys and girls were together and the teacher had no stick" (60-61). Attending school makes Fatma savor her "first victory over [her] backwardness" (62). The scene with Halifa in the tree trunk is reproduced in the school toilet where Maria touches her nipples (70). The narrative goes on to establish other contrasts between France and Morocco, which in a first instance translates in the mind of the narrator as a contrast between civilization and backwardness, between cruelty and humanity, and between knowledge and darkness.

However, the narrative establishes such binaries only to deconstruct them. Like Tambu's first-person narrative in Nervous Conditions, one can notice a significant narrative distance between Fatma the narrator and Fatma the narratee. This is the stage where postcolonial subjects are so fascinated with the West and its humanistic discourse that they denigrate themselves, deny their history and negate their very being. When Tambu, for instance, leaves her homestead to live with her uncle in the mission, she compares him to God and the mission to Heaven (70). Such movement from the original traditional space to a modern one and its effects on young characters is not unique to Tambu or Fatma. It is a common belief amongst many postcolonial subjects who equate Europe with civilization and modernity, and home with primitiveness and oppression. Like Driss in The Simple Past before her, Fatma also comes to the conclusion that "I despised the past and everything having to do with the village - the main reason we were behind everyone else. Perhaps our earth was unable to keep us because an unhappy hand had once sown the seeds of discord and backwardness there" (77). France readily comes to the rescue, to provide that which the native land could not, to fulfill the dreams and to humanize those who have been dehumanized. The young Fatma, like Tambu, Driss, and a host of other postcolonial subjects, starts her encounter with the West by establishing a hierarchical relationship between European humanism and nativist traditions. Yet, like her predecessors, she will realize eventually that Europe's humanism is only a smoke screen behind which lies dehumanization, xenophobia, and racism. At this stage in her self-awareness and growth, Fatma idolizes France as a magic wand that she can wave to solve all her problems.

Finding herself in an uneasy position, Fatma shuttles between images of village traditions and French modernity, between her aunt and Madame Simone, and between the blind fqih and French schooling. She becomes a divided subject with conflicting allegiances. After experiencing life in France first hand, she is equally disillusioned with the humanist discourse that she has heard of and for so long dreamt about. She is exposed to the vice of the western metropolis with its racism, violence, and marginalization. Thus, in the imagination and in the construction of Fatma's subjectivity, the West appears as that which is human in its rhetoric yet paradoxically xenophobic and intolerant of the Other in its behavior.

Once the fascination with France is over, Fatma, through the character of her father, realizes that her host country for the immigrant population is not much different from her birth one. Her description of her father is that of the typical Moroccan immigrant in Europe. His portrait captures microcosmically a large population of North Africans living and working in the old continent. For the majority of such a population, France is just another village. The change of space and cultural practices hardly exists for them. When they immigrate they are simply moving from one village to another:

Here was a simple man: an offspring of the poor branch of the tribe, a good man who had had to emigrate to France at the age of twenty, unable to read or write, knowing nothing about Islam except for the prayers and a few Koranic verses, an unassuming, unambitious man, whose sole stock-in-trade was his physical strength and whose most precious possessions were his two children and his wife. All he knew of France was the walls of the factory and the room he shared with nine other émigrés. From one day to the next, he had been displaced from a village cursed by heaven to another village, where he recognized neither people nor things. (40)

Denigrated at home as strangers and scorned in their host country, the immigrants are doomed to a life in the margins of two societies and two peoples. As Hargreaves explains, "In France, they are part of an ethnic minority that, partly as a legacy of the war of independence, is frequently the butt of racist attacks from politicians, police officers, and private individuals alike. In North Africa, despite official claims to the contrary, they are not uncommonly despised as Frenchified outsiders" (91). Their existence is a constant search for a sense of stability and belonging that is denied them by both sides of the Mediterranean. Their displacement and lack of integration further create an insurmountable sense of alienation and in many cases inevitable segregation, and even self-ostracizing. One avenue for immigrants is to establish their own space where they will not be challenged or required to assimilate the social codes of their host country. France, the space associated with freedom, democracy and economic opportunity turns in fact into a voluntary form of confinement where the North African worker is isolated from the rest of society. Such perception adds tremendously to the alienation and lack of integration in the host country which itself leads to intolerance, racism and eventually violence against the immigrant population. It is the clash of social and cultural norms that renders the experience of exile nightmarish.

Unable to assimilate for fear of being acculturated and for losing their identity, the exiled subjects strive to recreate the same cultural and social norms that they have left in their homeland. The fact that these immigrants, especially the first generation who still have close ties with the mother land, try to preserve their culture in a foreign soil shows that the space they occupy is ineluctably a hybrid one, a space that has to accommodate both. Ben Jelloun uses the religious figure of the Hadj who, under the threat of losing his own cultural heritage, wants to build a mosque. Yet the only space available for prayers while waiting for authorization to build the mosque is ironically an old wine storeroom:

that had been a bar or inn long ago. The words THE FRIENDS OF GOOD WINE were engraved on the wall above the entrance. El hadj kept scraping away and repainting, but THE FRIENDS OF GOOD WINE lingered on. They kept watch. The interior was laid out with mats and carpets. The walls sported photos of Mecca, the names of Allah and the prophet Mohammed in calligraphy. Every Friday evening, they burned paradise incense. But for al those efforts, the storeroom still reeked of alcohol. The walls and the stone retained the memory of the "good wine." (83)

This is a clear example of the hybridity that results from the contact of cultures so much so that the same space is inhabited by two irreconcilable opposites, Islam and that which it forbids. It also shows that the metropolis cannot just do away with the presence of its ex-colonies. These will always come back as reminders of the time of empire and the violence of colonialism. This tableau shows that neither French nor North African identities are pure or monolithic. As the wall and the interior of the temporary mosque show, both have contaminated each other and both have become doubled. Just as Fatma earlier used the same Koran board to inscribe her own identity on top of that assigned her by patriarchal teleology, the North African immigrant inscribes his/her own identity and history on top of that of the ex-colonizer. Thus, With Downcast Eyes, like Assia Djebar's Fantasia, combines the patriarch and the ex-colonizer in one metaphor signifying their coercive and dehumanizing treatment of the natives and of women.

For Fatma, however, the situation is more complex. If the old generation is capable of minimizing the frustrations of the host country, the new generation is more prone to be destabilized and lost. For Fatma living in the metropolis does not necessarily mean that she has permanently escaped the demands of her original identity. Even in a land associated with freedom and self-expression, Fatma still has to face the authority and the imposition of traditional village mores. When she has a boyfriend, her father slaps her and admonishes her "We're Moslems. The girls here have no morals. We're not Christians" (73). This is yet another level of Fatma's identity that sticks to her wherever she goes; she will always be a female and a Muslim. As Liliane Vassberg remarks, for Maghrebian women in France, "Gérer une double appartenance culturelle signifie qu'elles doivent assumer ‘leur différence dans la différence'. Elles sont Maghrébines en France et elle sont femmes dans la culture maghrébine" [to manage their double cultural belonging, they must assume ‘their difference within difference.' They are Maghrebian in France and women in their Maghrebian culture] (711) [Translation mine]. Fatma's father keeps telling her that she will never be part of a community in which she has no past and no memories. As an exilic subject, she will be always living on the fringes of a xenophobic society. Fatma imagines receiving a cautionary letter from her father reminding her of her ‘true' identity and the space where this identity can thrive, "Here, we have no memories. We can't live as if we were still in the village.... We are not going to spend the rest of our lives in this country, where we are outsiders" (76). Eventually, the shooting of a Moroccan boy awakens her to the reality that there is a big wedge between what the West touts and what it practices. Fatma enters the west but later realizes that she will never be a westerner; her village, her people, and her past will always be an indelible part of her identity.

As a stark contrast to being symbolically embedded in the village space, [the crack in the tree which is, as mentioned above, a clear metaphor for the womb], Fatma gradually enters the symbolic order by associating France with school and with language. "For me," she says, "France was the school, the dictionary, electricity, the lights of the city, the gray of walls and sometimes of faces, the future, freedom, snow, Madame Simone, the first book I ever read, images crowding together" (89). France then sets Fatma into the symbolic order where she fully realizes that she is a separate entity in a society that, while seemingly extending its humanistic values, denies her any sense of fullness, unity or coherence. She is consciously struggling to find a space in a strange environment. France becomes the mirror, to use Lacan's terminology, in which Fatma sees her reflection as a separate subjectivity and as an independent consciousness. This sense of alienation is intensified by the paradox that exile creates in Fatma's understanding. On the one hand, France is the ‘heavenly' place where she is the nearest ever to possibly being treated like a dignified human being, yet, on the other, it is this same France that is racist and intolerant of her and her people. The racist murder of Djellali reverses Fatma's sense of fascination with her adoptive country and its humanistic values. This is an instance where she comes face to face with her own otherness. She slowly comes to understand that she is different and her difference may not necessarily be accepted or tolerated. The same way the death of her brother sets in motion her alienation from her homeland, the death of Djellali initiates her into a new perspective on France. The ‘surrogate mother' "had gotten into the habit of easily killing a foreigner" (90). And from that day on, Fatma says, "as if by magic I attained a new age. I had grown several years older. I was no longer the little girl who marveled at everything she discovered, I was a girl struck to the quick by the death of a boy who could have been her brother" (91). France and the village are thus strategically combined in the same metaphor, Driss dies as a result of the village ignorance and spite, Djellali dies as a result of French intolerance and hatred. In such a rapprochement France and the village become two sides of the same coin.

At school, Fatma struggles to understand the intricacies of French tenses; she metaphorically attempts to find coherence, meaning and structure in her life. She has to reconcile two diametrically opposed and conflicting histories and notions of time. The French language has proven inadequate to represent her native understanding of time. Hers, in fact, is not as simple and somehow unproblematic as her father's. For her the intertwining of the two histories and two identities has resulted in an "imperfect present" that confuses and does not make sense to the native. Her past and her indigenous identity are so ineradicably marked in her memory that she cannot simply discard them no matter how hard she tries. She endeavors to find a means through which she can articulate her multi-faceted identity and combine the two sides of her being. Yet she only gets lost in the labyrinths of a foreign language and an alien concept of time that are irreconcilably opposed to her own indigenous historical continuum. She says:

I had memorized the conjugations of the verbs to be and to have, but I kept making mistakes whenever I had to use them in a long sentence. I realized I had to break away completely from my native land. How could I do so without upsetting my parents, without betraying them? I couldn't turn my back on the past and then plunge straight into the labyrinth of a different time. Something was holding me back; yet I had lots of willpower. I was determined to stop getting lost in the conjugations. But the village was still there; it encircled me, prowling around me, taunting me. The odors of plants and animals wafted over to me. I resisted. I denied that presence. One day, I entered a church to stop smelling the village aromas. I hid. But there was no way out; I was brought back to the village by a magic hand. (85)

Fatma becomes the quintessential postcolonial subject in search for stability where nothing is stable, coherence where time no longer makes sense, and unity where the subject is divided. As she concludes, she is "divided in two. Half of me was still suspended from the tree in the village and half of me stammered the French language, perpetually moving through an endless, boundless city.... I wasn't so much in the middle as in both camps at once" (88). Sometimes these critical differences between home and exile collapse in the narrator's imagination into one hybrid space: "The Seine was flowing through our village, the Koran school was set up at the cathedral of Notre dame, the two policemen were driving their grocery van through the hinterland of Morocco. And I was passing from country to country in a split second" (67). One cultural and historical space is imbricated into another to undermine the dichotomizing and splitting of the two and deconstruct the binarizing logic. France is inscribed in the village and vice versa. The condition of the immigrant, the exiled and the postcolonial subject is a continuous shuttling between two worlds, two cultures, and two languages. The way Fatma sees herself testifies to the reality that she is a split subjectivity that inhabits more than one space yet belongs to neither. Synchronizing home and exile serves in Fatma's narrative as a destabilizing strategy and as a tool for resistance. Inscribing herself beyond the demands of either culture locates the heroine in a three-dimensional space, as Mehta explains in "Proclaiming a New Order:"

Her [Fatma's] difference is affirmed in-between the space created by gender-oriented spatial configurations where she is neither inside nor outside, but in a particular three-dimensional space, this "troisième lieu," evoked by Ben Jelloun in the novel, from where she can launch her attack. Three dimensional space is synchronized space where the narrator can identify with several levels of representation simultaneously, as synchronicity deconstructs the legitimacy of binary oppositional space. Synchronicity is effectuated by the idea of incessant, transitional movement to circumvent immobilization and confinement. (52)

This sense of estrangement and doubling also makes Fatma a stranger in her own village. When she goes back to visit, she speaks in French and she sleeps in the open air as if she were "camping out with friends in snow class" (107). Yet she is constantly reminded that she cannot simply shed her history and her native land as dead skin. Her grandmother reminds her that no matter what languages she learns and where she goes, she will always be the child of the village: "You'll be the daughter of your parents and the child of this village.... This is your land, that is your face. Don't think you'll get rid of them by going to school. Your roots will always be here, they are waiting for you, they will bear witness for you on the day of the Last Judgment" (112). The original space becomes an inescapable presence the same way exile has already been inscribed in the very fabric of her subjectivity.

When she returns to her original space after experiencing exile, Fatma develops a new consciousness, a new vision toward home and exile. Home is no longer that shameful and arid space. The captivation with Europe is replaced with a new wisdom and a new perception on native identity and traditional space. Back in her maternal homeland she realizes that:

As both a woman and a child, facing my mother's mother, I began to feel certain: this soil where I was born is the most beautiful place on earth. Its beauty is not visible anywhere. This bare, dry, hopeless soil, despoiled of everything, these low houses where light is brutal, this expanse of marl and mirages have not made all the people wicked. Their humanity is in their eyes, in their discreet hearts, in the deep, regular creases of faces that have always lived here and have never seen anything but those improbable mountains against that distant, moving horizon....(217)

Humanity which has been exclusively attributed to the West is now being discerned in the eyes of the natives and felt in their hearts. Fatma's revolution against her village and her people has evolved into a deeper understanding of the dialectics of home and exile, local and foreign, traditional and modern. The hierarchical relationship established earlier between France and the village has collapsed now into a more balanced and informed realization that neither is better than the other and that difference does not necessarily mean inferiority.

Seeking the comforts of home does not guarantee Fatma a sense of belonging. In fact she ends her narrative by leaving her village as a stranger:

I climbed into the bus and closed my eyes to avoid seeing this country which was no longer mine. Starting that morning, I had gradually come to realize that a country is more than earth and houses. A country is faces, feet anchored in the earth, memories, childhood fragrances, a field of dreams, a destiny leading to a treasure buried at the foot of the mountain. Where will I find this country? (245)

Given this constant shifting between home and exile, the country becomes "a fiction" (138). Fatma's narrative consequently deconstructs received notions of the nation as a well-defined geographical and cultural space. For the subject of exile the nation is a continuously deterritorialized space that keeps reinventing and redefining itself. The nation, as Homi Bhabha argues, "becomes a liminal signifying space that is internally marked by the discourses of minorities, the heterogeneous histories of contending peoples, antagonistic authorities and tense locations of cultural difference" (148). As a minority and as a marginalized being, Fatma is neither fixed at home nor in exile. She is a nomad always on the move in search for new ways of defining herself and her culture. She is constantly looking for a space where she can reinvent herself. This search for identity for the exilic subjectivity will find no closure and no ready made answers. Lack of coherence and unity in both home and exile sets Fatma on a perennial quest for a sense of stability that will never be achieved. As Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine notes, "There are no harmless, compassionate ways to remake oneself. We murder who we were so we can rebirth ourselves in the images of dreams" (25). Exile remains the space where identities are continuously contested, re-imagined, and re-invented. It is the space where existence seems always heading toward the future; toward a time when the contradictions of home and exile are solved. Yet, these contradictions once created by the movement from an original space to that of the metropolis can never be resolved. They turn into an aporitical condition between home and exile, belonging and nomadism, and center and periphery. The exilic subject can neither totally inhabit the center nor an originary cultural space from which their journey started. Theirs is a struggle to move away from the edges of communities in relation to which they are constantly othered.

Shuttling back and forth between home and exile, Fatma can only exist in a hybrid space that transcends closures and defies monolithic definitions. This space becomes her own narrative and her identity becomes a floating signifier within the parameters of her own textual construction. She exists in her story and her story keeps reinventing her. In fact, writing becomes a liberating force, an escape from the demands of two conflicting and competing cultures, histories, and epistemologies. As Marta Segarra argues, for the heroine, "L'écriture constitue ainsi une deliverance, puisqu'elle met une distance entre le monde et celui qui l'interprète" (23) [Writing thus becomes a form of deliverance since it puts a distance between the world and the person who interprets it] [translation mine]. Fatma thus becomes the paragon of a nomadic subjectivity that realizes itself in the very act of being articulated. She slips into the indeterminacy of a postmodern representation that refuses to be anchored in any closed space to transcend historical, geographical and cultural boundaries. As a diasporic subject, Fatma can only be inscribed at the interstices of a pluralistic discourse. Her trajectory clearly exemplifies liberation from the shackles of localized identity to articulate a plural, hybrid one. As Radhika Mohanram argues "Diasporic identity, in fact, disrupts the very categories of identity, normally hinged on race, nationality, sexuality, autochthony, and genealogy, and instead sets them in a dialectic tension with one another. Postcolonial/diasporic identity renunciates organic identity which links land and race and posits nomadism and identity based on difference in its place" (131).

Not belonging to either space, With Downcast Eyes, as a text and as an act of writing, becomes Fatma's home, in fact, the very terrain in which she renegotiates an identity that is neither Western nor Moroccan, neither authentic nor modern. Fatma's narrative allows her to move freely between the two and at the same time belong to neither. Her subversive poetics become her very tool for the construction of this pluralistic identity. The text shows clearly how she deconstructs both home and exile, West and East to create a third space between the two. She no longer thinks in terms of binary opposites; the village and the metropolis become interchangeable in her discursive creation. Instead of dichotomizing and binarizing, she rather starts, as Abdelkebir Khatibi maintains in Maghreb Pluriel (14), thinking plural.

When Fatma felt rejected in her village she created an imaginary reality in which she articulated herself and her desires. She also willfully wrote her identity on the Koran board as a gesture that signifies her existence and her resistance. When she faces the same destiny in her host country, she resorts to the same resistance strategies. She starts writing her fictional text which becomes the space through which she interacts with the real world. Her fiction becomes the mediator between her and an ever shifting reality. It becomes also the field in which she fights her battle against rejection and displacement. She turns her fictional text into a platform from which she subverts European magisterial discourse and destabilizes its temporal and spatial logic by conflating images of the village with those of the Hexagon. She uses the master's tools to dismantle his hegemony; French the language of the quondam colonizer and the sign of his oppression becomes Fatma's tool of resistance, subversion, and liberation. She inhabits the French language only to destabilize its structuring power. By submitting the tenses in French to her own logic, Fatma upsets and disturbs the hegemony of language and its power as a representational tool. As mentioned above, unable to fully grasp the logic of French grammar and tense formation, Fatma ends up collapsing all tenses into the present tense. Thus, she seems to have, at least textually, upset the western temporal construction of time. She has deconstructed the relationship between the signifier and its object of signification. This has also a significant impact on her character; through her subversive strategies she too has displaced herself from a subjectivity already fixed historically to a free floating signifier of an identity perennially in the making. According to Fatma's logic, the chronology of European history that pushes other micro-histories to the margin is collapsed into a hybrid enunciatory present that does not acknowledge, yet destabilizes the very logic of a Eurocentric conception of time. As a voice from the margin, Fatma enters the discourse of power to disrupt the tool and foundation upon which Europe's colonial discourse is based. This is a clear instance where the postcolonial subject comes back to interrogate and eventually rupture the hegemony and continuity of the erstwhile colonizer's epistemological assault.

Both Ben Jelloun and Fatma's relationship to Europe becomes one of subversion and revision. Fatma joins her creator to make her voice as a diasporic and exilic subject heard. The hierarchical relationship between Europe and its former Empire can no longer be sustained when the hitherto oppressed and marginalized come back to blur the difference between center and periphery. Yet there is also the effect that this has on the native postcolonial subject. By disrupting the temporal and spatial coherences of both village and France, Fatma has also upset any space that could contain her as a stable entity. She, like her temporal construction, seems to be caught in a hybrid present that comprises both epistemologies only to transgress them.

The heroine's hybridity therefore is not so much a condition as it is an enunciatory platform from which she challenges received concepts of identity and reverses gender, social and racial power relations. This challenge erupts from within the textual practices that Fatma manipulates and uses to articulate her difference and deconstruct her marginality. She is a hybrid subject in the way Homi Bhabha defines hybridity. In an interview with Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham, he explains:

For me, hybridization is really about how you negotiate between texts or cultures or practices in a situation of power imbalances in order to be able to see the way in which strategies of appropriation, revision, and iteration can produce possibilities for those who are less advantaged to be able to grasp in a moment of emergency, in the very process of the exchange or the negotiation, the advantage. Hybridization is much more a social and cultural and enunciative process in my work. It's not about people who eat Chinese food, wear Indian clothes, and so on; but sometimes, in a very complementary way to me personally, it's been taken to mean kind of diversity or multiple identities. For me, hybridity is a discursive, enunciatory, cultural, subjective process having to do with the struggle around authority, authorization, deauthorization, and the revision of authority. It's a social process. It's not about persons of diverse cultural tastes and fashions. (39)

Fatma then is more than a social being bound by historical and economic ties to a given cultural production or a given set of behavioral codes. As a postmodern subject, her existence becomes enmeshed in the very process of looking for its own terms of articulation. Her relations are discursively linked to a system of signification that does not allow for any closure or fixity, but rather celebrates liminality, hybridity and fragmentation as telos of a subversive subject-formation strategy. Within this system, Fatma's definition as a subject lies beyond the confines of historical and social discourses. The realization of subjectivity is inscribed into the very fabric of her narrative, her fictional space. Her trajectory proves that she can neither fully be articulated as a Moroccan nor as a French. She is located within textual poetics that inscribe her at the intersection between the two. Her narrative becomes a script of a postmodern identity that continues to realize itself within the borderline of historical determinism and fictional uncertainty.

The destabilizing effect of Fatma's story is further expressed by the multiplicity of voices within the text. Reminiscent of the narrative technique in The Sandchild where the main narrator is challenged by various other storytellers, Fatma's voice is also often challenged by other voices competing for the right to narrate their stories . The characters she has created to alleviate her alienation and to help her cope with her harsh reality often defy her authority and commandeer the narrative voice. Victor, the two men in the village, Lalla Radhia, the aunt under different names all compete for the privilege of being narrators. The text then is a collection of different voices that challenge the centeredness of Fatma as the main narrator the same way Fatma's text itself displaces and denies the positionality of the center to the European realist discourse. With Downcast Eyes then is a deconstructive text both inside and outside; no privileged space is given to any of the voices. Whenever we are led to believe that the narrative has found a central positionality in the first person narrator, it is eventually challenged by marginalized voices that claim their right to self-articulation and consequently decenter the narrator as a monadic consciousness from whose perspective the events are told and according to whose logic time is constructed. As a postcolonial writer, Ben Jelloun shows that there is no center and no periphery both inside as well as outside the text. As John Erickson argues in the introduction to Islam and Postcolonial Narrative, "The stratagem of the postcolonial writers [...] is precisely to refuse all positional value to the stasis discourse of the metropole, to dominant European discourse." The postcolonial writers, he continues, "hold in common an effort to bring about a discursive leveling process, to put all discourses on the same level - the logocentric and the eccentric, the Eurocentric, Afrocentric and Muslimocentric, the patriarchal and the feminine" (19).

Fatma's narrative is destined to inhabit both the land of storytellers and that of novelists. She comes to France but she brings with her the oral tradition of the Haut Atlas. She goes back to her native land but she takes with her the written tradition of Europe and the camera of the tourist. In Fatma resides the two sides of the Mediterranean; in her melt the two traditions to give birth to a text that is neither oral nor written, neither real nor fictitious. With Downcast Eyes becomes a polyphonic narrative in which histories and societies are articulated from the plurality that resides within the heroine. Yet none of these micro-narratives is given precedence over the other; they share the same space and compete for the same platform. Their very presence remains a challenge to any monolithic center of consciousness that can put any order in the world. Fatma's history is nothing like the comfort we find in traditional chronological narratives of social realism. Hers is one of frustration, hope and desire that comprise an identity that cannot be couched in a traditional western realist fashion. The plurality of the narrative point of view in the novel is not a mere decorative addition. Rather it serves the important and significant role of mirroring the contradictions and ambiguities in an existence that has been fated to operate on the fringes of opposing teleologies. Fatma's ontological and cultural space can only be realized in a "third place, which is neither your native soil nor your adopted country" (247-8).

More than exotic and entertaining stories, Ben Jelloun's work aims seriously at decolonizing Moroccan and French sociologies from essentialized concepts of cultural purity. Reading Ben Jelloun is giving up our sense of continuity and abandoning our traditional understanding of reality. The truth in his writings is that there is no one truth, no coherent structure, and no stable identities. As we read his narrative we slowly let our conventional awareness of the world around us give way to the mysterious, the unknown, the undecidable, and the plural. With Downcast Eyes plucks us out of received notions of identity to throw us into the intricacies and uncertainties of a fragmented identity whose very existence keeps it on the run oscillating as it were between past and present, French, Berber and Arabic, the metropolis and the village, the center and the periphery. The Ben Jellounian text, at the same time, takes us back to our childhood memories of our grandmothers' stories during the long winter nights. It recreates images of a past that refuses to abandon us in exile; that provides a site of comfort when the alienating forces of diasporic daily experiences move us away from ourselves and throw us in the dynamics of a modern, complex, metropolitan, and sometimes dehumanizing life. Fatma's experience is not only a story born out of centuries-old oral tradition of storytelling; it is a text that also inhabits modern western narrative tropes. As we travel Fatma's journey we become aware that identity is anything but simple, that there is more to history than stories on paper, that belonging is more than an identification card. Fatma leaves us with the full realization that the exilic experience is a constant life of nomadism, a life that resists stability and definition, a life that transcends the pulling forces of any one culture, language and homeland. As we move along with Fatma's emotional and artistic growth, we too learn that the country is fiction.



For a detailed study of the multiplicity of voices, narrative techniques, themes and characterization, refer to Lindenlauf, Nelly. Tahar Ben Jelloun: Un livre, Les Yeux baissés, Une oeuvre. Bruxelles: Edition Labor, 1996.

Works Cited

Accad, Evelyne. Sexuality and War: Literary Masks of the Middle East. New York: New York UP, 1990.

Ben Jelloun, Tahar. With Downcast Eyes. Tran. Joachin Neugroschel. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge,1994.

Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Seattle: Seal P, 1989.

Erickson, John. Islam and Postcolonial Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Hargreaves, Alec G. "Resistance And Identity In Beur Narratives." Modern Fiction Studies 35.1 (Spring 1989): 87-102.

Kaye, Jacqueline and Abdelhamid Zoubir. The Ambiguous Compromise: Language, Literature and National Identity in Algeria and Morocco. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Khatibi, Abdelkebir. Maghreb Pluriel. Paris: Denoël, 1983.

Lindenlauf, Nelly. Tahar Ben Jelloun: Un livre, Les Yeux baissés, Une oeuvre. Bruxelles: Edition Labor, 1996.

Majid, Anouar. "The Politics of Feminism in Islam." Sings: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 23.2 (1998): 321-361.

Marrouchi, Mustapha. Signifying with a Vengeance: Theories, Literatures, Storytellers. Albany: SUNY P, 2002.

Marx-Scouras, Danielle. "The Poetics of Maghrebine Illegitimacy." Esprit Createur 26.1 (Spring 1986): 3-10.

Mehta, Brinda. "Alienation, Dispossession, and the Immigrant Experience in Tahar Ben Jelloun's Les Yeux baissés." The French Review 68.1 (October 1994): 79-91.

  - . "Proclaiming a New Order: Daughters in Action in the Mother-Daughter Dyad in Tahar Ben Jelloun's L'enfant de sable and les yeux baissés." Revue francophone 9.1 (1994): 39-58.

Mohanram, Radhika. "Postcolonial Spaces and Deterritorialized (Homo)Sexuality: The Films of Hanif Kureishi." Postcolonial Discourse and Changing Cultural Contexts: Theory and Criticism. Eds. Gita Rajan and Radhika Mohanram. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995. 117-134.

Mukherjee, Bharati. Jasmine. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1989.

Olson, Gary, and Lynn Worsham. "Staging the Politics of Difference: Homi Bhabha's Critical Literacy." Race, Rhetoric, and the Postcolonial. Ed. Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham. Albany: State U of New York P, 1999. 3-39.

Segarra Marta. "Les Yeux baissés de Tahar Ben Jelloun: Parole versus écriture ou la confrontation du moi et de l'autre." Romance Linguistics & Literature Review 6 (Fall 1993): 17-28.

Vassberg Liliane M. "Immigration maghrebine en France: L'integration des femmes." The French Review 70.5 (April 1997): 710-720.